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There are numerous villa rental agencies in Italy and France, but rarely do they provide the authority of Homes Away, a company that started as a spin-off of Butterfield and Robinson and is now run by former B&R employees Peter Stock and Peter Smale. There are approximately 40 houses in the collection, concentrated in Provence, the Dordogne, Tuscany, and Umbria. They are a select group—for example, Les Remparts is a 16th-century hilltop villa in Ménerbes owned by the town's mayor and furnished with many of his family's antiques.

Guests aren't just handed keys and abandoned. A local host provides a tour of the area and dispenses whatever information or help may be needed during the stay. And there's a savvy handbook provided for each house, detailing everything from the rules of boule to the best nearby boulangerie and olive oil mill. Houses, $8,000-$15,000 per week. 800-374-6637; www.homesaway.com.

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