Our Airbnb Experience in Europe

A Parisian studio, a houseboat on a canal in Amsterdam, a house on a Tuscan hilltop and even a remodelled sauna in Munich. Yup – we rarely had a boring bed in Europe, and that was largely in thanks to a most glorious and wonderful little thing called Airbnb.

The view from our Tuscan hilltop Airbnb.

Airbnb had kind of been in my peripheral vision for a while. It was a concept that sounded really cool, but one I couldn’t quite process properly; without any travel planned it seemed irrelevant to me, at least temporarily. After booking flights for this year’s trip to Europe, however, that very quickly changed. Now that I had a tangible trip in the works, it was like falling deep, deep into the rabbit hole.

If you’re not familiar with Airbnb, it’s an online community based around the sharing of otherwise private accommodation space with travellers (for a fee). From spare rooms to entire apartments, villas to backyard yurts – the world of Airbnb is vast, fascinating and an incredibly exciting facet of the travel industry. I spent hours upon hours trawling the website, thrilled at the idea of exploring Europe through the homes of locals. This was the first time I’d planned a trip totally from scratch and the accommodation side in particular was very new to me. I mean – sure, we knew we wanted to visit Switzerland for a few days. But where in Switzerland? In this sense, Airbnb turned out to be an absolute godsend. I plugged in a search for a space within our price range, and somewhere we’d also have access to free parking as we travelled mostly by car. It also needed to be somewhere kind of on the way to Italy. That’s how we ended up staying with Sonja and Christophe in the gorgeous little town of Thun – a destination we’d never have discovered if not for Airbnb, and yet it honestly became one of the most incredible parts of our trip. 

We ended up booking roughly 75% of the trip through Airbnb; 11 different spaces in total. What I loved was not just the opportunity to stay in some really beautiful, unique spaces – but to experience a destination in a way that just felt more genuinely local. Take Amsterdam, where we closed out our trip by treating ourselves to three nights aboard Reinhart’s houseboat (docked in a canal). The houseboat itself was gorgeous, and staying aboard was obviously just a seriously cool thing to do. But it also meant that we got well away from the very touristy centre of Amsterdam, whilst still being extraordinarily close to everything we wanted to explore there. You see, to get to Reinhart’s houseboat we had to take a short ferry from the rear of Centraal Station. This ferry runs 24 hours a day – every five minutes during the day, and every ten minutes at night. And it’s totally free. The ferry pulls up, opens its gate to the dock and locals pile on – including cyclists, and even people driving little microcars! It takes but a minute to get over the river IJ, where another gate on the opposite side opens to the new dock in North Amsterdam, and everyone trundles off – right before those waiting on the North side swarm on. Reinhart’s houseboat was just another few minutes’ walk from there. It was such a fun little local ritual. Mat and I loved getting to experience that ferry passage a few times every day during our stay. And North Amsterdam was so lovely. No hostels in sight. No throngs of nineteen year old boys high on their own egos. It was a peaceful place where we we were rocked ever-so-slightly to sleep at night by soft waves.

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I made a point of trying to choose Airbnbs that had rave reviews not only centred around the space itself, but even more so the host and hospitality. Call me picky, but I wanted to choose Airbnb hosts who thrived on making visitors feel welcome in their little part of the world. These would be the first people we’d meet in each destination, and our lifeline to local living. I wanted to put my trust in people who took that kind of ambassadorship seriously. And that selectivity really, truly paid off. 

Cristina and Matteo’s spare studio apartment in Paris was an absolute dream in itself; having our own gorgeous little space overlooking the Parisian rooftops for a week was pure magic. Cristina and Matteo as hosts gave the experience a whole new level of awesome. They invited us into their own (amazing) apartment on the floor below, poured us wine and gave us their best food recommendations for the area. And for anyone who’s been to Paris, you’ll appreciate how incredibly valuable that kind of advice is! We pretty much lived on their food tips, and our tastebuds could not have been any happier for it. I’ve mentioned before how Cristina also worked tirelessly to get us a reservation at La Petite Rose des Sables. As our first Airbnb experience, Cristina and Matteo and their little studio in the Latin Quarter absolutely blew us away. 

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And then there was Sonja and Christophe in Thun, Switzerland. We stayed for three nights in the spare bedroom of their apartment, and were welcomed into their home with a truly touching warmth and generosity. Every night we sat up, lost in conversation with the pair, who were well-travelled adventurers themselves. They told us that – rather than doing it for the money (and believe me, their place is some of the most reasonably priced accommodation you’ll find in a very expensive country!) – they open their home up through Airbnb as a way of experiencing new people from all over the world. Sonja and Christophe gave us some fantastic suggestions to check out in the area – hugely appreciated, as poor weather conditions meant that much of the mountain frolicking we’d thought to do was suddenly a no-go. They even treated us to a delicious home-cooked meal on our final night. Their apartment has a huge, sprawling terrace, and during a brief half-hour of visibility on that final night, we finally got a glimpse of the mountains that loom above Thun. It’s absolutely stunning. Our time in Thun felt very special indeed. 

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Later, during our visit to Munich, we stayed with Matthias in an outer municipality called Vaterstetten. After reading fantastic reviews for Matthias’ spare room, I got in contact requesting a booking. Unfortunately I’d been pipped by someone else in the meantime, but Matthias courteously offered us his other space – a remodelled sauna he called the ‘Cosy Cuddle Box’. This does sound a little horror movie-esque, but you know what? I had a curiously good feeling about it. Plus – what a story, right? The Cosy Cuddle Box was really quite amazing – a loft-style bed had been installed inside the sauna, a bar-fridge and storage space tucked underneath and another wedge of private space curtained off just outside the door. It felt like a grown-up cubby house. And Matthias was the picture of a perfect Airbnb host. Every detail was attended to (including fresh chocolates on our pillows every day, which obviously won me over fairly quickly). He stopped to brew and share a pot of coffee with us most every time our paths crossed, and we enjoyed some great conversation together. He tipped us off to the wonder that is the schmalznudel, and we showed him videos of Aussie Rules Football on YouTube. Matthias was very intrigued indeed.

Airbnb just really opened us up to a world beyond the tourist trail. We discovered the trendy Nuremberg suburb of Gostenhof, or ‘GoHo’, after booking Eva’s ridiculously well-reviewed guest room. It actually felt like a totally separate apartment – a beautiful bedroom, bathroom and living space that split off from the entrance to Eva’s main apartment meant that we were swimming in space (especially after coming directly from the Cosy Cuddle Box!). Eva had painted a huge map of GoHo across one of the walls that detailed her favourite eateries and attractions. It was brilliant. From bakeries to beer gardens, cafés to tapas bars – we loved exploring GoHo even more than the famous Nuremberg old town. GoHo felt almost like the Franconian version of Melbourne’s Brunswick, or Fitzroy, and so – combined with Eva’s beautiful hospitality – we honestly felt so at home there. It was wonderful.

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I could go on and on. A brief night with Christine in Dijon, who didn’t speak English but makes one hell of an apricot jam. Snacking on homemade antipasto platters and sipping Chianti on Marjet’s terrace, with rolling Tuscan hills as far as the eye can see. Maya’s gorgeous spare apartment smack bang in the middle of Ljubljana, a pre-stamped postcard waiting on the table (one of the most thoughtful things you could gift a traveller!). Choosing Airbnb was one of the best decisions we made for the trip, and I can’t imagine ever travelling without it in future. Even downtime at ‘home’ still felt like we were experiencing something unique, rather than time wasted in a hotel or hostel room. It gave us the power to experience a destination in a way that felt more ‘us’ – relaxed and local, rather than breaking our backs rushing around trying to tick off the sights. 

Roses des Sables: The Recipe

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a little about La Petite Rose des Sables – a tiny Parisian restaurant helmed by the wonderfully eccentric Madame Zouzou and her husband, ‘Big Boss’. Mat and I visited this gem on our recent trip to Paris, and were treated to one of the most memorable dining experiences we’ve ever had. It was bizarre and heartwarming all at once. 

At one point, Madame Zouzou appeared and eagerly pointed at a laminated article (written in French, no less) pinned to the wall above our table. Mat and I were sipping a couple of post-lunch espressos at the time – and I, of course, was taking a few happy snaps of the cute little arrangement of accompanying sweets. She pointed at my camera, motioned toward the sweets and then back at the article. I’ll admit I was confused. Luckily the cogs in Mat’s brain were turning somewhat faster.

“It’s a recipe for the chocolates. She wants you to take a photo.”

And so I would find myself back in Melbourne, months later, typing that recipe word-by-word into Google Translate. I kind of felt like I was code-breaking the secret to Madame Zouzou’s own Roses des Sables; what a marvelous little gift to be able to take away from Paris! The treat takes its name from what is known in English as a ‘sand rose’ or ‘desert rose’ – a crystal formation that occurs in certain desert conditions. The Roses des Sables recipe quite impressively recreates this phenomenon with two very simple things: corn flakes and chocolate.

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Madame Zouzou gives her recipe for both dark chocolate Roses des Sables, and white chocolate and orange Roses des Sables. I used Lindt’s 70% Cocoa chocolate for the dark chocolate Roses des Sables, which made for a very intense flavour. Delicious, but intense. If you like your treats a bit sweeter I’d recommend a lower cocoa content, or perhaps even use milk chocolate (I believe the ones Madame Zouzou served us at La Petite Rose des Sables itself were made with milk chocolate). Or, simply opt for the white chocolate and orange Roses des Sables. They are divine, and became the hands-down hit when I made a batch of each over the weekend for a family gathering. Seriously, they are good.

I experimented with Madame Zouzou’s quantities a little, mostly in terms of chocolate to corn flake ratio. Feel free to do the same yourself, but the following recipe gave me the best consistencies. And best of all: they’re incredibly easy to make. In a way they’re kind of like chocolate Honey Joys, or grown-up Chocolate Crackles. Except with these, you get to be all fancy and introduce them as ‘little French corn flake treats’!

Enjoy! x

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Roses des Sables
Yields 16
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Prep Time
15 min
Total Time
45 min
Prep Time
15 min
Total Time
45 min
Dark Chocolate Roses des Sables
  1. 250g dark chocolate, coarsely chopped
  2. 50g butter
  3. 50g icing sugar
  4. 150g corn flakes
White Chocolate and Orange Roses des Sables
  1. 250g white chocolate, coarsely chopped
  2. 30g butter
  3. zest of 1 orange
  4. 150g corn flakes
Instructions
  1. 1. Place the chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl and set it over a saucepan of simmering water (make sure the water does not touch the underside of bowl). Stir occasionally until the chocolate and butter are melted and smooth.
  2. 2. Stir in the icing sugar (if making dark chocolate Roses des Sables) or orange zest (if making white chocolate and orange Roses des Sables).
  3. 3. Remove from heat, and gradually stir in all of the corn flakes. Do this at about a handful at a time to ensure you get a good coating of chocolate over all the corn flakes.
  4. 4. Set a piece of baking paper over a baking tray. Madame Zouzou suggests using two spoons to form small heaps, but I found it easier (though a lot messier!) using my hands. You could also use individual paper liners.
  5. 5. Allow to harden in the fridge. They will not take long to set completely! Enjoy x
Adapted from Madame Zouzou, La Petite Rose des Sables (Paris)
Little Wanderings http://littlewanderings.com/

La Petite Rose des Sables: Your Very Own French Grandparents

When reminiscing on our La Petite Rose des Sables experience, two words come to mind: bizarre, and wonderful. 

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This gem popped onto the radar midway through our Paris stay whilst I was browsing the city’s top-rated restaurants as per TripAdvisor. Nestled between haute cuisine and Michelin stars was this peculiar little establishment, and the reviews immediately piqued my interest. There was mention of delicious food, yes, but the main attraction was overwhelmingly plain: the proprietors themselves. Reviewers spoke of an elderly French couple; they were short on English but abounding in warmth and hospitality. I excitedly hopped over to the restaurant’s website. It’s an admittedly sparse affair, but a trusty Google translation told enough: “We are open for twenty years. We try to share home cooking based on exchange and warmth. Feel free to visit us, we will try to have you as it should be, at home.”

Paying such a visit turned out to be a task in itself. The TripAdvisor reviews urged us to make a reservation – and so, not trusting our miniscule French to a phone conversation, we traipsed over to the tenth district in attempt to make contact with the famed Mr. and Mrs. La Petite Rose des Sables. Three times. In one day. My determination to eat at this restaurant was thoroughly foiled, mostly by our own incompetence in reading the very obvious sign on the door announcing that they were closed for a function. Over the following days our extraordinarily lovely Airbnb host, Cristina, repeatedly called to try and make a reservation on our behalf. Alas, this brilliant plan was also foiled. The phone rang unanswered – and on the one occasion someone did pick up, the conversation was incomprehensible even to French-speaking Cristina.

Mat and I tried one last time. We arrived at noon on our last day in Paris; we figured our best chance was to squeeze in for an early lunch sitting.

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We pushed open the door of La Petite Rose des Sables to find it totally empty. The restaurant is tiny – five little tables for two clustered to the left, and a bar to the right. I offered a ‘hello?’ above the French jazz wailing from the radio, dearly hoping someone would appear from what I assumed was the kitchen at back.

A few nervous seconds passed before she materialised. Clad in a gingham apron and straw boater hat, an elderly lady hurried us inside and sat us down. Despite conveying our most apologetic “Je ne parle pas français”, she spoke in a constant stream of French as she prepared our table. She laid down menus and extended a handshake to each of us, then placed a hand on her chest. “Madame Zouzou.”

And so, this Madame Zouzou would be our most extraordinary host. Before we had even a chance to order food, complimentary plates of ‘tapas’ were brought to the table and she delighted in filling our glasses with her special ‘sangria’. ‘Welcome, welcome!’ she cheered as she topped us up, beaming and laughing and then shuffling away to tinker behind the bar. She talked perpetually and exuberantly – and whilst we obviously struggled a lot in understanding one another, it was quite amazing how much we were able to communicate despite the language barrier. She was thrilled to learn we were Australian, and equated this solely to Sydney. She told a very long story that had something to do with a couple from Sydney who had previously visited La Petite Rose des Sables, and a pregnancy that assumedly followed. As she motioned to an imaginary pregnant belly over her own stomach, she erupted in raucous laughter and shook her head in apparent wonder at her own tale.

We ordered the daily special: beef bourguignon. Madame Zouzou yelled the order into the kitchen. She looked back to us and motioned to the rear of the restaurant – “Big Boss,” she said, and cackled loudly again. We could only assume this ‘Big Boss’ to be her husband. She took an old, black and white photo off the wall and laid it on our table, pointing down at one of the faces amongst a group strapping young firemen. “Big Boss,” she said again, and waited for our impressed response. She then very much appeared to start talking endearingly to the photo itself, poking the image of her younger husband repeatedly before making several kissing motions right up close, laughing somehow even louder than before and then tottering away. 

Mat and I were in the thick of the Petite Rose des Sables experience.

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We were in fact the only ones in the restaurant for most of our visit. Cristina’s failed efforts to make a phone reservation were suddenly explained; Madame Zouzou seemed mainly annoyed by incoming calls and ignored them all. On the other hand she was ecstatic for us to meet ‘Big Boss’, who introduced himself as Christian whilst he briefly appeared to deliver our beef bourguignon. He was lovely, smiley and quiet. His food was rustic style, hearty and delicious in that wonderful home-cooked way. As we ate, Madame Zouzou busied herself preparing complimentary cheeses and a giant bucket of walnuts on our side-table. Her entire being seemed to be consumed with attending to every little detail – but in a doddering old grandma way. When she noticed I was chilly, she emerged from behind the bar with a souvenir Paris scarf, opened it up and draped it over my shoulders. ‘Welcome to Paris!’ she shouted, and then pulled out souvenir keyrings for us. She would later apparently deem that I still looked cold, because she opened yet another souvenir scarf to give to me. This time she gave Mat a beanie.

Our post-lunch espressos came with the cutest little fondant decorations and chocolate ‘Roses des Sables’ treats, which I had watched Madame Zouzou arrange with adorable attentiveness. I naturally took a photo, but not before she had launched in to style the table for maximum La Petite Rose des Sables marketing. She urged us to don novelty hats for any photos of ourselves, and made sure she changed into her ‘Paris’ apron before jumping in a picture with us.

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It was just the most incredible, crazy affair. Madame Zouzou was hilarious, unabashed and beyond all, genuine. There was so much about the experience that, in any other circumstance, could verge on the tacky or touristy – but there is an honest warmth Zouzou and Christian have for travellers that simply transcends. It was a heartbreaking moment to realise it was time for us to go. As we prepared to leave, we were treated to Madame Zouzou’s last show of generosity: a pear liqueur digestif poured from a comically large carafe. “Aphrodisiac, aphrodisiac!” she loudly proclaimed, pointing at each of us. We laughed, she laughed and then she poured us both another. We paid the bill (outrageously cheap), offered our best ‘merci boucoups’ and were pulled in for double-cheeked kisses.

Another young couple had just taken a table; it was with full hearts and stomachs that we gave them knowing smiles on our way out. Boy, were they in for a treat.

La Petite Rose des Sables | 6 Rue de Lancry, 75010 Paris, France
http://www.lapetiterosedessables.fr/
Open | 
Lunch from 12.00pm, Dinner from 7.00pm. Closed Sundays.

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