July 16, 2013
Vacation apartment rentals in Europe can be a great choice economically as well as practically: most units come equipped with kitchens and washer/dryer combos, so you can potentially save money on food by eating some meals in, and save space in your bags for souvenirs by packing less. But my favorite aspect of short-term vacation rentals is the local experience factor; whenever I’m in a cool city or town I like to play the ‘what-if-I-lived-here’ game, and renting a place makes that game come alive.
When I began looking for apartment rentals for our trip to London in June, I didn’t have much time. The trip was rather last minute (due to factors I’ll divulge in a later post), and while we wanted to see a few places in England, it would center around London, a notoriously expensive city. If I could find a deal on lodging, we’d have more freedom to indulge in other areas.
Short-term apartment rentals or private room rentals can be found via independent owners (airbnb, for example, lists over 5,000 places to stay throughout London), but I decided to start with an agency. There are loads and loads of good, well-reviewed short-term apartment rental agencies for London, and it was tough narrowing my focus down to just a few. It helped that I had an idea of where I wanted to stay (near Hyde Park or in or near Bloomsbury), so if an agency didn’t offer anything I liked in either of those areas, I would move on to the next one. Once I found apartments that I was interested in, I contacted the agencies with my dates and waited for a quote.
All of the agencies listed below responded quickly and if they didn’t have anything for my specific dates, offered an alternative.
Rental agencies in London:
Coach house rentals – They don’t have the flashiest web site out there, but they offer some really nice looking apartments in good locations throughout London, and the reps were great in getting back to me and in following up. Here’s a list of highlighted properties, and here’s the flat I was dreaming about.
London Perfect - I’d heard of Paris Perfect before, but didn’t realize until I started trip planning for London that they had a London branch as well. This agency seems to specialize in, well, special places for those with a generous budget. Still, I found a couple of nice looking studios that wouldn’t have broken the bank, and the staff were helpful and prompt in my communications with them.
The London Agent – Another agency with properties all over the city. When none of the properties in Bloomsbury I was interested in were available, the rep suggested a nearby flat at a reasonable rate as an alternative. They also followed up with me closer to my trip to see if I was still looking, and to offer a couple of other alternatives.
A Place Like Home - None of the properties I was interested in were available (I wasn’t booking completely last minute, but definitely not as far out as I normally would), but like The London Agent the Place Like Home rep sent a few flats a comparable price.
In the end, I didn’t rent through an agency but rather went with a private owner I found on Homeaway. Renting with Homeaway and VRBO can be riskier than using an agency, but you’ll also pay a little (or sometimes a lot) less. Our temporary home in London was a tiny, well-appointed and well-equipped studio in Chelsea, near the South Kensington tube stop. I had contacted the owner of this flat in the same building, but as it was booked, she offered another studio a floor or so higher up with a similar layout. The owner was attentive and readily available during our stay, and the price was just unbeatable, especially for the location. I would easily recommend the flat to a single person or a couple that doesn’t mind being in close contact.
April 21, 2013
Mont-St-Michel is an occasional island in Normandy, France that is so stunning it’s worth battling the hordes inching their way up the Grand Rue to reach La Merveille (“the miracle”). The three tiers of thirteenth century buildings surrounding an abbey topped with a golden statue of Saint Michael, his posture combative, are indeed a marvel and a vision of strength and simplicity.
In summer, the Mont is crowded with tourists arriving by bus or car before making their way across the ramparts to clog the streets on their slow journey up to the abbey, whose spire dramatically crowns the Mont.
A cacophony of voices in innumerable languages mingle their way up and up. “Doucement, doucement,” French mothers advise small children and they climb the old stone steps: softly, softly.
The Abbey moves closer into view.
Finally, the abbey. The Eglise Abbatiale doesn’t impress with ornate stained glass or artwork. In fact, it is surprisingly sparse and simple and quiet and, like a sudden silence after constant, unrelenting noise it calls the pilgrim to attention and contemplation.
The cloisters provide another opportunity for contemplation, and a welcome bit of green: lush life among all the stone and sand.
We stayed on the Mont, at the Hotel Croix Blanche, in August. The Mont was heavily, heavily touristed at that point, and our stay was only bearable because we had the Mont nearly to ourselves after dark. In the early morning, we again climbed up to the abbey, this time by ourselves, lingering at the bay views and admiring the tiny, winding streets.
March 27, 2013
As Easter approaches, I’m thinking about the themes of life, death, and resurrection (of a kind) in the 2010 Italian film ‘Le Quattro Volte’. In its press release, the director paraphrases Pythagoras, who lived in the 6th century, BC in what is now Calabria, Italy: “Each of us has four lives inside us which fit into one another. Man is mineral because his skeleton is made of salt; man is also vegetable because his blood flows like sap; he is animal in as much he is endowed with motility and knowledge of the outside world. Finally, man is human because he has the gifts of will and reason. Thus, we must know ourselves four times.”
Regardless of whether Pythagoras philosophy resonates, the film moved me as a meditation on life and death and time and beauty in a village up in the hills of Calabria. It’s tempting to say that the village is “isolated” and “remote” and “forgotten by time”, but these platitudes are not only cliché but untrue. Read the rest of this entry »
March 24, 2013
It’s been a cold, gloomy spring so far here in Chicago, perfect weather for looking back on summer trips to brighter, warmer places. We visited Salzburg, Austria in late summer and the gardens were still lush and the city full of little surprises.
March 10, 2013
I grew up thinking of Audrey Hepburn as the UNICEF lady: a serenely beautiful, soft and well-spoken advocate for starving children. It wasn’t until sometime in high school that I watched ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ and realized that she’d first been a movie star whose grace and impeccable fashion sense aren’t likely to be duplicated. Not in today’s world.
While I don’t think we should ever mimic another person or attempt to follow directly in their footsteps, we can observe and admire the way they respond to various challenges or successes that come their way. Which is why I appreciated Melissa Hellstern’s How to be lovely: the Audrey Hepburn way of life: it isn’t a step-by-step manual for emulating Audrey or a pictorial of her style, but rather a collection of simple and profound observations from Audrey Hepburn’s imperfect yet exemplary life. So, a few lessons gleaned… Read the rest of this entry »
March 4, 2013
“What really belongs to a man except what he has already lived? What has a man to live for except what he is not yet living?” – Cesare Pavese
March 3, 2013
In researching for the Florentine portion of our Italian journey, I was intrigued by what promised to be hearty, filling fare in the Tuscany region. I knew about bistecca alla fiorentina and wild boar, but an Italian acquaintance enthusiastically recommended something I’d never heard of: a simple, rustic dish called pappa al pomodoro, made of day old bread, olive oil, garlic, basil, and chopped tomatoes. Thankfully we took her advice and this, among other memorable dishes, made our time in Florence a gastronomic treat.
Each morning began with Brazilian caffe and locally made cantuccini at our bed & breakfast (the latter of which our proprietor gave us as a delicious parting gift). In between visits to the Accademia, Uffizi, and Boboli Gardens, we treated ourselves to some Florentine specialties at restaurants and trattoria in the Oltrarno area, where we were staying. At Il Cantinone (via Santo Spirito, 6r), we each started with the pappa al pomodoro. The texture and flavor of this not-quite-soup was complex and completely unique. Matt tried his darndest to make a dent in his enormous bistecco alla fiorentina, while I swooned over pork cooked with cinnamon, cloves, anise and spinach. Il Cantinone is known for its wines and the restaurant is, fittingly, in a cellar. Read the rest of this entry »