“You know you're in love when you can't fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams.” T. Geisel
When traveling, I understand the risks involved and do not let fear hinder my ability to experience a new culture. I trust in my survival instincts when meeting strangers in another country and I prefer to give my tourist dollars to the people of that country rather than a hotel chain, even though I know I could use rewards points to make the stay cheaper. I also elect to use AirBnB so I have a host who will advise me on how best to experience their homeland. 

When browsing the AirBnB website I always choose a place based on three factors:  location, price, and photos. You may notice that I left off customer rating, this is because I’ve actually found that it can be beneficial to stay at a new users home. This is someone who has no feedback on the AirBnB website, but will usually go above and beyond to ensure you have a good stay to avoid a negative first review. 

However, this only applies to home rentals on AirBnB. I always look at the customer rating before booking a tour guide or other experience, for instance our Louvre guide had phenomenal reviews. 

Another reason to use AirBnB is their customer service and reputation. The hosts go above and beyond to please their guests, but if you have a bad experience, you can call corporate who will act as an unbiased mediator to resolve the dispute accordingly. Last year our trip to Outer Banks, NC was cancelled due to a power outage on the island, but AirBnB refunded all our money immediately and even provided a $100 voucher for the inconvenience.

We stayed in five different homes during our trip, our rented Roman home had very few reviews, while Paris and Notre-Dame-de-Bellecombe had absolutely none, but based on the photos and location we had a pretty good idea what it would be like. It was also very important to us that each place have a gorgeous view of the city or countryside, they were close to interesting activities, and they had at least one bedroom with a closing door for my wife and I. Another reason why I prefer to use AirBnB over a hotel when traveling with children, you’re going to want some privacy in Paris. 

I also wanted to have stark contrasts to each home and location so there would be a cohesive theme to each leg of the trip. The idea was to start in a modern city (Paris), then climb up a mountain (Chamonix), drop back down to the coastal beaches (Riomaggiore/Pisa), drive inland towards the rolling vineyards (Tuscany), and then finish in another historical city (Rome).

Our first home was in the 3rd arrondissement of Paris, near Notre Dame and an hour walk to the Eiffel Tower along the river Seine. I vividly remember lugging the heavy bags up the five flights of stairs, after a long and stressful journey, and being instantly transported back in time. I looked out from the open windows and for the first time, I saw the Eiffel Tower peeking out over the centuries old architecture.

$139.20 x 7 nights $974.43
Cleaning fee $88.58
Service fee $121.35
Occupancy Taxes $37.84
Total $1222.20

The total cost of the apartment for the seven nights we spent there was $1222.20 and included laundry in the unit, fast wifi, dish/hand soap, garbage bags, and a nice guide to the nearby restaurants and other sites. There were two bedrooms with queen-sized beds, a futon in the living room, and one bathroom with plenty of towels and a suitable shower, it fit our family perfectly.

One thing to consider when using AirBnB is that you need to provide a precise arrival time for the key retrieval. I’ve found that if you keep in constant contact with your host via WhatsApp then it’s not a problem if you’re running late. Also, we were planning on using a bag consignment service to hold our bags while we roamed the city if we happened to be early to our arrival time. However, we didn’t end up needing it because our host let us drop the bags off at the apartment earlier in the day, while their cleaning service was prepping the apartment. They even sent one of the workers out to find us after getting lost and needing an escort upon arrival.

The Arts et Metiers metro stop was a short walk and had been recently renovated to resemble a submarine with copper walls and riveted portholes contrasting against the classic buildings above. We spent a lot of time waiting for trains at this stop and the sound of my children’s laughter, mixed with the roar of trains, and delicate violin music playing, will forever be in my soul. These seemingly monotonous places become bonded to you in ways you'd never expect. 

We slept with all the windows open, providing us with a cool breeze and negating the need for manufactured air. The street noise of Paris resembled a symphony as I drifted off to sleep each night in our cozy top floor cottage. Forgetting to close the skylight one night led to an unexpected wake up call when rain began to fall on our heads, but it made for a very unique Parisian baptism.

The second home we stayed in was located in Notre-Dame-de-Bellecombe, a small ski-town nestled deep in the forests of the French Alps with a humbling view of Mont Blanc.

After our cozy stay in Paris I booked this home so we’d have our own rooms and we’d be able to spread out, also my wife and I would have our own bathroom. It also had an outdoor hot tub, or Nordic bath as our host called it. 

I wanted to enjoy the peace and serenity of a mountain moon while sipping wine with my wife, allowing the jets of the tub to massage our Disneyland-destroyed muscles. Our next stop on the trip would be a visit to the peaks of Mont Blanc, but I decided to stay an hour outside the main town of Chamonix to have the advantage of seclusion and silence in addition to the far-away view of the mountain.

$201.70 x 2 nights $403.40
Service fee $49.22
Nordic bath fee $46.91
Total $499.53

The total cost for two nights in the ski lodge was $499.53, which was a little pricey compared to the last apartment, but it was also the nicest home of the entire trip. Inside were four bedrooms with large beds covered in down comforters and stuffed animals for the kids. There were two bathrooms with three shower heads, with one of the toilet/shower combos oddly placed inside a bedroom. All toiletries were provided, including toothpaste, soap, shampoo, and cleaning supplies. Our host went above and beyond to ensure we’d have everything we needed, seeing as during the off season most shops in the small village nearby are closed. Our host also handled my constant dumb questions with courtesy and helped translate for me when the lift I was planning on taking up Mont Blanc was closed due to a mechanical failure. She helped find me a separate lift and also recommended which passes would suit my families needs. Her insistence that I visit Mer de Glace ended up being one of the most awe inspiring experiences of the entire trip.

My daughter loved the style of this apartment so much that she took pictures of everything inside to recreate the white-themed fluffy fixtures and cow skin rugs when we remodel her room in the future. The boys enjoyed French Call of Duty on the included PS4, and my wife made use of the coffee machine and hot tub. I’ll never forget the sound of bells and smell of fresh pine as we climbed the winding roads of the mountain. The sunset cast a shadow over the valley that even Sauron would envy as the stars took over over the sky.

The third home we stayed at was located in Riomaggiore, Italy, one of the five ancient towns of Cinque Terre along the Amalfi Coast. This was the smallest home we stayed in, but the stacked houses perched above the glistening Tyrrhenian Sea made for an even more amazing view from our balcony than that of Mont Blanc.

Cars weren’t allowed in the quiet town, and it's maze of corridors awakened my inner Indiana Jones. However, try not to forget anything in your apartment when you go out, navigating the necessary steps to return will convince you that you didn’t need whatever it was in the first place. 

$226.90 x 2 nights $453.80
Cleaning fee $37.82
Service fee $58.85
Tourist Tax $11.73
Parking $23.46
Total $585.66

The total cost for two nights in Riomaggiore was $585.66 and included an open floor plan with one bathroom and three beds. It also had air conditioning for the first time on our trip. The apartment was located within five minutes of the train station, which stops at each of the five towns in Cinque Terre, and the balcony had a view of an elevated square below where young kids would play soccer all day and night. 

Upon arrival on the outskirts of town, our host strategically directed me into our parking spot in a garage that resembled a mechanical game of tetris. After my Austin Powers-style parking endeavor we made our way through the town passing a 500 year old church while our host described the history of the town and complemented my Gandalf shirt exclaiming “I am nerd too!”  

After arriving to the white-tiled apartment, our host handed me a piece of paper with a certified stamp that included his name, the address of where we were staying, and my verified payment details. He told me it was very important that I kept it with me at all times and instructed me to hand it to any locals or police officers who try to bully me into paying a fine. That was when I realized we were now in Italy and I had become a temporary made-man. I don’t blame them though, I would want to deter tourists if this was my home too.

While sitting out on the balcony, watching an elderly Italian woman hang her clothes on the line and listening to the children play soccer below, I realized that there will always be hidden corners of the world surviving as a close knit community. Locations completely uncaring of the politics and wars of the outside world.

Our fourth home was located in the commune of Figline Valdarno, it was an ancient farmhouse tucked into the Chianti hills of Tuscany, Italy. I chose this location because it was near the city of Florence and in the heart of wine country, plus it included a pool, a lake, and a wide open vineyard for the kids to explore. Since we had a vehicle, I wanted to take advantage and stay somewhere off the beaten path. Since this house had no address, and had to be found using GPS coordinates, it seemed remote enough to me.

The winding roads and steep hills were made more difficult to navigate by their narrowness and abundance of locals who weren't afraid to honk and ride your bumper. It was hard to tell which roads were for cars, and which were paths for cows, so several times I found myself needing to back out of fields that Google Maps would direct me towards. 

The closest market of any kind was a 40 minute drive, there was no internet or cell signal, the furniture carried a hefty fine for damage, and the pool was perched atop a very steep hill, but if you’re looking for isolated self reflection then I couldn’t think of a more perfect place. 

Every night we would listen as the sounds of wolves, coyotes, and boars echoed through the darkness of the ancient hills, the full moon sitting above rows of grapes like a note on a sheet of music. You can sense that writers and artists have been coming to Fattoria di Celle for centuries to be inspired by the landscape and relaxed by the quiet breeze.

$166.40 x 5 nights $831.98
Service fee $96.64
Deposit (Refunded) $175.36
Cleaning Fee $116.90
Tourist Tax $17.54
Gas Charge $10.00
Total $1073.06

The total cost for five nights in Tuscany was $1073.06, which included four bedrooms, two full bathrooms, a pool, a bottle of wine, a bottle of olive oil, a washing machine, a foosball table, and a lake with fishing gear provided. We booked this house prior to a last minute decision to go to Rome, initially we planned to just relax at the farmhouse for a few days and then head home, but we quickly learned that we’re not those kind of travelers and preferred to explore. Therefore, the amenities of the Tuscan farmhouse weren’t used to their full extent and I don’t believe we were the target audience for a quiet relaxing vacation in the countryside, but we made the best of it. 

It was nice to spread out, but I underestimated the distance to the pool and after hiking the trail in Cinque Terre none of us were too thrilled about climbing another steep hill to go swimming. Also, an old farmhouse looks beautiful in photos, but when you need to leave the windows open for air circulation it leads to bugs everywhere. This house also had absolutely no soap, garbage bags, laundry detergent, toilet paper, or coffee so a trip to the far away supermarket was desperately needed.

There were a lot of perks to staying here though, such as our host Valter who walked me through how to pay a parking ticket and gave great advice on trips to Florence and Rome. Also, I loved watching from an open window as a thunderstorm rolled over the vineyard, I listened to the water crashing on the terra cotta roof and felt more connected to nature than I had in a long time. The kids loved waking up early to go to the pool, and I enjoyed sipping wine on the balcony while listening to the howls of canines in the distance. Additionally, since we were staying so far away from town, it forced us to grocery shop and cook meals together in a kitchen filled with centuries of good karma.

I remember our city-born children racing down the steep hill saying a coyote was chasing them, and following a baby deer for 20 minutes because the road was too narrow and animals haven't evolved a fear of hunters in Italy. The kids were left without electronics while in Tuscany and that led to lots of games and a renewed imagination while we wrote ghost stories and played charades. I found it funny that the animal noises and aged furniture scared them into sharing a bedroom in our largest house. 

Being pinned in the darkness together, among a sea of beasts and removed from all distractions, awakened a primal urge inside of us to protect, create, and entertain. 

One of my favorite moments of the trip occurred after getting turned around by Google Maps, when my son noticed a large black circle on my GPS and concluded that it was some type of portal into another world (reading The Mist on the plane probably didn’t help). He got my daughter worked up about it too and then noticed we were getting closer and closer. Since we’d lost internet service, I was stuck routing us based on just the digital map. 

I pulled down a rocky back road, the thick forest on either side prevented us from turning around, and the water logged potholes increasing in size and frequency were enough to make the adults nervous too. Worried that the car would get stuck, I pushed forward and eventually we came to a pitch-black barn where I pulled in to turn around. The lights in the barn switched on and a man started walking towards our car, prompting the kids to all scream as they begged me to speed away. By this time their imaginations were convincing them we were in the middle of a horror movie, but I’m sure we gave that Italian farmhand quite the story for the following day. For the rest of the ride home, the kids got a good adrenaline rush by making up ghost stories inspired by getting lost in the isolated hills of Tuscany.

Our final apartment was located in the historical center of Borgo Pio, near St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, Italy. Around every turn in Rome are golden statues and architectural marvels that have weathered the test of time, it’s surreal to open your window and gaze upon the gates of Vatican City just as an outsider would have centuries ago. The reason for choosing this apartment was mostly by mistake, but it all worked out in the end.

Originally, we were going to stay in Northern Italy and visit Michelangelo's David in Florence, but since tickets were sold out until August I had to come up with a new plan. After researching the bullet train from Florence to Rome I was convinced that we shouldn’t pass up the chance to visit one of the most influential cities of all time. I also got lucky and was able to find tickets to a private night tour of the Colosseum using a tour group called ‘Through Eternity.' Unfortunately, I was so excited to book the tickets that I didn’t notice the tour wouldn’t be over until 11:00 P.M. The original plan was to spend the day in Rome and then take the train back late that night, but when I saw that trains didn't depart after 9:00 P.M. I realized we’d need to find a place to sleep. 

This meant that we'd need to book two places for the same night, but even though it could have been planned a little better, I believe it was the right decision. We couldn’t have carried all our luggage with us throughout Rome anyways, and would have needed to use a service to hold our stuff without an apartment to leave it in. Plus, we would have regretted skipping such a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the Colosseum after it was closed, and we could also use this new opportunity to see the Sistine Chapel, now that we had a place to shower and change into respectable clothes the following day. As our host told us, more time in Rome is never a problem and we definitely made the most of it.

$99.86 x 1 night $99.86
Cleaning fee $42.11
Service fee $17.74
Tourist Tax $12.28
Total $171.99

The total cost for one night in Rome was $171.99 and it included two bedrooms, one bathroom, soap, shampoo, dishwashing liquid, toilet paper, detergent, an iron, coffee, and two large bottles of water. The reason I chose this apartment was because it didn’t charge for bed linens and towels, like most of the other listings, and it was a five minute walk to Vatican City. This way we wouldn’t have to walk far in our nice shoes when we visited the Sistine Chapel the following day. This apartment had art from Paris, New York, Tokyo, and other travel destinations, along with a guest book signed by past residents. There were also several oscillating fans, since AC is nonexistent in Rome, and the bedroom had a queen bed with two twin beds in addition to the sofa bed in the living room.

The pedestrian path to our apartment looked starkly different depending on the hour of the day.  When we arrived, it was bustling with shops, vendors, horses, gypsies, and people drinking in the streets as church bells chimed loudly every few minutes, but after midnight the claustrophobic streets outside the Vatican went silent, with the occasional vespa popping out from an alley, and the faint sound of Italian street performers attempting to sing Bon Jovi in the distance. Full of limoncello and carrying a dead phone, the apartment seemed further away than before, but recalling the massive antique doors and stone archways along the way guided us home.

No comments:

Post a Comment