Housesitting in Italy: A Personal Experience and Lessons Learned
Ever wondered about how to have free accommodation while traveling the world? It’s time you considered housesitting and petsitting!
I spent about a month in beautiful Tuscany, Italy with my ex, but I didn’t do it in the typical “touristy” sense. Instead, I watched someone else's house and dogs in exchange for free housing. I did so in a less popular place in the region: Viareggio. There, I took care of two Spanish Greyhounds, taught English online in the house I was taking care of, and took a few day trips around Tuscany.
Programs and Signing Up
I had signed up for Trusted Housesitters and Housecarers a couple of months beforehand, but never used either of them. Both sites are for people who want to housesit and/or watch pets while the owners are away in exchange for free accommodation. It's also for people who need someone to watch their homes and/or pets while they're away! You can travel the world by housesitting/pet watching for free rent!
Trusted Housesitters is the more popular of the two sites. There are tons of new housesitting opportunities posted daily. However, there is one small problem: there are more people applying to be housesitters on this site, so it's sometimes a little hard to find a place to housesit. I applied to at least 25 places or so during my search. Three people told me that I would definitely be selected. But, two of the three cancelled on me last second, then only one selected me in the end.
Although you have to apply to a decent amount of places to be accepted, it's definitely worth it if you're looking to simultaneously travel and save money on rent. Plus, there is an annual fee of $119 USD, but you can get 20% off by signing up here! Although the fee may look daunting, it proves to be well worth it if you do even one housesit!
Quick tip: If you sign up with them, make sure to get the daily emails for new housesits. I look at them every day and try to apply to any that I see, like, and can do! It's best to apply once a new housesit has been posted so you're noticed first.
The other site I use is HouseCarers. The reason I signed up with them was because Trusted Housesitters has so many people on it now. HouseCarers is cheaper-- just $50 annually-- and there are fewer people that know about it, so fewer people with whom to fight for housesits! Plus, the housesits are usually for a longer amount of time, which is great for people that want to stay in one place for a while.
Scoring a Housesit
You can housesit almost anywhere in the world. I've seen tons of countries on both sites, but mainly, there are more places for the US, the UK, Australia, and Canada.
While creating my profile, I had a list of things I knew I needed to have in them:
A detailed description of my past and my personality
What specifically makes me fully capable of taking care of homes and animals and why I’m the best choice
Excellent references from friends and family (I didn’t have prior experience)
Clear photographs of myself— with animals ad while traveling is a bonus!
After developing my profile on both sites, I began searching for places to go. While doing so, I kept a few things in mind so I could enjoy my housesit/petsit to the maximum: anywhere warm, so in Central, South America, Europe, or anywhere else in those general areas, was only a couple of months, and wasn’t too strenuous (I wasn’t about to take care of horses or anything because that sounds difficult and I’m lazy!). Unfortunately, there weren't many that fit that exact criteria. But, I applied to almost every place that fit my criteria that I could find.
I eventually found a place after applying to numerous places for about a month (patience is key!). I found a place in Viareggio, Italy, which is in the Northwestern part of Tuscany on the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea. It was a one-bedroom house with a large front yard and there were two Spanish Greyhounds ("Galgos" in Spanish) to take care of there. We interviewed via Skype with the couple that lived there and owned the dogs. After the interview, they immediately accepted us, which was incredibly exciting! Woohoo!
The housesit would start on November 15th and end December 16th. When I was accepted, it was the first week of November, so I had to quickly find cheap tickets to Italy! I went on Skyscanner (as I always do) and miraculously found a one-way ticket to Rome for $175! Not too bad, so, I obviously scooped those up real quick.
Before I flew out to Rome, I realized that Rome was actually about a four hour drive from Viareggio. So, I needed to find a way to get there from the airport in Rome. I googled trains and buses, but they were all super expensive, a headache, or not available. Huge bummer! While on GoEuro, which shows you all of the ways to get to your destination using public transportation, I magically stumbled upon BlaBlaCar.
What is BlaBlaCar? It's a legitimate and cost-friendly carpooling website! You just plug in where you are, where you want to go, and when, and you can find people who are driving the same route, then carpool with them. It's brilliant, simple, fun, and cheap.
I found an available driver that was heading from Rome to Pisa (just twenty minutes to Viareggio by train) and it was just 20 Euros ($25 USD) per person! That was far cheaper than any trains I found and sounded like a much more relaxing journey. Only a couple of days before my flight, I booked our BlaBlaCar. Then, I booked the train from Pisa to Viareggio, just in case.
Once I landed and gathered my things, my BlaBlaCar driver was waiting right outside the terminal for me.! She walked me to her car, I put my things in, hopped in, and were on our way!
It was an incredible experience. She was a twenty-year-old Italian woman, originally from a town near Rome, but living and studying to be a doctor in Pisa. She was so fun, kind, and hospitable! I had amazing conversations with her and she gave me awesome advice on places to go and things to do while in Tuscany.
We arrived in Pisa a little ahead of schedule-- almost an hour ahead, actually! When BlaBlaCar provides an estimate of how long a ride will take, they include bathroom breaks, gas breaks, and possible traffic. So, they always add on extra time.
I hopped on the train and got to Viareggio two stops later where the housesit host picked me up!
The Month-Long Housesit
Before the hosts left, they wanted me there a couple of days before they left to get acquainted with me and for me to get acquainted with the house and dogs. And rightfully so!
The couple rented me an apartment for those two days, which was also right on the boardwalk, which is called Passeggiata di Viareggio. It's the most popular place in Viareggio because it's right on the water and there are tons of shops, restaurants, and gelato shops along the boardwalk. What a great, free apartment!
That first night and right after putting my stuff down, I ended up getting a glass of wine with the woman we were housesitting for! We went to a lovely little place on the Passeggiata called Gran Caffè Margherita. How sweet is that?
The following day, the couple picked me up and took me to their house to meet the dogs, then they took me out for a lovely lunch next to the beach! Luckily, it was a beautiful day, so we were even able to eat outside with the dogs!
Afterwards, we went back to the house with them (all four of them!) to relax and chat a bit. It was then that I started analyzing the dogs. I'd never seen Spanish Greyhounds before and I just couldn't help but notice how strange-looking they were. They're big dogs, but incredibly skinny. Their ribcages are vertical rather than horizontal, as you would see on most other dog breeds. However, I did notice that they were very sweet, tranquil, quiet, comfortable, and lovable furiends! They also had small bursts of energy, but slept 90% of the day!
The following day was my first official housesitting day, so the couple picked me up from my apartment and took me to the house. Once there, they grabbed their suitcases, said goodbye, and quickly left. And so it began!
Naturally, something went wrong immediately. The house didn't have a landline connection, so the WiFi was a hotspot from the popular Italian company called TIM. It wasn't working at all! And, if you don't know/you forgot, I work on my computer, so the WiFi is a pretty big deal to me! I freaked out instantly.
I quickly hopped on a bike that was provided for me and rode it to a TIM store in town (which I luckily found on the phone the homeowners supplied for me!). When I got there, the guy looked at the hotspot and, since I had a different name from the owner of the hotspot, he was instantly claiming he couldn't help me. I begged and pleaded with him! He did eventually gave in, called someone who fixed it (is technology just secretly magic?), then charged me 10 euros for the service. Rude! A couple of hours later, it did work, so I guess that worked out.
Housesitting/Petsitting Lesson Learned: make sure the WiFi functions before you start!
Back to the dogs! The two Spanish Greyhounds were named Freddy and Carlos. While caring for them, I had to pick up their poop every morning, feed them once in the morning and once at night, and let them outside in the front yard whenever they wanted to. Since they had a yard, it wasn't mandatory for me to walk them. I could've, but if they had gotten off the leash, it would've been near impossible to get them back apparently, so I didn't want to risk that. However, they were never bored outside. They enjoyed laying in the sun while snug in their beds and they would often play with the dog next door by chasing each other along the fence between them. So cute!
For their meals, they had some seriously delectable grub! For breakfast, they'd have some chicken and veggies (all pre-prepared and frozen by the homeowners) with dry dog food. For dinner, they'd have some more chicken and veggies with some pasta with rice, dry dog food, and an extra meat, usually some cheaper steak, liver, hot dogs, and the like. They were some spoiled pups, I gotta tell you. But, they're happy and healthy ones at that!
Day Trip: Pisa
While I was in Italy, I wanted to take day trips at least once per week. I couldn't leave the dogs for more than five hours at a time, which was fine because there were plenty of places nearby that wouldn't require more time out of my day than that.
My first week there, I took a day trip to Pisa, since I’d always desperately wanted to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa. After the morning routine with the dogs, I rode my bike to the train station in Viareggio, bought a ticket at the ticket machine there, validated my tickets in the blue machine (you must do this before boarding a train in Italy!), then got on a train to Pisa, which was fortunately only twenty minutes away (and only a few Euros each way!).
Something I quickly realized about Italy, or at least the places I traveled to and fro, the train stations can be a little sketchy. There are a lot of homeless and/or mentally unstable people wandering around there. They're often shouting, talking to themselves, or even approaching you, asking for anything and everything. It is pretty uncomfortable, to say the least! I started to hate the train stations almost immediately because of this, which is unfortunate because the trains are otherwise perfect! Clean, comfortable, and relatively cheap (when traveling short distances).
I got to Pisa and, once I walked out of the train station, I was right on Walking Street, or Corso Italia. It's one of the main things to see in Pisa other than the Leaning Tower, which the street takes you right to from the train station. I walked along there for awhile, admiring the quaint and colorful street, its architecture, the restaurants, shops, and even the people. After a bit, I realized I was starving (aren't I always?), but I didn't want to eat at any touristy places, since I knew A. I'd be ripped off and B. the food wouldn't be that spectacular. Instead, wI chose to veer off onto a random side street in search from a lesser known restaurant.
While searching, the realization hit me that it was going to be difficult because almost every place was closed! Ah, yes. A typical Sunday in Europe. Of course everything was closed! I walked for about twenty minutes, getting hangrier and hangrier with each footstep. Eventually, I found a little cafe/restaurant that was open. It didn't look like anything spectacular, but we were not about to keep wandering, so we instantly sat down there.
Obviously, I made great choices: wine and pizza!
Everything I had was outstanding. Do you really even need to hear/read me say/write that?! And, of course, I ate it all.
With a full and happy tummy, I walked a couple of blocks and found the Arno River. That was a surprising and very much welcomed view!
I walked along the river, admiring the day, then crossed over the Ponte di Mezzo Bridge. I stood there for several minutes, enjoying the view on both sides of the bridge. By the way, this bridge connects with Corso Italia (Walking Street), so if I had kept walking along that street instead of venturing off in search of food, I would've found my way to that bridge anyway.
After the bridge, I walked a couple of blocks afterwards and then boom-- there was the Leaning Tower of Pisa! When I first saw it from a distance, I thought that it looked almost like an amusement park. It looked fake, something novelty, that an amusement park might have. It really just looked surreal!
Once I got up close, I thought it looked significantly more awe-inspiring. It also most certainly was crooked! Not even questionable. Then, we took some obnoxious pictures with it, which you just have to do when you're there! One of my favorite parts of seeing the Leaning Tower was actually looking around and watching the people taking funny pictures.
After I admired that for awhile, I walked back along Walking Street towards the train station so I could return to the house and dogs. On my way, I got some gelato and it was awesome! They even put an extra piece of cone in it that was leaning. How cute!
When I was just about three blocks from the train station, I was stopped at this red crossing signal, yammering away loudly to each other. Suddenly, I was approached by some guy who asked me if I spoke English. Normally, I like to lie to people and say, "No" who ask me that and are sketchy looking so I don't have to talk to them, but since I was talking so loudly with my ex, it was hard to lie to him. I said yes, then he blabbered on to me about how he's from Libya and needs to go to the doctor because he has a bump on his ankle (he showed me and it was the size of a softball!), but he doesn't have any money. Just as I predicted from the moment he approached mes: he was asking for money.
But, I never give people money like that because I know it almost never truly helps people who are in desperate need. Plus, he was a very grimy, dirty, and strung-out fellow, so I knew where that money would really go. Sticking to my guns, I said, "No, sorry," once the crossing signal turned green and walked away from him. Apparently, that didn't sit well with him.
He followed us and loudly cursed at both of us. He was saying things like "fuck you," "I'm gonna fuck your mother," "fucking people," and so on. We both were completely terrified and didn't know what to do! I mean, who knows what that man had on him and what he was willing to do to us! We had no option but to walk away as fast as we could from this guy, but he followed us all the way to the train station. Even while walking past people, no one seemed bothered, surprised, frightened, or helpful at all, which was so strange. There were also no police officers anywhere, which is bizarre since it's such a popular place.
We finally got to the train station, almost out of breath from walking so fast and being terrified for our lives, and instantly went to the ticket booth. We bought tickets for a train to Viareggio, looking over our shoulders the entire time. Luckily, we didn't see him anywhere, but that didn't mean he wasn't hiding somewhere nearby. We hustled towards our train's platform, hearts pounding. We still didn't see him, which was great, but didn't mean we were completely safe. And, again, we were in a train station, which isn't entirely safe in Italy, as I mentioned. Once again, no police officers! And no workers anywhere, other than the one teller in the building 100 feet away.
It's one thing to be approached by someone like that, but have someone nearby that can help you, like a police officer. But, when that happens and there's no one there to save you or help you in someway, it's significantly more horrifying. Fear and helplessness aren't very good feelings, especially not when they're combined. In summation, it's a downer that where we went in Italy there weren't any police officers, especially when we needed them. But, luckily, we arrived back to our house and the dogs in Viareggio unscathed.
I worked for another week and, of course, took care of the doggies! That weekend, my ex and I took another day trip, but this time to Lucca. Lucca isn't a particularly popular place in Tuscany, but it was just a twenty-minute train ride from Viareggio so I figured, why not? After all, many of the greatest places in the world are off the beaten path.
Lucca is a small city with just a population of about 84,000. It's biggest attraction is the wall that surrounds part of the city. This wall was replaced a few times since its first construction during Roman times, but the most recent construction was finished in the sixteenth century. It's also known for its square, called Piazza dell'Anfiteatro, which was built from the remains of an amphitheater that was built in the 1st or 2nd century. The Piazza itself was constructed in 1830.
After getting out of the train station, just like Pisa, I walked straight out and there was the wall! I approached the wall, walked up a few staircases into it, and came out on the top of the wall. From there, you can see some beautiful views of the mountains nearby and the city itself. Also, there is this nice walking trail all along the top of the wall, which is lined with trees.
I walked on the trail for a bit, then turned off of it when I could so that I could go visit the Piazza. I followed Google Maps through all of these adorable, curvy streets for only about eight minutes into the Piazza.
Quick tip: For those who travel without service on your phone, but need to figure out how to get places, you can download offline Google maps of the region you're going while on WiFi. Then, save it to your phone and use it when you don't have service!
When I got there, it felt like I’d been thrown back into the Roman Empire. I'd never seen a circular "square" before, so this was interesting for me. Plus, it was so quaint and there were hardly any tourists there at all!
It was a little cloudy out and only a little warm, but I chose to sit at this outdoor restaurant right in the Piazza anyway. I ordered some food, like pizza, pasta, wine, espresso, and a tiramisu! I ate at a touristy restaurant-- and guess what? I was overcharged (60 Euros!) and the food wasn't mindblowingly spectacular!
Before taking a trip on another train to another place, I thought that I should take a day trip around the city I was staying in: Viareggio! I had explored it just a little bit a couple of times, but never really dedicated a day to it. The main area of Viareggio has the boardwalk (Passeggiata di Viareggio), which is right next to the beach and the Tyrrhenian Sea. There are tons of shops, restaurants, gelaterias (gelato shops), cafes, and more things along the boardwalk. It's such a beautiful place for a stroll, meal, and espresso.
I hopped on my bike and rode straight to the boardwalk, which was about a 15-minute bike ride away. When I got there, I locked up my bike, then went to a randomly selected restaurant for some food. While doing that, I couldn't help but imagine how amazing the city would be in the summer. During the fall and winter, it's certainly a beautiful place, but cold and made me feel a little sad that I couldn't eat a gelato, then hop into the ocean right after.
I walked over the pedestrian bridge over the Burlamacca Canal as well, which leads out into the sea where you can snag a beautiful view of Viareggio and the towering mountains behind it.
I took my bike and wandered into the city a bit where I rode along Via Antonio Fratti, which is a walking street. There are tons of shops, grocery stories, cafes, bars, and more on this little street. It's nice to explore this street at night! There's even a small market on that walking street as well.
I then wandered back to the beach and boardwalk and caught a sunrise with some fish from a floating restaurant.
Cinque Terre: Manarola
For my birthday on December 9th, I wanted to go somewhere extremely breathtaking and almost painfully Italian. Therefore, I went to Cinque Terre! In Cinque Terre, which translates to "Five Lands," there are five gorgeous towns you can visit: Manarola, Monterosso al Mare, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Riomaggiore. All are beautiful in their own way, I’m sure, but I only had time to explore one, since I had to take care of the dogs, so I chose Manarola.
Once again, I found myself at the Viareggio train station! From there, I took a train for about 40 minutes to Spezia Centrale, where I needed to then transfer to another train to take us to Manarola, which only took about ten minutes. When I got off the train at Manarola, it was only a little less than a ten minute walk.
The view I was desperate to drool over did not disappoint. All of the colorful homes, tucked inside a rocky crevice next to the sea... just gorgeous.
One big positive of going to Manarola in the winter is that there are hardly any tourists! There were some, but really not many at all, which really made the whole experience there even better. After staring at the view for a while, I went to a little cafe that has tables outside along a cliff, looking out at the view. Obviously, I had to have a glass of wine to properly admire the vista.
After I finished my wine, I walked around the quaint town a bit.
I honestly struggled to find a place to eat in the town because there were only a handful of restaurants and some of them were closed because it was a Saturday. So, I had to settle for a touristy restaurant, which actually was surprisingly scrumptious!
Once I finished my dinner, I noticed the sun was setting and wanted to look at the view during it. I walked back over to the view again and saw it once more. Somehow, it looked even more magical the second time around!
Unfortunately, I couldn't stay to see it during the night, but if you're able to do so, definitely do it because apparently, it looks magical!
One huge positive of Manarola: there are no people selling you things and bothering you to buy their stuff. At least, that's how it was when we went in December. Who knows what it's like in the summer?
That was the last week of my housesit. Once I got back, I had a few extra days before the owners came back. For a couple of days, I scrubbed the house clean and really made sure everything was spick-and-span. I was a housesitter, after all. I had to make sure the house was perfect as well as the dogs! Then, the owners returned and I had to say goodbye to the pups. How sad!
Positives of housesitting:
Ability to travel to new places around the world
Travel around and experience an area of a place you never would
Feel and live like a local in most cases
Cuddles with animals!
Negatives of housesitting:
Unable to travel far from the housesit and for a long time
Responsibility of someone else's home and pets
Accountability for anything and everything that happens, whether it's your fault or not
But, would I do it again? Absolutely! The positives outweigh the negatives, especially when wanting to live in a specific place for a little while.
Something to keep in mind when thinking about housesitting is that this isn't just a laid back thing. It is in a way, but not entirely because it is a lot of responsibility. You have to take good care of the homes and animals you are responsible for. So, don't hop into it willy-nilly. Definitely take everything into consideration before doing it.
Unfortunately, I didn't see enough of Italy while I was housesitting for a month, so I know I’ll just have to return to the country another time in the future. Darn!