We received this letter about an RVing trip to Europe from Brodie Nimmo, an American RVer we met in Guadalajara several years ago. We had heard that he'd been RVing in Europe and we asked him to write to us about it. The letter is full of interesting stuff so here's the whole thing.
December 22, 1999
I didn't bring my camping books back to the USA, so this is from memory.
I used your book, Camping in Europe, as my primary reference because it gave many more details, plus a map/instructions for the listed campgrounds. Example: no dogs allowed in one of the Amsterdam campgrounds. The other book we used was from the Caravan Club in England. There are books for France and Germany that list free/city camping, but they are in the native language, so not much use to me. Once there (in Europe), you can gain a lot of knowledge from other campers. They are all friendly.
We, in Guadalajara, bought a Canadian registered 1991 VW Westfalia Camper stored in Amsterdam from the owner in Toronto. The whole transaction and inspection of the vehicle occurred via the "net".
The vehicle had been in storage for 18 months, so when we got there, the starter wouldn't work, and we had to get it rebuilt at VW as they didn't have the replacement unit as the vehicle is a Canadian model. So much for world-wide compatibility. Europe uses mostly manual transmission diesels, and this is a 2.2 liter gas engine with automatic transmission. and different emission standards than Europe.
The van is fitted with a 1500 watt transformer, but it is really only necessary because the van has a U.S. spec refrigerator. We bought some 230v small appliances and lights at the beginning of the trip that we though we would need. It turned out that we "needed" more things at the beginning of the trip than at the end. Most of what we bought was more trouble to use than what it was worth. Electricity in campgrounds is an extra charge ($1.50 to $4.00 U.S. per night). The 12v light in the van is fine for a couple of hours, and lasts for 4 days without charging (driving).
Bringing a U.S. or Canadian vehicle to Europe is a "snap" after you are off the boat (we didn't ship ours over), and pets also are easy in Holland. Once the "stuff" is in the EU there are no more customs posts unless you go to a non-EU country (i.e. Switzerland); and even then there was no problem. Registration was my problem, as the previous owner didn't want me to use his Ontario plates (liability), and the USA states won't register a vehicle that is not already U.S. registered without the customs documents. So I got temporary registration from two U.S. states and used that. Insurance was with AIU/AIG and was $750 (after 15% "no claims" bonus) for three months with a declared vehicle value of $15,000. A year was $1,700. "No claims" means no claim on your U.S./Canadian vehicle insurance policy for the past three years.
We arrived in Amsterdam on 20 August and returned to the USA on 15 November.
We spent two weeks in the campground in Amsterdam trying to figure out where to put everything that we brought with us (including a dog), and working up the nerve to get out on the road. Our advice is the same as every book that you read about what to take on a trip; half of what you first pack. Europe is not the "back woods" and they sell almost everything that the U.S. does, plus some.
Amsterdam is a good place to start, as most people there speak English and are very helpful. Plus the campground is convenient to public transportation for groceries, and also to downtown Amsterdam.
Public transport in Europe is good/excellent; the campgrounds range from primitive to more facilities than you want to pay for (they are destination stops for families on vacation). There are many camping places within walking distance of towns, or in the town.
Our next stop was Bruges, Belgium where we spend a week. A beautiful town, and convenient public transport.
Next stop Trier, Germany for two nights. A walk across the bridge to town (15 minutes).
Next stop Thun, Switzerland where we spent five days visiting friends. The campground is right on Lake Thun, and is breathtaking with the surrounding snow-capped mountains.
Next stop, near Econe, Switzerland, spent four nights at a campground in the mountains, good food at the restaurant.
Next stop Milan, Italy for five nights. We had three camping books and yours was the only one to mention a campground in Milan.
Next stop Florence, Italy for two nights. We found Florence to be littered with street vendors.
Next, Assisi for two nights. Most of Italy was a "public works" project preparing for the Year 2000 pilgrimage.
Next stop was Siena for three nights. These are the kind of towns to really get exercise walking up and down hills.
Next stop San Remo, Italy right on the Mediterranean. The campground was very nice but at the top end. Right next door was a public parking area that is free for self-contained campers. We stayed two nights at each. What some people do is to stay at the public parking for 2-3 days, and then go next door for a night to clean up and charge the coach batteries.
Next stop was Nice, France for a night. The most expensive campground, at 142 French francs, that we stayed in on the entire trip.
Then we got daring and dry camped in Roquebrune sur Argens in a closed campground that the owner allowed us to park in for the night. Getting off the main roads and going on the secondary roads yields many interesting sights.
Next to Avignon, France for four nights right across the river from the town and its buildings and wall.
Next we spent our first night in a service area on the toll road near Montpellier, France. Again a first for us. These service areas on the toll roads are equal to what you find on U.S. toll roads, with showers, washers, etc. to use for a fee. We decided that this was a good way to derive a monetary benefit from paying the tolls.
The next night was spent visiting a friend and parking in their driveway.
Next was Carcassonne, France where the campgrounds were closed, so we spent the next two nights in a parking lot just outside the walls of the town.
Spent the next night in Fanjeaux, France where the town has space for seven campers.
Next night was in a service area just before the Spanish border.
Next we visited a convent in Argentona (20 km from Barcelona) and spent the night. They are cloistered nuns, and we went to compline that night and Mass the next morning. That was one of the most memorable stops on the trip. Serenity and beautiful Gregorian chants.
Next was El Masnou, Spain. The town is about 20 minutes by train outside Barcelona, we stayed for six nights. The train to Barcelona was the best public transport we rode. No graffiti, and classical music in the cars. While my wife and I were trying to decide whether to stay in this campground, or look for something closer to Barcelona, this couple walked past us, and I asked them about the campground. Besides saying that it was the only game in town, we discovered that we had a common friend in Cambridge, England. We had heard of each other for 22 years from this friend, but had never met. When you reach out to others you find out that this is a small world!
Next we went up the center of France on A75, the Midi toll road. We stayed in service areas and two towns on our way to Paris. While in Paris we stayed in the Bois du Boulogne campground, really convenient, and a great place to stay. Now my wife wants to live in Paris for a year. (How you going to keep ém down on the farm?) After we bought out the stores we went to visit a friend in Lille, and then on to Amsterdam to prepare for our trip home. I packed all the VAT refund items in one place so that I could show them to customs on departure to get the forms stamped so that we could get the refund of 12 to 14 percent of the value of the goods.
We left the camper stored in Amsterdam for our next trip (as soon as we can get the last trip paid off). It cost about $425 per year for inside storage, half that for outside.
The country that I feared was France, as I don't speak a word, and the last time we were there (32 years ago) I remember it as a bad time. This time France was one of our favorite countries, and the language didn't present an insurmountable problem. In the tourist areas, English is prevalent, and where it isn't we muddled through (having learned a bit of Spanish living in Mexico helped us to recognize words, but pronunciation was hopeless). If you can live in Mexico, you can travel anywhere in Europe.
Gas is expensive, $ 4 to $5 U.S. per gallon. Netherlands is the most expensive. You don't pass on the right in Europe, and you stay right, as the speed limit is a little over 80 MPH on some toll roads, and those cars will cruise at that, or over.
Toilets take a little getting used to, especially the squatters; and in some countries you pay to use the facilities, even in service stations.
We didn't eat out at restaurants. We found our meals out at the cafeterias of department stores and the deli at a hypermarket. IKEA had good food at a reasonable price, as did the COOP in Switzerland. In Bruges we ate delicious chicken legs purchased from a vendor on market day in the town square.
We bought two sleeping bags at Costco for $30 each and covered them with duvet covers that we bought at IKEA and used them as blankets over and under. We were glad to have them at the end of the trip as the temperature was down to 28 deg. F at night. We all were snuggled up together (including the dog).
The time of year that we traveled is the best (as far as I'm concerned) as the summer holidays are over and children are back in school. The crowds are less, and the campgrounds cheaper. A lot of campgrounds in French villages and towns are only open for the summer.
Distances are less in Europe, roads are excellent, and the food is great. The French are proud of their food, and rightly so. The Italian Mediterranean also had wonderful food to take out for lunch and then to sit parked overlooking the harbor with its yachts while we ate it.
If you can tackle Mexico, or drive to Alaska, then Europe will be a piece of cake.
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