A Travellerspoint blog

The Italian Job

WWOOFing in Northern Italy

sunny 35 °C

We were so excited to have found a volunteer job through WWOOF** but minutes before our host was due to pick us up from the local train station, the nerves kicked in. We had no experience caring for animals beyond our dogs and I was starting to worry. Brayden was especially concerned over his lack of ‘handy man’ skills – the only tools he’s ever mastered was the knife and fork! But the moment Emilio pulled up we were instantly relaxed. Emilio was a Hawaiian shirt wearing, former rugby playing Venetian who had that classic Italian love of life and easy going attitude. As he drove us back to the farm he told us that two years ago he and his partner Claudia were sick of their life in the city of Padua ('Padova' in Italian) and decided to buy the farm 15 minutes out. They had since renovated it, bought dozens of animals and turned it into an educational farm for local kids and a dog boarding kennel to pay the bills.

** World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, an organisation linking volunteers with organic farmers.

When we arrived, we couldn’t believe it. At the end of a long driveway was a big pink farmhouse with several outbuildings. Waiting for us was Claudia, a devout animal lover and also super friendly. We toured the property and were introduced to the rest of the family including Giovanni the goat, Mambo the horse, Mena the heavily pregnant pig and the three donkeys Giusta, Zizi and Neska. With acres to run around in and a stream out the back, the farm was dog heaven - not only for the family’s seven dogs but the dozens of dogs boarding there. Over the month it would be our job to feed the animals and walk the dogs three times a day. Sounded pretty easy!

— The farm 'Ragazzi a Quattro Zampe' in the village of Due Carrare, 40km from Venice.


— Giovanni the perpetually smiling goat - Bray's favourite animal on the farm.


— This is Bruno the pig who was treated like another dog.

— All the animals were allowed to roam free. It wasn't unusual to find a chicken hanging out with one of the dogs!


After sleeping unbelievably well in our pink palace, the work began starting with the dogs. We learnt pretty quickly the importance of a game plan. Over the weeks we perfected the logistics of dog walking – never two boisterous dogs together, always separate females and frisky males and the overexcited dogs should be walked first. We also got so attached to some of the dogs and that we were often a little heartbroken when their owners returned to pick them up.

— A pit bull by the name of Lucky stole Brayden's heart. While I fell for anything that looked like my dog.

— Mac and Arnold walking Bray.

To feed the animals you needed two buckets of chicken feed, a box of veges and whatever was on the menu for the pigs (anything from porridge to pesto pasta). All the goodies were put into a wheelbarrow that I’d wheel around from home to home like Santa Claus. I quickly got the hang of it and loved the job. Forget yoga, strong coffee or a jog – if you ever want a good start to the day try giving breakfast to an overly appreciative pig. Feeding the horses and donkeys was Bray’s gig. It required a bit of skill to carry the hay into the stable, resist breakouts and distribute it so Shetland ponies Morgana and Harry Potter could eat without fear of playground bully Mambo, the regular sized horse. The most terrifying animals on the farm were without doubt the geese. These terrorists would hang in packs snarling at gnashing their jagged beaks at all who walked past. Come too close and WATCH OUT!

— Feeding the Italian mafia aka the geese.

— Keeping the ponies out of everyone's food was a challenge.

The farm was always busy entertaining as many as 80 children from school holiday programs. Luckily Claudia and Emilio had employed staff to help out with activities such as art and craft and farm tours. With one group we even made pasta by hand. While there’s nothing more Italian than pasta, making it by hand is becoming a lost art. For the kids (and one big kid from Australia) the experience of kneading dough and smooshing it through a pasta machine will be remembered for a very long time. The farm also had visits from people with a mental disability such as autism and down syndrome who would come for animal therapy. Seeing their smiles and how cooperative the animals were was pretty special. Sometimes the farm would even visit schools. I tagged along to a visit to a preschool where we conducted donkey driving tests! The little ones had to navigate their donkey through the course of plastic cones – if successful they were issued with a permit!

— Making mini scarecrows.

— Kids touring the farm.

— Michelangelos at work.

Junior Masterchef! Today's dish - pasta!

— Mix flour and egg, knead then squish dough through a pasta machine! Who knew? That night I made tagliatelli for 13 people. Despite the tough crowd - it was a success!

— Magic!

A few days into our stay we met Emilio’s daughter Margherita returned from London where she was learning about golden retriever training. She worked on the farm everyday and we instantly hit it off. The best thing about our stay was just how much we were made to feel at home. We accompanied the family to friends’ houses, markets, picnics and little outings to the local area. Brayden made great friends with next door neighbour Giovanni. Despite Giovanni not speaking any English and Brayden having almost no Italian the two of them went fishing together and spent many an afternoon at the pub or drinking coffee at Giovanni’s house. Out of all the family's friends we got to know Alessandro the best. At only 18, he knew everything about animals thanks to growing up on another amazing farm.

— Margherita, me and Ale at an animal market. Inside the box is a present Marghe bought me...

— My present was this ridiculously looking creature! I called him Aussie - could there be a better name for an Italian breed chicken?

— We also spotted these fellow Australians. I felt sad - emus shouldn't be kept in a cage!

— Me, Claudia and Marghe cool off. The heat was relentless - high 30s most days.

— Berry picking and midnight fishing at Ale's farm.

It turned out we weren’t the only Aussies in town. Sydney FC had arrived to play Padova in a friendly. The soccer game was arranged give Sydney’s star player Alessandro Del Piero a run in his hometown. While we’re both Central Coast Mariners supporters, when you encounter this much of a coincidence you have to go along! We dragged with us Claudia's brother Gian who also worked on the farm and Giovanni. There was a massive turnout out the stadium and it became pretty clear just how much a hero Del Piero is to the locals. It wasn’t your traditional match with many in the crowd of 12,000 or so cheering for both sides. In the end Sydney went down 3-2.

— The city of Padova is famous for rugby but there are still thousands of football fans.

— Giovanni and Bray at the game.

— Couldn't have asked for a better result. I'm a Mariners supporter after all!

— The man everyone had come to see. Local Del Piero is one of Italy's best ever soccer players.

When not on the farm we were exploring the area. We went into the city of Padova and even borrowed a couple of bikes to cycle in and around the local village of Due Carrare. The route took us past old churches, tumbledown farmhouses, vineyards and farms growing peaches, asparagus, tomatoes and melons. We often stopped for a drink at one of the little pubs or a sneaky gelato.

— Padova in the north eastern region of Veneto. The city is the setting for Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew.

— At 90,000 square meters, Prato della Valle is the biggest square in Europe

I’ve written a bit about my poor bike riding abilities on previous blogs and have yet another story to add to the pile. Turns out if your bike seat is too high, you really should adjust it before riding off. On one of our rides I pedalled just ten metres outside the gate, lost control and landed in a ditch filled with water. About five people watched on in horror as my bike and me became completely submerged. My skin came into contact with stinging nettle but really it was the hit to the ego that stung the most. Brayden also did his country proud. A few weeks before my episode he split his shorts almost in two attempting to get on a bike with (guess what?) a seat adjusted far too high. And the location of this misfortune? Out the front of the local pub!


Every week on the farm there were new arrivals. First there was a litter of 8-week-old puppies – a product of the family’s golden retriever Swan and a mystery man. One by one the seven puppies were sold only to be replaced by the birth of more babies. There were floppy eared bunny rabbits, black and gold ducklings, fluffy chicks and newborn guinea pigs. Probably the most exciting was the birth of six pink and black-spot piglets to proud mother and father Mena and Meno.

— One of Swan's puppies.

— 1-2-3...Aaaawwwwwwww!

— Mena and her piglets, just 3 days old here.

— To herald the arrival we tied pink and black spotted streamers to the front gate.

— Mama duck and her little ones.

—8 week old Lucky! The family rescued him from a shelter in Spain. He was suppose to be put down in a few days.

Not only were we living in a palace, we ate like royalty everyday. Lunch was usually a big spread of pasta and salads and dinner was often a feast of seafood with polenta or other Italian delights. These feasts were usually shared with friends of the family and neighbours. Often there were at least ten of us sitting outside on a big long table, laughing and relishing the food and drink. The Italian way of life – especially in the summertime – is irresistible. Let’s face it – any culture that salutes food and drink and we’re going to be at home. How good it was to eat eggs laid that very morning, make pizzas from scratch and watch how they make tomato sauce for the winter. Emilio even had prosecco and beer on tap! Neighbour and fisherman Giovanni also looked after us, often preparing for us the day’s catch.

— Fish and calamari at Giovanni’s with his Mama and daughter Elly.

— La dolce vita, indeed! Another of Emilio's masterpieces.

— A little Limoncello after a long day in the sun is always sweet.

— Making tomato sauce for canning.

— Ale showing Brayden how to make a pizza from scratch.


Our time WWOOFING flew and before we knew it we were saying arrivederci, exchanging details and planning our return. In just a month we had gone from clueless urbanites to lassoing escaping donkeys, tackling sheep and picking up chickens. Our experience had taught us not only the basics in caring for animals but about the rich Italian culture. Sure, it’s a generalisation but from where we stood Italians are some of the greatest lovers of life on the planet and the most welcoming people. As we clambered inside Emilio’s car to return to the train station the tears were welling up. How amazing to think we had come as strangers and left 4 weeks later as good mates.

There is however one thing I WON’T miss…

— Ciao geese!

So it’s almost time for India. Although it will be quite a change of pace, I can't see how the heat could be any worse!

Stay tuned.

— Gian, Claudia, Margherita, me, Brayden (in his Padova FC shirt) and Emilio.

Posted by elyshahickey 04:44 Archived in Italy Tagged animals food culture farm volunteer woof bike_riding

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Looks great lysh! Cant wait to taste-test your new culinary skills...

by sara

Hi Elysha - I am Mel from Singapore. Your adventure with Emilio and Claudia at Ragazzi a Quattro Zampe farm is fantastic.
I have been infected with the wwoofing fever having finished 26 days at Wilgenhof Maldegem Belgium in April 2014.
[if you like to have it - their contact is : Rita and Hugo Hendrickx @ Wilgenhof <hendrickx.wilgenhof@skynet.be>].

I hope you could forward the email contact for Emilio. WOuld love to be there before this coming winter. If you have other contacts, that would be great too.

warm regards-mel

by mel9

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