TRAVELER OR TOURIST? - The Case for Villa Rental and the Country

by Louis Bignami

"The world is a book, and those who do not travel, read only a page." -- Saint Augustine --

When Saint Augustine wrote the above, travelers stayed in local inns, ate local food, conformed to local customs and got from here to there on foot, horse, train or boat slowly enough to have a sense of passage of both time and place. Today we have the "tourism industry." It often seems dedicated to moving the maximum number of people through an assembly line of the maximum number of places with minimum and carefully sanitized contact with "the natives."

While I'm a tourist at times, I like to think I'm a traveler at heart, and I know that only travelers read more than the typically sanitized American page that seems so universal these days. I'd rather stay with the locals, eat with the locals and spend time with the locals.

A castle lodging to press in your memory book forever.


Part of my travel lust comes from years of school in Mexico where I started at a B&B where everyone spoke English, transitioned through a Spanish-only rooming house and ended up paying far less to share a villa with a pool AND tennis court with three Mexican students. The rest results from 27 years as a travel writer with too much time in on "familiarization or "FAM" trips where tour guides offer boring and often incorrect information about whatever is considered politically correct to spoon into tourists. I'm infamous for escapes from such captivity and going it on my own. I can't help it. It's that traveler's disease that, if you are lucky, you too can catch.

This difference between travel and tourism isn't age-related. You need not be teenager with a rucksack to escape the tourist traps. "Kids", after all, who school up with other youngsters can take the tourist route too. Seniors can make the best travelers. They have enough perspective to enjoy the differences, and may even have time for immersion in cultures where gray heads get respect. A whole family can make friends faster than solo travelers. Couples do very well too. So what's the real difference between tourists and travelers?

Tourists ride on tour buses. Travelers ride on second or even third class buses with the chickens. Tourists stay in city hotels. Travelers stay in B&Bs, flats, or, if they have time, inns or villas in the country. This last may be the best way for moderately upscale people with a week or two to become part of the country they visit. Tourists expect home with different accents and sights. Travelers escape home in search of larger differences.

Tourists sit down front in the expensive seats at bullfights, soccer matches or LaScalla. Travelers share a bota so high in Sol General with locals that treasure the day that they risk altitude sickness. If tourists walk, they follow guides, or guidebooks, from monument to monument. Travelers wander at will and substitute new people for old places. For only people offer that special memory that stays with you.. After all, you get a better view of anything on a video than you can manage from the traffic-clogged streets. So, why are you there? Don't you really want to meet locals and see how temporary abdication of your normal, or abnormal nationality, feels?

Try the country first. Cities by nature come homogenized and pasteurized. Country offers rather more natural, even raw experiences for those who seek them out -- in the right season you'll meet a lot of locals from the city too.

Where possible we combine the obligatory urban running to museums and other well-known sites with an alternate week in the country. Where the transport system permits, we stay in the country, and commute in and out of the city before or after the usual rush hours. We save enough money to pay for theater every night, buy the best food in the local store and stock up on bargains.

We've stayed in flats, homes, villas, castles, inns, boats, barges and a host of other spots where your corner pub or bar owner or cook may not speak English and shopping's a bike ride down the road. I've tried houseboats in Kashmir and huts over the ocean in Bali; and shivered out a day in a villa outside Paris when we discovered the furnace didn't work, but the owners more than repaid us with pasta making lessons. There have been villas with ghosts, leaks, pools -- one with an alligator and more with salamanders -- and even a barge where we parked our bikes on the bank and woke up 10 miles down a canal. Fortunately, the barge skipper stuck the bikes on the bow deck.

Stone walls five hundred years old put today's problems in proper perspective.


Most of the larger villas offered up to eight or nine apartments, pools, private fireplaces and more history than most American towns. Such offer an often fascinating collection of visitors. One spot even drew a quote from Michelangelo back in 1520 -- " La Loggia is beauty, seen or imagined, it is friend of virtue and gentleness."

Some places we booked on our own were dumps. One had bats. I once rented a lovely hut on a Mexican beach where you'd listen to the snakes chase mice and rats through the palm frond roof. I've stayed in homes with "a wonderful view of church" so near the church bells we found ear plugs in a bedside table. I once stayed in a castle that shook wildly when the local trains ran by town. I've bailed houseboats that leaked and waited for high tide in a charter yacht that ran aground. I treasure disaster more than the mediocre, immediately forgettable memories you suffer if you try to jam too many things into too little time.

Lovely furnishings and a sense of time and place.


Other lodgings are treasures. Our favorite might be a ground floor flat in London where double French doors opened to a private garden. Then there was a converted stable in Paris where you awoke to the smell of fresh bread, an old mill outside Brussels with the rustle of the millrace to ease you to sleep, rooms in a gatehouse on a Yorkshire estate that smelled of new hay and where pheasants cackled, and a winter sunrise over Czarist Palace near St. Petersburg where I discovered the dubious joys of pepper vodka.

Such delights enchant one beyond description if you earn them with a tolerant attitude about the proximity of showers or baths to sleeping quarters. Such seems a fair exchange for ocean or vineyard views and walls so old they had moss before Columbus left Italy for Spain.

Some spots come with characters for plays unwritten. Josefina, who tended a Spanish parador or inn went crazy when she found I played loud, if rather bad flamenco guitar. We shared a stage at the local parador with an extremely fat, but wonderfully vocal singer married to a very skinny guitarist. I met a German fellow at a villa in Volterra who ran an archeological dig nearby. So I spent a half day brushing dirt off a pre-Roman Etruscan fresco.

Such experiences put you in touch with another culture in a way no city hotel or guided tour affords. Finally, I suppose, they provide you with a batch of stories to entertain your acquaintances, bore your family and entertain you in your old age -- like the daughter of a British hostess who, after my wife broke her foot, spend three days exploring the range of possible crisp --potato chips to gringos-- flavors. They stopped at 43!.

You can reach out and become a traveler. You don't need much of a foreign language. While my Spanish based on school in Mexico remains fluent enough, my French, German, Italian and Portuguese, not to mention that version of English they speak north of Glasgow, run to the very basic. I do, with notice before a trip, try a semester's language brush up. Look at the history of the area you plan to visit and you're ahead of any tourist who is stuck at the famous spots.

Do adjust your expectations to that of the locals -- for example, Italians have, on the whole, a rather cavalier attitude toward plumbing, Germans go bananas when mechanical bits and pieces don't work and the French get extremely testy about food failures. The British seem to muddle through no matter what. Relax, it's only a week, and there's a hedge for your lodging bets!

Booking the Best

With the right sort of attitude adjustment only the two basic problems -- decent shelter and decent food -- remain. We solve both with flats, apartments or villas rented a week at a time, through booking agents in the country we plan to visit, via their representatives here in the US. This sort of "double filter" means that there's someone here who has seen the property and can tell you what to expect, and someone there who's a local with a vested interest in return business. Do, of course, ask for references.

Basics of rentals seem the same everywhere. You see photos or a video of the properties in question. You select two or three properties -- the basic rule is the one you want most is most likely to be reserved on the only week you have -- and your home-country agent faxes a request overseas. Then, when you get a response, your deposit insures your place. Some time before you leave home you pay your rental fee in your home country. The fee's forwarded and fiddled about with the exchange rate that's always going the wrong way for me. Then you get receipts, directions and more.

Legally, this puts you in a good position if problems obtain as you have a chance to recover for any problems in your own country. We've never had that happen, but you can be sure it will someday to someone, and probably at the most inconvenient time.

Lodgings bring with them other opportunities besides intimate associations with appliances and plumbing that neither applies nor plumbs. You expand your vocabulary into wonderful areas of, unfortunately, little general utility such as Finnish for "furnace filter."

It's very sad so few have the time it takes to invest a week in what our British B&B booking agent calls "history to let." You spent more time, in a smaller area meeting fewer locals and no tourists and you'll go home with memories to treasure.

While there are a host of available agents we've only dealt with two, and our English booking agent retired last year. On the Continent we find Suzzanne Pidduck's "Rentals in Italy" -- she rents in France, Spain etc. too -- solid. You can find other booking agents through travel magazines and reliable friends.

Suzanne Pidduck's Rentals in Italy
1742B Calle Corva
Camarillo, CA 93010