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The simple five-step guide to renting a Villa in Italy or France

Renting a villa in Italy, France or Spain isn't just for millionaires. Perhaps surprisingly, villa rental can be more reasonable than staying in a hotel, especially if you're a family a larger group (though being a millionaire does help if you want to rent an entire Tuscan village from the Ferragamo family).

Early morning sunlight rises over the patio of an Italian villa in Chianti, Tuscany, Italy
Early morning sunlight rises over the patio of an Italian villa in Chianti, Tuscany, Italy
There are just five simple steps: 1) Decide if a villa vacation is for you. The pros are that you'll have a base for a week or two that you can come back to each night. You can stay in all day, lounge by the pool or in the garden, take in the culture somewhere else, eat in or out... all up to you. The cons are that there's no daily maid service or other hotel amenities, you are in the same place (so visiting places far from base means a longer round trip), and you have to keep the place reasonably clean and tidy. You'll likely be doing cooking yourself if you stay in, though you can also hire a cook -- and in some places you can also hire a maid if you want more frequent cleaning. Personally, I am happy to trade hotel amenities for a more relaxed and flexible vacation. 2) Pick a country and general geography -- South of France, Tuscany etc -- based on the kind of things you want to do and see. Get a few guidebooks to places you think you might like to go. My personal favorites are the Dorling Kindersley "Eyewitness" travel guides (DK guides), and the Rough Guides. I like the DK guides because they're chock full of photographs so you can get a better idea of what a place is really like, and they're also a good starting point for planning photography trips. The Rough Guides are impeccably researched with good writing on places, history, art and contemporary life, with great vignettes on the famous locals. However, although brimming with great maps to get you around, they are sparsely illustrated when it comes to photos.

What kind of power adapter do I need in Europe?

Figuring out how to power cameras and other gadgets in Europe can seem tricky, but it's easy enough once you know how.

Florence streets lit by 220 volts
Florence streets lit by 220 volts

Plug converters / adapters for Europe

An extremely common question, especially for those heading to Europe for the first time, is what kind of plug adapter to use for their cameras, laptops, phones, iPads etc. In this video, I take a look at three common adapter types and show you how they work. I also show you what to look for to make sure your particular device will work on European voltages, and what kind of devices won't work. This really is one of those topics where literally taking a look at the converters is so much better than reading about them. Enjoy!

Bastides: Taxes and Real-Estate Speculation in Medieval France

On American Tax Day, 15 April, it seems fitting to remember a time 800 years ago when tax strategies began to shift towards sales and property taxes. Enjoy! North-by-North-west of Toulouse, the Lot and Dordogne departments are a joy to behold: well-preserved medieval towns called Bastides with their neat churches, gridiron layouts and square covered markets cling to the limestone banks of the rivers for which the regions are named. One of life's pleasures in this region is to sit comfortably in a café in the shade of a Bastide's covered market on a summer's day, enjoying a glass of the local Cahors wine. What the tour guides fail to mention is that these picture-perfect villages are the result of 13th and 14th century global economic forces, shifting tax strategies, technological innovation and plain old real-estate speculation.

Medieval covered market in Belves, a Bastide in France
Medieval covered market in Belves, a Bastide in France
The first clue to the commercial purpose of the Bastide is its layout - specifically, the location of the church. Elsewhere in France and other European countries, the church usually occupies a strong, central position. Often it has its own square, vying for attention with the market square. But in Bastides, the market occupies the center of the village, with the church pushed off to one side. In this photo of Belves in the Dordogne, you can see the church is on a side-street of the main market square.
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The covered market in the bastide town of Monpazier, Dordogne region, France.
The second clue is that this central market square contains a large covered section - a fairly complicated structure, as you can see from all the exposed woodwork in the photograph of Monpazier to the left. Why go to all the trouble and expense of a covered marketplace?
Siena Duomo and city center, Tuscany, Italy
Siena Duomo and city center, Tuscany, Italy
And then there is the grid-iron layout of a Bastide. To Americans, this may not seem remarkable since most American towns and cities are structured as a grid. In Western Europe, this is very unusual compared to the complicated twisting, turning streets typical of towns, villages and cities. All of this points to the fact that the marketplace - and by implication, trade - was important, but why? Also, why the division of the village into regular blocks?

Set up your AT&T iPhone for Europe and save money

[Updated May 2013 with new AT&T screen shots and prices] Travelling with your AT&T iPhone to Europe? Here's how you can make sure it works when you get there and avoid a giant bill when you get back. Who doesn't like to save money? If you haven't done so already, register with AT&T's web site so that you can make changes to your phone plan options online. Log in with your wireless number and password, so that you get to the home screen for your wireless service. Look in the top-left quadrant of the page for a menu called "I want to...", which will look like this:

Click on "I want to..." to get this menu
Click on "I want to..." to get this menu

How to phone home from Europe

Making a phone call home from Italy, France, the UK or indeed anywhere else in Europe is easy since all countries in the European Union agreed on one standard way of making international calls. You dial two zeros (00), the country code, and then the number. The country code for the US is 1, so a call to the San Francisco number 415-555-1212 is dialed 00-1-415-555-1212.

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Beautifully arranged mounds of fresh Italian ice cream await at a Gelateria in Siena, Italy.
Dialing works the same way on mobile phones, or you can use the shorthand of "+" instead of the two zeros. The benefit of this approach is that this works anywhere on any mobile phone network world-wide, not just in Europe -- which is handy for numbers you put into the phone's memory or contact list. In my example, you'd dial +1-415-555-1212, and this same number would work when dialed in the US as well as in Europe. On regular land-line phones, you can speed up the connection by dialing a # at the end of the number (more precisely, this cuts short the "post dial delay"). This tells the phone network that you are done dialing your international number, and it starts connecting the call immediately. Otherwise, the phone network will sit and wait in case you want to dial any more digits -- several seconds -- because unlike domestic calls, the network doesn't know the exact length of phone numbers for every area of every country. This isn't required with mobile phones because you hit the "send" or "call" button at the end of the number. One more thing about the '# at the end trick': it works in the US too when dialing internationally. Try it and see! Want to learn more about calling from Europe? See Using cell phones in Europe part 1, and using mobile data services (part 2)

Chateau de Biron: Story Behind The Picture

Chateau de Biron is in the Dordogne region of France, south of Bordeaux in the South-Western corner of the country. Started in the 12th century, the chateau was in the hands of one family for 800 years, the Gontaut-Biron, and enhanced and expanded until the 18th century.

Chateau de Biron, Dordogne, France

Chateau de Biron, Dordogne, France

Clos de Vougeot: Story Behind The Picture

The chateau of Clos de Vougeot is nestled in the vineyards of Burgundy, the area of Eastern France close to Dijon that brings us delightful red wine. Lighter than the more famous Bordeaux, I like Burgundies because of their delicacy and the way they complement and flatter food. The photograph you see here is of the original 12th century monastery building, built by Cistercian monks from nearby Citeaux (Da Vinci Code fans note: the abbot of Citeaux is supposedly the person who convinced the Pope to create the Templar order to protect the Priory of Scion, thus beginning a huge conspiracy to bring down the Catholic church).

Clos de Vougeot

Royal Salt Works: Story Behind the Picture

My sister-in-law lives in The Jura, an area of Eastern France near the Swiss border. It's not a particularly well-known part of the country and you'll have to work hard to find it in many guide books (honorable exception: The Rough Guide To France). It's a pretty part of the country, and plonked in the middle of a forest is a remarkable set of pre-revolutionary buildings: the Royal Salt Works (Saline Royale, for those of you who speak the lingo).

Royal Salt Works, France

Royal Salt Works, France.

Traffic circles (or roundabouts)

Driving in Europe continues to be something that generates a lot of email, so on to another popular driving topic: traffic circles -- or, roundabouts as they're known in the UK. Incredibly popular in Europe, you don't see these too often in the US. When you do, they appear to generate a lot of confusion amongst drivers.

Early traffic circle

Early traffic circle -- Stonehenge, England

The "golden rule" of traffic circles is pretty simple: traffic entering must yield to anything already in the circle. As you approach, take a look to see if there's anything coming -- if there is, slow down or stop. You don't need to stop if there's no traffic in the circle. You do need to stop if entering would cause traffic in the circle to slow down or stop to avoid you!

Malbec, the “Black Wine” of Cahors

Ask for a glass of wine in any bar in South-Western France, and the chances are you'll get Vin de Cahors (pronounced "Ca-hoares"), which will be at least 70% Malbec. Ironically, Malbec is now better known in the US thanks to Chilean and Argentinian imports; there are now at least 25,000 acres of the vine planted in Argentina alone. However, Malbec has a long and distinguished history in France -- the "Black Wine of Cahors" was well known 600 years ago in the courts of medieval France.

Ponte Valentre, the medieval bridge over the river Lot in Cahors A glass of Cahors is dark red or "inky", but also smooth, tannic and blackcurranty. For many years it was used as a blending wine for Bordeaux claret, until a severe frost in 1956 killed 75% of the Malbec vines in that area. Now, in France you find it almost exclusively in Cahors wine and nowhere else. The grape was first taken to Argentina in the mid-19th century when a regional governor asked Michel Pouget, a French agronomist, to bring cuttings. Interestingly, Argentinian Malbec has smaller grapes (berries) in tighter clusters than that found in France -- clearly a different variety. Maybe the original French Malbec has evolved, or the original variety doesn't exist any more after France's great 19th-century rescue from Philloxera blight by grafting onto American root stock. Today, the limestone soil of Cahors, found in the flood plain of the river Lot as it winds its way through soft limestone cliffs seems to suit the grape as well today as it has for hundreds of years. Try some next time you fancy ordering outside the usual Bordeaux, Burgundy or Loire favorites.