Sipping a chilled glass of limoncello in the ornate Renaissance surroundings of an Italian piazza is a fine way to spend a sunny afternoon—church bells ringing out the hour the way they have since Michelangelo and Da Vinci called the place home.
Or you might prefer a stroll along the Guadalquivir River, in southern Spain’s ancient city of Seville, pausing to admire the abundance of red-bloomed geraniums flowing from the balconies of whitewashed townhouses in the city’s medieval Jewish quarter.
Or maybe more to your liking would be to pace the fortified sandstone walls of a perfectly preserved, 13th-century citadel, perched above the cliff banks of the Dordogne River, in south-central France. Or pause to admire the artwork underfoot on a walk along the intricate cobbles of a Lisbon avenue in Portugal.
Europe is tempting—and, luckily, more affordable than you likely imagine.
Come at Europe with a local’s eye and choose the off-season months around April for the best of southern Europe’s weather. You’ll be rewarded with a European spring that could easily cost you less than $2,700 a month.
Think about it: Europeans aren’t all filthy rich—yet they can afford to enjoy the history, architecture, romance, and ambience of the continent. In fact, the average salary in the EU is less than $22,500. Point is: You don’t need a fat wallet to enjoy a relaxed sojourn in Europe…you simply need to follow the locals’ lead. We’ve asked our correspondents for Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal to show you how it’s done…
Outdoor Living and La Dolce Vita in Italy
By Valerie Fortney-Schneider
When Jan Keshen retired from her teaching job last year, she celebrated by planning a three-month trip to Italy. She said being able to spend time seeing the country in-depth was a dream come true.
“We’re not super-rich,” she said. But by staying in apartments and balancing longer stays in less expensive spots with a few hotel nights in cities, she and her husband struck an affordable balance. “Turns out, I loved the grocery shopping and cooking in Italy; it became a big part of the overall travel experience.”
The great thing about Italian towns and cities is that most of their best attractions are free. Those charming lanes, pretty piazzas, artistic fountains, art-adorned churches and exquisite Renaissance palaces are all like open-air museums. The constant exposure to such historic romance is part of what makes Italy so alluring.
Wine tasting at a local winery is usually free, and if you take your own bottles, you can fill them up for about $2.50 a liter, straight from the vat. Pack a picnic to enjoy in the postcard-like countryside, and enjoy Italy’s treasured aperitivo, where your glass of wine is accompanied by enough snacks to make a light dinner, for only $6.25 to $7.50. Otherwise, cafés and small restaurants often offer filling three-course, fixed-price lunch menus (look for menu a prezzo fisso) from $8 to $12.
Look for the City Cards. Many cities in Italy now offer a City Card or Museum Pass to save you money on entrance fees. Not just Rome, Florence, and Venice, either; you’ll find them in Verona, Orvieto, Naples, and Turin, too. Ask at each town you visit; they just may have discounts.
If I were to pick one place to spend three months, I’d pick Umbria. It’s perfect for exploring the entire center of the country.
Around the region you’ll find divinely decorated cathedrals, festivals, and perfectly preserved hill towns at every turn. Even small villages have a sense of life and history, and enough services to satisfy daily needs. It isn’t remote and yet it isn’t overrun. It is both rural and refined, full of culture and high on outdoor activities, too.
Best of all, its location means you can easily explore Tuscany, Le Marche, and Lazio, the region that hosts Rome. My vote for best home base goes to Cittá della Pieve, a sophisticated town near the Tuscan border. Unfurling itself across a ridge, it is elegant and graceful, yet friendly and easy going. With Renaissance-era appeal and world-class artwork by hometown hero Il Perugino, it also has nice restaurants, homey trattorias, everyday coffee bars, and classy wine bars. This is where actors Colin Firth and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio have vacation homes, but you don’t have to be wealthy to hang out here.
I found some beautiful furnished apartments on a country estate a few miles from town in an old stone farmhouse with a swimming pool, a relaxed place to spend a few months. The rent? Only $680 a month for a comfortably furnished 1,200-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment. Prefer to be in town? There are some simple but furnished apartments in the old town renting from $430 to $560 a month. See: Immobiliare.it.
Everyday Sophistication in France
By Barbara Diggs
Living in France for three months isn’t an unattainable dream. It just takes planning, patience, and a helping of insider knowledge.
You may not land in an apartment with a view of the Seine in Paris, but a couple can live very comfortably in many parts of France for $2,700 or less a month.
Picking the right base can save you money on travel. For example, if you know you’ll want to explore Italy as well as France while you’re in Europe, base yourself in the sunny south. If you have an apartment in Nice, you can pop over to northern Italy for lunch (on a $12 round-trip train ticket) and be back in France for apéros and dinner. If Spain’s more your thing, the lovely city of Montpellier is only a three-hour train ride away from Barcelona.
Be aware that during French vacation periods, it’s common for prices, from hotel and apartment fees to train tickets, to leap upward. So pay close attention to the French holiday schedule so you can plan around these mini-peak seasons. For example, in most Western countries, the month of May is a “shoulder” season—between low season and peak. But because the French have a high number of bank holidays during this month, some prices can be higher in May than in June. You can learn more about the French holiday schedule at Publicholidays.fr/school-holidays.
For my money, I’d base myself in Pézenas, a stunning medieval town in the Languedoc region. At its heart, it’s exactly the kind of honey-colored village with fragrant brilliant flowers and winding cobblestone lanes that encapsulates the words “South of France.” Here you can rent a bright and airy two-bedroom house, with garden and shared swimming pool, for as little as $800 a month during off season. Longtermrentalsinfrance.com.
On Saturdays, the town explodes into a frenzy of color and activity, as its market fills the square. It’s been a tradition since the 14th century, and if you’re basing yourself there, it’s a delight to fill your basket each week with the fruits, vegetables, cheeses, sausages, honey, and other specialties of the region. Running from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., it’s the only “all-day” market in the area.
Pézenas is also an ideal base for those wanting to explore the region. The large medieval university town of Montpellier is about 45 minutes away. This city is teeming with shops and restaurants and has a lively cultural scene.
Pézenas is also near a slew of picturesque fishing villages that are a delight to explore. Bouzigues, along the Thau lagoon, has some of the best oysters in the area. And don’t forget that the sparkling blue Mediterranean is less than an hour away.