[For more posts in this series, go here. This week, I’m going way back to 2005, when I took my first big solo trip. I spent two life-changing months traveling through Europe with just a backpack and a camera, with three weeks dedicated to a volunteer exchange program in Thuringia, Germany.]
Think of the weirdest, most out-of-the-ordinary place you’ve ever spent the night. Throw in a language you understand about .5% of, the longest you’ve ever been away from your family, an archaeological dig, and about a dozen college-age fellow travelers from around the world, all thrown together to eat, work and live cooperatively, and you’ll get an idea what my time at Runneburg Castle was like.
Let me say this: working on an archaeological dig at a medieval German castle (and living in the castle!), was a travel experience I never could have predicted. While I planned my two month Europe tour throughout the winter and spring of 2005, I searched for some sort of volunteer opportunity. I wanted to have something purposeful to do with my time other than pub crawls and skydiving and other typical backpacker activities (which are all well and good, as long as you can strike a balance between frivolous and meaningful).
Volunteers for Peace, a non-profit umbrella service organization, is how I found the archaeological dig program at Runneburg. I didn’t search for volunteer projects in Germany specifically, but out of all the countries I planned on visiting, and the projects that appealed to me, plus the dates I had in mind, this one just worked out the best. I didn’t even have any prior experience or a huge interest in archaeology, but I figured why not? Anything that involves digging up treasures older than my own country is bound to be fascinating, right?
So much of this experience was a mystery to me until I arrived in Weissensee, Germany and started work at the castle. I didn’t even know what the sleeping arrangements were going to be. I hoped that my sleeping bag would be adequate, that the living conditions would be moderately comfortable.
Of course, it was fine: the volunteers all stayed in a modernized section of the castle and slept dormitory-style: girls in one large room, boys in the smaller room next door. We also had a kitchen, an adjacent room with a banquet-style table (‘dining room’ feels too formal for what it was), and a bathroom with two showers and laundry facilities.
The castle grounds were fun to explore: excavation pits, a crumbling wall, an old stone dungeon, and a trebuchet (a counterweight catapult) are some of the features we claimed as part of our home for three weeks.
It was important for us to watch where we stepped at times.
I was the only American, and barely spoke any German, but English was the common language among my group (thankfully!). The other countries represented were Wales, Canada, Japan, Ukraine, Russia, and France. We bonded as a group relatively quickly as we taught each other snippets of our respective languages and learned about German culture. Eventually, everyone got accustomed to being constantly photographed 🙂
It didn’t take long for my new friends and I to relax and really enjoy each other’s company:
And on our last day, a cool early September morning, we were genuinely sad to leave each other and say good-bye to the Runneburg (in fact, Green Day’s ‘Wake Me Up When September Ends’ became a theme song of sorts).
We cooked meals from our home countries for each other, played games, and visited other castles in the area. The Wartburg, in nearby Eisenach, was particularly impressive.
Of course, working took up most of our time. Duties included landscaping along the crumbling castle walls, hauling buckets of water, digging, sifting through massive piles of dirt, and scrubbing any objects or rocks, some of which turned out to be notable artifacts.
It was a bit of a process learning what exactly we were digging up, but the reward was worth all the work.
And voilà, we had clean and shiny 12th century artifacts!
I could write for years on how special my time at Runneburg was, and what it meant for me at the young age of twenty-three. It was my first time living in a community of sorts, and since I never went away to college, living and eating with the same small group of people other than my family was both exciting and educational.
Friendships you form while traveling always have a special kind of bond, similar to the bond between soldiers in war (obviously on a lesser scale): you’ve been through this intense experience together, both laughed and cried together, and when you get home, there’s no one who can relate to everything new you’re feeling. Where are my comrades? you wonder, looking around, feeling suddenly out of place and impatient with your old, familiar surroundings.
One of the things I loved most upon my return- and ever since, really- was being able to say that I lived in a medieval castle in Germany and helped out on a real archaeological dig. Having a good story to tell is one of my favorite aspects of travel.
Have you ever visited a castle in your travels? Do you have any favorite travel stories you’d like to share?
The value of your travels does not hinge on how many stamps you have in your passport when you get home — and the slow nuanced experience of a single country is always better than the hurried, superficial experience of forty countries. –Rolf Potts