Living in the UK for 3+ years has allowed my spouse and I to hone our European travelling skills to a considerable extent. We’ve done our fair bit of travelling, trying to take advantage of our proximity to the continent whilst we’re here. Recently we were been amazed at how comfortably and easily we get about countries even where neither of us speak the native language. I never thought I could feel so at home in Europe, and especially the UK. Just to give some context, this is where we’ve been in our time here: France (x5), Germany (x2), Italy (x2), Norway (x2), Spain, Scotland, England, Wales, and Finland.
As you can imagine, considering that we up and moved to the UK from the US, we don’t like to experience foreign countries as the typical tourist does. Our preference is to get an authentic taste for the tremendous variety of cultures that Europe has to offer, as that is truly its bounty. Whilst we realize we can never genuinely penetrate the nuances of a local culture, particularly given that neither of us is even a bad imitation of a polyglot, we’ve still learned how to see a few of the threads that weave a local community.
The key to this is quite simple really, and not entirely uncommon in Europe: self-catering accommodation (e.g, http://www.homeaway.co.uk). We weren’t familiar with this concept as a general way to travel before moving here, but essentially you stay at an apartment/home, often owned by an individual, instead of a hotel. This provides several advantages over staying at a hotel:
- Typically the individuals who rent out places are natives of the area. They can give you much better recommendations of attractions and (especially!) local restaurants. This is particularly useful if you are like me, and prefer relatively small, cozy, friendly, authentic restaurants. The caveat here is that such restaurants may not have menus in English or English speaking staff, so be prepared for an adventure in gastronomy…but typically many pleasant surprises!
- You can cook your own meals. This provides two advantages:
- You can reduce costs, especially for meals like breakfast and lunch. Eating dinner in a few nights helps too, that way you can splurge and really enjoy some of the great food and drink Europe has to offer.
- You get to go shopping at local markets/supermarkets. I know this doesn’t sound quite like a typical tourist destination, but it’s great fun food shopping in Europe, especially in countries like France and Italy that are passionate about food (the variety of pasta available in Italy boggles the mind!). This is something that a fair amount of time should be set aside for upon arrival to stock your shelves, as it can take awhile to sort out where to find things and what you’re looking at (typically not a lot of English here!). The other great thing is that you can often get a taste of local food/produce at a much reduced cost of what you’d pay in a restaurant (i.e, last time we were in Germany, white asparagus was in season; dirt cheap to buy and cook up!). For example, in France, if you cannot find a local fromagerie (cheese shop) to explore (or are too intimidated to step in), a supermarket is a great place to find and buy a few chunks of cheese you’ve never heard of and store at your apartment. And let’s not forget access to inexpensive, but tasty, wine! (Can you tell I’ve fallen in love with France?!)
- You can gain access to local neighborhoods and small towns where hotels may be difficult to come by. For example, at a recent stay in Paris we stayed in a small apartment in a neighborhood well outside the main city centre (but a few steps from the metro). It was fantastic; we were on a block that had two bakeries, a cheese shop, a pastry shop, two butchers, a chocolate shop, several cafes, and a fruit/veg shop. Granted, very few of these people spoke English, but they were also ridiculously friendly, and mostly happy to help as I stumbled through my marginally coherent French. It was far and away one of the highlights of Paris, although it was dangerous leaving the apartment in the morning, as I would always come back with some cheese, wine, bread, pastry or (what made the spouse quite happy) chocolate.
- It’s typically considerably less expensive than an equivalently furnished hotel. For example, on that recent trip to Paris, we paid 60 EUR a night. Sweet deal.
If you’re up for an adventure and want to get a deeper experience of Europe than just seeing the major sites, I highly recommend going the self-catering route. However, doing self-catering is not without some annoyances:
- You typically (but not always!) need to transfer a deposit to whomever it is you contact to book the apartment/home. This tends to be more common in cities than in smaller towns or rural areas where more old fashioned rules tend to apply (i.e, I trust your word that you’ll show up). To transfer a deposit to a European account, I have used www.xe.com. Worth going through it and understanding how to send money before booking a place, but it’s quite straightforward.
- Keep an eye out for fees for final cleanings and linens. Since it is self-catering, often times they are frequented by people from the country that may drive there and bring their own towels and linens. You can typically request towels and linens (sometimes for a small fee). Also, since this is not a hotel, there won’t be any maid service to clean up after you, so it’s up to you to keep the place reasonably tidy. However, it’s expected that the apartment is relatively clean when you leave, so it’s worth asking if the final cleaning is included in the price. If not it usually costs between 30-50 EUR, but is definitely worth paying for so you don’t spend the last few hours of your holiday cleaning up.
- Often time’s appliances don’t work the same in Europe as they do in the US. Especially dishwashers and washer/dryers. And sometimes you’ll find unexpected amenities, such as bidets (especially in Italy), or saunas (Finland). We are still continually surprised at what we find from our self-catering experiences, but a pinch of salt and a lot of laughter go a long way!
Finally, the language barrier can be intimidating and frustrating at times. However, we’ve found throughout Europe, speaking and interacting with kindness and respect is universally understood, even if the words are not.