BY FERN ANDERSON
Have you always wanted to visit Europe, but were afraid it would cost too much to rent an RV there or to ship your own rig over? Well, so were we ? until Morey and I found out about RV exchanges! We have just completed a three-month trip to 15 countries and we had a ball!
The RV exchange works just like the house exchanges that have proven so popular over the past few years. Two sites we found that offer this service are: www.ukmotorhomes.net and www.motorhomeholidayswap.com. Both are UK-based and while it took us several months to find the ?right fit? in terms of timing and location, the exchange couldn?t have worked better. Surprisingly, the RV exchange is not well known among RVers. We talked to many fellow RVers while driving around Europe and no one had heard about it, let alone met someone who was actually doing it. We generated a lot of interest in the concept.
As ?pioneers?, we can offer some advice to other RVers who might want to try this way of touring Europe. Once you have established the time period that you will need a unit for, the next consideration is the size and sleeping capacity of the unit. Bigger isn?t necessarily better ? you don?t want to drive a huge, long rig on European roads. The RV exchange sites allow for photos, so you can both see what each other?s rig looks like. When describing what you are offering in the exchange, it is a good idea to talk about what there is for your European exchange partners to see and do in your home area.
Once you have committed to the exchange and have your dates confirmed, you are ready to start the rest of your pre-planning. In addition to the usual trip-planning books such as Lonely Planet and Rick Steves? guidebooks for the individual countries you hope to visit, there are books that deal specifically with camping in Europe. Our absolute Bible for the trip was Traveler?s Guide To European Camping by Mike & Terri Church. You may be familiar with some of their other publications, which cover camping in Mexico and Alaska. We bought our copy at an RV Show in Abbotsford, but it is also available online on the Church?s website at www.rollinghomes.com. The 639-page book is divided into chapters for different countries. It also includes information about alternative methods of camping in Europe, and the ins and outs of shipping your own RV over to Europe. So this one book covers the gamut of options for planning your RV holiday.
We love the way each destination chapter is laid out in their book. Each chapter starts with a map of the country with the campgrounds all starred on a map, alongside a regular map of the country. This made our day-to-day planning easy. Each chapter provides an introduction to the country in terms of information about roads, rules, camping idiosyncrasies, currency, fuel, and whatever else is important.
Furthermore, each campground is listed with its GPS (global positioning system) coordinates, street address, phone numbers, website and E-mail address. This is followed by pictographs, which show at a glance how expensive the site is; whether there is a restaurant, grocery shop, or laundry onsite; and what local transportation (bus or train) is available. Then they follow the pictures with a more elaborate description of the site and explicit directions to find it. These directions saved our bacon on more than one occasion, as we did our trip without a GPS. While I would not recommend this to you, we did so because our GPS unit at home (an IWAY 500) did not have European maps available. Almost all our fellow RV travelers in Europe used some form of GPS, usually called Sat-Nav. The book also gives travel suggestions for the area you are in. All-in-all, the Church?s book is a wonderful tool!
Other books you may find useful in planning your European trip are Europe in a Motor Home ? A Mid-Life Gap Year Around Southern Europe by H.D. Jackson; Europe by Van or Motor Home by David Shore and Patty Campbell; and Take Your RV to Europe: The Low Cost Route to Long Term Touring by Adelle and Ron Milavsky.
We began our European adventure on April 4 by flying from Comox on Vancouver Island to Manchester, England. We picked up our RV ? a small 21-foot (6.5-metre) Class C motorhome, made in Italy with a Fiat engine and called a Mobilvetta. We spent eight days visiting relatives in England and stopping in Durham, Cambridge and Canterbury before catching the ferry from Dover to Calais, France. We traveled on Seafrance as it had the cheapest rates ($147) for the crossing, which was just over an hour in length.
FRANCE and SPAIN
From Calais we drove to Rouen, home of Joan of Arc?s burial site and the lovely cathedral, which Claude Monet?s painting captured in all its glory. After Rouen, I fulfilled a long-time dream by visiting Monet?s gardens at Giverny. They didn?t disappoint!
Then it was on to Paris, and with the help of the Church?s book we camped right in Paris at the Bois de Boulogne, just outside the ring road. From there it was an easy bus (the campground has its own bus) and Metro ride to the heart of the City of Lights.
After four days in Paris, we headed south to Chartres to see the amazing cathedral and then on to the Dordogne River Valley. It was wonderful ? just as beautiful as described in the books!
Then we crossed into northern Spain and the Basque region. We were looking forward to seeing the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao which is designed by architect Frank Gehry. It is truly amazing! Shaped like a fish and built in titanium, the way the lines and shapes allow light to filter inside the galleries is magnificent. We found the city of Bilbao very interesting and well worth a visit in itself. We had to camp a ways out of town in Sopelana but the light rail transit, just a short walk from the campground, was efficient and cheap.
We continued on through central Spain to Madrid and the lovely walled city of Toledo. Then we turned south to Valencia and Barcelona, a city with much to see and do.
Travelling through southern France took us through another fabulous walled city of Carcassonne. Then we drove through Provence to Aix-en-Provence, a city we had fallen in love with on an earlier trip.
We were sad to leave France, one of our favourite countries in Europe, but we were happy to be in Italy and the Cinque Terre region on the Italian Riviera. We camped in Levanto for three days, and were able to hike the oceanside cliffs of the Cinque Terre from there by using the efficient Italian rail service. We rode the train back and forth between the five villages, depending where we wanted to hike. The scenery is breathtaking and, overall, this was one of our favourite locations. No wonder travel writer Rick Steves? raves about this area!
From the Cinque Terre region we drove the rig down to Pisa (with its famous leaning tower) where we parked it for five days while we flew out to the island of Malta on Ryannair (very economical). This was our only sojourn in a hotel and we loved it, but we were glad to get back to our rig and to cooking our own meals. During the trip, we cooked about 95 per cent of our suppers in the RV and all of our breakfasts. But we frequently ate our lunches out as we were sightseeing and away from ?home?.
Next we were on to Venice and, with the help of the Church?s book we found an excellent campground called Camping Fusina right on the lagoon with hot and cold running freighters going by our doorstep. Right in front of the entry to the campground there was a boat across the lagoon to the city of Venice.
CROATIA and SLOVENIA
We left Italy via Trieste and entered Croatia ? and one of the biggest surprises of our trip! We spent nine days in Croatia and loved every minute of it! The coastline is gorgeous and everything you may have heard about the beauty of the Dalmatian Coast is true. We started our stay in Pula, a city of 58,000. Located on the southernmost tip of the Istrian peninsula, the city was part of the Roman Empire and later had close ties to Venice. The Italian influence is very obvious and the Roman ruins, which include a fantastic amphitheatre and the Triumphal Arch of Sergius, are as impressive as any ruins you may see in Italy itself.
Unfortunately the Church?s book doesn?t cover Croatia, but we found the Campground Stoja in the Lonely Planet guidebook called Europe on a Shoestring. It was a wonderful location by the lovely clean clear waters of the ocean. From there, we took three days to drive down the coast to the capital city of Dubrovnik. This city of 44,000 is another of Europe?s walled cities. It is a gem of a place ? full of wonderful sights such as a Franciscan monastery which houses Europe?s third oldest pharmacy dating back to 1391. This provided a peaceful break from the crowds of sightseers. Our home here was Camping Solitudo with splendid hilltop views and nearby buses to the city.
Instead of backtracking on the narrow and slow road back north, we opted to take the overnight ferry up to Rijeka, and from there drove north to Ljubljana, the capital city of Slovenia. Slovenia is a member of the European Union and fiscally strong, but it is an under-appreciated country. We loved both the capital and the gorgeous scenic village of Lake Bled. Its church is located on an island offshore and there is a castle on the edge of a cliff overlooking a lake filled with ducks and swans and gondolas. The village is small and easily rideable by bike or walkable, at about four to five kilometres round-trip.
AUSTRIA and the CZECH REPUBLIC
Our destination when we left Lake Bled was Vienna, Austria. Generally we are not big fans of large cities (Vienna has 1.6 million people), but Vienna proved to be an exception. From the West Wien RV Park we had easy access to the city via bus, train and tram. We took a 1.5 hour boat cruise on the blue (I?d call it brown) Danube, toured the magnificent Opera House and admired the wonderful architecture. Everything in Vienna is eye-catching! One evening we took in a musical concert at the lovely Schonbrunn Palace that was once the 1,440 room summer home of the Hapsburgs. An evening of listening to the music of Strauss and Mozart was a fine diversion from the camping life!
From Austria we drove north into the Czech Republic, which has been an EU member since 2004, although they have not yet converted to the Euro. We started our stay in the delightful UNESCO heritage town of Cesky Krumlov. This walled town is often described as one of the most picturesque towns in all of Europe and it didn?t disappoint. A large castle up on a portion of the wall overlooks the Vltava River that winds an S-shape through the town. It was fun to watch the kayakers running the river and its falls.
We drove on to the capital city of Prague, or Praha as it is called there, where we camped on an island overlooking a castle and watched the racing skulls practicing on the same Vltava River we had viewed in Cesky Krumlov. We missed seeing one of the mandatory sights of Prague, the Castle, because US President George Bush was holding meetings there with the Czech president prior to the G8 conference. We did, however, stroll across the lovely 18th century Charles Bridge with its 30 statues and many street artists trying to recreate the scene. Prague is catching on as a tourist destination and becoming one of Europe?s hot spots, so we found it to be expensive.
GERMANY and SWITZERLAND
From the Czech Republic we drove down the Romantic Road in Germany and stopped overnight in a delightful campground at Dinkelsbuehl. The next day we were off down the same Romanticstrasse south to Schwangau/Fussen in Bavaria. This area was the home of mad King Ludwig who built the over-the-top castle of Neuschwanstein. This area is so scenic! The surrounding mountains and the valleys filled with cows with musical bells around their necks call to the photographer in you. It is very popular with bike riders. We experienced lightning and thunder almost every afternoon while we were in this region, but by this time on our trip we were getting used to rain.
Leaving Germany, we entered Switzerland, another of our favourite countries on this trip. We were fortunate to spend seven days in this lovely clean country. The first city we visited was the beautiful Lucern. Populated by 58,000 lucky souls, it is located on a lovely lake and surrounded by mountains. There is a medieval cobbled-streeted old town where the most famous sight is the Chapel Bridge built in 1333. I?m sure it is the most photographed sight, as well. Swans gliding beneath the bridge only enhance the photos. The Camping Lido Lucern, which we found thanks to the Church?s book, was right across from the lake and connected to downtown Lucern via bus.
Then it was on to Interlaken, situated as the name indicates, between the lakes of Brienz and Thun. A small town of only 15,000 inhabitants, it was another highlight of our trip. We spent four activity-filled days in the nearby village of Bonigen at Camping Seeblick, located right on the shores of Lake Brienz. Each day we took a bus to the Interlaken Ost train station from where we took our daily excursions on the Berner Oberland Bahn, or the BOB as it is called. We even rode up to the summit of the Jungfrau, at an altitude of 12,000 feet (3,657 metres). This amazing journey started on a regular train and then we switched to a cog railway for the tunnels through Eiger Mountain. There are two lookouts carved out of the mountain on the way up where we were allowed five minutes for photos. Other trips took us to the villages of Grindlewald, Murren and Gimmelwald. We explored Trummelbach Falls where ten falls converge, carrying all the water and debris from the nearby mountains. This region of southern Switzerland is absolutely magical and worthy of several days of your time. I can still hear the cowbells serenading us as we walked through the countryside.
The NETHERLANDS and BELGIUM
We spent two days driving through Germany and into the Netherlands and Belgium, which, along with Luxembourg, are known collectively as the Low Countries. We had not visited this area before and we saw many interesting sights in Amsterdam and Delft. The Amsterdam canals and all the black bicycles (bikes are the main mode of transportation) left a definite imprint on our minds. The Van Gogh Museum, which houses the largest collection of Van Gogh?s works, was amazing. A canal boat tour helped to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of the history of the country and Amsterdam in particular. Gaasper Camping, a very well maintained campground, was our home here. It was connected to the city via a subway ? a 10-minute walk to the station and about a 25-minute ride to the central train station in the heart of the city.
Some Useful Information
RVs in Europe: The majority of the motorhomes in Europe are Class C?s and they have diesel motors. The most common camping rig is a trailer, or, as they call them, a caravan. And guess what ? they often tow them with cars! Almost all of the rigs have awnings with nice aluminum covers and they are very easy to unwind and retract. Many folks have add-a-rooms on their awnings so they can be outside even more and have more storage space. We also noticed that no one tows a car. I believe we only saw that once during the three months we were in Europe.
Diesel Costs: We traveled over 7,000 miles (11,851 kilometres), but as the rig had a small diesel engine it was extremely economical to run. We got about 24 mpg. Diesel prices varied from a low of $1.18 per litre in Germany to a high of $2.13 per litre in Britain. The average price was closer to $1.45 per litre.
Toll Roads: Toll roads are common in Europe and they are expensive ? one day we paid $70! But they are very efficient if your time is limited and you want to get somewhere in a hurry, or if you have already seen the area. Toll roads differ from country to country. While France has individual toll booths ? that take some getting used to ? Switzerland and Austria have a system whereby you purchase a vignette when you enter the country and this lasts you throughout your stay, eliminating the irksome toll booth hassle.
Campgrounds: Our average nightly fee over the course of the three months was $33. The lowest was $15 and the highest was $47. The services varied a great deal, but most offered only an electrical hookup. It is rare to have water at a site. It?s located in the campground and easily accessed on arrival or departure. Gray and black water are emptied at separate sites on the grounds. Many things are very different from what we are used to, but it doesn?t take very long to get accustomed to the European way.
Electrical: You will need an adaptor if you wish to use any of your North American electrical appliances, such as a hair dryer. Also, the outdoor electrical hookups at the campgrounds vary widely in the amperage they provide ? anywhere from 3 to 16 amps of power. You will require a variety of electrical outside power hookups as well as a very long cord because the source is often some distance away. These can be purchased overseas as required and some parks will loan you what you need. However, although rare, some campgrounds have meters for electricity. The power boxes are locked and the site staff has to plug and unplug you and you pay for what you have used.
Currency: While the Euro has made multi-country travel so much easier, not every country in Europe uses the Euro, so we did have to convert to other currencies at times. This is no problem with ATM machines. The countries that were not on the Euro when we made our trip were Malta, Croatia, Czech Republic, Switzerland and Britain.
Internet Access: Access to WiFi or E-mail was exceedingly rare in the campgrounds all throughout Europe. We used Internet cafes and had little problem finding them. We did not take our laptop with us on this trip.
Dining: We found that eating in restaurants in Europe is very expensive. That is part of the reason why the RV exchange makes so much sense because we could cook for ourselves. You should be aware that Europeans generally eat supper after 8 p.m., which is kind of late for us.
Shop Closures: You should keep in mind that in many parts of Europe the shops close for a minimum of two hours in the afternoon. We found this to be a real annoyance at times.
Languages: We are not fluent in any language other than English. But we have traveled in France and Mexico, so we understand a little French and Spanish. However, English really does seem to be the universal language and we used it and sign language to get by quite satisfactorily most of the time. Croatia was a pleasant surprise as all the shopkeepers and tourism-related business folk speak some English. We were surprised to find that the country where we found the least use of English was Germany.
An Amazing Experience
We have variously described this trip as ?the trip of a lifetime? and ?the hardest trip we have ever done?. We wanted to see the ?rest of Europe? that we had not managed to see on our prior vacations and the RV exchange allowed us to do that in an affordable manner. Some of the driving was not easy. Sometimes finding the campgrounds was a challenge, despite the excellent detailed information in the Church?s book. Driving in big cities with signs in foreign languages is a challenge. We tried to not drive anywhere at rush hour but sometimes the best laid plans ?.
All in all, would we recommend an RV exchange to folks? Definitely! Maybe we were just lucky but it was an amazing experience for us and, as a side benefit, we made new friends. We are open to any queries that you might have if you would like to contact us through our E-mail address: Fern and Morey Anderson, email@example.com.