Home sharing in Paris, and the insider tips that come with it, makes for a stress-free family holiday, writes Kate Farrelly.
IT WAS the windows that hooked me. They were six metres high, arched and multi-paned, and providing a deluge of natural light across open-plan living spaces and a loft bedroom. Of course, I couldn't be sure all was as it seemed from my desk in Sydney but I was willing to take a chance on this first-floor apartment in Paris.
My family and I - husband, two boys aged four and six and my mum - were headed to France and we had a week to gorge ourselves on all things Parisian. We needed an affordable base that we could comfortably spend time in and hotel rooms simply didn't fit the bill. There were plenty of apartment rentals around but they looked poky and provisions for self-catering were meagre. Then I discovered home sharing.
We could rent the home of a local family while they holidayed elsewhere. The location was agreeable, the windows were perfect and with the Aussie dollar at its perky best, our week's accommodation would cost $1650.
Olivier, Donna and their two children were off to the French Riviera, leaving behind their three-bedroom apartment in Butte-aux-Cailles, a short walk from the Latin Quarter. On the metro line between Corvisart and Place d'Italie stations, this neighbourhood is not part of the tourist circuit but, thanks to the metro, is within easy reach of the Paris highlights.
A trail of emails between Donna and me helped to pave the way for a stress-free week. Instructions on how to make our way from the airport arrived, along with suggested activities for the kids and advice on the best times to visit key attractions. Donna arranged for us to use one of her babysitters and offered to book a restaurant for my mum's birthday.
A major bonus for our family was being given access to the toys, scooters, bikes and books that came with the house - on day one we were hard-pushed getting the boys out the door to see the sights. What fun is the Eiffel Tower when you've got two dozen new action men to battle with?
The apartment itself, built in 1900 and once an artist's atelier, was as good as the internet photos. Olivier was there to meet us and show us the ropes. The open-plan living room was spacious with those gorgeous windows soaring on both sides of the room. There was a fancy stereo system, cable television and wireless internet. The kitchen was well-equipped, including plasticware the kids couldn't possibly break.
We were invited to use any pantry items we needed and there was a bottle of bubbly to welcome us. Mum claimed the small single bedroom while we headed upstairs to see the main loft bedroom and a third bedroom with bunk beds (and lots of toys) for the boys. Laundry facilities were down in the "cave", a basement area used for storage.
Exploring the area on scooters was great fun for the kids and Donna had left directions to the nearest parks. There was a well-stocked corner store within cooee of the apartment and an enormous Carrefour supermarket at Place d'Italie, a 10-minute walk away. The local boulangerie was hard to beat - and this from a family on a serious croissant-tasting mission.
But best of all was the fresh-food market that appeared like a mirage in the desert twice during our week-long stay. The pavement directly in front of our apartment - and for a stretch of about 500 metres - was transformed into a playground for foodies. The biggest tomatoes you've ever seen competed for attention alongside ridiculously cheap strawberries. We were ready to adopt the sausage man but settled instead for a tasty selection of blueberries, chestnuts and smoked sausages. Piles of glossy seafood begged to be bought, we couldn't resist the pork terrine and could hardly return home without a few samples of cheese.
As if to ensure we were thoroughly impressed with our lot in Butte-aux-Cailles, a third market also ran during our stay, this time a bric-a-brac affair with silver candlesticks, chipped porcelain, age-old prints and posters, vintage clothes and jewellery. It was wonderful to step out of our front door to a changing display of stallholders, each prepared to help as we stumbled with our limited French.
Of course, we didn't spend the entire week in the delightful confines of our new neighbourhood. Corvisart metro station was 150 metres from our door and the trains were cheap, frequent and quick, ferrying us to all of Paris's hot spots. Thanks to Donna's tips, we knew to head to the Eiffel Tower an hour before opening to be at the front of the queue. We also knew where to find the marionette shows in the Luxembourg Gardens and that we could hire headsets with a kid-friendly tour at the Orangerie.
Blessed with a spring week packed with sunshine, we ventured out to Giverny to see Monet's house and garden and had a memorable lunch at the fabulously grandiose Le Train Bleu for mum's birthday. While we ate at home most evenings, feasting on the spoils from the fresh food markets after the boys were tucked into bed, we also enjoyed an evening Vivaldi concert at the stunning Sainte Chapelle church. But it was a pleasure to leave the hordes of insatiable tourists behind each time we returned to our apartment to partake in a tiny taste of Paris life in the home of a local.
1 Ask the owners about their favourite local bakeries, cafes and restaurants (and any they avoid) and you'll arrive with a list of some tried and tested eateries to visit.
2 Beat the queues by using your local contacts to determine the best time to visit top attractions such as the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, or to book popular restaurants and concerts.
3 The locals will know the dates and times of all the nearby markets, can inform you of any festivities occurring during your visit and can direct you to the nearest park, supermarket and Metro station.
Three places to search online
This is the website we used to book our Paris apartment. Expect to find homes both for home exchange and for self-catering rental. Prices range from €98 ($131) for a studio up to €677 a night for a five-bedroom home sleeping up to 10.
This website is primarily for home exchange but there are plenty of advertisers also happy to host renters. Under Paris, use the advanced search and select "include vacation rentals" — more than 900 homes pop up. You'll need to email the owner to obtain pricing details.
With more than 160,000 listed rentals, this website offers accommodation in more than 100 countries. Listings in Paris range from €75 for a studio up to €1350 a night for a palatial four-bedroom apartment minutes from the Eiffel Tower.
A word of warning: if the accommodation sounds too good (cheap) to be true, it probably is. There are scams operating on some classified websites where you'll pay a deposit for a fabulous apartment that doesn't actually exist. We found a few scammers among the genuine ads on craigslist.com.