Lynn & Phil's Euro Camping Tour in a Sportz SUV Tent
When we started planning our European adventure, it didn't take long to realize that both transportation and accommodations were very expensive . . . beyond our limited means.
That led to the idea of buying a car and taking our camping gear. It also didn't take long to discover the best way to do that . . . we bought our Volvo from our local dealer and picked it up at the factory in Gotenburg, Sweden. The deal included round-trip air fare for both of us, one night's hotel in Gotenburg, all transportation to and from the airport in Sweden, a factory tour, and shipment of the car to our dealer at trip's end . . . all at 7% less than the cost of the car if we bought it the traditional way.
We already had our Sportz SUV tent and had used it for several years with our old pickup and camper shell. It works very well and makes for comfortable sleeping with an air mattress in the bed of the truck. For Europe, we invested in an SUV airbed and took tent and mattress with us.
May 3, 2011, found us in Gotenburg, where we picked up our new Volvo XC60 and headed out to discover Europe. Within a couple of days, we were camping in Holland, where we visited Amsterdam, saw the tulip festival in Keukenhof, toured a working windmill, and met some wonderful people. Our tent generated a lot of interest from the very beginning . . . no one had seen anything like it and liked the idea of sleeping off the ground, which you can't do in a traditional tent. We were short of the usual camping gear and people must have felt sorry for us because they insisted on loaning us tables, chairs, coolers and food! The Dutch are very friendly and generous, not to mention avid campers.
At a campground in Belgium, we learned about the ACSI Camping Guide, which lists most of the campgrounds in Europe, by country and region, and discounts the cost of camping to only 11-15 euros per night. In Gent (where we were amazed at the antiquity of the architecture), we found one at a bookstore. Most campgrounds accepted our ACSI card and it sure helped with expenses.
We continued to France, visiting le Blanc Nez on the Atlantic coast, Rouen where Ste. Jeanne was burned at the stake, and camping at a couple of picturesque villages on our way to Monpazier where we had a house reserved. Monpazier is in the Dordogne Valley southeast of Bordeaux. We had a lovely week there, visiting castles in the area and canoeing the Dordogne River. The house we stayed in was very, very old, with 2-foot-thick walls and an ancient privy and sink (now glassed over) upstairs which emptied right into the backyard. The town was very small with narrow cobblestone streets, a center square, and beautiful roses all in bloom to welcome us.
Then to Spain, driving through the tiny country of Andorra on top of the Pyrenees, camping that night in the spectacular Grande Vallee of the Pyrenees, largest valley in Europe, and driving the next day to Barcelona. We found a campground near the city where it was convenient to catch the bus into town. We'd already discovered many European streets are too narrow for our car and it's difficult to drive and sightsee at the same time, so public transportation is a great way to visit the large cities. Spent several days in Bercelona before heading south to Valencia, camping along the way by the Mediterrean. After spending a couple of days touring Valencia (where we also camped outside the city), we headed southwest to a nice resort called Coto del Valle near Cazorla.
After finishing our week there, we visited the Alhambra in Granada, the Mesquita in Cordoba, Sevilla, and Gibralter. Spain is so beautiful. From the side of a mountain, you can see the red tiled roofs of the villages and mile after mile of olive groves, which seem to stretch on forever.
Next we drove north to Galicia on the recommendation of friends we made at Coto del Valle. It is beautiful and the seafood is the best we've ever tasted. From there we headed east, following along the Camino del Santiago, which is a walking trail that runs from the French border north of Pamplona and ends at Santiago in Galicia.
We camped in France a couple of nights while we explored Arles and saw the Roman amphitheater, nicely restored and still in use for bull fights and concerts, and visited our first winery. Then we drove for many miles along the gorgeous Mediterranean coast (seeing Monaco on the way) and into Italy, where our next major stop was . . .
Venezia! There are indeed canals and boats everywhere, and pull-carts for deliveries, and gondoliers in striped shirts and gilded boats, and masses of people, and angels in the architecture! It has mazes of tiny streets, the food is delicioso, the bells ring on the hour, Plaza San Marcos is huge and so crowded it's overwhelming. (And, yes, we also camped outside Venice.)
Next stop was Trieste on the Adriatic, where we camped for a few days then headed toward Hungary, passing through Croatia and Slovenia, and stopping along the way to camp next to Lake Balaton, the largest lake in central Europe.
We then spent several days exploring Slavakia, which has wonderful scenery but is quite rundown in many places and there are lots of the soviet-style concrete-block buildings in nearly every town. We went to several tiny villages where there are stacks and stacks of wood for heating during the long, cold winters, old-fashioned hay stacks, and loudspeakers on many of the light poles: evidence that Soviet rule is quite recent.
We spent some time in a small town called Skawina just outside Krakow. Afterward, we spent several days taking in Krakow, which is one of the better cities in Europe: the satisfaction rate for the people who live there is 97%.
From Poland, we went to Prague, staying in a good little pension where weddings are often held. There were two while we were there and what fun: violins, accordions, dancing, and beer. Leaving the Chech Republic behind, we entered Austria. All of Austria is like a groomed park with never a hair or a blade of grass out of place. It rained in Vienna for the two days we were there but we toured the hill area above the city taking in the view, visited the Habsburg's Summer Palace, enjoying apple strudel at the Gloriette, and drove through the old city. It is awesome and we took no pictures--it's like trying to show what the Grand Canyon looks like in a photo.
We then moved on to the lake country of Austria where the lakes are so clear you can see to depths of 10 or 15 feet. They are surrounded by mountains with ski resorts. We camped by a big lake called Traunsee where we met some other campers. They particularly liked our tent for the ease of set-up and being able to sleep off the ground because it was pretty wet there on the grass. Leaving Austria, we drove through Franz Joseph National Park and camped one last time with a lovely view of the Dolomites in Italy.
Now it's important to know that all Italians go on holiday in August--ALL of August and ALL Italians. Many shops are closed and the vacation spots are crowded. If we had known, we probably would have dallied in Austria till September. However, August 21 found us in the Dolomites of northeast Italy driving the steep, winding roads with lots of traffic. We went on to the Adriatic coast and camped just south of Rimini. It was right on the beach: hot, dirty, and noisy because everybody in Italy was there and they were all having a party. We had a good time but when we heard the Pope was coming to Rimini, we headed inland to Assisi to get away from the crowds.
We camped five days just outside town in a campground where it was hot and dusty but not crowded, fairly clean, and quiet. Assisi sits on a hill and is very old and very pretty.
After leaving Assisi, we headed back to the Adriatic coast, overnighting in L'Aquila which was hit by an earthquake in 2009 and still has a lot of damage. We drove along the coastline till we found a good place to cross over to the Mediterranean, camping on a cliff above the beach near Palmi. On September 1, we boarded the ferry to Sicily where we saw Mt. Etna.
We continued north along the Mediterranean coast, enjoying the scenery and the nice campgrounds. We were particularly impressed by the Amalfi Coast; it is so beautiful with the deep blue of the sea and the villages hanging off the cliffs. We camped at a dive camp where the water was crystal clear.
The next day we made it to Pompei where we found a nice campground and visited the ruins. Be sure to plan plenty of time because it is very large and interesting. You can see the enormous crater left when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. when Pompei was a thriving city of 20,000 folks with an extensive shopping area, public baths, a large forum, and cobblestone streets which still retain the deep ruts of heavy cart traffic. It even had its own brothel.
We continued dawdling our way north, reaching Rome on September 8. We camped outside the city and used trains to do our sightseeing. We did all the usual touristy things. All in all, a totally satisfying visit to Rome.
Next stop was Tuscany, where we found a very nice campground not far from Siena with a large swimming pool which was welcome because the weather was still quite hot. Tuscany is all that you expect it to be: beautiful sweeping panoramic views, ancient towns, vineyards everywhere, grapes and olive groves in every direction.
The next day we headed to Levanto, which is not one of the Cinque Terre but is the next city north where there is a nice campground and convenient train service. We pulled in about noon, planning on doing the five cities the next day, only to learn that the trains were going on strike at 9 o'clock that evening for 24 hours and rain was expected the next day. We hurriedly set up the tent and raced through town to the train station. The train takes you to the south end of Cinque Terre to Rio Maggiore and you can walk back, only 12 Km.
September 19, we saw the Swiss Alps for the first time. From Route 226 in north Italy, you can see and go to the highest mountains in Switzerland. The culture there is a mix of Italian, Swiss, and French and it's completely different from the rest of Italy. We drove up the road to the Matterhorn (14,740 feet) only to find it was snowing by the time we got there and was completely socked in. Huge disappointment especially since the weather everywhere else was wonderful! However, we went on west toward Mont Blanc (15,833 feet) and found a fantastic hotel in Arviers (pronounced R-vay). We stayed there two nights and saw the entire mountain range, including Mont Blanc which had a lot of snow on it so was truly the "white mountain" and going back to see the Matterhorn.
This is some of the most beautiful country in the world, not to mention the great wine and food, and Arviers is also a sight to see. Tiny, no tourists, all the roofs are made of round, flat stones (picture making pancakes and laying them out as if you were laying shingles and you'll get the idea). And, it even has it's own castle where you can just go in and wander around.
The next day we finally ripped ourselves out of Italy. We spent about five weeks there and really fell in love with it. We went over the pass called Petite San Bernardo into France. At the border, there is a large circle of stones still pretty much intact. We spent a couple of days in Switzerland wandering around the Alps enjoying the beautiful scenery, eating cheese and chocolate, and camping when it wasn't too wet or too cold. We went through Lichtenstein (just so we could say we did) and then to Germany where the weather was warm and dry and we were able to camp. It was a little late in the season so we were one of the few hardy souls still tent camping.
Our next stop was Munich where we were just in time for Oktoberfest. We stayed at Camping Munchen-Obermenzing, a very large campground with at least 1,000 tent sites and all of them filled with young people there for the same reason we were. In spite of our ages, we felt right at home. The trains were convenient and we wandered through the city taking in the sights and enjoying the costumes of all the people heading to Oktoberfest. We have a friend there and went with her to the enormous beer halls filling the fairgrounds. Everyone needs to go to Oktoberfest in Munich! You can't imagine the number of happy people of all ages standing on the tables keeping time with the music with their enormous mugs of beer.
We next camped about halfway in between Ulm and Stuttgart. We slowly started making our way north, camping when the weather allowed. We went through the Black Forest, then crossed the Rhine into France and explored the Alsace region visiting wineries, a cheese manufacturing plant where we bought cave-aged cheese, and stopping at a small family-run business that raised ducks and sold the best duck foie gras that we have ever tasted. We briefly visited Luxembourg, just long enough to gas up the car at a relatively cheap $5.00 per gallon, and wound up the day in Trier, Germany, which has some of the best Roman ruins in Europe including those in Rome.
On October 6, we drove into Berlin, a city you must include in your trip. The sights and history rival any city in the world. We saw Brandenburg Gate, what remains of the Berlin Wall which has become an art gallery, the Reichstag, the Altes Museum, Big Benz the largest carillon in Europe with its 68 bells weighing 48 tons, Victory Tower, the Berlin Cathedral also called The Great Dome, and any number of beautiful bridges including Palace Bridge, the prettiest bridge in Berlin.
Although we still had three weeks left of our trip, because the days were growing short and it was cold and rainy, we decided to come home early. Hotels in Germany and Sweden are expensive and we could no longer camp. So, on October 8, we boarded the ferry at Stassitz, Germany, which took us to Sweden. We stayed a couple of nights in Malmo, a beautiful, hip city, and another couple in Gotenburg, saying goodbye to the Volvo at the factory. We arrived home on October 15, the car got there December 12, with nearly 14,000 miles and a million stories of (almost) 180 days in Europe.
We highly recommend camping Europe. It truly is the best way to see nearly everything. Camping is very popular with Europeans and you rarely meet other tourists, so it's a great way to get to know the people, who without fail were friendly and welcoming. They were also very surprised to find Americans camping alongside. The campgrounds almost always have complete, convenient, and clean facilities, including washers. If you don't speak the language, you can always find someone who speaks English. It was easy to outfit ourselves with the rudiments of camping gear, which we did way back in Spain at the beginning of our adventure. At the end of our trip, we gave away or discarded everything, including our tent, we found a nice German couple who were tickled to have it, along with most of the rest of our gear.