20 July 2010

Home comforts

Renting a house or a flat for a holiday can be a leap in the dark. What can you reasonably expect to find in your home away from home? How much are you expected to lug from your own house if you're flying with a stingy baggage allowance? I've had a few experiences in recent years that have either restored my faith in humanity or made me want to bash some heads together. I have a lot of admiration for the two young travel writers involved in the Gran Tourismo project (grantourismotravels.com), in which they're spending a whole year staying in self-catering accommodation. While it's a fun and glamorous thing to do, you do end up missing the strangest things.

Little touches make all the differences. Last summer I rented a studio flat in Antibes that was only seconds away from the beach. The English owners, Louise and Paul, thoughtfully leave beach towels, a beach bag and even a sun parasol for their guests. And, unlike some owners, they're very happy for people to leave food behind for the next guest. (What does happen do all those half-drunk bottles of milk and partially used tubs of margarine?) Louise and Paul also provide fresh flowers and keep the store cupboard stocked with cooking essentials such as olive oil. That's one of those things you can't take for granted. (Their property is at www.holiday-rentals.co.uk/83543. I recommend it heartily.)

The little flat I rented in Dubrovnik this past spring (see earlier post below) was remarkably well equipped for such a small place. There was even a kettle, which, as most British travellers will know, is a rare as hen's teeth in the self-catering world. What I liked especially was the bottle of Croatian brandy left on the sideboard. I kept to the unspoken agreement to have just one tot and leave the rest for the next tenants. (That wasn't too difficult, as the brandy wasn't a patch on my uncle's homemade firewater. But you get my point.)

Sometimes you have to think creatively. A flat I rented in Corsica had fantastic views of the sea and the mountains from the balcony, but no table. That made eating out there a bit awkward. Luckily someone had dumped a load of small dusty café tables just around the corner, with no obvious owner in sight. Surely they wouldn't mind if I borrowed a table for the week. I returned the table at the end of my stay, but I did make a point of telling the tour operator that the owner really should provide one himself.

There are times, though, when luck isn't on your side. A couple of winters ago I was in Italy staying in a hotel's new self-catering annex, which was considerably larger than a standard hotel room. In exchange for the space I got a completely empty kitchen. Not a cup, nor a spoon – just empty cupboards. I had my travel kettle and mini espresso pot (well, I was in Italy) but I pleaded with the manager to lend me some cups and cutlery from the restaurant. Nothing doing. I bought cups and nicked some teaspoons from a nearby café. (That's two admissions of theft in one blog.) I left with a bitter feeling and was furious that the manager didn't think anything was wrong about not letting guests know about the state of the accommodation. "That's what happens in Italy," he told me. "Everyone brings their own things." That's utter rubbish and completely at odds with my own experiences of self-catering in Italy. A word of advice: don't rely on the hotel's website to tell you what's in the kitchen. Ask beforehand.