Paradise found along the Mediterranean

Casa Marina, in the Spanish vil lage of Mezquitilla, feels like home.

By KATE WILSON, Special to the Times
Published November 12, 2006


We unloaded ourselves from the bus into this sleepy, sunny little village on the southern coast. We looked left, looked right, then left again.

Rising up behind us was a hill painted in terra cotta and dotted with clusters of white homes. In front of us the Mediterranean Sea crashed into the beach, and the afternoon sun glittered on the waves.

It was siesta time, and the locals were having their daily rest from work and from the heat.

So, we waited.

Finally, a green minivan pulled up. It was Richard and Marina Gavin-Mills, an English couple living in Mezquitilla on the Costa del Sol. For almost six months, we had been communicating via e-mail, and now it was time to put faces to names and see how our lives would mesh.

My boyfriend, Jason, and I would work in their home, which includes an apartment that they rent to vacationers. In exchange, they would provide accommodations and three meals a day. At a minimum, the situation would allow us to explore a corner of the world for free. We got a lot more than that.

We made small talk as we bumped our way up a dusty hill, and finally arrived at what I had been waiting to see for months: Casa Marina.

Black wrought iron gates opened onto a driveway where Millie the dog greeted us. We looked down the hill we had been staring up at just minutes before, and saw the Mediterranean stretching forever.

We explored the house and the grounds, devouring the beauty, the views and the perfection that would be ours for two weeks. Our eyes darted from flowerpots to garden furniture to the pool. What work would we be doing?

Marina led us to our room, off the same hall as the family's bedrooms. We unpacked and comfortably settled in. That night, we joined the family for a huge dinner of grilled sardines, chicken, sausage and hamburgers. And plenty of Spanish wine.

We watched the sun set and talked late into the night. They told us to sleep in the next day as late as we wanted, which turned out to be 2 p.m. No one was fazed when we wandered into the kitchen bleary-eyed and on the prowl for "breakfast." We had found a place to feel at home.

We started work at 8 a.m. Monday. We would work five hours a day, leaving plenty of time to lie in the sun with a book. Over the two weeks we spent at Casa Marina, we painted walls inside and out, scrubbed and oiled garden furniture, gardened and swept the never-ending terraces and garden paths surrounding the house.

We also got plenty of sun, sat on the beach, ate fresh seafood tapas by the sea, visited nearby towns and to the delight of these two weary travelers, spent many hours doing just about nothing at all.

We found Casa Marina on a Web site called Help Exchange, www.helpx.net. The site matches people offering room and board with travelers who earn their keep by picking fruit, repairing fences and doing other jobs as we did in Spain.

Working and staying in a private home is a chance to be part of a community as opposed to being just a tourist.

Now we have friends who live in Spain who have invited us back and who want to visit us in Florida. Leaving them and their beautiful home was surprisingly sad for us.

After months of hopping from city to city, we had arrived at a place where we could settle, and leaving was difficult. It also marked a point in our journey where we were looking at the end of the road, and that brought mixed emotions.

Kate Wilson of St. Petersburg is writing periodically about her European travels during her five months abroad. Read more on her blog, www.travelblog.org/Bloggers/Jason-and-Kate.