Tag Archives: camping

Camping for Free in Europe

It is definitely possible to camp for free Europe across Europe.  Free camping, dry camping, wild camping and boondocking (all of which have slightly different meanings) are terms used to describe camping somewhere other than a paid campground.  In most countries in Europe you can camp for free with a motorhome anywhere it is legal to park overnight.  Free camping is usually not allowed (or is much harder to do) if you are sleeping in a tent or a trailer (known in Europe as a caravan).

We choose to free camp because it allows us to stay in unique places where we couldn’t stay otherwise (e.g. in the wilderness, at the beach, close to cities or attractions, or at any desirable stopping point along our journey). In some cases there is no campground available or conveniently located, or they’re not open (which is often the case when traveling out of season).  We also choose to free camp to reduce costs.  Campgrounds in Europe typically charge $20 – $45 a night for two people.  On an extended journey, these costs really add up, so we try to spend multiple nights free camping for every night we spend in a campground.

In some places, free camping is illegal or discouraged.  It may be against the national law (like in Greece where this rule is commonly ignored), local bylaws, or the sensibilities of the local residents or police.  There may be signs restricting overnight parking or specifically RV parking.  There are often height barriers on parking lots to prevent RVs (and particularly gypsy caravans) from entering a parking area, in which case we are forced to take our free camping and our business elsewhere.

There are several common ways to free camp in Europe.

Aires

Aires de Service (service areas) are places designated for the parking and servicing of RVs.  They are very common in France and are available to a lesser extent in several other European countries (e.g. Germany, Spain, Italy, Portugal)  Aires provide free or very cheap RV parking and often services like drinking water, grey and black water and garbage disposal, but rarely electricity.  No trailers or tents are allowed.  Items should not be set up outside one’s RV (e.g. no awnings, folding tables, chairs, or clothes lines.)  Aires are usually provided by cities, towns, or businesses to encourage visitors and patronage.  Provided a parking place for RVs also discourages visitors from parking overnight on the streets, and concentrates them in a particular area.

Sign saying 'Aire de Stationnement Reservee Aux Camping-Cars'  showing a picture of a car being towed awa

‘Parking Area Reserved for Motorhomes’

Aires are usually basic affairs — parking lots, paved or unsurfaced, with a service point where clean and dirty water can be on and off loaded.  The service points are often custom-built, just a fresh water tap and access to the sewer.  Sometimes the service points are commercially produced versions, which use money or tokens to gain access to the services.  Most Aires are unmanned and the service points are sometimes in disrepair, which is made worse if some people dump their waste anyhow.

A white metal box with buttons and hookups for water

A Nice Service Point

Aires rarely have the charm or the privacy of a national or state park campground.  European commercial campgrounds almost never provide privacy anyhow, so they aren’t much different in that regard.  Aires provide hassle-free parking that is often close to cities, attractions, or beaches, and a place to service one’s RV.

A white sign with blue border showing a black motorhome dumping water below

RV Service Point Sign

There are web sites and books that identify and describe the thousands of Aires available in Europe.  As a traveler, it’s useful to have all the information you can get when trying to find a place to stay.

Urban Camping

The main advantage of staying in an urban setting is proximity to attractions, restaurants, and nightlife.  It’s nice to be able to walk to the city center.  It’s great to be able to enjoy a night on the town without worrying about driving or transport back to a campground.

When staying somewhere other than an official overnight camping place, it is important to choose wisely.  In the city, it’s important to blend in, typically some place where other vehicles are parked like a truck stop, commercial parking lot, residential neighbourhood, etc.  Ideally it will be a place with good lighting and people nearby (for safety reasons) but no noisy or nosy neighbours, loud traffic or pedestrians, nor trucks running their refrigeration units all night.  In some countries like Germany, Austria, and France it is safe to sleep at the roadside rest stops, but in other countries like Spain and Portugal this is ill advised as robberies sometimes occur.

OUr white RV parked beside a canal with cars in front and back

Parking by the canal in Gouda (yes, where the cheese comes from) in Amsterdam

If you choose your parking place wisely, remain in the vehicle, and don’t disturb anyone, only rarely will you be chased away.  This has never happened to us.  I’m sure it will be very disconcerting when we eventually get a knock on the door in the middle of the night.  If this happens, it will hopefully be the police knocking.  Being forced to move along could be a real problem if we’ve had a drink, and are therefore not in a position to safely drive away.

OUr motorhome parked by the river in front of Rila Monastery

Camping in front of Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

In urban camping situations, especially in places where it is questionable to stay, we try to arrive at or after dark so as not to draw attention to ourselves.  We don’t exit the vehicle and camp in stealth mode with shades drawn and no external lights.  Cocooned in the S&M Motel, we can enjoy a lovely evening, with a fine meal, a good book, or a movie on the laptop.  In the morning the pressure is usually off as there are no issues with parking during the day.  In some iffy situations it is best to depart early in the morning.  Sometimes we’ll drive a short distance enjoying our coffee and tea before stopping somewhere nice for breakfast.

Wild Camping

Camping in the countryside or wilderness settings is a great way to get close to nature.  It allows us to stay close to parks, mountains, beaches or other places of natural beauty and outdoor recreation.

In addition to campgrounds and aires, it is sometimes possible to stay on private land (e.g. farms, wineries, churches, monasteries, restaurant parking lots, etc.)  In these cases permission should be obtained from the owner, which is sometimes difficult to do if they are not to be found or you don’t share a common language.

Our RV in a parking lot with snow and ski slopes in the background

Parking at a ski resort in Andorra

But wild camping is best done on public land away from civilization, in a quiet, remote place.  Ideally this is near a lake, river, ocean, mountains, or other beautiful vista.  There is nothing like free camping with the windows open, to wake with the sun rising over a beautiful landscape.  We experienced this on a beach near Tarifa in Southern Spain, overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar.  By day we walked the long sandy beaches of the Mediterranean and at night we enjoyed the lights of Tangier across the water in Morocco (Africa).  We also stayed at the beach in several villages on the Peloponnese peninsula in Greece.

Our RV with awning extended with dinner table and chairs set outside

Staying at the beach in Kala Nero, Greece

Our RV in a line with others in a sand parking lot on the beach

Camping ON the beach in Kastro, Greece

The biggest challenge with wild camp sites is how to find them.  If you’re staying closer to civilization, it is necessary to find an out-of-the-way place, preferably a spot on a quiet side road or dead-end street that is obscured from view.  In these conditions, you should try to keep a low profile by following the guidelines for urban camping above.  You should not stay on private land without permission or you risk facing the wrath of the owner.

Our RV in a parking lot overlooking the Tuscan countryside

Camping with an amazing Tuscan view in Cortona, Italy

Sometimes we learn of wild camping locations from other people.  They share this information in person or on the Internet.  A more challenging way to find pristine wild camping spots it to scout them out oneself.  A good approach is to seek out a body of water using maps or the GPS, then follow along it checking the side roads until you find a nice place.  This is a skill that our friends Sue and Martin have mastered, and that we are still developing.

Our white RV parked beside a Swiss lake

Staying beside the lake near Bonigen, Switzerland

We did a lot more free camping in Phase 2 of our European adventure.  The combination of more experience and warmer weather allowed us to stay in some amazing places and to lower our costs.  And when we do get that knock on the door in the middle of the night, there will probably be a blog story in it.

Diane at sunset with a long sandy beach and buildings below ni the distance

View from our campsite on a cliff in Nazare (Sitia), France

Note — this is one of a continuing series of Friday posts about memorable events from recent travels that didn’t quite get finished while we were on the road.

Ghost Ship – Our Semi-Private Cruise

We didn’t book a private cruise, but we had the entire ship virtually to ourselves.  It was a pleasant surprise, but strange nonetheless.  In each room the staff stood around attentively, watching our every move in the hopes that we might need something.  They outnumbered us 10 to 1.  Each time we walked past the empty cafeteria, with a full assortment of hot and cold food prepared and on display, I felt the eyes of the staff willing me to stop and purchase something.

We left Greece from the Peloponnesian port of Patras, heading to Italy by ferry.  We arrived in Patras in late afternoon, and like so often seems to happen to us, virtually everything was closed.  Another Greek holiday, in this case Whit Monday, the holiday celebrated the day after Pentecost.   Down by the harbour we did find an open ticket office for Superfast Ferries, so we went in and learned that there was a ship leaving in short order.  To make it, we needed to be at the dock in under 30 minutes.  We decided to go for it, and booked passage for ‘camping on deck’.  This is a unique option provided by some ferry companies that allows you to sleep in your motorhome on the deck.  The use of gas is not allowed, but they do provide an electrical connection to operate the refrigerator, lights, and electric cook top (if your camper has one).  Thankfully we do have one electric burner, allowing us to cook onboard, but we didn’t have any food having just spent several days free camping on Greek beaches.  We were told that there was an open grocery store near the port if we hurried.

After a blitz through Carrefour, we arrived at the dock in a scramble, and were turned back when the ‘tickets’ we’d been given were actually vouchers that had to be converted at the Superfast office.  Diane did this while I kept the engine idling, and we raced back through the security check and up the ramp onto a ghost ship.

Empty grey deck on a ship with white railing and tower, with ocean and sunset in the background

Ghost ship

We were directed to park near the rail, and a crew member pulled an electrical cable down from the ceiling to connect us.  We were under cover for some protection from the sun and or rain, but still had a view onto the ocean.

Camping car alone on a metal deck near the starboard wall with windows in the background

Our cabin on the S&M Cruise Line

The weird thing was, there were almost no other vehicles on board.  At the very far end of the deck there was a single semi-trailer. Parked behind us were a few cars which appeared to be owned by the crew.  And that was it, on a ship so big that a crew member used a motor scooter to get around our deck rather than walk.  It was basically empty.  I assumed that more vehicles would arrive, but at the appointed time we set sail empty.

An empty metal deck on a deserted ferry.  Covered with windows in the background.

Our private deck

We went upstairs to peruse the ship.  There was a beautiful main deck with several lounges, a bar, a cafeteria, and a casino, all empty.  Above this were 2 deserted decks of staterooms.  There were two external terraces surrounded by waiters to provide table service to the non-existent patrons.  Collectively, spread over the entire ship, I think that there were less than 10 people, excluding the staff who were far more numerous.  There was a deck crew, a full kitchen with restaurant staff, a bartender with servers, an information desk with 2 staff, and a variety of officers and other attendants.

Empty hallway and lounge area with seating and lights

Our Private Lounge

The cafeteria was the most shocking.  They had a full selection of hot entrees (fish, meat, etc.), side dishes, and cold dishes.  I spied at least 10 beautiful salmon salads waiting in the cooler, but I did not see a single person eat.

Empty cafeteria counter with food and display but no patrons

Our Private Cafeteria

We did our best to support the Greek economy, drinking a pricey beer on the upper deck as Greece faded into the distance.

Diane sitting at a white table with two beer glasses on the table

Doing our part to help support the Greek economy!

Despite the guilt-inducing looks from the staff, Diane cooked us dinner in the camper.  We used the terrific shower facilities on board.  Who puts marble floors and sinks on a ferry?  When we went to bed, I was still in a state of shock about how vacant the ship was.  How could they possibly afford to run such a big ferry empty, especially on an international route?

We got our answer at 1 AM.  We were awakened by the loud noise of large trucks and other vehicles.  It seems our ferry wouldn’t be completely empty for the whole voyage after all.

In the morning, we peered outside and found that we were completed hemmed in by large trucks.

Cabs of many truck side-by-side

No longer alone

Our empty deck was now full.  The trucks were so tightly crammed together that we couldn’t walk between them.

Narrow gap between two white trucks

No wiggle room

Even though our private cruise was over, we still enjoyed the rest of our voyage, arriving in Bari,  Italy in the late morning.  We still had a nice view, and Diane even hung out the laundry in the Mediterranean breeze!

 

Towels hanging from our camper van window

Towels with that fresh ocean smell!

 

Zschaitz

We continue to head east across Germany.  After nights spent beside a fire hall near Frankfurt am Main and in a parking area in Erfurt, a town that we enjoyed last year despite the hubbub caused by the Pope’s planned arrival the following day, we stopped in a small village in Saxony named Zschaitz.  After 10 days of rain in France and Luxembourg, spring had arrived with a vengeance, and the previous couple of days were in the high 20’s Celcius.  My hayfever was also in full swing.

Our camping guide book (the Bord Atlas which is written only in German!) showed that there was a camping place for motorhomes with electricity and a reasonable price only a few kilometers from the motorway.  Although we couldn’t read the description, the picture showed a small lake (which turned out to be a reservoir), which appealed to Diane so we wandered off to the beautiful village of Zschaitz.

When we arrived, the party was just getting started. There were about 20 people gathered around a large fire that was being lit.  We approached the group and were directed to the ‘chef” (the German word for ‘chief’) who was brandishing a large pitchfork.  He spoke to us in German and we gave our standard response, “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” or “Do you speak English” which usually prompts a little smile.  He called out to the group to see who could speak English and we were approached by a nice guy whose name we later learned was “Haiko” (I hope that I’m spelling the names correctly, because they’ll probably be reading this!)

Picture of reservoir surrounded by trees with a little beach

Zschaitz Reservoir

Haiko helped us find our parking pace in a gravel lot right beside the reservoir.  We were the only camper there.  Nice.  His son Kevin brought the key for the bathroom (it didn’t work but they solved that later).  We walked back with them to the party, which was near the place where the duschen (showers) are located.  Upon completing our tour, we stood talking with Haiko and Kevin on the outskirts of the party.  After a while, the ‘chef’ called out to Haiko to offer us a beer, a flavourful brew in a bottle with a flip-top cap that Diane really enjoyed.  We told them about our trip.  We learned about Haiko’s service in the German military and met his wife Janet.  We talked about Zschaitz.  We spoke briefly with several other brave people from the party who came up to us and said hello, though in most cases their English was limited.  Haiko’s English was pretty good (he called it ‘military English’) and Kevin’s seemed good also, far beyond what I would have expected of his 14 years.

We thanked them for the beer and returned to the camper where Diane made dinner.  Just after we finished, a friendly older gentleman that we had met at the party arrived with several kids in tow.  He spoke virtually no English, but came anyhow with his grandchildren to deliver us plastic glasses of ‘Jim Bean und Coke’, English words that he did know.  Here we also met Kevin’s sister Chantelle who is 11.

We returned to the party together, and enjoyed a great evening around the fire.  People were sitting on wooden pallets covered with old carpet or blankets.  They were drinking beer for the most part, but also brandy and Eierlikoer (egg liqueur), a homemade beverage of alcohol, milk, powdered sugar, and raw egg yolks (hopefully the alcohol kills the salmonella).  The Eierlikoer was served in small edible glasses (yes, edible) that tasted like ice-cream cones.  We’d brought our own beer, but they kept offering us shots of other things which we, as good guests, graciously accepted.

We really enjoyed talking with Chantelle, Kevin, and Haiko.  Chantelle asked all kinds of questions of Diane.  What are your hobbies?  What are you good at?  Bad at?  What is your favourite food?  Favourite movies?  Do you like ‘Twilight’?

Diane with her arm around Chantelle by the fire

Diane and Chantelle

I spoke with Haiko about the military and his travels, and about the people at the party, some of whom got braver with their English as the night went on.  Kevin told me about his football team, and I learned that they were playing a match the following morning against another village.  He invited us to the game and we were very pleased to accept.  This was one of those moments that as travelers we long for.  A chance to meet local people and, despite the language barrier, get the chance to learn about them and share with them.

Patrick and Haiko with beers by the fire

Patrick and Haiko

When Chantelle when to bed, she offered Diane a charm she had made herself.  As other people left the party, they came and shook everyone’s hands, including ours, offering the informal good-bye ‘tschüss’.  We agreed to meet Haiko and Janet in front of their home the following morning at 10:20, 10 minutes before the start of Kevin’s soccer game.  Haiko seemed very glad that we had shown such an interest in his children.  Then we too drifted off to bed.

Camper van sitting in front of the reservoir in a gravel lot

Our great parking place by the water

The next morning I ran through the village.  It was glorious and sunny and it felt great to be running, despite my minor ‘dehydration’ headache from the night before.  I shaved beside the lake watching my reflection in the window glass.  We packed up the camper van and arrived at Haiko’s home as promised.  He and Janet jumped into the RV and we drove the 500 meters to the village’s soccer field.  Kevin was already there with his team and ran over to say hello during the warm-up.  We sat at a picnic table with Kevin, Janet, Chantelle and her best friend (isn’t it great to be 11?)  We drank tea, coffee from the clubhouse, and Haiko and his brother-in-law also drank beer.  It’s not uncommon to drink beer or wine in the mid to late morning in Europe, especially on the weekends.

Diane, Janet, and another lady at the picnic table watching the soccer game

Diane and Janet watching the game

The game didn’t go so well for Kevin’s team.  The other team, number 1 in the league, was bigger, strong, and faster.  But the Zschatiz home team played well and kept trying even when they were down.

The opposign teams meeting at midfield.  Zschatiz in green and their opponents in red.

The opposing teams meet at midfield.  Zschaitz is in green and Kevin is #2.

We enjoyed the game a lot, and Haiko gave me a tour of the clubhouse afterwards.  It was filled with pictures and trophies of the village’s soccer club from years gone by, including important matches and visits by famous teams.  Haiko pointed out his father in one of the pictures.

White soccer clubhouse beside a green field

Zschaitz’s clubhouse.  Very impressive for a small village.

Kevin joined us after the game and we walked back towards the camper to say our good-byes. He told me that he’d already been reading our blog (I’d given him the address the previous night). With his parents’ permission, I told Kevin that I would write a story about our visit and his soccer match and post it on the blog.  Thank-you so much to Kevin, Chantelle, Janet, and Haiko.  Thanks to them, the ‘chef’, and the people of Zschaitz for making us feel welcome.

Patrick, Haiko, and Janet with Kevin kneeling in the foreground

Patrick with Haiko, Janet, and Kevin