Have you ever gone across the world to work on an organic farm in Italy, only to find out once you arrived that it’s run by a cult?

Okay, so you know exactly what I’m talking about. 

We decided to WWOOF in Italy, or work on an organic farm, because 1) it would provide a completely unique experience from anything we’ve ever done, 2) it would give us a break from shuffling around between tourist city after tourist city, and 3), frankly most importantly…it would be a free place to stay for a week. 

We found this particular farm on the WWOOF website, and were drawn to its heavy communal focus and inclusivity. There were a lot of people living on the farm together, the pictures looked beautiful, and the work expectations sounded reasonable. 

Fast forward to Day 1. It’s a vividly sunny day, and Kathleen and I are walking down a dusty cobblestone road in a tiny village in Italy. We’ve just received grapes from an old Italian farmer working on his vineyard, and our moods are sky high, anxious to see what this farm will present to us. We arrive at Prima Stalla, the farm where we are working, and receive a tour from a man named Leone. 

And even though the farm dogs barked at us like they wanted to maul us, there were spiders everywhere, and our house sat right next to the cow stables, our attitudes remained positive. 

Then Leone asks us if we’re familiar with Damanhur. 

Excuse me?

If you’re like us, and basically everyone else in the world minus about 800 people, you are completely unfamiliar with the Damanhur, uh, community. So here are the essential facts about Damanhur: 

It was founded 40 years ago by a guy named Falco Tarassaco. Basically his end goal was to improve humanity through solidarity, sharing, reciprocal love, and respect for the environment. His ideas inspired the creation of the Temples of Humankind, an underground and VERY elaborate temple dedicated to art and spirituality (which we were welcome to explore for the low low price of $66). 

Their main belief system follows the Four Pillars: 1) the School of Meditation, which encompasses all areas of spiritual research, 2) the Social pillar, which includes the community life, 3) the Game of Life, which embraces the value of change, and 4) Tecnarcato, which promotes inner transformation. 

Basically they love sustainability, community, and improving yourself as a person. 

“And did you know we all have animal names?”

Nope…nope, sure didn’t know that either. 

It took us a couple of days and many frantic warnings from our friends and family not to “drink the Kool Aid and join them in a venture to their leader” before we got used to our spiritual community. But as we both agreed, if we were going to accidentally join a cult, this one was a pretty good one to choose. 

With less emphasis on buying matching white Nikes and more emphasis on “being one with the earth,” we started to actually feel very comfortable with our surroundings. And no, by comfortable I don’t mean brainwashed. I have to admit, though their belief system is a little unusual, they are an extraordinarily welcoming group of people. Even to two Americans who: “No, actually, we did not know we were about to embark upon a spiritual journey.”

We learned a LOT about the Damanhur community during our week there. We visited their marketplace, which included a grocery store (normal), cafe (Italian coffee, yes please), gift shop (who wants a post card from a cult!), doctor’s office (heavy emphasis on acupuncture, herbs, and aromatherapy), ATM (did you know they have their own currency?), and art gallery (I think Damanhurians habitually indulge in acid). 

We also happened to be there during the annual Damanhur Olympics. Their competitions were between the five villages, and included soccer, ping pong, and singing a song about your love for Damanhur.

I can’t make this stuff up. 

Furthermore, I think the community quickly learned that I will say yes to pretty much anything, because I was asked to participate in the Olympic spiral running event. 

To Damanhurians, the spiral is: a large labyrinth structure in which participants walk through, from the outside into the center, each day to promote healing, wholeness, and “recover the memories of past lives.”
To the Damanhurians Olympics, the spiral is: run by a man, woman, and child under the age of 14 within each village. Each runner’s spiral sprint is timed, and points are given out accordingly.

I told them I would not produce winning, or even mediocre, results, but that if they NEEDED a warm body to run through that spiral, I would not let them down. And even though I insisted that the “run” would be better classified as a “retiree power-walking through the mall,” they asked me over and over to please participate in the spiral.

And I did. 

Guys, and I’m not saying this to be boastful, but…among the women runners, I did not make last place.

Just trying to make my marathon-running mother proud. 

Anyway, after a week of weeding, planting, and a whole bunch of yoga, we bid farewell to Prima Stalla and our friends of Damanhur to continue our tour of the Europe. 

No, they did not hold us hostage forever or brainwash us into joining their cult. But they did align our chakras and teach us how to become in sync with the moon cycles, which is all we can really ask for from a free week in Italy.