Towards the end of last year, I was offered one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities: four weeks in rural Umbria – and a chance to find out whether I really am a country girl at heart.
The destination was Monestevole, a hilltop 15th-century hamlet in central Italy, and home to a thriving ecotourism project called Tribewanted. I’d already enjoyed a couple of week-long holidays there, making pasta and feeding the animals (in between dips in the pool), so when I heard about plans for a ‘full immersion’, I was ready to put truly sustainable living into practice.
Tribewanted was established 10 years ago by Ben Keene, from Henley-on-Thames, who used crowdfunding to start a beach community in Fiji. Since then, his Tribewanted network has expanded to Sierra Leone, Bali and Umbria – with a remote island in Papua New Guinea added just last year. The dynamo driving the community at Monestevole is Filippo Bozotti, a charismatic filmmaker turned social entrepreneur, who first partnered with Keene to create the community on John Obey beach in Sierra Leone.
Bozotti was eager to replicate this sustainable model back home in Italy, and started searching Tuscany and Umbria for prospective properties. He tells me he fell in love with Monestevole immediately: ‘I’ve always loved Umbria – it’s accessible, it’s in the centre of Italy, the country’s green heart. Monestevole is still pretty virgin, with woodland and local traditions that have died out in many other places.’
Bozotti and the Tribewanted team welcomed their first guests to Monestevole in 2013. I arrived that October, just after the grape harvest, and was genuinely impressed by the project – even sneaking an early taste of what would be their first wine! It feels fantastic to be back, meeting the new volunteers I’d be living and working with side by side.
The four musketeers
I unpack my waterproofs and boots for November rain, rather than Umbrian sunshine – the end of the year may well be less of a draw as just four of us signed up for Monestevole’s second immersion. When I arrive, I am introduced to Coree and Adam, a lovely couple in their early 30s who met in Manchester. They are here for a bit of an eco-pitstop before a permanent move to Berlin – and tell me how they’ve driven here with the bulk of their worldly belongings.
The following day, our final member flies in from Seattle. Like me, Revital (pronounced ‘Rev-itaal’) is in her 40s, and she’s put her demanding career in the software industry on pause for a few weeks to try low-tech living.
Together, we create a small but more or less perfectly formed team. Over the next four weeks, we build a large, fenced enclosure for the goats, muck in with the daily chores on the farm (filling the biomass boiler that runs on hazelnut shells, feeding the animals, picking and sowing various crops), and harvest and plant reeds for the new water-filtration system.
This will take used ‘grey’ water from the kitchens and showers, and process it through stones, aquatic plants and a series of filtration pools until it can be safely used to water the animals and irrigate the fields. And this is why visitors are banned from using harsh soaps and shampoos; biodegradable alternatives are provided in the house and even the toothpaste is homemade – using coconut oil, wintergreen and baking soda.
As we tackle each new task under the watchful eye of Nicoló, Monestevole’s permaculturalist and our leader for the month, it soon becomes clear that Coree has the edge. Her experience of set building for the stage (her first job) shows when it comes to making fences, gates and a winter shelter for the goat pen. She’s enviably confident with power tools, and her husband Adam is pretty clued up, too. Arguably Revital and I are the weaker links, but luckily there’s no sense of competition. For me, the really rewarding part of the experience is learning how to work as part of a team, problem-solving together, and helping each other with the stuff we find challenging.
Our work days are punctuated with delicious food, laughter and unseasonably mild weather. We are kept busy from 9am to 1pm, with obligatory espresso breaks, and have two days off a week. Meals are eaten communally with the permanent members of staff: farm manager, Valerio, horse trainer, Salvatore, and the lovely guys who look after the fields, farm machinery and animals: Domenico, Carlo and Andrea.
Picking up new skills
For me, the highlights are the bonds I make with the people of Monestevole, from Nicoló and his passion for all living things (and the only vegetarian on the farm) and Adrienne, the dog-loving, yoga-teaching manager (who escaped here from London two years ago), to Laura and Daniela, who so patiently showed me how to recreate their favourite dishes – hand-rolled pasta, unctuous polenta and herb-infused ribs cooked over the wood fire.
I relish learning how to do new things, some of which seem impossibly intimidating at first. Joy is abundant – watching the goats become more friendly as they get to know us and start enjoying the ‘winter garden’ we’ve created for them is wonderful. And, of course, the four lovely dogs and little Mau, the cat I all but adopted…
Spending this period of time trying to live sustainably, and learning to reduce my personal impact on the environment, was quite the eye-opener for me. Throughout my month, Nicoló proved himself a supremely knowledgeable, 100 per cent committed and unbelievably patient teacher.
Life at Monestevole is not just about recycling and reducing waste. They generate their own electricity, make their own biodegradable washing-up liquid, and the loos are flushed with rainwater. They use local materials and produce as far as possible, and much of the furniture is reclaimed or recycled. Having flown into Perugia, I was required to plant five trees to offset my carbon footprint. Those green credentials are hard won.
According to Ben Keene, though, this sort of responsible travel and tourism is ‘exploding’. He describes it as ‘the fastest-growing section of the tourism industry, and there’s a huge demand for authentic experiences – and positive local impact on places where people go on holiday’.
And I’m starting to see why. Halfway through my stay, Filippo Bozotti returns from a month on a remote island in Papua New Guinea, the latest outpost of the Tribewanted family. His enthusiasm for the project is infectious, and the photos he shows us on his laptop are stunning. He’s been out there with a group of ‘first footers’ to build beach bungalows and rather sophisticated-looking bucket showers.
Back home in London, I have a chance to catch up with fellow immersee, Nicola Moss, who was in Papua New Guinea with Bozotti. She took part in the first immersion at Monestevole in the spring, and was inspired to help him build this latest community. What stood out for her, she tells me, was living completely off-grid, slowing down, digitally detoxing and immersing herself in a new tropical culture. ‘I loved falling asleep to the sound of the waves just a few metres away,’ she says. ‘And waking up and watching the sunrise from my tent every morning, followed by a swim with the manta rays.’
It does sound tempting. As I write this, I hear that Bozotti is recruiting 10 new volunteers to go to Papua New Guinea from September to January. This might just be my next adventure… the tug of the tribe is more than a life-changing experience – it’s a truly primal, and positive, calling too.
Prices at Tribewanted start from £334 per week for full board (meals, beer and wine included). Immersees are offered a 30% discount, from £946 for the month. RyanAir flies to Perugia from London Stansted, from around £23 one way, and the Monestevole team can arrange a transfer from the airport for around £48 each way (up to four people). Visit monestevole.it for details.