The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Sheep Bells

We arrived in Athens and immediately took a bus to the Pelopponese region, 4 hours outside of Athens on the western coast of Greece.

On this peninsula, in a small village called Krestena, we spent 10 days living and working on an organic farm. Constantinos (or Costas for short) was our host, farmer, friend, and introduction to all things Greek. We found the opportunity through workaway.info, which connects willing workers with jobs around the globe. The basic concept: you put in an honest hard day’s work, and in exchange you are provided a place to sleep and 3 meals a day free of charge. Well, both parties sure did hold up their end of the bargain!

We were welcomed to Krestena with a hearty meal of souvlaki (grilled pork with tomatoes, french fries, onions, and tzatziki all wrapped in a cone of pita bread) and two beers. Once we had satisfied our stomachs, we drove out to the farm and got the first glimpse of where we would be spending much of our time over the days to come. While the farm was still in its beginning stages, the land itself was beautiful. Rolling hills marked strategically with rows of 200 year old olive trees, with their shimmering silver leaves, covered the area. Come November, all 1,000 of the farmers’ trees will be harvested and processed to make olive oil. Since we were there a few weeks before olive harvesting season though, we were put to work caring for the land and animals at the farm.

We were responsible for putting the dogs, cats, chickens, and sheep up at night and letting them out in the morning- making sure the same number of each was alive and well each day. We lost a baby chicken to ill health, but thankfully the other 4 survived just fine and got bigger & stronger every day. We also fed all the animals, cleaned their areas, and provided them fresh water and snacks each day. I suppose it is no surprise we all became fast friends!

Max, a German studying philosophy, also worked on the farm with us and had the work ethic of (you guessed it) a German! Lee, Max, and I stayed busy clearing the land on the farm, cutting down overgrowth along the fences, collecting and moving lumber, and pulling nails. And that was just Day 1! Our big project was to build a new stable for the sheep, on our own. And for those of you out there, who like me, have never been involved in this type of work, let me elaborate lest we envision a magic wand whipping up a new home for our dear sheep overnight:

First, we surveyed the land and selected what we considered to be the most ideal spot for a new stable (flat, not too sunny, not too close to the olive trees, easily guarded against northerly winds, large enough for the stable and a yard area); Costas the farmer agreed on our selected land plot and so the planning and building began. We ensured the enclosure was large enough by measuring the previous stable and confirming that not many more than 15 sheep would live in it at one time (the herds current size). Then, we measured and marked the land (cutting down olive branch limbs where necessary) for a 12 foot by 24 foot stable. Since supplies and budget were limited, we went to another plot of the farmer’s land and chainsawed down 8 cypress trees from the forest. We then cleaned the lumber with a machete to get all the smaller branches off (my specialty), and cut them to size to be the framing posts. Next, we dug 12 two-feet deep holes. This took up an entire day’s work and physically defined “back-breaking work” in my mind. The following day, we tamped and set the poles. Another sweaty, meal-earning 5 hours. All the while, we were sure to measure for accuracy and levelness. We screwed and nailed in the stable walls, built separate quarters for the ewe and lamb with timber and cane weaving (another specialty of mine), and double checked that the angle of the roof slope was steep enough to direct all rain water to fall behind the stable. Of course, we also had to carve our names into the stable post. Lee was the leader, architect, head constructioner, pace setter and chief inspector. The stable still had a little ways to go when it came time for us to depart for Athens, but we were immensely proud of how far we brought the farmer’s dream and knew it would be finished with the perfect touch.

We even got to see the sheep seemingly curious and happy about their new home as they inched closer and closer to our work. Nibbling olives out of the low hanging branches, and clinking & rattling the bells around their necks creating a beautiful, harmonious sound that filled the hills and insisted you take a moment to appreciate your surroundings. During these quieter moments, we took pause to harvest oranges from the blessedly early-blooming orange tree at the top of the farm. We also harvested wild blackberries and walnuts, and collected the chicken eggs each morning.

With the farmer, we planted hazelnut trees and relocated stacks of hay with covered protection to keep the sheep from overeating. One afternoon as the farmer clinked corn into a metal feeding trough and the sheep all circled round, we watched as he eyed the sheep, pulling on their legs, and lifted one to check its weight. Before it completely sunk in that a sheep was being selected for supper, the animal had been tied to a pole and was hanging upside down as Lee and the farmer took it away from the herd to be slaughtered. I quickly made myself busy to miss the butcher’s knifing at the top if the hill, but arrived in time to see the fast, neat, and diligent moves of the butcher as he cleaned and gutted the sheep. At 8 euro for each butchering, the skill and precision of a man who completes his life’s work 15 times in a day, every day, was evident.

Since we usually spent just the morning hours working, we had the afternoons to explore the region and indulge in the Greek way of life.

Each afternoon, we feasted on traditional Greek dishes with Costa and his good friends, the town priest (“The Papas”), his wife, and three children. We ate Greek salad with the most delicious feta, garden grown tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions, with farm grown olives and hand pressed olive oil. We also ate lamb and pork dishes, potatoes, fried minnows, and greens. Each meal was an imperative occasion to stuff yourself as much as possible (think post-Thanksgiving coma), and we were encouraged throughout the meal to “eat, eat, eat”, for surely to be satisfied you had to consume at least 4 platefuls! Lee was a champ and dutifully met their expectations, I on the other hand had to reassure everyone that I truly loved the food, but had a small stomach and could not eat more than two helpings.

 

Since Costa and the Papadias (priest’s wife) were always cooking up such a delicious storm, we decided to return the favor and cooked Lee’s grandmother’s famous chicken & dumplings, along with green bean casserole and blackberry cobbler for dessert. We hoped this soul food would show some of our appreciation for all of their generosity and kindness, and think the adults were very well satisfied when they told us the meal was “number one!” (the children were not very impressed, politely eating one tiny bite and staying quiet the rest of the meal with not another spoonful eaten). But, the group so loved the cobbler that a recipe swap was brainstormed: the American Blackberry Cobbler for the Greek Milk Bites recipe (delicious yellow tapioca/custard squares served warm or chilled)…hopefully mine come out as great as the Papadias!

After we had filled our bellies, it was time to get to the glorious beach. Costa showed us his favorite spot, just 10 minutes from his house and introduced us to more friends who swore he was, “the number one Greek you’ll ever meet”. These friends also happened to own the small beach shack where we would order frappes (ice cold whipped coffees, similar to those in the U.S.) and wander down their island-blue wooden walkway to complete relaxation. Underneath our painted cane umbrellas we sipped frappes until we gained enough oomph to jump into the Ionian Sea, fighting the waves to reach a small sandbar and float while taking in the misted mountains surrounding the sea. We often found a full plate of fried minnows, french fries, tomatoes, and bread awaiting us after a swim – all free thanks to Costa’s amazing friends at the beach shack. We were even more awed when we found out that all the fish we were being served was caught freshly that morning by the owner. In addition to daytime visits to the beach, we explored neighboring towns, restaurants, coffee shops, and were sure to catch the sunset each evening.

One afternoon, The Papas and Papadias drove us to the top of the highest hill in the area, upon which sits an ancient church. As we cut back and forth on the mountain roads, the church slowly became more and more in focus. Finally, we parked the car and walked around the last curve of the mountain. The crisp white and blue railings guarded the sheer drop to the valleys below, while the church laid entombed in the stone mountainside. Walking inside was like walking in a cave with cleanly carved marble stairs and religious photos and offerings everywhere. After a few minutes, the priest began to sing an old Greek Orthodox religious tune; it froze us all and we absorbed the beautiful sound reverberating off of the the cave walls. When we walked outside the sun was just beginning to set over the olive tree hills and bowl cities beneath us. It was incredible.

On our day off, we went to Olympia where the first ever Olympics took place in 776 BC. The pillars and fallen Greek ruins spoke to the mighty times, and the sprawling grounds to the grandiosity of it all. Lee ran the Olympic field, and I appreciated all the strides women have made throughout history as females could not even watch the games at that time. I also developed a new found love for and appreciation of the symbolic olive branch Olympians wore! Seeing the physical history of the games gave it so much more richness.

9 thoughts on “The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Sheep Bells

  1. Diana says:

    Greece is an amazing country. I would love to go back and do the countryside version. You are seeing the world in the best way possible through the locals and absorbing the landscape.

  2. Joey says:

    In the wake of your awesome posts, I think your readers need to determine which location we would most like to visit. I now want to visit Greece over all the other locations you have been to.

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