If you’re reading this, you know what we usually get up to when we have a tourist season – but you might not be aware that Emma and I tend to be just as busy during the winters. It’s not all skiing and cricket (yes, really!), finding new waterfalls, routes and locals to include in our eco-holidays in Montenegro; nor is it all marketing updates or putting our feet up. No, we like to get our hands properly dirty with what we call our “winter projects” at Villa Miela, the base for the multi-activity holidays we host ourselves at Lake Skadar National Park!
Transforming this once-ruined stone farmhouse into stylish, eco-friendly accommodation back in 2008 inspired us to make constant improvements our guests will love – and we’ll admit it, us too seeing as this is the amazing place we get to live.
The Hot Tub
Our first ever winter “project”, back in the days when we were still starting out. I picked it up from the factory in Kettenacker, Germany (a first, apparently), and towed it back down to Montenegro with a £100 trailer bought off eBay and half a dozen ratchet straps. When we finally arrived back at the villa, only one strap remained. My first kilometre on French soil (where both trailer tyres burst) and our Croatia/Montenegro border crossing experience (“Is it for making wine?”) have since become two of my favourite go-to anecdotes…and the tub was a real hit!
A HOME FOR YOUR HOSTS
After four summers of living in various dilapidated flats in and around Virpazar with our young children, we finally got together the funds and builders to construct a home for ourselves next door to Villa Miela. Respecting the architectural integrity of the centuries-old building was massively important to us, so our idea was that our new build would not draw attention to itself and look like it had been there for decades along with the villa. We’re pretty happy with how it turned out, and it’s also much, much easier to host our guests when we’re living on-site!
After the house build we finally realised that we needed some extra muscle to make our next projects a reality, and ever since we have been heavily indebted to Workaway volunteers. Workaway has been an amazing resource for us. We’ve been hosts to around 70 people over the last 5 years, each of them enriching our lives and becoming, if only temporarily, part of our Montenegro family. All of them helped us grow our business into what it is today; some left their marks in literal, permanent ways!
THE BOULES COURT
Boules, or ‘boćanje’ as it’s called in Montenegro is an ideal outdoor game for our hillside location. Belgian long-distance cyclist Matthieu came in 2015 to help us build a court along with a path to reach it. After hefting over 1,000 buckets of gravel and sand down to the bottom level of the garden, we agreed two things: 1) that neither of us would ever build a boules court again and 2) that we’d build the paths first, next time…
Several amazing couples helped us convert our crumbling cow-shed into an eco-cabin – the idea being to have a place for volunteers to stay during the tourist season. These summer volunteers have in turn become essential parts of our business! From the wonderful Fabi and Victor demolishing the old building, to celebrating the finished article complete with rainwater harvesting system, compost toilet and kitchenette with our Swiss travel-blogging volunteers Lui & Steffi.
THE SWIMMING POOL
No villa is complete without a pool! Our hot-tub reacted poorly to 2017’s extreme temperatures and started to resemble a large, wooden sieve – so we made the decision to replace it with a compact salt-water swimming pool. It’s been one of the best calls we ever made – requiring no chemical additives and only basic daily maintenance (shout outs here to Jordan & Ksenia and Jack & Sarah!). And it’s got just the best view…
THE YOGA DECK
A brilliant Argentinian carpenter called Matias built us our awesome yoga deck nestled within the walnut, mulberry and pomegranate trees. Originally it was going to be sited at the bottom of the garden, but Mati had some ideas of his own, and safe to say they were an upgrade on ours! Instead, we put it close to the pool and after three months of burning, cutting, varnishing and bolting, we finally had the covered, outdoor space we’d been dreaming of for the yoga holidays we host in Spring and Autumn. It’s also just as good for enjoying a sundowner or some quiet birdwatching!
THE FIRE PIT
Well, because we could! And because we had a lot of logs and rocks lying about after all the other projects. Perfect for toasting marshmallows, cooking peka (a slow-cooked stew) or just sitting around on a chilly autumn evening with a few beers, our fire pit has already gotten plenty of use!
THE KAYAK SHED
Mati came back the following winter to help us build a super useful kayak and equipment shed, insisting that we preserve the lovely trees that were growing right where we needed to put it (which is why three of them pop through the roof!). And then…corona. Bah! The kayaks have only occasionally left the sheds since as we trod water through an extremely unusual 2020, but it was enough to confirm to us that having all our outdoor adventure equipment at road level was definitely the way to go!
Faced with very few guests, rather more time and less money than we had expected the last 12 months, you’d have thought that was the end of our winter projects…
…but you’d be wrong.
THE CHICKEN COOP
Sam and Beth had joined us to volunteer as part of our UM team throughout the summer of 2020, but obviously Covid put paid to that and instead this amazing, inventive couple found themselves roped in to all manner of zero-budget garden projects, like raised veggie beds and a chicken coop for our free range cluckers that were made entirely out of reclaimed timber and bits of old hot-tub. The cluckers are a fabulous addition to our set-up, loved by all – and we haven’t needed to buy eggs since!
Every time we start a new project I am reminded of all those far-fetched fancies from years gone by. They all began life as an ambitious scribble (Villa Miela was first “designed” with red crayons on school maths paper!); they all became realities with a little luck, plenty of graft and the help of some truly outstanding young travellers, all of whom enthusiastically threw themselves into whatever daft idea we’d cooked up at the time for little more than bed and board and free cuddles from Coco. In many cases, they also did so knowing that they would only see the finished result on Facebook or Instagram several weeks after they’d departed for further adventures. So this blog entry is dedicated to our volunteers past, present and future. You guys are all awesome!*
*Will & Erin, Nick & Ashling, Beth & Sam – you’re in another category altogether…