HOW ABOUT TRADING LIVES? Scores of French families are dying to swap houses with you during school vacation times—for nothing. Some even have city and country pads.
REALITY CHECK You were hoping for a washer and a dryer?Time to alter expectations a bit. Dryers are rare in France. Ditto automatic coffeemakers: most houses will have a French press. French towels are thinner and smaller than American ones, pillows much less plush. And with some rentals, if you want linens, it'll cost you.
TIME TO GO Weekly rentals typically start on a Saturday and are often not ready until late afternoon. That means that by the time you settle in, nearby stores will most likely be closed until Monday. To avoid finding yourself without soap, pick up essentials en route. You can try asking the owner to leave milk, bread, and coffee in the fridge. But bring your own bonbons.
Key Questions to Ask the Rental Agent
• Have you visited or stayed in this property?
• How big is the house, and is it freestanding?The garden?(Village dwellings can be right on top of one another.)
• Is there a pool?How big?Private or shared?
• Does the house have a phone we can use?(For more on phones, see below.)
• How is the kitchen equipped?What kind of staples?Is there a washing machine?Are linens included?
• Is a list of emergency numbers posted?(If not, ask for one, including whom to call in case of a problem. And see if the owner will give you the scoop on favorite sites and sources.)
RENTER'S REPORT A Family Reunion in the Dordogne
The Wish List "We wanted a house for a week in April, large enough for eight: me; my husband, Thierry, who is French; our son, Wylie, five; Thierry's parents, who live near Bordeaux; and Thierry's brother with his two kids, ages 13 and 16."
Locale "The Dordogne, specifically the area around Les Eyzies-de-Tayac (a village with a wealth of caves, grottoes, and prehistoric art) and Sarlat (the largest town, home to a famous twice-weekly market in a medieval square)."
First Rental Agency "Homeaway.co.uk—I fell in love with a farmhouse, 10 minutes outside of Les Eyzies, and paid in full—$1,050, including a 2 percent surcharge for using a credit card. Then, a week before we were to leave, the agency e-mailed to say the house wasn't available after all. Instead, I was being 'rewarded' with a 'more expensive' place well out of our target location. In a snit, I requested—and received—a full refund. But now we had plane tickets and no place to stay."
Second Rental Agency "My friend Susan Jamison (see her Renter's Report, below) had had luck with California-based Rentvillas.com, so I begged them to find me a desirable spot fast. Three days before departure we secured a four-bedroom house near Sarlat for $1,400."
Arrival "We drove into La Roque-Gageac, a village built into a cliff along the Dordogne River, picked up keys at the bar-tabac, and climbed a steep path to the house. Wow. Our 700-year-old stone rental was much prettier than the photos we'd seen: a living room with a big fireplace, a terrace, and, in the kitchen, a farm table with a bottle of Cahors wine and a round bread to go with the platter of cheese in the fridge."
A Great Day "We cruised the Dordogne in a traditional river barge, and dined that night at La Meynardie, a farmhouse-restaurant set in the middle of vineyards."
What I Loved "The marché at Sarlat, where I picked up amazing strawberries, white asparagus, and fresh goat cheese, among other things. After exploring Domme, a medieval bastide, we had an extravagant picnic dinner on our terrace."
What the Kids Loved "The grottoes; riding the steam train along a truffle route; and, most of all, Château de Castelnaud, a 13th-century castle with a museum of medieval military history."
Food-Shopping Tip "Buy bread and croissants at a bakery; shop for cheese, fruit, vegetables, and cured meat at outdoor markets; and discover that supermarkets are great for everything else, including wine."
—Leslie Brenner, Los Angeles