The Photographers’ Gallery – London

Located between Soho and Fitzrovia this is a great little stop for tourists like myself who can’t commit to a full day in one of the big museums but still wants to see something interesting and artistic.

“The Photographers’ Gallery is the largest public gallery in London dedicated to photography. From the latest emerging talent, to historical archives and established artists, we’re the place to see photography in all its forms.”

Free for visitors until 1pm, and then only £3, the museum sits on 5 floors, 3 of which house the exhibits.  On the ground floor is a cute cafe, also worthwhile for a visit.

When I was there I stumbled across “Made You Look – Dandyism and Black Masculinity” as well as photographs by fashion photography icon Terence Donovan.

Check their website for current exhibits and definitely pay it a visit when in London.

The Photographers’ Gallery, 16 – 18 Ramillies St, London W1F 7LW  +44 (020) 7087 9300

Mon – Sat 10.00 – 18.00, Thu 10.00 – 20.00 during exhibitions, Sun 11.00 – 18.00


Last minute June discounts on select apartments in Rome’s historic center

Appartamento Cestari – 2 bed / 2 bath apartment, available June 13, 14, 15 and 16 for 114 euro a night. Click here for more info or to reserve.

Navona al Tevere Apartment – 2 bed / 2 bath with terrace near Piazza Navona.  Can sleep up to 6 guests.  Available June 5, 6, 7, 8 for 125-135 euro, depending on number of guests.  Click here for more information or to reserve.


Capo le Case Apartment – 1 bed / 1 bathroom, sleeps 4, near The Spanish Steps.  Available June 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 for 102 euro a night for 2 guests, +5 euro per night for each additional guest.  Click here for more info or the reserve.


Appartamento Sardegna, 2 bed / 2 bath, sleeps 6 guests, just off Via Veneto.  Available from June 5th to 17th for 136 euro a night up to 4 guests and +10 euro a night for each additional.  For more info or to reserve, click here.

Touring the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s with Through Eternity

I’m just going to jump in and say it – if you go to the Vatican museums on your own, unguided, you’re wasting your time.

I’ve lived in Rome, on and off at first, for the last 20 years and had been to the Vatican only once.  I suppose part of that is because it’s what happens to people when they live near a tourist site – you assume you can go anytime because it’s right there, and prefer to wait for a time when it’s less crowded, which never happens.   That’s a good explanation for why I didn’t go for the first 5 years of living here.  The reason why I’d never gone back in the following 15 years is because the experience, frankly, wasn’t enjoyable.  I’ve had visits to the dentist’s office that were better.

Does anyone really enjoy the Vatican museums?  I’ve wondered this often as I hear our guests recount the days they dutifully spend there, first in line outside, then being herded through the labyrinthian hallways to catch a glimpse of the Sistine Chapel.  Despite it being on everyone’s must see list, I’d never heard anyone go on about how amazing it was and how they wish they could have more of it.  For the art historian, I can see how it would be like a kid in a candy store.  But for the average Joe, I always wondered what they actually got out of it.

When my wife said she’d booked us on a 5 hour tour of the museums and St. Peter’s with Through Eternity, I first felt that this would be a great opportunity to see if I could finally, with authority, substantiate my negative opinions of the museum.  Then reality hit and I wondered how on Earth I was going to make it through 5 hours of anything.  Then I just gave up worrying about it and went with it, as zen and open as possible.

Spoiler alert – the Vatican is pretty incredible.  However, it’s not an easy museum, and it’s not optimized for its visitors in any way.  And I’m 100% convinced that it wouldn’t have been worthwhile had I wandered through it by myself without a guide.  In the end, we were there 6 hours, and all of it, except the overpriced food, was great.

A visit to the Vatican Museums is a big commitment and as is true with all big commitments, you should be well informed.  For example – know that if you go on your own without booking ahead, you’re looking at a really long wait to get in:

Perhaps an hour?  Maybe more?  As the picture shows, these folks look like they’ve been there a while already, and this line stretches all the way down the street and around the corner.  This is, of course, the line for those who decided to show up without tickets. If you buy your ticket online and print it before arrival, you can jump this queue and go right to the entrance.  From there, visitors are divided into two categories: individuals and group tours.  If you’ve booked a tour with a guide, then you get even further preferential treatment.  We walked straight past the line for individuals and went right in.  I don’t even think we came to a full standstill.  For a museum that gets about 25,000 visitors A DAY, that’s pretty incredible.

Once inside, you’re part of a crush of humanity, all wandering slowly, trying to determine where to put your attention – because there’s so many options.  Our guide, Mario, told us that if you were to spend a few seconds in front of each painting in the entire complex, it would add up to about 25 years.

Here’s the thing – there are some wonderful,  beautiful paintings in the Vatican Museums and if you want to visit unguided, you can stroll around and look at lots of pretty paintings and sculpture on a variety of themes, like Jesus, Jesus and Mary, Mary by herself, the Apostles, Jesus being crucified, Jesus being resurrected…  I think you get my point – Catholicism is the main attraction.  For someone who’s not religious, and doesn’t recognize the characters in the paintings or the stories being depicted, there’s only so much you can take of this.  Maybe I’m just shallow and uncultured, but in the 1500′s it would have been amazing to see a painting that was realistically portrayed of a biblical scene.  It would have been amazing to see a painting of anything that you had never before seen in real life – like a certain city or an animal or maybe the seaside.  Throughout history, paintings were the only way to really see into someone else’s imagination, or a depiction of something outside your reality.

In 2016…  less so.

My point is that I think realistically and honestly, it’s hard for many people to get out of paintings what people got out of them centuries ago.  We’re jaded.  We’ve seen it all – and in full motion, in 3D, and Photoshopped to perfection.  Seeing pretty pictures just isn’t that amazing anymore.  What makes them amazing, and interesting, is to understand them and the time in which they were made and the history behind them.  It’s the technique and how it evolved.  It’s the politics and motivations that surround them.  It’s the life of the artists themselves.  It’s all about the context, and to get that, you either need to study art seriously, or you need a guide.

Mario, our guide, was not only well informed and passionate, but also theatrical and compelling.  Our visit combined the history of art, and how artists cultivated different techniques in different periods, to the history of religion itself and how religion and politics were (and in many cases still are) inseparable.

The visit to the museum, at that point, became a lot more than about just art.  I think to fully understand Western history, you need to understand Rome, and to fully understand Rome, you need to understand its relation to the church.  To understand that, and even more, to see it, you need to visit the Vatican Museums.

Some other tips about visiting the Museum & Saint Peter’s Basilica:

* The food is terrible and overpriced, so bring a pack lunch.  If you leave after the museum to go eat, and then want to visit St. Peter’s, you’ll have to queue again, whereas if you go from the museum to St. Peter’s, you don’t have to.

* Bring little kids – if you’re crazy, a masochist, and/or a glutton for punishment.  It’s just too crowded, too slow going, and too complex for them to enjoy it (in my opinion as the father of 3 daughters).

* Get there by metro or bus.  You could walk, but it’s exhausting to stand for hours in a museum.  Get there on a full tank, because you’ll be leaving on an empty one.

* Don’t forget to wear something that covers or can cover your knees and shoulders.  It’s a sacred place, and God is weird about knees and shoulders.

* You don’t need a passport.  Yes, the Vatican  is technically a separate country, but there’s no border patrol.

* Plan to go up the dome of St. Peter’s.  You can pay to take an elevator from the bottom to halfway, inside of the dome, looking down into St. Peter’s, and then you climb up through the dome itself to the very top.  If you’re into taking photos, this is a must.

* If you want to hear the Pope’s audience on Wednesday or Sunday, get tickets in advance online, come pick them up before, and them come super early to get a good seat (like 5:30 / 6 am).  Francesco is a popular Pope.  He fills the house.

* Most importantly, go by yourself, and you’ll just be spending hours looking at old, pretty pictures.  Book a tour with a well informed guide.

Thank you to Through Eternity who hosted me on this tour.  Through Eternity is one of only a handful of tour companies we have recommended over the years and if you are staying at our hostel, The Beehive, guests there get an additional discount using a promo code.

Why You Should Avoid Illegal Rentals

Here at Cross-Pollinate we’re always happy to pass along travel tips and suggestions that are useful and enlightening.  When we started in 2000, hotel-alternatives were small fry and we, as well as others, were able to offer cheaper, more personal accommodations without creating ripples in the travel world or among local residents.

That is no longer the case.  Vacation rentals and home sharing is huge business now, and with big business comes big problems.  Because we believe an informed traveler is a happy traveler, we’d like to weigh in on the controversy surrounding legal vs. illegal rentals.

What is an illegal rental?

This can vary from city to city, but most major tourist destinations and dense urban centers have regulations that govern private room or apartment renting.  Basically any room, apartment or house that rents space without respecting these regulations is not legal.  Add to that the issues of taxes on income, hotel/occupancy taxes, and under the table employment – which are abuses of the systems we all depend on, made by both illegal and legal rentals.  Those who are technically authorized to rent their places might still fall foul of the law by choice or necessity, but those who aren’t authorized at all to be renting their properties are surely incapable or unwilling to abide by other laws that are all connected.

The situation, in a nutshell:

With the onslaught of vacation rentals flooding the market (mostly stemming from the enormous venture capital of Airbnb), online marketplaces are making it easy for guests to connect with hosts who conveniently, but illegally, are monetizing the extra space in their private homes.  This isn’t new, but it had previously operated in the shadows to the degree that most governments felt wasn’t worth going after.

Over the last 8 years, an influx of “shared housing” has created underground economies that are putting the squeeze on legitimate vacation property owners, while creating housing shortages that are driving up long-term rental prices.  In response to this trend, many cities like Paris, Barcelona, Berlin, San Francisco, New York and Santa Monica are starting to crack down, putting oversight and regulatory enforcement programs in place, or battling to have existing laws respected with cooperation from the sites who list them.

Why should you care?

The burden of the law shouldn’t be on the buyer, and in some cases even the residents themselves aren’t clear about what they can and can’t do legally, let alone travelers.  So it’s unlikely and unreasonable to imagine that a traveler can do due diligence and determine if a rental is legal or illegal, and if legal, to what degree.  Simply put, it’s not your responsibility to know or to care.

But with that said, we’ve seen some patterns of behavior that affect the traveler by those who aren’t professionals.  Whether illegal or legal, someone who depends on the reputation and longevity of their business will make different decisions than someone who rents casually or when they feel like it.  People who are concerned with the consequences will take more care than those who are either unaware of the consequences or simply don’t care.

Here are some practical reasons why we believe you should avoid illegal rentals when traveling:

  • Cancellations. Booking an illegal rental puts you at risk of being stranded without a place to stay if a property owner is forced to comply with the law and removes their rental from the market.  I’m sorry to say that this happens all the time, and we’re often contacted by travelers who’ve had their accommodation “fall through” at the last minute.  By the time this happens, there’s usually little else available and often the price is higher than it was originally.
  • Safety. Hosts who circumvent the rental permit process are also less likely to follow fire safety regulations, building codes and/or have the required insurance coverage for public lodging establishments.  If you don’t care about the law and preventing disasters, you really don’t care much about the people they might happen to.
  • Scams. Statistics show that of the millions of vacation accommodations published online, about 10% of them are fraudulent ads. Many victims pay deposits for properties that don’t exist or arrive to find them occupied by the ‘real’ owners.
  • The Backlash. The short-term rental boom is turning quiet neighborhoods into noisy tourists havens and apartment buildings into defacto hotels.  Understandably, this creates bad blood between neighbors (long-term vs. short-term) and guests are often on the receiving end of that anger. Encounters in the lobby or elevator with residents can be uncomfortable, to say the least.
How to avoid illegal rentals?
That’s a tough question, as there is no single standard anywhere.  One would have to research the laws in each city to get an idea of what’s allowed and what’s not.  Even for us, an agency that knows, more or less, the laws in the cities we operate, we have no way of being 100% sure if a company is legal or not.  We do, however, make sure that owners are renting on an ongoing basis and take it seriously – filtering out anyone who shows any signs to the contrary (for example, we won’t even work with people who are unresponsive to emails).

The upside of apartment rentals in general is that they tend to be more affordable than traditional hotels, B&Bs and vacation accommodations – especially important for budget travelers.  Airbnb grew to its impressive size by creating a large portfolio of cheap options.  But as with all things, you get what you pay for: the savings you’re being offered is normally because a corner was cut somewhere else.  On a large scale, as it is now, this can have a huge negative impact on neighborhoods, economies and your trip.

Saving money is great, but if your precious holiday time is ruined, you may be throwing away a lot more in the end.  It really comes down to one question: Do the benefits of an illegal rental outweigh the risks?

Below are just some of the rules and regulations for the European cities that Cross-Pollinate has properties in:

  • In Rome, Florence and Venice. All rentals must be authorized by the city and guests must be registered on arrival by the property owners/manage with the police department, as well as collecting a city tourist tax, which varies city by city.
  • To have a holiday rental in Barcelona, an owner must obtain a license of occupancy (the number needs to be displayed in all advertising), comply with the same health and safety laws as hotels, and collect a Catalan tourist tax (per person, per night).
  • In Paris, the law states that a flat must 1) be registered as a commercial property or 2) be the host’s primary residence.  Owners who take one property off the rental market to residents must purchase a second property to “balance things out”.  There is also a tourist tax to be paid to the city.
  • Lisbon insists that owners register their property at the local tax office.
  • Istanbul allows unrestricted short-term rentals and holiday rental-friendly London lets owners rent their homes for up to 90 days a year without obtaining a permit.


New Flat-Rate Taxi Fees for Paris Airports

For visitors to the City of Lights, the latest taxi fare law takes the financial guesswork out of grabbing a cab from either Charles de Gaulle or Orly airports into the center of Paris.

Announced in May, the new guidelines went into effect on March 1, 2016. The flat rates will be applied only to rides between the two major Paris airports and the Left and Right Banks.

What this means is taxi drivers must forgo the traditional metering system for aiport trips. Tariffs are set between €55 and 30€ depending on the airport and the side of the river Seine a passenger wants to go or come from.

Along with the price change (a cab from the airport into the center used to cost customers as much as €80), supplements for baggage and animals are no longer allowed. Drivers can, however, impose a surcharge of €4 per passenger when a group exceeds four (4), and if a rider books ahead for pickup, an additional €4 reservation fee (immediate pick up) and €7 (in advance) will be charged. Rates remain the same at night and on holidays. As of March 2016, prices are as follows:

Between Charles de Gaulle and The Left Bank €55
Between Charles de Gaulle and The Right Bank €50
Between Orly and The Left Bank €35
Between Orly and The Right Bank €30

The new rates are great news for travelers, but for cab drivers…maybe not so much.