Avoiding Hotels and the Art of Slow Travel

French bakery - By Julie Kertesz via Wikimedia Commons

It’s the woman in the bakery who clinches it.

The build-up is pure Paris. In a smart boulangerie off the Boulevard Saint-Germain, I am waiting to buy breakfast for the third morning in a row. Levitating on the aroma from the baking ovens, I ogle the exquisite pastries and eavesdrop on a couple arguing in stage whispers in front of me.

When the moment comes to place my order, the woman behind the counter interrupts me. “Bonjour, monsieur,” she says, with a triumphant smile of recognition. “If I’m not mistaken, you would like a croissant and a pain au chocolat, n’est-ce pas?”

Et voilà!

Suddenly I am not an anonymous tourist anymore. I am a local. Well, not quite a local (I’m not chic enough ever to be a true Parisian), but I have become a character in the morning drama at this boulangerie.

I am now the Man Who Always Orders One Croissant And One Pain Au Chocolat.

To anyone who aspires to be a traveler rather than a tourist, this is delicious vindication. It is like a Parisian version of Cheers: walking into a bakery where everybody knows your name, or at least what you eat for breakfast.

Such moments are rare in this world of Fast Travel. We are often too rushed to connect with local people or cherish the small details that make each place thrilling and unique. Result: everywhere ends up feeling the same as everywhere else.

This is particularly true if you use hotels. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve stayed in some wonderful hotels and enjoyed myself immensely along the way. But lately the charm has worn off. More and more, I find myself waking up in well-appointed rooms and wondering: Is this Taipei, Toronto or Torino?

Hotels everywhere trade on the same formula: walls painted in safe, restful shades; crisp white sheets and black-out curtains; flat-screen TVs at the foot of the bed; clock radios with iPod docks; desks with ethernet cables; organic toiletries in the bathrooms.

And don’t forget that perennial fixture: the trouser-press. Who uses those anyway? And how?

Even the little touches – that soapstone sculpture by the sofa, those art-books on the coffee table, the original watercolour above the bed – that are supposed to be the USP of boutique hotels can have a contrived air. Like something left behind by a designer or consultant who has already moved on to another project.

That is why I often avoid hotels these days. Slow Travel is about engaging with local people and experiencing a place from the inside. Renting a private apartment is the perfect way to do that.

And it’s easy to arrange now thanks to a gamut of websites. My favourite is Airbnb. In recent months, I have used the site to stay in the apartment of a choreographer in Bologna and a designer in Bogotá, a mini-mansion on Venice Beach in Los Angeles and a stylish bachelor pad in Mexico City. All cost less than a standard hotel.

More importantly, each one had its own character and allowed me to experience the city like a local. While grappling with jet-lag, I hung out with the guy selling tacos at the crack of dawn outside that loft in Mexico City.

Even rentals that don’t work out so well – the cramped flat owned by the chain-smoking fortune teller in Paris springs to mind – deliver a rare glimpse into local life and add vivid stories to my traveling database.

The boulangerie moment happened during a recent stay in a charming apartment right on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Plucked from the Haven in Paris website, which specialises in boutique rentals in the French capital, it was the sort of pied à terre that dreams are made of: Oak parquet floors. Chocolate-coloured silk curtains. High ceilings with tall windows looking out onto a statue of Danton. A sweet little kitchen for cooking up the fresh produce on sale at the market round the corner.

To my delight, the owner of the apartment keeps a bookshelf stocked with tomes you might actually want to read. I even found myself leafing through Jean-Paul Sartre for the first time since university. Can you imagine that happening at a Marriott?

But the main appeal was the way the apartment plugged us into neighbourhood life. A strike on our first day meant there were no newspapers at the kiosk across the street. For the rest of our visit, the vendor and I kept up a running joke about how industrial action is practically the national sport in France.

And then, of course, there was the food. Every morning, we brewed our own café au lait and went down to the boulangerie to buy the pastries for our petit déjeuner. We shopped in the local marché, picking up cured ham from the boucher, a glorious medley of cheeses from the fromagerie and a bottle of burgundy to die for.

By the end of our stay, the apartment felt much less like a rental and much more like “chez nous.”

Will we return in the future? It’s hard to say. Part of the appeal of staying in private homes is that there are so many to choose from.

But if one day we do go back to “our place” on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, I know where I’ll be buying breakfast.


NB: The woman in the photo is NOT the same woman quoted in the blog post.