Pushing the boat out on holiday

A sight-seeing boat passeshouseboats on an Amsterdam canal

Want to experience a city like a local? Then forget larger hotels and stay in their homes, says David Monagan. Welcome to the world of the foreign rental.

IF YOU want to experience a great city as its residents live it, stay in their homes and forget hotels. That’s been our motto ever since my wife and I rented digs on Amsterdam’s Prinzengracht Canal in the form of a lavishly appointed and permanently moored houseboat.

From the deck of this 30-metre vessel with a sumptuously pre-stocked fridge, we admired an endless procession of odd craft puttering past in the carnival that is Dutch canal living.

The atmospheric cafes and pubs of the cool Jordaan district waited at the end of our gangplank, too; and for four days we had one of the more enviable addresses in town, with three big bedrooms and every mod con in it.

Next came a charmed week for two in a superb Roman pied-a-Terre built against the 2,500 year old Theatre Marcellus and within a shout of the Forum.

The place was so comforting (and well priced at €700 for seven nights) it was hard to believe that scores of similarly appealing options beckoned in an exotic foreign city like Rome.

But they did, mainly because an ever more sophisticated array of holiday websites now make it possible to pinpoint and rent distant accommodations almost as easily and securely as you’d book a hotel.

“Self-catering” these days hardly requires signing up for a glum holiday village or roughing it in the sticks. In 2012, for example, I organised a Christmas gathering for family and friends converging on Spain’s Costa Tropical from Cork, London, Vancouver, and even Kazakhstan.

Above a resort village called La Herradura I found a five-bedroom villa on three levels with extensive gardens still in flower, a pool and a patio with stunning sea and mountain views. The place was in fact perfect, what with my American sister’s own extended group practically next door.

After arriving, my wife and I were invited to the roof of the owners’ nearby villa to sip wine before the first of a long stretch of golden sunsets.

The atmosphere was so charmed that my niece promptly got engaged on our patio afterward.

And get this: The cost, supposed to be €900 for the week, fell to zero by exchanging a stay in our place back in Ireland.

Fast forward to the last winter of endless gales. On a little too close to a whim, we decided to flee for a restorative week in Seville — a cultural, gastronomic, architectural and historical wonder only two hours by train from Malaga Airport (itself a direct flight from Cork or Dublin). Even in February the days are meant to top 18 degrees and stay bright until 7pm. Hitting the internet, I soon found a “penthouse” apartment in a five-hundred year-old terrace in the centre of Seville’s labyrinth old town, with its roof patio looking out on the spectacular Giraldo Tower of the famous cathedral there.

However, this time we learned a bit about the potential pitfalls of renting digs abroad. Nemesis Uno was the chilling winds and lashing rain waiting in the supposedly forever sunny south of Spain. It was so wild, Seville’s ubiquitous urban orange trees were dropping fruit bombs with every sudden gust. Absurd it may sound, but the piazzas became quagmires of splattered orange mush and emergency squads of the city’s workers raced in to clean up the mess.

It was weirdly quiet — save for the bursting of oranges.

“It looks like nobody actually lives here anymore,” my wife Jamie said as we waited for our host, José Luis, to let us in.

When José finally appeared with a dungeon keeper’s string of keys, we struggled up the narrow stairs to our apartment and creak went the door — to a groan from my wife.

Our living room and master bedroom seemed to be shrinking before our eyes from the pictures seen on the internet, and the “kitchen” was the size of a phone booth. There was no dining table anywhere, none.

“The second bedroom?” I asked José with deepening concern, due to some personal insomnia issues then. We were led onto the patio and up a rain-lashed outdoor staircase to the missing bedroom, unheated and dank.

“It’s better when it’s warm,” José allowed.

Clearly, this time we were not dealing with any caring individual from the heart and soul of Seville.

There would be no welcoming fruit baskets, not even any lamp bright enough to read by here, just a gloomy if clean enough gaff with a miserable bed at a borderline Low Season price (€80 a night).

Nonetheless, we loved the surrounding Barrio de Santa Cruz, with its hidden plazas and twisting lanes dotted with ancient places in which to eat and drink.

Around the corner lay not only the cathedral but also the fabulous Real Alcazar with its originally Moorish and Roman courtyards, fabulous gardens, customs house for the conquistadors, and holiday residence for the monarchs of Spain.

In fact, our misgivings might have faded had the week ever warmed enough to take meals on our patio. Though that was never possible, epiphanies still arose.

One evening a hidden local bar offered a sudden explosion of authentic flamenco singing and dancing as if produced for the traveller’s dream of Spain. Amazed, I praised the young guitarist.

In perfect English, he rejoined. “But I am still learning, sir.”

This was Pepe, dark, handsome and 25.

“I went to Clongowes for three years and spent the summers in Courtmacsherry.”

Pepe directed us to a more exotic place across the Gualdquivar River in the earthy Triana district.

Its walls were festooned with photographs of matadors at the coup d’ gras and its house specialities were “the tail of the bull” and “the cheek of the bull”.

Next thing you know, it was 2am in a place called Mariscal.

This was a shadowy Moorish bar fraught with dark fountains and questionable characters.

A man approaching 30 stone feverishly strummed at a guitar sang with great passion — something about love or thirst I think.

In any case, the wind outside was howling, oranges fattened with yet more rain splattered more pavement and all the dark beauty of Andalucía was everywhere.

Add it up.

Seville is a unique and rather fabulous place, and if even a mediocre apartment is a great thing to have if allows you to linger in this storied city. But would I rent that particular one again? No.

GETTING THERE

If you want to find a cool holiday rental place in a foreign capital or resort, the internet is your way to go.

Nowadays, you are sure to find multiple vendors providing a wealth of options.

One of the largest rental sites is www.homeway.co.uk with more than 700,000 listings — thanks to shared offerings with other giants such www.vrbo.com from the US.

Another big presence across Europe is www.holidaylettings.uk.

The biggest web portals charge owners several hundred euro per annual listing (or a percentage of lettings) but charge would-be renters nothing.

This whole tourism sector is thriving so prodigiously that loads of new players are jumping in, including Tripadvisor and Expedia.

The top sites are easy-peasy to use. You typically begin your search just by clicking on maps or typing in your destination— say, “Seville”.

The Homeway site, for example, will cough up 178 choices right then.

By entering your preferred price ceiling and number of bedrooms — and ideally, a desired district — your choices will narrow.

Perhaps you’ll have 20 finalists.

Now you can pore over quite detailed descriptions of each property and review perhaps a dozen room-by-room (the wallpaper, the flooring) and exterior (the façade, the neighbourhood, view) photographs.

Further vital guidance will often be available in the form of past renters’ comments — which the top websites will ensure can include negative observations that the owners cannot delete.

Perhaps the most critical protections for the distant property shopper are the owner’s email address and phone number.

If you get keen on a certain place, fire off some queries, perhaps in several exchanges: such as “Is this an eat-in kitchen? What is the noise level at night?”

The specifics may not matter as much as the sincerity and warmth of the owners’ responses, which will generally be as obvious (on an English language website) as shopping for anything else.

Reservations can often be made by a partial payment via check, bank transfer, or credit card — any serious rental website will have no room for fraudsters. But be quite clear about the terms.

If you don’t vet the listing thoroughly you will have only yourself to blame.

Our recent Seville rental was too rushed — and my gripes about this property now jump out for the “Next Guy” beneath its Homeway listing.

There are many ways to pursue foreign rentals, including links offered on official tourist board websites.

If you want something special — houseboats in Amsterdam? — rather more specialised rental networks will generally crop up on your search: for example, www.houseboat-rental-amsterdam.com , or www.houseboathotel.nl , or www.housetrip.com/amsterdam  

For La Herradura on Spain’s Costa Tropical, I scoured websites to pinpoint places next door to my sister’s own Christmas rental.

Some helpful links: www.spain-holiday.com/Andalusia/holiday-rental , or www.costaanadlucia.com 

Happy camping.


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