In the summer of 1992, my parents rented a stone farmhouse in the hills outside the village of Gordes, France, and invited our extended family for two weeks. Together or in little bands we explored Provence, feasted on local cuisine and circled back to share our tales. The house itself was quirky -- a bathtub stood naked in the middle of a bedroom, the kitchen was an afterthought -- but we still talk about the roasted lamb with tomatoes and potatoes au gratin that my mother improvised after consulting the village butcher.
You can't roast a lamb in a hotel room. You'd never plop yourself down on a hotel bed, study your surroundings and wonder what it might be like to live there.
Hotels? Not for this family. When we travel, we cherish our space, privacy and the chance to try on the life of a different locale. Not to mention the fact that rentals are generally far more affordable than extended hotel stays.
Last year, with that Provence trip as our benchmark, a series of significant birthdays and a 20th-wedding anniversary had me looking to celebrate large. So an idea emerged fully formed: Let's rent apartments in London and Paris.
Our rental adventures mostly have been in U.S. destinations, but how hard could it be to do the same thing in Europe? Thirteen years earlier, my parents had started with a friend's recommendation and arranged their French rental via catalogues, phone calls and, finally, a friend's recommendation. I figured this time around, I'd do it the way we've arranged many of our U.S. leases: online. But the Internet proved to be just the springboard.
Surfing for Apartments
Googling "London apartment rentals" and "Paris apartment rentals" turned up tens of thousands of hits for rental agencies, tourist organizations and individual apartments. The days that followed were a kind of online through-the-looking-glass adventure as I went site by site, stepping virtually into and out of bedrooms, living rooms, kitchens and bathrooms in flats from Cadogan Place in London's Knightsbridge section to the Rue St. Rustique in Paris's 18th arrondissement. Finally, I lined up my preferences and started e-mailing agencies to find out whether my top choices were available.
They were not. Nor were my backup selections.
I was looking for a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment, priced at no more than $2,000 per week, for a week each in London and Paris. Our preferred weeks were in June and July, favorite months to visit two of the most alluring cities in the world. By the time of my search, in late March/early April, many travelers to London and Paris had already booked their vacation rentals for the summer. (FYI: A popular sporting event called Wimbledon brings a lot of visitors to London in June.)
Back to the Web drawing board.
Certain factors, I realized, make the overseas vacation rental process a bit trickier than stateside rentals. For one thing, the back and forth of e-mail correspondence is often limiting and less expedient than a simple phone call, during which all questions might be answered in a single conversation. But long-distance calls abroad are expensive. The time difference -- London at five hours ahead, Paris six -- interferes with timeliness when you have to wait until tomorrow for an answer to an e-mail you send this afternoon. Language, too, can be a problem. What I really wanted was to talk directly to an expert about particular neighborhoods and apartments.
I then turned to agencies that were American-based, or at least have satellite offices here. I could pick up the phone and call these places, settle my concerns and at last nail down a reservation. I took a closer look at some of my online search results and narrowed the agencies down to two: the Wales-based London-rentals company In the English Manner, which has a Los Angeles office, and Cohasset, Mass.-based Panache, which arranges Paris leases.
Our London Flat
In the English Manner manages about 45 property rentals, according to the firm's L.A. rep, Glo Williams, who is familiar with all of them. I had my eye on a Kensington flat "on the ground floor of a handsome terrace of houses with pillared front entrances . . . A comfortably and elegantly furnished, high-ceilinged living room with two large windows overlooking Queen's Gate."
Luckily, the flat was available. "Charming," Williams assured me. But were the bedrooms quiet? (We have a formidable insomniac in our party.) Williams said she had stayed in the flat herself last November and was able to confirm that point, too, explaining that the bedrooms lie at the back of the flat, overlooking a private courtyard, not the street.
In the flesh, the apartment proved to be ideal. Williams had emphasized that her company's flats are private homes within buildings whose other flats are occupied by year-round residents. "It comes down to energy -- you get a sense that you're living there" rather than visiting, she said.
This was absolutely true. Our apartment was perfectly placed in Kensington, within a short walk of two Underground stations and in a neighborhood of embassies, the Victoria and Albert Museum and Kensington Gardens. The flat was on the ground floor of a whitewashed, late-19th-century, five-story townhouse, on a residential street lined with identical townhouses. At the front of the flat was the high-ceilinged living room, whose attractive, comfortable furnishings were worn just enough to allow us to sprawl on them guilt-free.
Each morning I'd wake and fix myself coffee, then fold back the white wooden shutters covering the long windows to watch my neighbors head to work (in Jaguars and the like; Kensington is an upscale area). The living room included a dining table, mostly used by us for poring over maps and guidebooks.
Off the living room was the full kitchen, equipped with a washer-dryer. Little things, like fresh laundry smells, can make one feel at home and, odd as it sounds, I fell in love with the Waitrose store's Ultima Biological brand of laundry detergent -- if not with the washer-dryer. (European washing machines and dryers are notoriously poky; suffice it to say you'll want to do your wash in the evening, so you won't miss out on a day's touring.) A long hall led to the first bedroom, with twin beds and its own bathroom, and farther on to a dressing room, lavender-tinted master bedroom and a flight of stairs to the master bathroom. Though the flat had little in the way of artwork, its homey furnishings and charming architectural features -- high ceilings, long shuttered windows, finely engraved plaster moldings and paneled fireplace -- gave the place the kind of character lacking in most hotel accommodations.
As tourists, we did London proud, visiting sites from the Tower of London to the Tate Modern museum, attending a wild and wonderful production of "Pericles" at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, taking tea at Kensington Palace's Orangery and enjoying a sumptuous meal at a restaurant called Launceston Place. But as London apartment-dwellers and faux locals, we did ourselves even prouder. By week's end, my husband, Jim, and I had gotten to know our local pub, the Queen's Arms, in an out-of-the-way mews; our 13-year-old, Lucy, was dashing down to Partridge's on Gloucester Road to buy sandwich makings for lunch; 18-year-old Caitlin could have led her own tours through Kensington Gardens; and the four of us at breakfast were munching on a cereal called Muddles, a British multi-grain version of Kellogg's Rice Krispies.
Our Paris Flat
Minutes into our first conversation, Panache owner Connie Afshar was guiding me to a choice. I had described our two-bed, two-bath, quiet-at-night apartment and price requirements, and was wondering whether the 9th or 18th arrondissements might be a good location.
"Unless you've been to Paris several times and know it well, I'd recommend that you stay closer," Afshar said firmly but graciously, adding that she herself had stayed in the 9th and had felt too far away from things. This was exactly the kind of information I needed. After several more discussions, I chose an apartment on Rue Bonaparte, in the 6th arrondissement.
Afshar and her husband, Nader, started Panache seven years ago, and the business has grown to represent 200 properties -- mostly Paris apartments but also houses throughout France, Italy and Scotland and, most recently, apartments in London. Like the English Manner properties, Panache's flats are all privately owned. "Some apartments have been in an owner's family for generations but are not the owner's primary residence; some belong to Parisians who have been transferred in their jobs but still hold on to their apartments; and some apartments have been bought as investments," she said. In a few cases, she added, the flat is the primary residence for an owner who stays at a country home during certain times of the year. This was true of our Paris apartment.
Within hours of our arrival in Paris, we were met at our Rue Bonaparte address by our contact, as planned -- only to be told that the apartment was not available after all. The owner had double-booked it, I think. We were redirected to another apartment a few streets over, in the 7th arrondissement. (Caitlin will tell you that I "freaked out," but don't listen to her; I was slightly anxious, that's all.)
The new apartment, on tiny Rue de Luynes, proved remarkable. It belonged to a "very lovely French woman in her seventies who goes to her country house in the Pyrenees from late May to early October," Afshar later told me. At 1,300 square feet, our second-floor flat (accessible by winding stairway or one of those quaint, bird cagelike elevators) was nearly twice as large as the apartment we had contracted for, and its decor reflected the "aristocratic" background of its owner: parquet ("Versailles-style") floors, 18th-century antique furniture and beautiful artwork, including a magnificent tapestry-like wall hanging and paintings of French landscapes and seascapes.
And yet, the apartment had a very comfortable feel to it -- so inviting, in fact, that Cait and Lucy immediately made themselves at home in the kitchen. Lucy chose a pretty little Limoges gold-rimmed creamer to use in preparing tea, which, in the washing up, she broke.
("The apartment is filled with so many beautiful things -- is there anything we shouldn't touch?" I had asked our Paris contact, Patrick, who laughingly had replied, "The apartment is not a museum, you know.")
Apartment switches, broken objects: These things can happen on vacation rentals. For our part, we appreciated the fact that Panache handled both circumstances with, yes, panache, arranging for us to stay at the lovely second apartment at the original rate and returning our security deposit despite the broken creamer. For their part, the Afshars understood our dismay at the last-minute apartment switch and knew how to make it up to us, and were grateful for our honesty in reporting the breakage. "It's when people don't tell us they've broken or damaged something, and we discover it much later, when it might be too late to fix, that problems occur," said Nader Afshar.
So while our tour of Paris took us to all the usual sensations -- Notre Dame, the Musee D'Orsay, Les Invalides, the Louvre -- it also included detours to the china section of Le Bon Marche department store, the china shop-lined Rue Paradis in the 10th arrondissement (not the nicest part of town) and the enormous Marche aux Puces St-Ouen de Clignancourt, as we searched for a replacement creamer. Alas, no luck (I later sent a poor substitute from home).
Even more so than in London, we immersed ourselves in our surroundings, dining out only in our neighborhood, which included the Brasserie Lipp and my favorite, La Petite Chaise, which originally opened as an inn in 1680. We enjoyed strolling up to the joined rues de Seine and Buci to purchase divine prepared foods from a traiteur, choosing such dishes as zucchini and tomato salad, grilled chicken and pate for dinner at home. On our final full day in Paris, we attended Mass at "our" 17th-century parish church, St. Thomas d'Aquin (let the tourists go to ancient St.-Germain-des-Pres), then browsed a ceramics festival in the courtyard of St. Sulpice. While Jim went off to wander the Marais district, the girls and I happily settled ourselves at a cafe on Rue du Bac, to sip wine (me), speak flirty French with the waiter (Cait) and forage nearby shops for treats like flavored macaroons from Dalloyau's (Lucy).
Every one of our vacation rentals develops its own myths over time. As the weeks go by, I've caught myself on the verge of mythmaking about our London trip: that locals started to greet us like mates in the Queen's Arm Pub (never happened) or that we made it to the Live 8 concert (nope). An evolving Paris myth is sure to hinge upon the miraculous discovery of the exact twin to the yellow Limoges creamer. The truth, of course, is better: that my enthusiastic daughters got caught up in their experience of living like locals, that that's what we were there for, and that we'd give anything to do it all again.
Elise Hartman Ford, a Washington writer, hopes to rent an apartment next year in Dijon, France.