1. Go WWOFFing.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch, but thanks to WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) there is such a thing as a free stay while you help grow other people’s lunch. WWOOF is an international organization that puts you in touch with organic farms and smallholdings looking for a helping hand in return for board and lodging. Often they’re run by people living alternative lifestyles in some fantastic locations – in the UK you can stay in a croft in the Outer Hebrides, a commune in Pembrokeshire, or a small farm in the remote Irish countryside. It’s a great way to travel around on a budget and learn a thing or two about organic living, but be warned – it’s not for slackers.
2. Monitor whales and dolphins in the Ligurian Sea.
Here’s your chance to experience life as a marine biologist, working in the warm waters of the eastern Mediterranean. In collaboration with Oceans Worldwide, The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) lets volunteers help scientists monitor several species, including bottlenose dolphins and the enormous fin whale – the world’s second-largest animal. You’ll spend five days in the Ligurian Sea between Italy and Corsica on board a motorized sail boat (where you will also sleep), learning identification techniques. Regular “swim stops” at various islands are scheduled during the trip so you can relax and cool off. Chances are you’ll come dangerously close to changing your career.
3. Take the train-hotel from Paris to Madrid.
As you enter your private cabin, the train manager checks your ticket and asks whether you’d prefer dinner at eight or ten o’clock. Choose 8pm – in the summer – and you can catch the sun setting over the French countryside as you sit down to a three-course meal and a glass of Rioja in the dining carriage. Welcome to the “Francisco de Goya” train-hotel – an intercity sleeper service from Paris to Madrid. During the night the train trundles through the southwest of France, the Pyrenees and northern Spain, and you’re woken up in time to take a hot shower in your cabin, followed by breakfast before the train pulls into Madrid at 9.10am.
This is the luxury of Grand Class. The next class down is Club Class (a private cabin with a washbasin), followed by Tourist Class (four-berth cabins with a washbasin) or if you’re on a tight budget you can opt for just a reclining seat. Though prices can seem a bit steep, remember you’re saving a night in a hotel, and the price for Grand Class customers includes an excellent meal and wine. There are similar train-hotels between several other European cities: “Joan Miró” links Paris with Barcelona, “Pau Cassals” links Zurich with Barcelona, and “Salvador Dalí” links Barcelona with Milan, plus you can join the train at selected cities en route.
4. Be the guest of a count in Transylvania.
The roads from Brasov are unpaved and potholed, passing through sleepy one-street villages where horse drawn carts are more noticeable than cars: you’re deep in Transylvania and looking for a Count. At the Count’s residence, a restored sixteenth-century hunting manor at Miklósvár, a housekeeper ushers you in to a drawing room filled with antique furniture and pours a glass of local cherry brandy. The Count won’t be long, she says, and then disappears.
When Count Tibor Kálnoky arrives, he is amiable, talkative, and not at all spooky. He tells his story with a gentle aristocratic grace. An exile in his early life, he returned to Romania after the death of Ceaușescu and has since worked – via his Kálnoky Trust – to restore parts of the country his family have called home since 1252. The Trust, supported by tourist fees, works to preserve the region’s architecture and culture: nature trails are being developed through forests to avoid them being cut down, while watermills are being restored so they continue to mill flour. When the Trust hears of dilapidated buildings for sale, they can buy them and renovate buildings elsewhere using the original materials. Every bedroom of the guesthouse is testament to this, from the flagstone floors to the heavy wooden beds.
Most of the Count’s guests spend their time here walking or horse-riding in the surrounding countryside, while dinners are served in the candlelit cellar, surrounded by racks of dusty wine bottles. After a few homely meals of goulash, pike perch, and caraway dumplings, you may find yourself starting to become disarmingly cosy in this remote Transylvanian retreat.
5. Spot whales and dolphins on board the ferry to Spain.
The Bay of Biscay is one of the best places in Europe to see whales and dolphins. In fact, a team of marine scientists from the Biscay Dolphin Research Programme boards the Pride of Bilbao ferry every time it sails from Portsmouth to Bilbao in northern Spain. Since 1995, over 21 species have been recorded in these waters (more than a quarter of the world’s total). On August 10 2007, 162 fin whales were spotted during just one trip. On deck, a wildlife officer provides free presentations. He’ll explain how different species are associated with different areas of the crossing; the common dolphins, for instance, spend their winters off the Brittany peninsula, while the beaked whale is often seen over the submarine canyons off Spain’s north coast. And once you’ve enjoyed the natural history spectacle, you can disappear into the belly of the boat for all the usual entertainment: two casinos, a gym, saunas and a beauty salon as well as en-suite cabins.
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Excerpted from Clean Breaks – copyright 2014 Rough Guides