What I Learned Traveling Europe by Campervan

boat on lac leman in rolle, switzerland

In 2012, I spent almost three weeks traveling Europe by campervan. And for someone who prefers structure and thoroughly-planned vacations, the entire experience could easily be described as an exercise in planned spontaneity. (Or at least that’s what I’m calling it.)

This particular trip wasn’t a solo one, but I now realize that it’s probably one of the biggest reasons I was so drawn to the idea of buying a Sprinter van. It’s quite possible that trip was preparing me for what would come later — an unraveling and the freedom to travel alone.

Each morning, over a cup of French-pressed coffee (and an occasional baked good if there happened to be a bakery within walking distance of the campsite), the next destination would reveal itself.

In total, I visited 5 countries, stopping in Munich, Salzburg, Hallstatt, Innsbruck, Mittenwald, Garmisch, Como, Lecco, Milano, Bra, Agliano, Chambery, Rolle, Zurich, Stuttgart, Neckargemünd, Heidelberg, Dachau, and then looped back to Munich.

Traveling this way allowed me to see more of the countryside than most travelers. Instead of wasting time weaving through mobs of people in busy cities like most tourists, I got to hike through small towns, experienc local flavors, and share an occasional glass of wine with other campers.

In Munich, I proceeded to Englischer Garten‘s Chinesischer Turm for my first-ever Liter of beer. The park itself, which is larger than New York’s Central Park, is home to several other bier gartens that can be accessed by a number of meandering paths. The Turm was equipped with turnstiles, which prevented customers from carrying out the enormous bretzels that were so big you could loop them around your arm. Bright green picnic tables were laid out beneath the tall trees, and quickly filled with people and laughter. Bicycles peppered the fence-line as locals arrived to mingle with tourists, and music played loudly in the distance.

The unmistakable scent of sauerkraut wafted through the air.

The first night I stayed at a small hillside campsite in Austria called Panoramacamping Stadtblick. Little did I know when I arrived that I’d be dining just below the infamous Eagle’s Nest. It was evident that the campground was family-owned when we ordered our meal. The schweinshaxe (pork knuckle), which was cooked over an open fire, was served with a spicy mustard sauce, and the homemade apfelstrudel with fresh crème was soul-melting good. That first meal might have been the best of the entire trip. Simple, real food prepared with love and care. What more could you ask for?

apfelstreusel with creme fraiche

I met some really interesting people along the way. Before embarking on this journey, I was warned by countless people that Europeans despise Americans. While that may be true in some areas, not once did I experience anything remotely close to that. Perhaps it was because I mostly avoided the highly trafficked, touristy areas where locals would likely be annoyed with swarms of inconsiderate tourists. But everyone I encountered greeted me with nothing but warmth and kindness. In fact, I often found the locals to be particularly helpful even when I didn’t ask. If an English-speaking local saw me looking at a map, or struggling to converse with someone, they would step in graciously to offer help. In reflection, I think that was my experience because I didn’t behave like an entitled, ungrateful tourist. I was polite, and I did my best to speak the language of the country I was visiting. I apologized when I didn’t quite express myself correctly and I looked for other ways to communicate when necessary. And if all else failed, I simply pointed to a phrase in Rick Steve’s handy French, Italian and German Phrasebook*. This experience taught me that people are people wherever you go. If you’re warm and friendly, so are they. If you’re respectful and kind, so are they. If you’re impatient and rude, so are they.

Camping in Europe is nothing at all like camping in America. There, many campgrounds are privately owned, and felt more like spas. There were no foul-smelling rest areas without running water, or poorly maintained campsites with lackluster views. Every campground I encountered was well-manicured and clean, and many had extraordinary restaurants.

In Rolle, Switzerland, I met a South African native who lived in London for half the year and at the campground for the other. He’d heard my traveling companion and I speaking English as we passed his campsite, and he called out, inviting us to share a bottle of wine with him. I mean, where else would I  have ever had the pleasure of meeting this man? Not to mention that I can’t think of a time when I’ve been invited to a stranger’s campsite in America. As the evening turned to twilight, we shared stories from our different but similar cultures. We learned about boerewors and how he built a homemade battery system to power the electronics in his pimped out Land Rover Defender. (It was seriously amazing. And, again, another precursor to my new #vanlife.)

Because the rented campervan came equipped with a folding table and chairs, most days I ate outside by candlelight. Wine was obscenely affordable, so it made it’s way to the table on most nights.

dinner at the campsite in Switzerland

Another couple that we met at a campsite in France was also traveling Europe by campervan. They were from Sulzemoos, Germany and had just returned from the coast of France. Eager to practice their English, they promptly offered us a glass of wine within moments of meeting us. Likewise, they pulled out their map to show us some of their favorite routes and cities. The campsite, located at the base of the Chartreuse mountains, was one of the most beautiful that I discovered on the trip.

Heading back toward Munich I passed the forests of Baden Baden, famously known for being home to Hansel and Gretel, and it reminded me very much of the Pacific Northwest.

But the most emotional experience by far was my visit to Dachau. Nothing thus far in my life compares to how I felt hearing the gravel crunch below my feet — and knowing the same sound was heard by others there before me who clung to life. It was a heart-wrenching reminder that each of us has an opportunity to have an impact on this world, and we have a momentous responsibility to leave it better than we found it.

By the time I arrived back in Munich, I somehow felt rested and also exhausted. My body and spirit felt rejuvenated, but my brain was still processing the experiences of the past 3 weeks. Looking back, it was much easier to let go and enjoy the ride than I’d imagined. In fact, the trip taught me to let go of the little things that don’t really matter in the grander scheme of things. And I realized that many of my sources of stress are self-imposed.

Here’s a list of my takeaways from that trip:

1. Kindness is culturally universal. People are people no matter where you are in the world. While there are always nuances, human beings respond quite similarly. A safe rule of thumb is to always choose kindness.

2. Comforts should be experienced with gratitude. Hot showers, a glass of wine, fresh ingredients — all things that we Americans frequently take for granted — are comforts that should be savored and appreciated.

3. Agriculture is central to life. The agricultural communities in Europe left me speechless at times. Farming didn’t feel like “business” there at all like it does in the U.S. Instead, the local sense of pride was palpable. As my flight descended into Munich, the meticulously manicured pastures looked like a work of art. It didn’t even look real. Throughout the trip the theme of craftsmanship did not wane. Carefully stacked piles of firewood, sturdy fencing, healthy livestock, and tidy homesteads seemed to be a universal value.

4. Creating your own path is more rewarding. Taking the less popular paths in life allow for unique, sometimes life-changing experiences.

5. Traveling by campervan is thrifty. Campground fees are much cheaper than hotels, and I purchased most of my food from local markets. I didn’t detailed receipts, but I think the 3-week trip came in at around $8,000 — and that includes airfare, gas, food, wine, campground fees and the campervan rental. If I knew then what I know now, I probably would have chosen a smaller camper. In some cities it was hard to maneuver the large frame through the narrow streets, and parking was a major challenge. That small change would have also reduced our expenses even more. (Again, another foreshadowing realization that led me to choose the 144 Sprinter van.)

6. Spontaneity is therapeutic. Tossing agendas aside and letting go of outcomes is restorative to the soul. Sometimes just being allows us to experience life more fully.

Traveling Europe by campervan was one of the best experiences of my life. It showed me that the world looks different when you choose unconventional adventures.

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a cup of coffee in a dim lit space

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