What I Learned Traveling Europe by Campervan

dinner at the campsite in Switzerland

In 2012, my husband and I spent almost three weeks exploring five European countries in a rented campervan. For someone who is used to structure and well thought out vacation plans, it was an exercise in planned spontaneity for me, to say the least.

We arrived in Munich with no firm plans other than where and when we would pick up and return the camper, and our only agenda was to take in the experience itself.

Each morning, we decided where to go next over a cup of french-pressed coffee (and the occasional baked good if there happened to be a bakery within walking distance of our campsite).

Our travels took us in a circular route: Munich, Salzburg, Hallstatt, Innsbruck, Mittenwald, Garmisch, Como, Lecco, Milano, Bra, Agliano, Chambery, Rolle, Zurich, Stuttgart, Neckargemünd, Heidelberg, Dachau and then back to Munich. I’m sure there were a few other stops along the way, but I wasn’t keeping detailed records – hence the spontaneity.

Traveling this way allowed us to see more of the countryside than most travelers. Instead of spending our days weaving through mobs of people in busy cities like many other tourists, we were taking in tranquil views, enjoying excellent meals (some of which we prepared ourselves), sharing an occasional glass of wine with other campers, and experiencing life alongside the locals who were simply going about their normal lives.

On our first day in Munich, as any beer-drinking, first-time visitor would, we quickly proceeded to Englischer Garten for a refreshment at Chinesischer Turm. The park itself, which is larger than New York’s Central Park, is home to several other bier gartens and meandering paths that showcase the serene landscape. The large outdoor bier garten was equipped with turnstiles, which prevented customers from carrying out giant bretzels that could be looped around your arm. Bright green picnic tables painted the ground beneath the tall trees, and over time those tables filled with people and laughter. Bicycles began to pepper the fence line as locals arrived to join the tourists and music played in the distance. The scent of sauerkraut wafted through the air.

We spent our first evening at a small hillside campsite in Austria called Panoramacamping Stadtblick. Little did we know when we arrived that we would be dining just below the infamous Eagles Nest. It was evident that it was a family-owned campground when we ordered our meal. The schweinshaxe (pork knuckle) was cooked over an open fire and was served with a spicy mustard sauce, and the homemade apfelstrudel with fresh crème was eye-closing good. That first meal may even have been the best of the entire trip. Simple. Real food. Prepared with love and care. What more could you ask for?

When we weren’t taking in the breathtaking landscape, we met some really interesting people. Before embarking on this journey, we were warned by countless travelers that Europeans despise Americans. While that may be true in some areas, not once did we experience anything remotely close to that. Perhaps it was because we mostly avoided the highly trafficked touristy areas where locals would likely interact with swarms of inconsiderate tourists. Everyone we encountered greeted us with nothing but warmth and kindness. In fact, we often found the locals to be particularly helpful even when we didn’t ask. If an English-speaking local saw us looking at our map or struggling to converse with someone, they would step in graciously to offer their help. In reflection, I think it may have been because we did not behave like many entitled, ungrateful tourists. We were polite and patient. We did our best to speak the language of the country we were visiting. We were apologetic when we didn’t quite express ourselves correctly and looked for other ways to communicate when necessary. If all else failed, I found myself on occasion simply pointing to common phrases in Rick Steve’s handy French, Italian and German Phrasebook. This experience taught me that people are people wherever you go. If you are warm and friendly, so are they. If you are respectful and kind, so are they. If you are impatient and rude, so are they. Are we Americans really much different toward foreign travelers?

We decided to stay an extra day in Como since the weather was so beautiful and Jeremy was able to throw his fishing line around in the water a bit. That’s the beauty of being traveling gypsies. We could do whatever we wanted to do. We had no itinerary, no reservations to keep, and no pre-planned activities that pressured us to move along.

After hearing about our European camping excursion, most people envision the traditional American camping experience: foul-smelling rest areas with no running water, modest campsites with lackluster views, and no real communities for miles. But the camping experience in Europe is much more mainstream, spa-like even, in some cases. Every campground we encountered was well-manicured and clean. In fact, many even had restaurants, modern bathrooms, laundry facilities, sundry stores and designated dish-washing areas. I honestly think I could live year-round at some of them.

Rolle, Switzerland

In Rolle, Switzerland, we met a South African native who lived in London for half the year and at the campground for the other. He’d heard us speaking English as we passed his campsite and called out, inviting us to share a bottle of wine with him. I mean, where else would we have ever had the pleasure of meeting this man? And how often do Americans invite strangers to their campsite for a drink? 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.)

Because the campervan came equipped with a folding table and chairs, most days we ate outside by candlelight. Wine was obscenely affordable, so we were happy to enjoy our share. Our wine varietals were always a day behind our destination, so we joked that we only drank German wine in Italy, Italian wine in France and French wine in Switzerland.

Europe, France

Another couple that we met at a campsite in France was also spending their holiday traveling the countryside. 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 we discovered on the trip.

Heading back toward Munich we passed the forests of Baden Baden, famously known for being home to Hansel and Gretel, and it reminded us very much of the Pacific Northwest. The day before we returned home, we visited Dachau. Nothing so far in my life compares to the emotions that I felt walking through the expansive camp. Hearing the gravel crunch below my feet – the same gravel that others before me struggled for life upon – was a heart-wrenching reminder that all of us have an impact on this world, and we have a momentous responsibility to leave it better than we found it.

By the time we arrived back in Munich, I somehow felt both rested and exhausted. My body and spirit felt rejuvenated, but my brain was still processing the prior 3 weeks. Looking back, it was much easier to let go and enjoy the ride than I had imagined. In fact, the trip taught me to loosen up on things that don’t really matter in the grander scheme of things. I realized that many of my stressors are ones that I create for myself.

Here are a few of the big takeways for me:

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 to human behaviors and gestures. Always choose kindness.

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

3. Agriculture is central to life. The agricultural communities in Europe left me almost speechless at times. Farming didn’t feel like “business” there. Instead, the local sense of pride was palpable. As our flight was descending into Munich, the meticulously manicured pastures looked like artwork…really expensive artwork. It was such a pleasant surprise for me, having lived in heavily populated areas for most of my adult life. 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 valued universally.

4. Creating your own path is more rewarding. Taking the less popular paths in life allows you to experience unique, sometimes life-changing things.

5. Traveling by campervan is thrifty. Campground fees are much cheaper than hotels, and we purchased most of our food from local markets so we avoided the high prices of food and wine in restaurants. I did not keep detailed receipts, but I think our 3-week trip came in at around $8,000 – and that included airfare, gas, food, wine, campground fees and campervan rental. If we knew then what we know now, we probably would have chosen a smaller camper though. 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.

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. When we enter a state of selflessness, we can more easily connect with others and express gratitude for life’s blessings.

How do you experience spontaneity?


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