Ute Junker explains why staying put can turn you from tourist to traveller.
The first glimpse of our temporary home was far from promising. The taxi pulled up in front of one of those monolithic Soviet-era apartment blocks that deface Russian cities. This one, in the suburbs of St Petersburg, appeared to offer the full catastrophe: dark lobby, graffitied stairwells ("Never use the stairs" was one of a list of instructions left by the apartment's owners), and a urine-stinking lift that ground its way up to our apartment, slowly and noisily, like a wounded elephant trying to rise to its feet.
Yet behind the apartment's front door, things were very different. The furniture was bright and comfy, light poured in through the windows, and a sense of home-as-haven permeated the flat.
Reading Russian history, you learn that during decades of dictatorship, people focused inwards, retreating to the warmth of their families to forget the harsh realities of Soviet life. It's one thing to read it. Stepping into that apartment, I finally understood it.
If you really want to understand a city, you need to live in it. Which was why, when some Finnish friends suggested an extended visit to St Petersburg during the white nights of summer, I had said yes straight away. I'd been to St Petersburg before. I'd strolled along the canals, visited the palaces, eaten caviar washed down with vodka. This time, however, I wanted to get a different perspective.
Staying on the "wrong" side of the Neva, away from the major sights, opened my eyes to things I'd never seen before. On previous visits, staying in the city centre, I had walked everywhere. Now I was reliant on trams, I realised that the drivers and conductors seemed to be responsible for maintaining their trams. Some mornings, the first tram that rattled along would be ramshackle, guarded by a surly conductor who refused to make eye contact. Other days, I'd hop on a tram that had lace curtains in the windows, bunches of dried flowers stuck to the walls, and a chirpy conductor. It made a big difference to how the day began.
At the other end of the day, there was the bridge dilemma. During the white nights of summer, when the sun rarely sets, St Petersburg throws itself into a months-long party. People stay up all night: at 3am, the streets of the city centre are filled with revellers making their way to the next bar.
That's not the only thing up in the early morning hours. Between 2am and 4am, the city's bridges are raised to allow shipping to pass. If you're staying in the city centre, that's not a problem. However, if, as we did, you plan to cross the river at some point of the night, you need to make a choice. Will you head home at 1am, before the bridges are raised, or will you stay out until 4am, when they're lowered into place again?
It was a choice we faced almost every night. More than once we made a last-minute decision to try to get home before the bridges lifted, and literally ran out of whichever bar we were in, running full tilt for the river.
That long-ago trip was the first time I passed on the ease and comfort of a hotel to live like a local. In those days, before the internet had blossomed into an essential part of life, we found the apartment through friends of friends, and rented it sight unseen.
These days, a Google search will bring up a bevy of websites offering photos and detailed descriptions of apartments in almost any city you can think of. Some sites, such as Airbnb, cut out the middleman, letting home owners rent out their own properties. It's a reflection of how much the way we travel has changed. Once, we were like snorkellers, content to skate the surface and gaze at the sights. These days, we're scuba divers, strapping on our tanks to plunge in and explore this foreign world in a deeper way.
No one wants to be a tourist any more. We all want to be locals, and renting an apartment is the best way to get there. Do it properly and the keys to an apartment will give you the keys to the city.
Going local requires a commitment, however, and not just to fixing your own breakfast or making your own bed. If you want to live local, you need to devote a decent amount of time to your chosen city. I'd recommend 10 days as a minimum. It takes you the best part of a week to settle into the rhythm, to become a familiar face in the neighbourhood.
My current neighbourhood is Monti, in Rome. I'm writing this in a rented attic apartment with a magnificent view across the neighbouring rooftops, all terracotta tiles and potted palms, to the Roman Forum, just a few blocks away.
Although the Colosseum is just around the corner, Monti is very much off the tourist trail. I love wandering its warren-like cobblestone streets lined with wine bars, boutiques and antique shops. I love the ancient flight of stone steps across the way, where cats soak up the morning sunshine and housewives exchange news. I love the simple local church where each evening, the doors are thrown open and candles are lit on the portico, to lure in passers-by.
What I love most is the way I've become attuned to the rhythms of the neighbourhood. My days start with the man from the flower van uncovering his latest load of early tulips, and finish as the lights in the local bars wink out one by one. I've watched the waves of people ebb and flow through the piazza at the end of the street. The old men who huddle together in the morning are replaced in the early afternoon by schoolkids, feigning indifference as they check each other out. In the evening, a different crowd sweeps in: couples and groups up for a night out in one of Rome's hippest 'hoods.
It's the theatre of life, unfolding at my feet. That's something no hotel can offer.
It's day eight, and I'm at that happy stage where my feet will take me where I need to go without my head having to get involved. My internal map of the city has a new set of landmarks. There's the wine bar up the road with the colourful terracotta tiles and the waiter who speaks so fast I have difficulties following his Italian. There's the antiques shop where the owner always smiles at me as I pass, and the bakery that's three blocks further than my nearest baker but worth the trek for the delicious cakes, arancini and the melt-in-your-mouth pizza bianca.
Monti works for me - but it might not work for you. Choosing a neighbourhood is a personal decision. If you're an early-to-bed type kept up by the pounding bass from nearby nightclubs, you'll be as frustrated as a jeans-and-sneaker type stuck in a designer enclave. Get the neighbourhood right and it will be a love affair to remember.
Just ask Regina Ferreira. On her first visit to Paris, Ferreira followed a friend's recommendation and, rather than choosing tourist-friendly quarters such as the Left Bank or in the Marais, booked in at a bed-and-breakfast-style apartment in Montmartre. She's returned to that same apartment every year for six years.
"It's become my home in Paris," Ferreira says of Montmartre. "It's peaceful, old-world and utterly picturesque. Although it's very touristy, there are quiet corners and hidden streets. I love the village markets, the local epiceries [grocery shops], the way things remain unchanging."
Although Montmartre is home to landmarks such as the Sacre Coeur Cathedral, Ferreira's personal landmarks are more mundane. She loves the gruff man at the rustic creperie on the corner (they're now on first-name terms); the red leather banquettes at her favourite cafe, Le Vrai Paris; and the butchery on the corner of rues Lepic and des Abbesses, where the goods spill onto the footpath and draw a swarm of Parisians.
For Ferreira, finding the perfect apartment did more than make her holiday: it launched a new business. Via her website, Petite Paris (petiteparis.com.au), Ferreira offers apartments throughout the city on a B&B basis. Over the years she's learnt a lot about helping travellers find their perfect accommodation but the fundamental thing, she says, is matching the visitor to the neighbourhood. "Ambience is everything - the neighbourhood has to match your style," she says.
So you can keep the Spanish Steps and Trastevere - for my next Roman holiday, I'll be going back to Monti.
FLAT CHAT: FINDING THE PERFECT HOLIDAY APARTMENT
Take note of these tips from Jill Kammer of Worldwide Accommodation (worldwide-accom.com), which offers apartments to rent in Italy, France, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain.
Know your neighbourhood. "In Rome, an area like the Spanish Steps is bustling during the day, but quiet during the evenings. If you're into bar-hopping, Trastevere, Campo dei Fiori and Piazza Navona are perfect.
Generally, areas around train stations are seedy. Reputable companies should supply plenty of information about the neighbourhood on their website."
Look up your level. "Many old buildings do not have elevators, so if you have mobility issues, take note of which floor your apartment is on."
Confirm what's included. "One of the reasons people love staying in apartments is being able to fix their own breakfast and wash their own clothes. Check your apartment has a washing machine and wi-fi."
Trust a track record. "If a company has been around 10 years or more, you know they're doing something right."