I can’t quite remember the exact moment my husband and I decided it would be a fantastic idea to sell all we had, move our three teenage children and two cats into a touring caravan and set off to volunteer our way around Europe.
I know we were living in Portugal at the time, I know the cafe we were running was not making enough to support a family of five and I know we were at a point where we would have to return to England but couldn’t bear the thought of going back to our old lifestyle.
You see, two years of living in central Portugal had inspired us to do something more with our lives. We lived in a community where people didn’t earn all that much but were happy to share what little they had. A place where family, friends and community were top priority. A place where, when things go wrong, they don’t look to blame but rather shrug their shoulders, smile and mutter “É a vida” – “That’s life”.
We wanted our children to grow up with these same values. We wanted to expose them to as many different cultures and lifestyles as possible and we wanted them to experience the indescribable satisfaction felt when you do something to help someone else.
After 18 months of living in our caravan on a small field in St Albans, Hertfordshire, we finally set off for Europe. The plan was to travel for a year, volunteering in every city, town and village we passed through. The journey would see us visit Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, Austria and Germany.
I’m pleased to say we are, at present, almost three months into our travels. We have completed our volunteer projects in Portugal and are in to our second week in Spain. So far, the journey has exceeded our expectations on absolutely every level. We have worked on organic farms in central Portugal where we learned about clearing the land, building bonfires, sustainable farming, hot composting and beekeeping. During our free time, we visited Aveiro (the ‘Venice of Portugal’), the white sand beaches of Costa Nova and spent four hours kayaking down the Mondego River.
In Aljezur we stayed with a remarkable Dutch family who have holiday accommodation and who also encourage their guests to learn to surf. Here we once again helped with clearing the land, levelled ground, put up a massive swimming pool, painted window frames, did some sanding and built a shelter and play area for their goats.
They, on the other hand, taught all three of our children how to surf and opened their home and hearts to us. We shared in their excitement at seeing these projects completed, dreamt of all the things that would be possible in years to come, and formed an incredible bond in a very short space of time.
After that we moved on to Evora where we stayed with the most incredible woman: a major in the Portuguese army, a ‘Jack of all trades’ and the most amazing cook. She worked us hard! We removed and replaced an entire farmhouse roof (tiles, wooden slats, beams – everything). She had us take down a chimney with a pneumatic drill, mix cement and plaster walls. We mucked out the horse stalls and learnt about cleaning and trimming their hooves. In return, she cooked us three-course meals twice a day.
Every single day we sampled a different soup, main and dessert from the Alentejo region. She introduced us to her parents and grandmother, who treated us like family, and every day we laughed. We were dangling off scaffolding, filthy and tired for two weeks. Covered in cement, or plaster or sawdust or a combination of all three but we were incredibly happy.
We were dangling off scaffolding, filthy and tired, but we were incredibly happy
Right now we are in Oria, Spain, with another gem of a family. We are one week into our stay and already feel like we have known them all our lives. In a week’s time we will once again be on our way, taking with us more skills, memories and friendships.
As wonderful as all of this sounds, it hasn’t all been plain sailing. We have had to navigate some very tight spots with our extra-large caravan. We have anxiously towed through steep mountain passes. We’ve been turned away from a campsite and had to sleep at a motorway rest stop. We’ve arrived at a project after having travelled 750km to find it wasn’t suitable for our family.
We’ve had ups and downs, but through all of this, our family unit has become stronger than ever. Every day I marvel at how much the kids have learnt and accomplished and overcome in such a short space of time. And every day I think that one year is probably not long enough.
Read more at www.ourtravellingfamily.com