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. 

Bled Cream Cake

It probably goes without saying that food was pretty much the driving force behind most of our Europe adventures. When I think back on the trip, a kind of illustrated map of Europe pops into my head – Amsterdam is marked, of course, by a stroopwafel, and Munich by a schmalznudel. Paris is drawn up as a beautiful charcuterie platter, and Venice an assortment of local cicchetti. And up in the alps of Slovenia, the tiny town of Bled has got to be the not-so-humble (more on that later) Bled Cream Cake. 

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Bled is one of the most beautiful, picturesque places I have ever travelled. I know it sounds tired and clichéd, but it really does look like a postcard that’s been enchanted to life. Slovenia as a whole was just magical, but Bled in particular has a legitimate fairytale thing going on. The alpine town sits on Lake Bled, a glacial lake that’s surrounded by forest and overlooked by a cliff-top castle. In the middle of the lake is Bled Island, which is just big enough for a couple of small buildings and a church. We hired a little rowboat (I kicked back whilst Mat happily did all of the rowing) to make our way over and explore. There are 99 steps that lead up to the church; apparently it’s very good luck for a groom to carry his (totally silent) bride up the steps on their wedding day, and then ring the church bell. Visitors can also pay €6 to ring the bell for a little good luck themselves. We instead chose to sit down for ice-cream.

It was in fact this ice-cream on Bled Island that would be our first foray into the world of Bled Cream Cake. Prior to our little rowboat sojourn, we’d noticed the dessert just about everywhere in Bled. Appearing somewhat similar to a traditional Aussie vanilla slice, the Bled Cream Cake – or kremšnita, as it is known locally – is a layer of cream and a layer of vanilla custard sandwiched between puff pastry, and dusted with icing sugar. We’d seen individual packages of  it flying out the door at the local bakery, and giant, wobbling slabs being slid into place on display at our favourite cafe. It seemed outrageously popular with visitors and locals alike. The cake has even achieved the European Union’s Protection of Designation of Origin certification, meaning only that made in Bled using recognised techniques can be labelled ‘Bled Cream Cake’. And so, upon choosing my ice-cream flavour atop Bled Island, I could hardly go past Bled Cream Cake. 

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It would be the next afternoon that Mat and I set out to conquer the real deal. Whilst we’d intended to simply pick up a couple of slices at our adopted café, the dessert gods had other plans. A chance meeting with Jani – the owner of our accommodation, Jazz Hostel & Apartments, and also the happiest and most enthusiastic man I’ve ever met – on our way meant we were instead steered in the direction of Hotel Park, a large hotel on the shore of Lake Bled. Jani urged that it was here where we’d find the best Cream Cake in Bled; his wife is a sweet-tooth and she swears by it. We didn’t need to be told twice. You just don’t ignore insider knowledge like that.

It turns out that the Bled Cream Cake at Hotel Park is hardly a local secret. The hotel restaurant is famously recognised as the birthplace of the Bled Cream Cake, conjured to perfection by pâtissier Ištvan Kovačevič in 1953. It’s claimed that over 10 million Bled Cream Cakes have been baked at Hotel Park since. It’s just kind of a big deal, it seems. We sat down on a lovely, large terrace, ordered our cream cakes and watched a huge storm roll in over the lake. It was very cool. Up until the moment when the storm reached us, naturally. Then it was mostly wet and windy.

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And the Bled Cream Cake? It was delicious, of course. I love vanilla slice, and most any custard dessert – so this is an easy win for me. The pastry was beautifully crisp and golden, and the centre light and creamy. It’s not something I’ll be pining for, but that’s simply because Australia does a damn fine vanilla slice anyway. But if I ever find myself back in Bled (and I sincerely hope I do!), I will most certainly be making another trip back to Hotel Park. Bled Cream Cake heartily earns its spot as the face of Bled on my hypothetical gastronomical map of Europe, because it’s just kind of adorable how the whole town has embraced and totally owned this little cake. And who wouldn’t want a piece of that?

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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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Little Wanderings - Roses des Sables Recipe 2

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/
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