Our second Help Exchange was a great experience. We spent 10 days at Finca Buenvino, a farm and B&B near the town of Aracena, about 75km northwest of Seville. It’s run by Sam and Jeannie Chesterton, who moved from Scotland to Spain about 25 years ago to raise a family (three young-adult children who live with them) and open a guesthouse. They’re fun, generous, talented people—and terrific cooks. (Jeannie runs cooking courses on occasion.)
In return for four to five hours of work each weekday, we got to stay in one of their guest cottages and eat fabulous home-cooked meals. The work wasn’t too hard—mainly cleaning and painting the cottages for the coming tourist season—and it was nice to be out in the countryside with fresh air, forests, and views. We shared our cottage with another helper, a girl from Quebec province in Canada, so we had some company.
Twice a day, we were driven (because of Melissa’s sprained ankle) up the steep, rutted track to the main house for a wonderful meal. Picture 7 to 10 people gathered around a table in the big kitchen (or outside on a patio when the weather was warmer): family, Help Exchangers, the local woman who cleans the house during the week, guests, friends, etc. Wonderful food, much of it grown or slaughtered on the farm, rapid talk in English and Spanish, water and wine and yogurt, and every day fresh loaves of bread.
One night we had the kitchen turned over to us, and we produced (so far as the available ingredients would allow) a Thai-style feast. Melissa was nervous about cooking for a family of trained chefs, but she did a great job, and everything was much praised and heartily devoured.
Our spare time was spent reading, writing, napping, sketching, working on a freelance editing assignment, listening to birds twitter and pigs squeal, and watching the late-day sun on the pear-tree blossoms. Very peaceful and quiet. The only vexations were not being able to hike (for Melissa), lots of spiders in the rafters (for Chris), our roommate talking nonstop sometimes, paint fumes in the bedroom, and cold tile floors in the morning.
On our days off, we were able to explore around Aracena. The area is beautiful and green, with rolling tree-covered hills that (from a distance) look a bit like the Appalachians in the United States. The trees are mainly pines, chestnuts, and oaks.
The oaks give the region its best-known products: jamon (prosciutto-like salt-cured meat from free-range pigs that feed mainly on acorns) and cork for wine bottles and bulletin boards. I’d never realized that cork came from the bark of certain trees. The entire outer layer of the trunk, which is several inches thick, is stripped off, exposing a reddish-brown under layer. Cork oaks survive this process just fine, and in about 10 years, the bark regrows enough to be harvested again. It’s a funny sight to see a forest of shorn reddish trees.
Aracena itself is a moderate-sized market town, with a crumbling castle on a hill and streets of white-washed houses spreading below it. Under the hill is a remarkable series of caverns, which you can tour. They’re a fascinating testament to the power of water, over millennia, to shape rock into fantastical forms. Very cool!
Aracena was also the first place that Chris saw storks, roosting on church bell towers. (Melissa had seen some from a bus in Cordoba, but Chris had been looking out the other side of the bus and missed them, and we never got back to that part of town.) Storks may be common urban birds in Europe, but they’re still huge and impressive.
We also got a taste of local life when our hosts took us to see Aracena’s Palm Sunday religious procession. But that’s a story for our next post.