Cultural diversity is an intrinsic part of Europe, and immersing yourself in the arts, language and unique atmosphere of a new town or city when travelling is part of celebrating this rich diversity. It’s one thing to schlep around the major sights, guidebook in hand, before retiring to a non-descript hotel room, but quite another to experience a culture 24/7. Some of the best trips I’ve experienced are the ones where I’ve stayed in the homes of family friends, trying to get by with my GCSE language skills and bringing new meaning to the phrase “lost in translation”. As family friends in mainland Europe with spare rooms and the inclination to have pale English girls to stay are a rare breed, I’ve identified five interesting alternatives to conventional hotel accommodation, all of which will offer you an insight into a different culture (and save you money at the same time!)
Silence is Golden
If you’re looking for safe, inexpensive lodging near the Vatican, or perhaps even a religious awakening, staying in a convent or a monastery might provide you with the ultimate spiritual experience. There are hundreds of monasteries and convents across Italy to choose from, including Casa Santo Nome di Gesù, the convent of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary in Firenze, and the Maestre Pie Filippini, which is within easy walking distance of Vatican City. Larger groups can be accommodated by convent hotels, which cater mainly for church trips and religious pilgrims, and are available in most major European cities. You can expect to find clean if basic accommodation, with few of the mod-cons that you’d find in a conventional hotel. Still, you can expect to pay considerably less than a hotel, as most religious guesthouses charge between 35 and 75 Euro per night. Many guesthouses have private bathrooms and breakfast is usually included in the room rate.
You don’t have to be a Catholic or even particularly religious to stay in a monastery or convent guesthouse, as all guests, including children, are welcomed without judgment or inquisition. However, guests will (of course) need to show respect to the brothers and sisters, and abide by the ‘house rules’. As the monasteries and convents are working communities and members of each order have to wake early to comply with monastic life, it is likely that you will have to obey a 10 or 11pm curfew. Once the monastery or convent has closed for the evening, no late arrivals will be admitted and you’ll be forced to make alternative arrangements for the evening.
For more information on booking monastery or convent accommodation in Italy, you can visit www.monasterystays.com.
A Castle of One’s Own
Sommersdorf Castle is a private moated castle in Bavaria, surely the reigning King of Europe when it comes to picturesque forest-covered mountains, gothic churches and medieval castles! Dating from the late 14th century, Schloss Sommersdorf has undergone extensive renovations in recent years and offers modern facilities and attractively furnished rooms with an authentic historical feel. If you can tear yourself away from the grand interiors of your own personal castle, you’ll be able to visit the nearby town of Nuremberg, now renowned for toys, Christmas markets and highly prized Oberammergau woodcarvings. Prices at Schloss Sommersdorf start from approx. 80 Euro per night.
The Hotel Schloss Wilkinghege, a five-star converted castle in Münster, North Rhine-Westphalia with stuccoed ceilings, silk-covered walls and a private wedding chapel in the grounds, and the rustic 15th century Burghotel Götzenburg in Baden-Württemberg, are two alternatives for those of you seeking luxury and escapism in Germany. Castle and Palace Hotels by Pamela Barrus (www.castleandpalacehotels.com) is an excellent resource for castle fanciers.
Relive your student days
University halls of residence aren’t only for Freshers, you know! If you’re old enough to feel nostalgic about your university days but not too old to feel that you’d be slumming it in student accommodation, there’s a host of options both in the UK and mainland Europe during university holidays. A limited number of institutions also offer accommodation during the term-time. As a general rule of thumb, self-catering accommodation costs around £25-£40 per day in London and significantly less elsewhere in the country. For last minute deals, http://www.budgetstayuk.com/ is a great place to start your search.
If you’ve had enough of city slicking and fancy recharging your batteries in the countryside, you could consider gîtes or farm stay accommodation in Provence, Tuscany, Southern Spain or Ireland. A gîte is a private property that can be rented for a week-long or weekend holiday, with simply furnished reception rooms, bedroom(s), kitchen and bathroom. The owner will usually live nearby to offer assistance and a warm welcome. Whether you choose a gîte in the country, the mountains or by the sea, you’ll find yourself in peaceful and stunning natural settings. Gîtes de France will help to find you a registered gîte in your chosen area while making special efforts to promote and preserve the cultural heritage of the French countryside. If you’re looking further afield, EuroGîtes will be able to source gîtes from the Czech Republic to Georgia, Portugal to Serbia.
Don’t turn the lights off!
When I think of Norway, I think of beautiful fjords, rugged coastlines jutting into royal blue waters, cold fresh air and fishermen in thick woollen jumpers. I don’t immediately think of lighthouses, but that might change now I know it’s possible to stay in an authentic Norwegian lighthouse taken out of operation and transformed into a highly memorable holiday home. Thanks to automation, there are now over 40 historic and out of operation lighthouses available for hire (www.lighthouses.no). The tower in the Haugjegla Lighthouse in Smøla, Nørdmore, can accommodate up to 10 people and even has its own honeymoon suite. For more information, head straight to www.visitnorway.com.
In the UK, you can stay in the romantic cake-shaped West Usk Lighthouse B&B, Gwent (literally in the lighthouse, as there’s no longer a lighthouse keeper) and enjoy a 360 degree panoramic view from the lamp room. You’ll be able to get even closer to nature at the remote whitewashed Cantick Head Lighthouse in the Orkney Islands. Private and secluded, Cantick Head is situated within an acre of walled grounds, and regular visitors to the shores include porpoises, seals and whales. Just imagine your holiday snaps!