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).
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.
3) Decide whereabouts you want to be in relation to the places and things you want to see and do. For example, if you really want to spend your days soaking up the world’s greatest collection of renaissance art in Florence, don’t base yourself in a cute-but-remote villa in the rolling hills of Chianti 20 minutes drive from the nearest major road. Mightily obvious, perhaps, but consider this: we were enjoying a dinner of incredibly fresh pasta with a great Brunello di Montalcino wine in a small enoteca (wine bar) walking distance from our Tuscan villa. The owner was friendly and keen to share his knowledge of the local wines and the chef smiled shyly from her kitchen. Two women walked in and headed straight to the bar and asked for Martinis, which the owner couldn’t make because he only has a license to sell wine. They were fed up having found no decent shopping all day. Their base was in the middle of rural, hilly Chianti, at least an hour from the nearest Prada store. They had yet to find a bar that could make a Martini and would have been far happier in at hotel or apartment in central Florence or Rome.
4) Put together a group that can get on well with each other. Villas work better financially when you can spread the cost out across more people, and farm and country house conversions abound in Tuscany and France. This means there are plenty of villas for rent that can sleep 8, 10, 12 or more. However, you should consider carefully who will vacation with you: do you really want to spend a week or two with them in the same house? It’s tempting to add friends-of-friends to make up the numbers and keep costs down, but consider how well you know these people and whether you’ll get on. A tense atmosphere is the last thing you need on your vacation.
5) You know where you want to be and what is important to you and your fellow guests, and what size of place you need. So how to find a suitable villa? Our first villa rental was though ItalianVillas.com, subsequently purchased by the AAA and now part of AAA Travel. They were a great choice primarily because they really knew their stuff: they had been to all the properties shown on their site, and you could call them and talk to someone who can tell you if a property is right for you.
A good agency will share advice on the vagaries of Italian homes that are sometimes surprising. For example, you can’t turn on the heating in September just because it is cold — you must wait until after a certain date in October when the Italian government has decided it’s OK to turn on your heating (!) So put on a sweater and see if you can find wood for a fire instead. The point is to find an agency that knows its product. Avoid agencies that do not or are just “aggregating” traffic. They are not interested in whether you have a good experience — they’re after the commission (as much as 50%) and on to the next deal.
The only remaining thing to check is the villa location, as sites are often vague when it comes to the specific location (“10 minutes from Siena” doesn’t cut it). You need to know this so you won’t be stuck miles from all the things you want to see and do. In the age of GPS and Google Maps there’s no excuse anymore for vague locations. Plug the name into Google Maps and see where it is relative to roads, railways etc. Through the magic of satellite imagery, you can also avoid unpleasant surprises, such as renting a pretty villa right next to a large-scale “industrial” farm (this happened to us once, though we didn’t let it ruin our trip).
Renting directly is a substantial cost saving to going through an agency — 40-50% less — but you need to know what to look for and what to expect. This is the value that a good agency can bring and why they’re a great idea if you’re new to villa rental or a particular area. After we had rented twice with ItalianVillas.com in Tuscany, we knew enough about what to expect to rent directly from villa owners. We found new places to stay a stone’s throw from a villa — like Vignamaggio, the place in the photo below.
You might also consider hiring a cook. For some, this conjures images of impossibly expensive executive chefs, but in fact it can cost the same or less as an evening at a good restaurant.
A few years ago we rented with friends in Tuscany and wanted a cook to come 2-3 times a week to make dinner for all 12 of us. We have rented several times from the owners, a retired Italian executive couple, and they knew a cook who grew up in a family that owned a restaurant. She was phenomenally good, turning out four course meals of traditional, simple Tuscan cuisine with whatever was freshest and best, all for about 30 Euros a head.
She cooked on the first night when everyone was tired and cranky from a day spent crammed on planes and in security lines, which helped everyone to relax and start to enjoy the vacation. We either cooked for ourselves or ate out on the other nights, and having her come by every few days was a great way to bring everyone together throughout the trip.
So when you’re planning this year’s vacation and have re-started your heart after peeking at the Dollar/Euro exchange rate, consider villa rental. With a little planning, it can give you relaxing, fulfilling vacations that you’ll remember for a lifetime.
Updated October 2015
If you read the previous article, you now know the answer to the question “How can I use my cell phone in Europe?” and what to do about it. This article will take a look at the various data services that are on offer for Americans who want to send e-mail, surf the net or transmit digital photographs back to base while traveling in Europe.
WiFi: Wifi is widely available in cafes, hotels, airports and other places, usually for a fee. Free Wifi is available in some places but is far less common than in the US. In addition, carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile have many roaming partnerships in Europe that can reduce the costs. Wifi connection quality varies widely — from good to unusable. Wifi is best if you’re stationary and have the time to sit down with a coffee or glass of wine to do your surfing.
Mobile wireless data: You’ll find yourself with 3G or GPRS/EDGE (see below for definitions of the technology) 90% of the time. 4G LTE roll-out in Europe is picking up speed and is mostly available in larger towns and cities.
European 3G coverage has vastly improved in the past few years and in many countries it is the best technology available. Today, almost every smartphone offers 3G with up to 1Mbit/sec of data transfer speed, and again you don’t need to do anything different with your phone to access it. Your phone will automatically switch to EDGE or GPRS coverage (256Kb/sec) outside of 3G data areas.
Mobile data roaming rates on your US phone or tablet plan can be extremely expensive, so beware. When you leave your home (US) network, your costs go up. There is only one “unlimited data” international roaming plan (T-Mobile — read this article on its ground-breaking offering).
Very important: You will be paying per Megabyte for “roaming” data usage outside the US. Your US data plan only covers data usage on your home network. Usage “off network” comes out a different “bucket” of data usage.
The hands-down leader in roaming costs is T-Mobile, offering free rate-limited data (up to 256Mbits/sec). For many people this works fine for email, simple web browsing, and mapping apps on smartphones. You can purchase “buckets” of data from T-Mobile that are not rate-limited, allowing up to 1Mbit/sec on 3G networks. AT&T charges $0.25 per Megabyte on its $30 international roaming plan that comes with 120MB of data.
3G (3GSM) data
3G stands for “3rd Generation” and represents the mobile technology standard that came after 2nd generation (no kidding!), the original GSM standard. 3G offers data rates up to 1Mb/sec. 3G is now widely deployed in Western European countries such as the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, as well as the Middle East. Because coverage is generally good in the major cities but not elsewhere, most 3G phones will “fall back” to GPRS/EDGE if they cannot establish a 3G data connection.
Note that there are restrictions based on the use of different frequencies in the US and Rest Of the World (ROW). 3G radio frequencies are different in the US, and so phones need to support no less than 8 different radio frequencies to get full GSM and 3GSM coverage world-wide. To keep costs down, some phones will only support 3G in the US and fall back to EDGE or GPRS elsewhere.
An acronym only engineers could love to describe a 3G network with higher speed download — 3.5Mbits/sec on most networks, though theoretically capable of 14Mbits/sec. A bit flaky today, so don’t count on it internationally.
Engineering geekiness beat out clarity again with the naming of 4th Generation (4G) mobile data. LTE stands for Long Term Evolution, and the explanation for this is simply too dull to repeat here. Expect data rates in the double-digit megabit range. The actual rate depends on many factors, including the network, the phone, the phase of the moon (OK, kidding), how you hold your phone (not kidding) etc. 4G coverage is somewhat limited today, mostly to urban areas.
Most GSM phones available in the US offer the somewhat tortuous acronym of EDGE. Offering up to 384K of bandwidth, EDGE is an add-on to GSM networks that bumps up the amount of data that the network can carry using GPRS (see below). In the US, AT&T has been turning off EDGE in congested areas in cities like San Francisco and New York so it can re-use the radio frequencies for 3G. It is not clear what the long-term plans are for EDGE given that 3G is more attractive.
GPRS theoretically offers up to 171K of bandwidth from your cell phone. In practice, the actual data rate is limited by your cell phone and/or the carrier, and may top out at 40K or thereabouts. If there isn’t a good connection between the phone and the network, speed is reduced in order avoid re-transmission of garbled data. Also, all GPRS users in the same cell contend for the available GPRS bandwidth. The carriers put an upper limit on the bandwidth that each phone can use to prevent any one person from hogging it all. If you’re sitting in a room full of people using GPRS, such as a press room at an event, you may get just 9.6Kbps even with GPRS.
There are two older standards, modem emulation and Circuit Switched Data, but they’re so slow and GPRS is now everywhere that I’ll ignore them.
Many GSM world phones send and receive e-mail and provide a web browser. However, he small screen makes it very hard to use the phone for long messages or standard web pages. The carriers know connecting your phone to your laptop breaks all their assumptions about how much bandwidth you will use, so they disable tethering. You can fix this by unlocking your phone (see previous article) and updating its software, or buying an unlocked phone that doesn’t have this restriction.
If you plan to use a GSM world phone in Europe, make sure you get data services working before you leave. In many cases, your phone comes pre-configured, but you might have to use a web-based tool from your carrier to “provision” it, or call the technical support line. Smartphone users will be fine — the phone basically can’t function well without data services, so it’ll already be set up.
The best way to prepare before going to Europe is to go to the website for your carrier (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint or T-Mobile) and buying one of their international roaming packages. This normally ensures that your phone is enabled for use outside the US, and you won’t get burned by the default (high) rates, or have a phone that won’t work at all because international roaming is turned off (to prevent fraud).
The GSM Association: trade association that also maintains world-wide GSM coverage maps for GSM data services.
Part 1 of 2 articles: the second covers cellular data in Europe
Last updated: January 2016
To many Americans, staying in touch with a cell phone or tablet while in Europe can seem difficult and expensive. But savvy travelers know it doesn’t have to be. Having a phone while you’re there can be a major time saver and convenience. This article tells you how to stay in touch and save money.
Why don’t US cell phones “just work” in Europe? For various reasons, the United States developed and deployed wireless technologies that were incompatible with those deployed in the Rest Of the World, which went with a standard called GSM (“Global System for Mobiles” – one of the reasons why Europeans use the term “mobile” and not “cell phone”).
This meant that for many years, the only option for US travelers to Europe was to rent a GSM phone, which was expensive and inconvenient. No one could reach you on your US cell phone number; you had the hassle and cost of receiving and returning the phone, and both phone rental and calls were astonishingly expensive.
Today, you can buy US mobile phones that use the GSM system from AT&T Wireless and T-Mobile. Many (but not all) of these phones will not “just work” in Europe. The US uses different radio frequencies to the rest of the world, so you need a “World Phone” that is designed to work in the US and outside the US. The most popular smartphones all work internationally: the Apple iPhone series, the Samsung Galaxy series and the Google Nexus phones. As a rule of thumb, the cheapest phones are generally those that do not support international roaming.
The net? Make sure you buy a phone that clearly states is can be used internationally or is called a “World Phone”.
Verizon and Sprint use a system called CDMA (it stands for Code Division Multiple Access — incomprehensible to the average human.) However, Verizon in particular has figured out that it is losing a lot of profitable international traffic as a result, and now has phones that support both CDMA and international GSM frequencies. Verizon used to call these Global Phones, but now it just ensures that all of its smartphones have full global roaming.
Verizon has a specific international phone page here, and examples of Verizon global smartphones at the time of writing include the iPhone 6S/6S Plus, 6/6 Plus, 5S, Samsung Galaxy S series and Motorola Droid. One older phone gotcha: Verizon iPhone 4 (not 4S) is CDMA-only and will not work in Europe.
The net: if you’re on Verizon or Sprint and you have iPhone 4S or later, you can use your phone in Europe and get 2G, 3G and even 4G LTE if you have an iPhone 5S or 6.
AT&T charges $1.00/minute for voice calls while roaming with its most expensive international roaming package, and $1.29 without any plan at all. If you buy up to the larger international plans, the cost per minute drops to $0.50 or $0.25/minute. T-Mobile is the stand-out leader in International Roaming, however, with its $0.20/minute charges and you can roam on all the same networks as AT&T when overseas.
Verizon charges $1.79/minute for calls unless you explicitly buy an international bundle for $40 that includes 100 minutes and 100 texts. Usage beyond that is charged at $0.25/minute and $0.25/text (incoming texts are free). Its international plans page is here.
Sprint copied T-Mobile in April 2015 and now offers $0.20/minute calling and unlimited texting when abroad.
With many more people owning smartphones and using apps, having access to lots of data is increasingly important when traveling. With modern smartphones supporting 3G and 4G LTE data internationally, the issue these days is less likely to be the speed and is more likely to be the limits of your international data plan.
Once again, T-Mobile is the stand-out leader here offering unlimited 256Kb/sec data internationally for free. Now 256Kb/sec (0.256 MB/sec) is not very fast — just about good enough for basic web browsing, but certainly nothing like your typical app expects. So T-Mobile also offers high speed data plans for additional cost, without a bandwidth throttle. Sprint has copied this approach, and does the same thing.
AT&T revamped its international mobile bundles in October 2015 to make them more competitive with T-Mobile and Sprint. All plans feature unlimited texting and unlimited Wifi roaming with AT&T partners in Europe. The following prices are all for 30 days:
Passport: $30 for 120MB of data, $0.25/MB over that, and $1.00/min for voice
Passport plus: $60 for 300MB of data, $0.20/MB over that, and $0.50/min for voice
Passport pro: $120 for 800MB, $0.15/MB over that, and $0.25/min for voice
If you run out of data inside the 30 days, you have to buy another package all over again to get more data — and it replaces the current package. You can’t add two packages together and pool the voice minutes, for example.
Call charges on a European pre-paid GSM phone can be up to 80% less than rental phones or roaming charges on your own account, and incoming calls are free. Think $0.10/min instead of $1.29/min. You visit any phone store, buy a pre-paid phone and pre-paid minutes of talk time. There are disadvantages: you can’t use your own cell phone number any more, and you will need enough local language proficiency to buy “recharge” or “Top up” cards and activate them using a telephone menu. Also, due to billing limitations, many pre-paid GSM phones will only work in the country where you purchased them. But if you are willing to put up with the extra complexity, this approach can save you a lot of money.
Clearly, a drawback of this kind of pre-paid is that you need to buy a phone you may never use again, unless you travel to Europe often. So why can’t you use your own GSM world phone for pre-paid service?
In the GSM system, your phone number and other identifying information are stored on a little chip: the Subscriber Identity Module (SIM). It’s a fingernail-sized smart card that slides into the back of your GSM phone under the battery (on most models), or the side or the top (iPhones). When you buy a European pre-paid GSM phone, it contains a “pre-paid SIM” issued by the carrier.
But if you own a US GSM phone, you typically can’t just take out the SIM from your US carrier, buy a pre-paid SIM from a mobile phone store and put it in your own phone. Why? Because your cell phone carrier won’t let you, and they have “network locked” your phone to stop you doing this.
Many people buy GSM phones from their wireless carrier, since they offer a steep discount from the actual price of the phone, in return for committing to a 2-year contract. A 64GB Apple iPhone 6 costs $299 with a 2-year contract on AT&T, and $799 without one. AT&T wants you to use the SIM that they issued to ensure they capture all your usage during the contract, in return for the discounted phone. Also, international roaming offers great profit margin compared to domestic “minute bundles”: AT&T charges up to $1.29/minute for a call that costs $0.10/minute (or less) on a pre-paid SIM on exactly the same network.
The good news is that beating locked cell phones has gotten a lot easier in the last year. Here are your options:
All the major manufacturers now sell their phones on Amazon.com and other online retailers, and also directly from their own web sites. You’ll pay the full price up front for the phone, but it’ll work out cheaper than buying it over time from the carrier over time.
With the launch of the iPhone 6S, Apple took this one step further by offering a new installment plan where you pay the price of the phone over time but can upgrade every time a new iPhone comes out (typically every 12 months). The plan also includes AppleCare extended warranty and support. If you do the math, you’ll see it costs more over 2 years vs. just buying the phone outright, but you also get AppleCare and the ability to upgrade.
T-Mobile only offers full price “pay up front” pricing, and the phone is completely unlocked, so if you buy one from T-Mobile it’s just like buying from the manufacturer.
Verizon and Sprint don’t use the GSM system on their domestic networks but all modern smartphones are designed to work anywhere, offering both CDMA and GSM capabilities in a single hardware design. That simplifies manufacturing (fewer models to make), but it also means Verizon phones can also work on GSM frequencies “for free” off the phones that also work on their CDMA networks. So they’ve come up with phones that are semi-unlocked: they will work just like an unlocked phone with any international SIM card, but won’t work with a US SIM card (e.g. one from AT&T).
The net: you can slide out the Verizon SIM card and put in a European SIM card on an iPhone 6/6S and it’ll work just fine.
All network-locked phones can be unlocked, because locking is implemented in software.
Help is at hand for AT&T iPhone owners: AT&T will also unlock your iPhone, and AT&T says it will do this for phones that are off-contract (i.e., when you have completed the minimum 2-year term). On AT&T’s web forums, there are reports from those who are simply longtime AT&T customers having their phones unlocked before the end of the minimum term. In short, it’s worth a try. Here’s the link to the AT&T iPhone unlock request page.
You can also use an unofficial unlocking service, either at a store or on the Internet. Some unlocking services also provide after-sales service: if Apple releases an iPhone software update that invalidates their unlocking, they will unlock the new software for you at no extra charge.
There are hundreds (possibly thousands) of web sites offering phone unlocking services and equipment, and independent mobile phone stores in Europe will also do it for a small fee. Typical costs range from free to $25.
An important footnote on SIM cards: iPhone 4, 4S and iPads up until iPad 3 use “Micro SIMs” that are smaller than a regular SIM. Most SIM cards now come in a dual package — a standard-sized SIM that can be turned into a Micro-SIM by breaking off the plastic surrounding the metal contacts. The iPhone 5, 5C, 5S, 6, 6S, iPad Mini and iPad 4 and iPad Air use a new, even smaller and thinner SIM card called a “Nano SIM”. If you’re buying a pre-paid SIM card at a store, have them install it for you right then and there. Not only do they have the right tool to get the SIM card out of your device, but you can also be sure they gave you the right sized SIM card, and that it works.
All Apple iPads are not network locked. Wireless iPad versions come with a SIM for use in the US, and to use elsewhere you will need to buy a micro or nano SIM from a local wireless carrier. Don’t lose it (they’re tiny) as you’ll need it when you get back to the US. Get the local mobile phone store to install the SIM for you because sometimes they get the SIM size incorrect, selling you a Micro SIM when you need a Nano SIM.
Verizon 3G iPad 2 is CDMA-only and does not work in Europe, any iPad later than that works in Europe with the appropriate SIM card.
Skype and other voice over the Internet options
With smartphones becoming more powerful and now offering apps like Skype and Google Voice, it’s possible to get free calling if you are in a reasonably good WiFi hotspot (such as your hotel). Call quality depends on the WiFi network performance and Internet connection congestion at your location. If it’s busy and everyone is Skyping, you’ll get poor quality. But when it works, it’s a great alternative and can offer better voice quality than a regular call.
The GSM Association:A trade association that also maintains world-wide GSM coverage maps showing all carriers and frequencies used.
Figuring out how to power cameras and other gadgets in Europe can seem tricky, but it’s easy enough once you know how.
The trick is to look for a sticker on the power adapter or plug that tells you the input voltage. The magic words to look for are something like this: “100-240V AC 50/60Hz”. 100-240 tells you the voltage range: Europe standardized on 220 volts for its standard household power supply. So the voltage range on your device needs to cover 220 volts or more for your electronics to work in Italy, France and most of Europe. If your gadget can cope with a higher range, that’s OK too (e.g. “90-240”). In all of these cases, you just need a simple (and cheap) plug adapter and the device itself will automatically adapt to the higher voltage.
Here’s a video that shows you the various plug adapters and how they work:
Almost all of today’s small electronics like cameras, mobile phones, laptops and chargers automatically adapt and you just need a plug adapter.
Devices that use more power, like hairdryers or portable kettles, almost always only work on US 110 volts. Check the label: if it says something like “120VAC” or a smaller range such as “100-130V” then you cannot use it in Europe without a voltage transformer. This is extremely important: if you plug a standard 120V hair dryer into 220V using a plug adapter, it will immediately burn out the dryer and may cause a fire.
The good news is that there are travel hairdryers etc. available that are designed to adapt to the voltage. But in general it is much harder to design a high power device that is adaptable to 110V and 220V, because to do so you need a very heavy and large voltage transformer.
External voltage transformers are available: they are rated by the amount of power they can supply, in Watts. So it might say on your electric kettle “1000W” — that means you need a transformer rated for 1000W or greater. Again, it can be dangerous to exceed the maximum rating of a transformer: it will eventually melt and may catch fire. The more transformer a converter can supply, the larger and heavier it will be, so beware of smaller adapters if you need a lot of power.
The simple approach? Take devices that don’t need voltage conversion. The good news is that these days, most of them don’t. Take a travel hair dryer rather than lugging around a high current transformer: it’s much lighter. Simply don’t take portable kettles and other high power devices.
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!
A trip to Tuscany inevitably means a glass of red Chianti Classico for most visitors. But what makes this wine special?
Chianti Classico must come from grapes grown in a strictly defined area of the hills between Florence and Siena, centered around Castellina, Gaiole, Radda and Greve:
The original boundaries were laid down in 1716 by Cosimo III di Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and covered the Tuscan villages of Castellina, Gaiole and Radda. In 1932, Chianti was vastly expanded to cover seven different regions of which the original area was just one. Today, the area is roughly 100 square miles.
There are also rules on the grape content that have changed over the years. Since the 1990s, Chianti Classico has to contain at least 75% Sangiovese grapes, a maximum of 10% Canaiolo, at most 6% white wine grapes and up to 15% Cabernet, Merlot or Syrah.
The definition is controlled by the DOCG, the Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita. In the past 40 years or so, Chianti’s reputation has gone from “low-grade red” to a region producing some world-class wines. In the 1970s-90s, it was common to see low-grade Chianti in its traditional straw bottle jacket or fiasco.
In 1971, the Antinori family broke with tradition in releasing a “Chianti-style” blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet called Tignanello. It didn’t fit the DOCG definition, which disallowed Cabernet and required at least 10% white wine grapes, so it wasn’t officially Chianti Classico. But Tignanello began to win awards and acclaim, prices rose and other producers followed. Thus the “Super Tuscan” wines were born. The success of Super Tuscans led the DOCG to change the rules of grape composition in the 1990s, allowing many Super Tuscans to be reclassified as Chianti Classico.
Chianti Classico is what the French would call an appellation: an area where the grapes are grown within a strict geographical boundary. Contrast this with a Napa wine, for example, which is more of a brand. Napa wines might be made within the boundaries of Napa County, but the grapes or grape juice could have been trucked in from the central Californian coast (as they are for Charles Shaw, AKA “2 Buck Chuck”).
Today, thanks to vastly improved wine-making techniques and the relaxation of the official DOCG rules to allow better blending, the Chianti region produces some excellent high quality wines. And none of them are served in a straw fiasco 🙂
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.
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.
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?
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?
To find the answers to these questions, consider that the first Bastides were built in the 13th century, some time after 1229. This was a time of crusades, knights in armor and pitched battles fought by men in plate and chain mail, with swords and shields. We tend to think of medieval times as backward and simple. In fact, the 13thcentury was also a time of major economic change, as the importance of trade grew, and power exerted through the feudal system began to slip away.
In feudalism, the general population swore fealty to a lord. These vassals (literally, property) of the lord paid tithes – taxes – out of whatever they could produce. A lord kept law and order: police, judge and jury all in one, enforced by his private army. The army was led by knights – local gentry with allegiance to the lord. However, war technology had weakened the power of knights, to the point where they were becoming less decisive in battle. The development of the pike – essentially a long pointy stick – meant that foot soldiers could unseat charging knights very efficiently. A knight in plate armor knocked from his horse was lucky to be able to get up, never mind fight. Compounding the problem, the development of the bow – and in particular the English longbow – meant that archers could decimate a group of charging knights before they even reached the pikemen.
This was bad news for the French lords, because without effective military protection, vassals resented tithes even more than they had before. At the same time, money was becoming a problem: French lords enjoyed a lavish lifestyle (for the time) and there had already been several expensive crusades to the holy land before 1229. Some years later, the 100 years war with England would begin, putting a further strain on finances. Farmers didn’t make a lot of money, and mostly grew grain and raised enough cattle to live, with only a little left over. Lords needed another way to finance their lavish lifestyles, the crusades, plus whatever demands the church made. The lords needed a way to generate more money than the tithe system could produce.
The Bastide was devised to solve this problem. The idea was to clear some land, build a fortified village and attract the local population to live there and work the land around it. If critical population density could be achieved (the speculative part), this would attract merchants to the markets, which could be taxed. The incentive for people to live in a Bastide was release from fealty to the lord, and exemption from tithes.
Men who moved to a Bastide became free, yet still enjoyed the protection of the lord’s army – the beginning of the end of feudalism. The lord could now make money through property taxes on those living in the Bastide, and also sales taxes on the town market. The market was the center of the town instead of the church because it generated sales taxes. The Bastide was laid out on a grid because that made assessing property taxes easier and more equitable.
The laws of the Bastide said that trade could only take place in the market square, and the purpose of the covered area was to protect the weighing and measuring devices of the lord’s representative and tax collector. Despite the ravages of the Hundred Years War, Bastides survived well, though many came close to demolition or “improvement” in the earth 20th century. They were saved by the recognition of the contribution that tourism made to the local economy. The glass of Cahors you drink in the cafe is not just a good bold, dark wine – it’s also a way to preserve Bastides for future generations.
Want to learn more about Bastides? Check out these resources:
Place des Arcades
Tél : +33 220.127.116.11.19
Fax : +33 18.104.22.168.91
Email : [email protected]
Centre d’Etude des Bastides
5 place de la Fontaine
12200 Villefranche de Rouergue
Tél : +33 22.214.171.124.37
Fax : +33 126.96.36.199.61
In October 2013, T-Mobile introduced a revolutionary new international cell phone capability — free data and text message roaming in 115 countries, and 20c/min for roaming voice calls. Could this be the best option for travelers looking to save money when in Europe and elsewhere?
International Roaming charges are insanely profitable for Verizon and AT&T. How do we know this? Easy: you can go to France or the UK and buy a pre-paid SIM card to get voice calls that cost between 8-15 cents per minute. You’re paying the highest price for those calls because you’re making no commitment whatsoever. Yet the same voice call, when purchased as international roaming from Verizon or AT&T, would cost you approx 99 cents. AT&T and Verizon have millions of customers who roam Europe making hundreds of millions of calls, so they surely pay a lot less than 8-15 cents. Let’s say that call costs them 3 cents/minute, which means AT&T and Verizon make over 95% profit. The costs to interconnect mobile networks are fixed and effectively zero compared to the revenue collected. Everyone in the mobile phone industry knows this, but only T-Mobile has decided to do something about it.
T-Mobile is offering free 128Kbit/sec data when roaming outside the US, along with free texting in 115 countries, including all the European Union states. Phone calls are 20c/min maximum. You’ll need a GSM World Phone (see here to learn what that means) and a T-Mobile SIM and account. The bad news: 128Kbit/sec isn’t exactly fast. It’s good enough for email and chat, but is very sluggish for website browsing — particularly complex websites like Google mail, Facebook etc. You’ll be much better off using the native apps for those rather than the websites.
You’ll only ever roam on 3G networks, because 4G LTE roll-out and roaming in Europe is in its very early stages, but that’s true today for AT&T and Verizon too. The good news: T-Mobile is offering something that no other US carrier provides today, and with their steadily improving US 4G LTE coverage, that makes T-Mobile far more attractive to customers.
Is it worth switching to T-Mobile to get these roaming advantages? That depends largely on where you live: if there is good T-Mobile coverage in your area, this could be a really great deal for travelers and not just because of free data roaming. T-Mobile also has a very generous unlocking policy for its phones, including the Apple iPhone (see here). This makes it much cheaper and easier for you to use pre-paid SIM cards when overseas. One thing to bear in mind is that T-Mobile uses different GSM radio frequencies to AT&T in the US, so if you plan to bring an existing phone to a new T-Mobile SIM card, read the small print on your phone. Here’s Apple’s page explaining how to find out if your iPhone 5 supports T-Mobile’s 1700Mhz and 2100Mhz frequencies.
Finally, you can also “buy up” to full speed data for relatively little: $15 for 100MB/day, $25 for 200MB/week. All in all, T-Mobile just made international roaming a much more competitive market, and that’s good for everyone. Learn more about using your AT&T, Verizon or Sprint cell phone in Europe here.
[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 “Add or change services”, and you’ll get a long screen showing all your current wireless settings that don’t have to do with domestic US voice minute bundles. You can ignore most of these (i.e., leave them unchanged) and scroll down to the section titled “International Services”. It should look like this (depending on your current settings, you might have different items selected):
Now, let’s walk through the settings that will ensure you hit the ground running the moment your arrive in Europe. Straight away, we’re going to ignore the first two sections called “International Long Distance” because that’s about calling and texting overseas when you’re still in the US. So skip this section.
The next section is important: “International Roaming – Voice“. Select “Standard International Roaming” – this turns on your ability to “roam” (connect) to other carriers’ networks when overseas. It’s free, but turned off by default for fraud protection reasons. Next, move on to…
This section allows you to pre-purchase text message packages of 50, 200 or 600 texts. You pay for each text sent when roaming, and receiving texts is always free. The larger packages give you more discount per text. Note that the packages are pro-rated over the billing cycle. So if you turn on the 50 pack for 15 days in the billing cycle, you’ll only get 25 texts. Compared to a one minute call, texting is one fifth the price: you can send 5 text messages. If you are a text maniac, I’d suggest toning it down for the vacation and letting your BFFs know you’re paying for every text you send.
There are a whole host of options here at different price points. Let’s face it, international data roaming isn’t cheap — but prices have come down more than 80% in AT&T’s latest revision to its pricing. To save you doing the math, here are the per-megabyte costs for each of the options listed in most European countries:
There is no “overage rate” — if you exhaust the data plan, you simply cannot use data any more. This prevents a nasty surprise in your next bill if you download a lot of data.
If you forgot to buy one of these options before you left, AT&T gives you one very limited shot at retroactively buying data options during your trip. You can back date the feature to your last billing cycle start date. You have to know when that is to see if it might save you from excessive charges. If your billing cycle start date happens to be the day before you got back from Europe and you only log in when you get back, for example, you’re out of luck.
If you mess up, scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on “Reset”. If you’re done, scroll down to the bottom of the page, and click on “Next”.
The screens that follow are pretty confusing, because the system splits out each feature you’re ordering, and in some cases lets you backdate or set a future date for your changes for each feature. Read the page carefully to see which feature you are setting up.
Backdating (if available) is really handy if you want to retroactively add global text messaging, for example. But at the moment, we haven’t even left the US yet, so you probably want to select “Make effective/expire today” or “Future date to the next bill”.
“Future date” sounds good but is actually very limited. It only allows you to turn on your settings on the date of the next bill — which may not be near the time of your trip. “Make effective/expire today” means your changes will be complete and active on the AT&T network within the next 12-24 hours. I’d recommend you make all your changes a day or two before you leave for Europe and just make it effective that day.
One “gotcha”: some features like Global 50 text messages and Global data are pro-rated during a month if you don’t turn them on at the beginning of the billing cycle. For example, if you turn 50 international text messages on half way through the billing cycle you’ll only get 25 text messages during that monthly billing period. Gotta love that, eh? 🙁 That’s another reason to use the “backdate” feature, because you can set a feature to start at the last billing cycle, then set it to expire at the start of the next billing cycle. That way you are sure to get 100% of the text or data bundles.)
When you’ve set the effective date for each feature, click on “Next”. When all dates for all features have been set, you get one final chance to review all your changes and read the small print of the services. If all is OK, click “Submit”. If not, you can cancel or go back to previous pages. If you messed up a date, click “Back” and correct it. Once submitted, AT&T will send you an email confirming your changes and you’ll be ready to stay connected as soon as you hit the ground.
To control data usage, use the iPhone Settings app to turn data roaming on or off (Settings->General->Cellular). Apps can still run in the background and access the network without your knowledge, so the only effective way to control network usage is Settings. Do this before you take your iPhone out of “Airplane mode” to avoid inadvertent data charges.
Turn your iPhone on after arrival and, after a few minutes of searching, it will automatically connect with one of AT&T’s roaming partner networks in the country you’re visiting. You typically get a free text message from AT&T advising you of data charges and maybe a text from the local network operator telling you about any features or charges.
Unanswered calls to your iPhone go to US voicemail will incur per-minute charges. The call actually makes it all the way to your phone in the foreign country and then is forwarded back to your voice mail number the US — hence the charges. You can avoid this by turning on “forward all calls to voicemail”, so that the call never reaches your phone in the first place (this means no-one can call you directly, but you can still listen to the voicemails they leave). The other option is simply to turn off your phone when you do not want to be reached — then the call never reaches your phone either and goes straight to voicemail.
To send all calls to voicemail, dial *#67# to see which number is used for your voicemail. Then dial *21*[number]# to forward all calls unconditionally. Then, when you want to turn this off, dial ##002# to restore default call forwarding.
Important: log back into the AT&T site and reverse the changes you made. Do not use the backdating capability for the “turn off” date, otherwise you risk erasing the benefits you got from choosing discounts ahead of time. You can use backdating for the “turn on” date if you forgot to order something before you left.
Enjoy your trip!
We recently got back from a photo trip to Tuscany, where we got to see the July Siena Palio. The Palio is the world’s longest continuously running sporting event and runs twice a year during the summer in Siena, Tuscany. Each district (contrade) of the city has a chance to get a horse into the race, and the horses are assigned by lottery.
This short (1 min 30 sec) video gives you a glimpse of the intense emotions of the Sienese around their favorite cultural festival. The video shows the drawing of the horses, where each one is randomly assigned to a contrade, who them parade the horse through the town on the way to their secret stable location (to make sure their rivals can’t tamper with the horse!) Jockeys are also randomly assigned to ride each horse.
Through the many hundreds of years that the Palio has been running, there have been all kinds of dark deeds including bribery, violence and drugging, to try and get an unfair advantage to win the race and the prestige that goes along with it. So the transparency of the lottery system is very important to the running of a fair race, which is the main focus of the horse selection you can see in the video. It’s quite an event in itself — there are about 20 thousand people crammed into the main square (Il Campo) to see the drawing and it goes silent when each Palio horse is matched to a contrade.
Once the horse is safely inside the contrade’s stable, it is guarded day and night and only brought out for the trial races that take place ahead of the main event. The horse is also blessed by a priest on race day, and it’s considered good luck if the horse leaves a pile of manure inside the chapel!
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.
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!
This photo recently featured as the travel section lead in Links Best Of Golf magazine, and was taken from a ruined monastery on the edge of Volterra, Tuscany. The town itself is at the top of a rocky outcrop west of San Gimignano, and the north-western side has been eroding for hundreds of years. Many buildings are already at the base of the cliffs, and this Pisan-style monastery was abandoned years ago. It was late in the day, and as the sun set from the West it lit up the rolling Tuscan plain, framed by the old stone window.
Links Best Of Golf magazine features a Lodge Photo image to head up its travel section in the Summer 2010 issue (page 65):
Temple Church is a remarkable building because it has survived largely intact in the centre of a major city for over 800 years, and because it has been the scene of key events in British history. Its role in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and subsequent surge of popularity is merely the most recent chapter in a long and distinguished history.
Temple Church has survived a series of major events, any one of which could easily have resulted in its destruction:
Temple Church was consecrated in 1185 by the Patriarch of Jerusalem in the presence of King Henry II. It is one of the oldest buildings in London: only Westminster Abbey and the White Tower at the Tower Of London are older, and is one of the few remaining examples of Romanesque architecture left intact in the city.
The building’s architecture is the most striking feature when you first approach the church, which is found by navigating a series of narrow alleyways between Fleet Street and the Embankment alongside the river Thames. Suddenly, you find yourself in an open square right next to a round crenelated building of honey-colored sandstone, attached to a larger rectangular structure.
The round section of Temple Church was built first and is based on the church on the temple mount in Jerusalem. In The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown attaches significance to the fact that the design doesn’t follow the typical cross-shaped plan of Christian churches, implying that it is a deliberately pagan design. While that suits the conspiratorial nature of the plotline, the design is actually a deliberate echo of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre in what was (at the time) the Christian Holy Land. This is the site where the Templar order was founded. That church is round because it’s a conversion of an older Roman building.
The larger rectangular section that now forms the chancel of Temple Church was added in the 13th century in response to Henry III’s desire to be buried there. Without an extension, there was no way to accommodate the large tomb of a king. The chancel was consecrated on Ascension Day 1240, but Henry III later changed his mind is interred in Westminster Abbey instead.
The church opening hours are limited, and it does not open every day. Hours are posted outside and on the website, so it pays to plan ahead if you want to go inside. I visited on a Friday lunchtime, when the current master of the temple, Robin Griffith-Jones, offered a free lecture on Temple Church and The Da Vinci Code. Heading inside the church by the West door, you are immediately greeted by the sight that makes the church such a good location for The Da Vinci Code – the effigies of the Knights Templar on the floor of the round church.
There are nine effigies in total, including those of William Marshall, 1st Earl of Pembroke, and his sons dressed in full knightly attire. William began his career earning a living by winning tournaments: he was an accomplished jouster and swordsman, and tutored the young Henry I in chivalry. The plot of the movie A Knight’s Tale is loosely based on William Marshall’s early life. He went to the holy land as a crusader in 1183-1186 at the request of a dying Henry II (rumor has it as a result of getting too close to Henry’s wife), where he first encountered the Knights Templar, though he did not join the order until a few months before his death in 1219.
As The Da Vinci Code is quick to point out, these are effigies and not tombs – although William Marshall and his sons were originally buried in Temple Church, their remains are no longer here. The effigies are made from high quality Purbeck marble, which is quarried in Dorset, hundreds of miles to the South-West of London. The effigies of William and the other knights in the church are damaged, a result of a May 1941 incendiary bomb that hit the roof of the church, only shortly before Nazi Germany halted bombing raids on Britain. The fire consumed the roof, wooden interior and organ, damaged the effigies and badly cracked the marble columns – the roof is held up today by 20th century copies made from the same stone.
The wooden interior destroyed in World-War II was Victorian, dating from 1841. During reconstruction after the war, the wooden interior installed by Sir Christopher Wren sometime after the great fire of London in 1666 was discovered in storage, and that interior forms the core of what you can see today in the chancel. Temple Church wasn’t damaged during the Great Fire, but Wren “restored” it nevertheless; the original interior was lost.
Temple Church stood at the center of a larger Templar compound. As Robin Griffith-Jones explains in his talk, the Templars were rich and influential because they developed the foundations of modern banking. You could give the Templars your money in London, travel to Jerusalem and get the same amount back from the Temple there, less a commission. In a time when traveling with money incurred serious risk, this was a useful and important service, especially during the crusades. Ultimately, the Templars incurred the wrath of Kings and Popes by refusing to forgive the debts of either, or to hand over money they desired to seize from unfortunate nobles. It was this that ultimately led to the Papal order by Pope Clement V dissolving the order and seizing its assets on Friday, 13 October 1307.
Temple Church was taken over by Edward II after the dissolution of the Templar order, and it was eventually given to another knightly order similar to the Templars, the Knights Hospitallier. They rented some parts of the compound to two colleges of lawyers. Three hundred years later, after the break with Rome under Henry VIII and the establishment of the Church of England, the lawyers were granted use of the land and the church in perpetuity. Today, the church is still surrounded by lawyers, now known as the Inns of Court, and specifically Inner Temple and Middle Temple. Standing outside, you’ll see British Barristers clutching briefs hurrying to and from the nearby law court on Fleet Street.
In The Da Vinci Code, Langdon and the other characters realise they’re in the wrong place and immediately dash off to Westminster Abbey in search of the next clue. Unburdened by any requirement to find the Holy Grail before The Bad Guys, I recommend regular visitors to Temple Church spend a little longer enjoying a remarkable building containing some of the most important Knights in British history, especially if the Master Of The Temple is providing an entertaining free lecture.
(c) Copyright 2006-2014 Mathew Lodge / www.lodgephoto.com. Reproduction in any form without written permission is prohibited.
Cadogan’s guide to Tuscany, Umbria and the Marches, 10th edition, features a Lodge Photo image on page 9, at the bottom. This is image IT-B-0111 from Tuscany.
Villa Vignamaggio is a charming restored renaissance villa just outside the town of Greve in Chianti. It’s a beautiful location, is exceptionally photogenic and they make great wine… what more could you ask for? How about also being the birthplace of perhaps the most famous portrait sitter ever: Mona Lisa ? The owners of Vignamaggio crowned the exceptional qualities of their property with the claim that their villa is the birthplace of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa — an assertion that I have repeated on this website. The history of that part of the world and the information provided by Vignamaggio on its chain of ownership appears to back up the assertion. However, there’s just one problem: it isn’t true.
In the past few years, Vignamaggio has backed off from their birthplace claim and now says “Legend has it that Lisa Gherardini spent a lot of time at Vignamaggio” So what exactly is going on here?
Recent research led me to the English translation of an Italian book, “Mona Lisa Revealed” by Giuseppe Pallanti. Mr Pallanti set out to connect the life of the model (Lisa Giocondo, nee Gherardini) with the painting, and the result is a fascinating book that provides a clear, vibrant glimpse into the world of renaissance Florence and the life of Lisa Gherardini, her husband Francesco del Giocondo (a wealthy silk merchant), Leonardo da Vinci and his father Piero. It is impeccably researched, using Florentine medieval tax returns and registers of births and other official documents. And this is where the birthplace claim of Villa Vignamaggio parts company with historical record.
Lisa Gherardini was born in Florence on 15 June 1479 in a house on Via Maggio, and not at Vignamaggio as the villa owners claimed. This is recorded in the grandly titled Archivio dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore di Firenze “Battesimi” (baptismal record) for 1457-1491. Could confusion between Via Maggio and Vignamaggio be to blame? Perhaps, except that 57 years previously in March 1422, the Gherardini family had sold Vignamaggio to the Gherardi family. This is recorded in the Florentine tax records, the “Catasto” — a kind of medieval 1040 tax return. Despite the similarity of names, it was Lisa Gherardini who later married Francesco del Giocondo and who eventually sat for Leonardo .
Giuseppe Pallanti, author of the book, was born in Greve — the closest town to Vignamaggio — and goes out of his way in the text to document the chain of ownership of Vignamaggio, even though it is peripheral to the story of the Gherardini family. His book shows that he knows the Greve area well, and I’m sure he has been to Vignamaggio; my guess is that this is his way of obliquely refuting the villa owners’ claim.
So, what are we to make of all this? A bit of embellishment where non was required: Vignamaggio is a beautifully restored villa in a superb location, is supremely photogenic and makes great wine — and good olive oil, too. Mr Pallanti’s book was published in 2006, seven years after I first visited the villa and many years after the current owners bought it, so perhaps there was some legitimate confusion. Regardless, I love to visit and I’ll be going back in the future.
Final post script: Pallanti’s book is very convincing that Lisa Gherardini was the sitter but there was still some wiggle room for alternative theories. Shortly before the book was published, an academic at the University of Heidelberg discovered a note scribbled in the margin of a medieval ledger that is contemporary with the time of the painting. It positively identifies the sitter as Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo: the true Mona Lisa after all.
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
The castle itself with its renaissance galleries and chapel with carved effigies are well worth the visit — it’s not far from Monpazier and can easily be done in the same day. Lord Byron, the romantic writer, was a distant relation of the family. Unfortunately, it only took one man to end 800 years of ownership. At the end of the 18th century, the final member of the family to own the castle spent his entire fortune in the casinos of Paris, and the castle was sold along with everything else to pay debts. Today it belongs to the Department of the Dordogne.
The picture is taken with a polarizing filter — the deep blue of the sky is a give-away — from the end of the car park below the castle. The filter also helps to reduce the harshness contrast of the afternoon sun, and brings out the colors of the walls and greenery. With plenty of good light, the picture was taken hand-held.
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).
It’s an attractive building in its proportion, and also maintains its beautiful Medieval wooden ceiling. As wine critic Jancis Robinson put it in an article recounting an evening spent eating and drinking there, “I feel as though I am on a Hogwarts school trip to France.”
But let’s not forget why the place exists: wine! The monks were the first to grow grapes, and split the harvest into three given the different quality of grapes from the upper, middle and lower portions of the land — the best being the well-drained upper corner near the Chateau. Today, this same land is worth hundreds of thousands of Euros an acre (hectare?) and there are more than 80 owners. There is no cheap wine made here, but its saving grace is that none of it is bad in any way, shape or form. Yes indeed, this is fine Burgundian wine and well worth splurging on a bottle with a nice dinner at a nearby restaurant.
Only a little drinking had taken place when this photograph was taken at dusk in November. But we remedied that later. I had no tripod or monopod with me that day, and so the camera was balanced on top of the iron gate at the entry to the courtyard, using the timer function to avoid camera shake: I could push the shutter release to start the timer and then step back to let the camera be still for the exposure. A short 18mm focal length framed the building nicely, and also helps to minimise the effect of any vibration or movement in the camera. I dialed up the ISO to 400 to keep the exposure time reasonably short (0.4 seconds) given the balancing act. I used the camera’s center-weighted metering off the stone of the building in Program mode, and it was absolutely spot on for the sky and the courtyard.
Some have asked for recommendations of websites or agencies they should try for car rentals in Europe.
Not all rental car companies are equal — San Francisco CA
Here are the sites I use:
Auto Europe is an agent for Europcar (a pan-European car rental firm) and Avis. You may never have heard of Europcar, because they have no presence outside of Europe, but rest assured they are a highly reputable car rental firm. Auto Europe specializes in online and phone car bookings and typically have good prices as they do a lot of bookings. I’ve rented from them several times in the past, and they can be very good value. You typically pay a deposit for the rental and receive a voucher in return. It is vital that you print out the voucher and take it with you — it’s a cash pre-payment and the car firm needs to credit it to your rental. If you don’t have a print out (yes, I learned this the hard way…) then you’ll be spending a lot more time at the rental counter while they try to find it. You pay the balance of the amount at the end of the rental.
Avis may be the second largest car rental firm overall, but they are stronger in some countries than the leader (Hertz) — especially France. You will almost always find an Avis location in or right next to French railway (SNCF) stations, for example. This is a major boon as you won’t have to haul your luggage far from the platform to the car. Avis has a frequent renter program for customers in the US, which means you won’t have to wait at the counter to collect our car. Well worth it.
Hertz is the world’s largest car rental firm and can be especially good value for pre-paid car rentals in Europe. You pay the entire amount up front, but in return for a bigger discount. They also have “green fleet” of low emission (AKA low fuel consumption) vehicles which are obviously cheaper to fuel up than regular rentals. It really pays to sign up for Hertz’s Gold Club frequent renter program, as it means you can collect your car without stopping at the counter.
It has to be one of the most famous places on Earth, never mind the United Kingdom: the prehistoric stone circle that is Stonehenge. But if you have ever been there, you’ll have found yourself behind a low fence on a paved path, well away from the stones themselves and far enough away to make good photographs difficult.
It’s hard to blame English Heritage, who own the site and are responsible for maintaining Stonehenge. Over the years, visitors have chipped off pieces of stone and carved their initials. Today, you can still see graffiti carved in the 1800s, when the stones were simply sitting in a corner of a lumpy field on the edge of Salisbury plain rather than a protected monument.
How is it that I am so special that I got to go right into the centre of the circle to get the angles and photos you see on the site? I’m not that special — anyone can arrange to visit the center of the circle at the very beginning or very end of the day for a small fee. You need to plan in advance, and English Heritage makes the rules and determines the time and days of access. There’s a page on the official Stonehenge website, where you can download an application form to make a reservation.
The Stonehenge photos you see here were taken very early on Easter Sunday, after a dawn trip down from London to Wiltshire. It was windy, cold and the early light had a blue cast, but as the sun rose and the day warmed up, so did the colours of the stones. We weren’t the only ones taking advantage of the access; all kinds of people from tourists wanting a closer look to those with divining rods and odd-looking measuring devices that looked like were made from coat hangers — those folks were writing books on the strange energy (or so they said) exerted by the stones and the surrounding area. We bade them good luck and said we hoped our cameras hadn’t interfered with their careful measurements.
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 — 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!
What to do if you miss your exit: keep going! You can go around the circle again until you find the exit you want, though going around more than twice is going to make other drivers think you don’t know what you’re doing.
Traffic circles in countries where cars drive on the right (like the US) go counter-clockwise. In the UK and other countries where cars drive on the left, they go clockwise. This is really confusing at first. If it’s any consolation, think how equally confusing it is to British drivers the first time they drive on the right and come to a traffic circle.
In and around major cities, you can find traffic circles with 2 or more lanes. The general rule here is that you want to end up in the outside lane when your exit comes around. Thus if you are taking an exit to the left of the circle, you’d take the left-hand lane (the lane closest to the center) upon entering the traffic circle, and gradually move to the outside so you can take the exit when it comes around.
There are no rules — just get on when you can, don’t stop and don’t miss your exit. In all seriousness — and speaking who has taken their own car around this particular circle more than once and lived to tell the tale — the same rules apply. It just doesn’t look like it. There is an old French traffic rule which was called “prioritare a droite”, which means “priority to the right” — i.e. you had to stop for anything coming from the right. This rule was abandoned years ago because it would mean traffic on a major road had to stop abruptly for any old car, bike or tractor that pulls out from a side road — leading to major wrecks. However, you can still see the vestiges of it in action in the Arc de Triomphe as the traffic in the circle comes to a screeching halt to allow other traffic into the circle from the right. Very strange.
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.
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.
Millions of people rent cars every year, but if you’re not familiar with renting in Europe there are a few things that will smooth the path of your vacation.
In many European capitals and major cities, it is often advantageous not to have a car – parking is difficult to find and expensive, and moving around by car can be slower than public transport at busy times. Unlike the US, many hotels do not have their own parking. So when in Rome, Paris, London, Florence etc. don’t rent a car if you intend to just sightsee in the city itself. If you need to get out to visit another town or city, consider taking the train or even a bus. Services in Europe can be fast, frequent and reasonably priced.
When it comes to a larger geographical area like Tuscany or the Dordogne, then you are going to need transport to get about, and a car is the most efficient way to do so. I say this as someone who really likes to take good public transport, and often takes not-so-good public transport. It is possible to get around by bus in areas like Tuscany, but boy is it a logistical challenge and fundamentally you will get to spend far less time enjoying the area. When you have limited time to vacation, spending it on a bus is false economy. Buy carbon offset to cover the CO2 emissions of the car (and your plane ride, while you are at it) if you feel bad about that aspect.
Resist the urge to rent a large car or van, even if it is appealing because you have a large family or group on the trip. Get a couple of smaller cars instead. Larger cars are rarer in Europe because running them is more expensive, and also European towns and cities were not designed for cars at all. As well as being expensive to fuel, large cars are hard to maneuver in narrow streets designed for nothing wider than a horse and cart.
On one trip, we were staying a few nights in Florence and then heading out to Villa Vignamaggio. We were to stay at Hotel Brunelleschi, squeezed into the centre of the ancient city of Florence. The area is so old, the hotel is built around a Byzantine tower with Roman remains in the basement – it even has its own museum. The streets leading to it are really, really narrow: even the taxi driver had a hard time getting his small Fiat around the final bend. Some kindly Italians stopped to guide him back-and-forth as he edged the car around the corner. With even a small SUV or Minivan you’d be wedged between two buildings several turns back.
Incidentally, we’ll probably never stay at the Brunelleschi again. Not because it was bad – quite the reverse: it is a truly historic hotel with charm, good rooms, friendly staff and a fantastic location. Dan Brown is to blame: it’s where his characters Langdon and Sophie agree to rendezvous at the end of The Da Vinci Code for a night of passion. I could be wrong about the last bit, but it doesn’t seem like they’re planning to discuss iconography. At any rate, ever since then prices have gone up, up, up and you practically have to be Dan Brown to get in.
Many credit cards offer extensions to basic rental car insurance to cover accidental damage and/or theft – far more cheaply than the rental car company. You are already paying for this in your annual card fee and/or interest, so make use of it. Check the website of your card supplier to find out what they offer, and read all the small print so you know what is covered, and what isn’t. We recently discovered that Amex no longer insures larger cars and SUVs, for example.
We’ve been unfortunate enough to claim on American Express insurance a couple of times. Our rental car was vandalized in Toulouse, France — not badly, but bad enough for a hefty charge from the rental company. After sending in the paper work Amex did their investigation and paid up some months later. Insurance is getting simpler in places like Italy where there are a lot of claims – all rental car companies now mandate you buy comprehensive cover.
The insurance cover you probably don’t need is for personal possessions. Most people’s belongings are covered by their household insurance policy, but there are exceptions for expensive stuff like cameras and lenses and jewelry. Read your policy to see what is covered and don’t buy coverage twice. In general, the best policy is to take anything remotely valuable out of the car as any kind of car trouble tends to ruin your day.
I uploaded some new photographs of San Gimignano recently, a small town between Florence and Siena (on the road to Volterra) that has become famous for its medieval towers — “The Manhattan Of Tuscany”, as some tours call it.
It’s certainly on the tourist map these days, so here’s my recommendation for a half day in San Gimignano that allows you both to enjoy the town and what it offers and take some great photographs.
No-one should be rushed on a Tuscan vacation, so plan on arriving in time for lunch. Use the plentiful parking outside of the town and walk up the hill through the fortified gateway, heading for the Piazza della Cisterna — unmistakable for the well in the center. There you’ll find Hotel Cisterna; skip the tables outside and head inside and up the stairs to their restaurant “Le Terrazze”, with its fine views across the Tuscan hills. Settle in at a table with a view, and order their Asparagus Ravioli and a bottle of the local white wine, Vernaccia di San Gimignano — grown on the slopes you can see from the windows. The ravioli is their speciality — fresh hand-made pasta with a beautiful green asparagus filling and sauce… to die for.
Remember this is Italy, so a couple of courses and some coffee or digestif is likely to take you a few hours — but that’s OK, because the light outside will be harsh and bright and not conducive to good photography. Float down the steps on your food high, past the well and into the Piazza del Duomo. Head into the cool interior of the 12th century church to get away from the heat of the day and marvel at the 14th and 15th century fresco cycles, the chapel and baptistry and museum of sacred art next door.
If shopping is your thing, then now is also a good time to wander down the streets checking out the local artwork, clothing, wine and food.
Heading back to the Piazza del Duomo, you’ll find the Museo Civico, where you can take in the artwork and also work off what’s left of lunch by climbing the steps to the top of Torre Grossa — the big tower. In theory, after a local ordnance issued in 1255, no other towers were supposed to be taller than the Torre della Rognosa, which you can see directly across the square from the church (duomo). In practice, as you can see with your own eyes, this was largely ignored — the very essence of Italian bureaucracy. By now, the sun should be much further down in the sky, making for better light and some great shots looking over the town to the Tuscan hills all around.
After the climb back down the tower, you might be in need of a pick-me-up, so head back to Piazza della Cisterna for ice cream at the award-winning Gelateria di Piazza. As the sun heads towards the horizon, the tour bus crowds melt away, leaving you to take great photographs in the incomparable Tuscan “golden hour”, as the locals come out for passagiata and to enjoy the evening.
In a previous posting, we’d discovered that American Express Card rental car insurance covered a lot less than in it has in the past. And we weren’t sure if we’d be covered for a claim on a “free upgrade” to a Jaguar car in London.
The good news is that Amex paid the claim, as they have in the previous 2 instances where our rental was damaged or vandalized. It takes a while — mostly waiting on the rental car company to provide their documentation of the charges — but has worked every time so far.
The take-away is the same: take the time to read the small print before you go to make sure you’re covered.Older posts