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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.

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.

The top of your private medieval tower provides the perfect platform for sun-bathing. San Gimignano, Tuscany, Italy.
The top of your private medieval tower provides the perfect platform for sun-bathing. San Gimignano, Tuscany, Italy.

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).

Advanced villa rental

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.

Chianti, Europe, Greve, Italy, Toscana, Toskana, agricultural building, ancient, architectural, architecture, building, dark green, deep green, edifice, edifices, farm house, farmhouse, haze, horizontal, horizontals, landscape, mist, old, scenic, structures, travel, tuscany, weather
Farmhouse at Villa Vignamaggio, Greve in Chianti, Italy

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.

Chianti, Europe, Italy, Piazza, Sienna, Toscana, Toskana, afternoon, ancient, brick, campo, contrade, costume, day, daylight, down, eagle, flag, italian, medieval, old, people, portait, shadow, siena, throw, tradition, traditional, tuscany, twirl, vertical, view, wave, yellow
Flag throwers from the Eagle contrade of Siena cast shadows on the Piazza Del Campo during afternoon practice. Chianti, Tuscany, Italy.
Templar knights
Templar knights

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:

  • The crushing of the Knights Templar by Pope Clement in October 1307
  • The disbanding of the Knights Hospitallier (its subsequent owners) by Henry VIII during the reformation of 1540
  • The Great Fire Of London in 1666
  • Unwarranted “restoration” by Sir Christopher Wren in the aftermath of the Great Fire
  • Victorian remodeling in 1841
  • A 1941 incendiary bomb during World War II

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.

1 Lodge Photo, London, UK, brown, church, code, column, da, da vinci, england, knights, outside, romanesque, round, templars, temple, verticals
The oldest part of Temple Church in London, modelled after the domed Church of the Rock in Jerusalem.

Visiting the church

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.

1 Lodge Photo, 1200s, 1219, London, UK, brown, church, code, crusades, da vinci, dan, earl, effigy, england, gilbert, knight, marble, marshal, marshall, pembroke, templar, temple, verticals
William Marshal, first Earl of Pembroke and Templar Knight, who died in 1219. Temple Church, London, UK.

The Knights Templar’s rise and fall

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.