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Episode #171: How to use a home exchange to explore Italy

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Home exchanging in Italy might be something that had never occurred to you when planning a trip to Italy, but this relatively new concept can be a wonderful way to not only save money but to have some unique and immersive travel experiences. Swapping either your own property or a vacation home can open up a world of opportunities for staying cheaply in some of the prime locations in Italy, or for staying in places you’d never considered before – in towns and cities with little tourism but with great food, people and prices. Often, exchanging with like-minded people can also lead to friendships and other unexpected travel experiences and opportunities. And of course, money saved can be used to spoil yourself during your trip – be it some luxury items as souvenirs, a special meal, or splashing out on a fancy hotel. 

Show notes

In this episode, we talk to Tim Van Patten, from Boston, USA who shares his and his family’s experiences exchanging his vacation home in Martha’s Vineyard with other home exchange enthusiasts around the world. In Italy, they have used house swapping to stay in the heart of the Trastevere neighborhood in Rome, as well as Sicily and Umbria. Just a regular guy who loves to travel with his family  – with the usual 2 week vacation, school timing constraints and trying to keep things on a budget, Tim shares how he’s organized his trips using home exchanges as a base and how it’s led to many wonderful and truly authentic experiences in Italy and around the world. 

What you’ll learn in this episode

  • Before traveling as a family of 3 with daughter Tenley, and discovering home exchange, Tim and his wife Marie had traveled to Europe a few times – to England, France, Ireland, and then Italy
  • Tim grew up in an Italian neighborhood in Boston, and all of his childhood friends were Italian-American so this likely added to that feeling, on his first time in Italy, of feeling at home. The way people talked and gesticulated felt a bit like he was back in his old neighborhood in Boston. That feeling sparked his love for Italy
  • They did the traditional tourist path – a couple of days in Rome, traveled on to Tuscany, and from there to Venice before heading home. A very traditional tourist route, but a great first experience to check out the classic locations. They like to travel independently and set their own agenda
  • They traveled by at times by car, other times by train – where you literally see the landscape changing as you stare out of the window. Then when you go to eat in the next region you’re in the food is also very different. They had scratched the surface of Italy and knew they wanted to go back
  • One of Tim’s clients mentioned that their family had traveled to the south of France doing a home exchange. Having never heard of home exchange, Tim asked more and got sold on the idea
  • They had, as Tim does, go through a website – Home Exchange. They did it with their primary home, which lots of people do too, though so far Tim has only done using their vacation home. The logistics of doing it with your primary home are a little more complicated because you may have to do it at the same time (though not necessarily) but there’s more coordination
  • In 2012, Time and Marie were fortunate enough to acquire a cottage down in Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts – a little vacation island off Massachusetts. So they realized it would be ideal for them to use this for a home exchange
  • It’s pretty straightforward. You pay a yearly fee – depending on the site – Home Exchange is USD $175 for the year. You post your property details up there and you get requests. They waited for requests to come to them rather than making requests themselves. What’s wonderful about that is there are countries and regions you would never have thought of going to before looking into them further after getting a request and realizing the location looks fantastic
  • When they first did an exchange they kind of tested out with a domestic one, in South Carolina and with someone else who was also offering a second home. So the first time around it was nice and easy to coordinate. The first one they did internationally was in Portugal
  • Obviously, the amazing thing about doing an exchange is being able to stay there for free (besides the cost of the website fee). That’s a huge saving on the cost of any trip. Beyond that fee, you work it out directly with the host and there’s no money exchanged
  • Time and family have learned that using their home exchange as a base works best for them. When they first went to Portugal, they had a place in the Algarve for six days, but they used that as a base – flew into Lisbon and spent two days there, then to the Algarve, a day and a half in Seville, driving over to Spain. You’re able to take the cost savings of not having to pay for a week’s accommodation, to spend on other things and broaden your trip
  • Since their first visit to Italy as a family, Tim, Marie, and Tenley have been back to Italy on two occasions using home exchange. They struck gold when a couple who live in Trastevere, Rome, reached out to ask about staying at their cottage. Enrico, Arianna, and their young son came and stayed at our cottage during the summer. Tim actually didn’t even do their trip to Italy till the next summer and being the wonderful people that they are, Enrico is from Sicily, where he has a family home in Sicily – he said, if you’re coming to Italy, you have to go stay at our home in Sicily as well. So they spent the week in Trastevere and then on to Sicily
  • In Trastevere, it very much felt like living as a local. Going to collect the keys to their apartment, they had to go to the local bar – after that initial interaction, every morning he went to that same bar, and they knew his name to welcome him by the end of the week
  • Marie and Tim had seen the main Roman tourist attractions but of course, wanted to show them to their daughter as well. But they were there in late June/early July – right in the heat of the summer. They crossed the river to go into central Rome but it was so busy that they soon wanted to get back over the river, back to Trastevere
  • They spend one afternoon sitting in a local playground with all the Italian moms with their strollers and kids playing and Tenley playing along with them. Another evening, they set up a movie to play in one of the piazzas. It was all in Italian, no subtitles, but even just sitting there was just so enjoyable to truly get a slice of life in that neighborhood
  • Early on they did what they do in whatever cities they visit and book a food tour. That takes care of two things – firstly, you get to sample lots of wonderful food and local specialties. Secondly, you get the lay of the land – work out where things are and find places to go back to. Theirs was a food tour in Trastevere, so then they went to the same bakery every day, went to the cafe bar for espresso, and to some of the restaurants they had tried.  And let’s not forget finding the perfect gelateria – the one they would go to was around the corner from the apartment. There were many days that they went there more than once!
  • Katy recommends reading Four Seasons in Rome – with the subtitle ‘On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World’, this book is by Anthony Doerr, a writer who moved to Rome. He won a writing prize to spend a year in Rome. He writes about those neighborhood moments – he did it with very small twins. I’m the mum of twins. Tim had a true slice of summer and in this book, he takes describe all the seasons
  • They signed Tenley up for a kid’s Colosseum and Forum combined tour, which turned out to be amazing. It was a group of eight or nine kids with the parents tagging along too. The guide was fantastic – they bet at the train station and she took them right into the Colosseum and brought everything to life. These types of tours, especially if you’re traveling with kids, are such a good investment because they’re pitched at the right level and you can see the kid’s faces light up as they imagine what happened there. If you go by yourself, you’re going to be left to be working very, very hard to get everything across to the kids because there’s little to explain what’s going on
  • At the Forum she showed the kids a big block that had some holes and indentations in it which she explained was a game. She had marbles with her and they were able to play this game that was played in ancient times in Rome. It made it real for them
  • When Time and Marie did their first trip over, they went to the Borghese Museum, which to this day is Tim’s favorite museum in the world. So they really wanted to bring take their daughter there too. One thing that they’ve done with her growing up, is to take her to museums at home because they know that when on the road, They’re going to want to go to museums and she’ll be used to that kind of environment. She’s been to art museums and contemporary museums, so she’s already experienced that kind of environment, so it’s not a big deal abroad
  • On the way to the Borghese, through the park, they’d spotted the four seated bikes, and had said, that after they’ve been to the museum, they’ll rent one and  cruise around the park – so that (along with some gelato of course) was a little reward at the end
  • After Trastevere, it was over to Sicily. Their host Enrico and family, were in their home in Sicily whilst they were in their apartment in Trastevere, and they got to meet them when they arrived in Sicily. They fed them lunch and gave them some great insider tips – like where’s a good beach (not the best tourist place, but the one the locals go to). When they went there, they were the only Americans on that beach. Those experiences and tips help you feel like you’re living like a local
  • Sicily is a fabulous part of Italy and is almost like another country. They were staying in Fraginesi, near Castellammare del Golfo
  • They rented a car because in Sicily, you really do need to have a car to get around. Public transport does exist, but it’s slow and sporadic
  • The home they were staying in felt like paradise. The garden was half an acre of garden that had olive and lemon trees. Enrico asked Tim a favor that suited him perfected as an early riser, getting up way before his wife and daughter – which was to water the garden. He showed Tim how to do it – with all the different sprinklers and then said “Please – take anything from the garden!”. So they had some lovely fresh things they could eat like olives, tomatoes, basil, and lemons
  • One of the beaches they went to is Tonnara (the Tuna factory), San Vito Lo Capo – a beach where you have mountains behind you. There’s a tram that goes to various parts of the beach. Not a single person spoke English – it is where the Scilillians go to the beach
  • They also went to the Segesta Archaeological Park to go see the fascinating ruins there. Instead of having lunch there surrounded by the rest of the tourists, they looked on Google Maps and saw there was a restaurant in the town, so decided to give it a try.
  • It was in the middle of the day in the summertime and so there was nobody around. They walked into this restaurant and they looked a little perplexed but they seated them upstairs in this quiet restaurant. While they were there the place filled up with what seemed to be a bridal shower. All these locals and relatives fill up the rest of the room – a real slice of life to behold. They also enjoyed some wonderful food. A wonderful memory that they wouldn’t have gotten if they hadn’t gone a bit off the beaten path
  • While in Sicily there were wild fires going on. They couldn’t see them because they were on the other side of the ridge and they weren’t watching the news, being on vacation. Enrico called to check on them and ask if they were ok and by this time they could see and hear the planes on the other side of the ridge, but nothing more. But on their last morning, Tim is up early as ever and is about to go into the garden to water it, when he hears a strange noise. When he looks outside, the field next to the house is on fire and is coming towards the house. He wakes up, Tenley and Marie and he has a photograph of his daughter with a garden hose pointing over the dirt trail to the field, wetting down the grass in between. They called Enrico and he’s just said, “Well, get out of there”. But then they saw a nonna across the street who didn’t seem to be very bothered by it. Somebody had obviously called the Fire Brigade, as they then turned up and put the fire out. From what they now understand, it happens a lot during the dry summers there, and beyond their driveway, the dirt track acts as a fire break. But they didn’t know that and it was all quite dramatic and obviously a rather unique memory of their time in Italy
  • Before they left Sicily they went to the gorgeous Cefalu for the night. They wandered through the town and then down by the beach. It was just scratching the surface to see if they liked it, to potentially return one day. The hotel they stayed at was up on a hill overlooking Cefalu, they had dinner and it was a beautiful evening. Because they’d had a whole week in Sicily with no accommodation cost due to home exchange, they were able to splash out for this really special place in Cefalu for a night
  • Their next trip to Italy was, this time, to the wonderful region of Umbria. A region that seems to be sitting there in plain sight yet very few people visit there. Their host there stayed at their cottage the year before they went to stay at her apartment in Spoleto. Again they used it as a base. They flew into Rome, rented a car, and headed straight up there
  • From there they then traveled up to Montepulciano, Tuscany to Levanto, Liguria so they could dip down into the Cinque Terre
  • Their host this time was a woman who was actually a professional clown. During the week that they were staying at her apartment in Spoleto, she was going to be in Rome working. They really wanted to meet her but didn’t get the opportunity sadly
  • They were in the heart of the ancient, walled city of Spoleto in someone’s home and it was an incredible experience.
  • Being an early riser, each morning Tim would go into the living room and open the shutters. There would be a nonna across the street and by the second or third morning, meeting at the same time, they were greeting each other. He would go to the same bar each morning in the Piazza and get his cappuccino and Pistachio Cornetto and again they’d get to know him. The butcher shop owner was sitting in the back reading the paper every morning. It was just wonderful to have those experiences where you get to see people living everyday life
  • In Spoleto, they were surprised to discover that under the town there is an escalator system because of the Jazz Festival. There are such big audiences for the jazz festival that this ancient town needs this modern underground system to move them all up from the parking areas up
  • As a budget traveler, Tim’s always looking for the cheapest airfares. They had booked a flight through Air Lingus and had to fly to Ireland and make a connecting flight. They made it, but Marie’s bag did not. That ended up in Austria for a time, arriving in Spoleto 2 days later. So she got to do some shopping in Spoleto. Since then, they now travel with carry-on only
  • They went to Montepulciano in Tuscany to stay a couple of nights, and then to  Levanto in Liguria so they could dip into the Cinque Terre. This was all possible because of the home exchange cost savings. Where Tim lives in Scituate, Massachusetts, which is a harbor city right on the ocean, they think theirs is just a little house that no one would be interested in, but like-minded travelers are interested in these wonderful locations. You could be pleasantly surprised that people would want to come and stay in your home for the local area or to use it as a base to do other traveling around, as Tim does
  • One thing you’ll find with home exchange is that you’re likely dealing with like-minded people. People who want to come and see your part of the world. The dealings tend to be easy because they’re travelers too. You deal directly with them – there’s nobody in the middle.
  • With home exchanging people can request your property, or you could request too. You could pick a country, such as Italy, and it’ll list what’s available in that country and then what region. You reach out to the people who owned that property, they could deny your request because they aren’t interested to stay at yours. Each time, people reached out to Time and Marie for their cottage and there were those in countries or areas that they didn’t want to go to and so rejected the request, no hard feelings. Once you accept a request, the direct communications begin
  • House exchangers often have a similar kind of mentality with a level of trust in people and a love for travel. That commonality can make the whole experience of communication more relaxed and enjoyable. If you’re a little bit suspicious by nature, house exchange is probably not for you
  • The client that first suggested Home Exchange to Tim, who stayed in the south of France, also coordinated the use of each other’s vehicles, which could obviously be really useful and another amazing cost saving (though likely some insurance costs would be involved). The daughter of the family whose house they stayed in came to visit them in the US and even eventually spent the summer as their nanny. Tim is friends with Enrico and Arianna on Facebook and so they stay in touch. So you’ll often keep those connections and potential friendships for years to come which can also present other opportunities for you and them
  • For future traveling to Italy, Tim and Marie have done Venice, but not Tenley yet, so that’s something the family would like to do together. They’re also interested in going to Croatia and there are ferries that go between Croatia and Venice. They’re keen to get to the Amalfi Coast too, and from what they’ve learned from the Untold podcasts on Capri – stay in Capri and so when everyone’s coming over to Capri, take the boat the opposite way and go explore the coast
  • As for so many that have fallen in love with exploring Italy, there’s a lifetime of travel to come visiting Italy for Tim, Marie, and Tenley – and so many other regions that they would love to visit

About our guests – Tim Van Patten

Tim and his wife, Marie, and daughter Tenley live in Scituate, a coastal town 25 miles south of Boston, in the US. They are the typical American family living paycheck to paycheck with the typical 2 week vacation time but really love to travel. To fulfill that desire they have to figure out how to travel on a budget.  They acquired a small cottage on Martha’s Vineyard, an Island off the coast of MA in 2012, and once they discovered Home Exchange, they offered it up on the site and have since been able to travel to Charleston in the US, the Algarve in Portugal, to Mexico and 2 stays in Italy. They have learned to make the most of their time by using their host’s home/apartment as a base to then explore surrounding areas. 
 
Keen travelers Tim and Marie visited various countries before Tenley came along and on their first trip to Italy, they did the typical first-timer track of Rome, Tuscany, and Venice. The first trip to Italy the whole family took was in 2017 to Rome and Sicily, with their second trip in 2018 taking them to Spoletto, Multipulciano, and Levanto. Over the years they’ve learned many tips on traveling as a family as well as on doing Home Exchanges.

Places mentioned in the show

  • The Forum – a rectangular forum (plaza) surrounded by the ruins of some important ancient government buildings in the historic center of Rome
  • Borghese Gallery – art gallery in Rome, Italy, housed in the former Villa Borghese Pinciana
  • Fraginesi – village in Sicily near Castellammare del Golfo
  • Castellammare del Golfo – town on the coast of Sicily, translated as ‘Sea Fortress on the Gulf’
  • Tonnara di Scopello – a medieval fishing factory on the beachfront which now has a museum and accommodation
  • Cefalù – seaside town you can visit easily from Palermo by train, bus or private transfer
  • Spoleto – an ancient walled city in Umbria
  • Montepulciano –  a medieval hilltop town in Tuscany, famous for its wines
  • Levanto – coastal town in Liguria, situated at the mouth of a river valley

Resources

  • www.homeexchange.com – website you can sign up to to exchange your home
  • Four Seasons in Rome – with the subtitle ‘On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World’ this book by Anthony Doerr tells wonderful tales of the year he spent living in Rome 
  • San Vito Lo Capo – gorgeous beach where all the locals go
  • Segesta archeological park – ruins of one of the major cities of the Elymian people that was destroyed by Agathocles in 307 BC
  • White Lotus – comedy-drama series set in a tropical resort – it follows the exploits of various guests and employees over the span of a week
  • Pistachio Cornetto – a traditional Italian pastry that closely resembles a croissant and in Sicily home of the pistachio, the pistachio ones are prevalent

Resources from Untold Italy

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