Camping for Free in Europe

March 29, 2013

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.


White Sands Missile Range

March 28, 2013

With almost no concern for residual radiation, we approached the checkpoint guarding the entrance to the White Sands Missile Range.  We were directed toward a woodland of lethal sentinels rising from the desert.

Located in southern New Mexico along the Jornada del Muerto (‘route of the dead man’) Desert Basin, at 3200 square miles (8300 sq. kms) White Sands is the largest military installation in the United States.  Chosen because of its deserted but accessible location, clear skies, warm temperatures, and low vegetation, it was a bombing and gunnery range during World War II.

Dry desert with dry plats and not trees extending back to a mountain range in the background

Named ‘Route of the Dead Man’ by the Spanish because it was so dry

On July 16, 1945, the world’s first atomic bomb was detonated here at the Trinity Site (hence my ‘radiation’ comment). After victory was achieved in Europe, 300 railroad cars of superior confiscated German V-2 rocket components were delivered here, and White Sands became the place where America raced to develop and prove a wide range of missiles for the Army, Navy, and Air Force.  White Sands is also used to launch and test technology for NASA and in 1982 the Space Shuttle Columbia landed here.

Many missiles, most standing, displayed in the desert

White Sands Missile Park

The White Sands Museum and Missile Park displays the family tree of American missilery.  Here you can view most of the deadly weapons systems whose given names we vaguely recognize from news reports (e.g. Patriot, Pershing, Lance, and Sidewinder).  Does the word ‘park’ in the name seem somewhat inappropriate for an arsenal?

Many missiles including one pointing upward on an angle in the foregorund

More missiles

Do you remember the SCUD missiles launched by Iraq into Israel and Saudi Arabia at the opening of the Persian Gulf War?  One of the many weapons systems on display here is the PATRIOT (‘Phased Array Tracking Radar to Intercept On Target’), one of America’s commonly used Surface to Air (‘SAM’) missiles.

Beige vehicle with missile launcher raised from the rear and tip of missile showing

Patriot Missile Launcher

PATRIOT is a ballistic missile defense system, an unproven military concept until the Gulf War, and is now widely used by America and its allies to shoot down enemy ballistic missiles.

Side of beige Patrior missile launcher with blank painted slogans "Scud Buster", If it Flies It Dies", and "First to Fire"

Scud Buster

The White Sand Museum and Missile Park is located off Highway 70 about 25 miles north of Las Cruces, New Mexico.  Admission is free but visitors must show identification to pass the military checkpoint.


Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument

March 26, 2013

The drive to this national monument in the Gila Wilderness Area is scenic, steep, narrow, twisting and beautiful.  Diane was stressed and her arm rest suffered.  The mountain highway approaching the monument has steep sections of 10-12% grade for several miles, and large drop-offs with no guard rails. A lower gear is necessary in sections to avoid burning out one’s brakes.  Larger vehicles, including bigger RVs, need to take an alternate route, which is still challenging.

At an elevation of 6,700 feet (2,040 meters), it was cool but sunny when we arrived in the late morning.  Snow was visible nearby, but had finally relinquished the trails a few days prior.  The cliff dwellings are accessible by a short but steep hike up Cliff Dweller Canyon, which was apparently a challenge for some prairie dwellers who were departing and complaining when we parked in the almost empty lot.  The south-facing cliffs, sun kissed even in winter, quickly became visible as we climbed among the ponderosa pines.

Large alcoves like caves in a brown cliff from a distance

Cliff Alcoves

The Gila Cliff Dwellings were built and occupied by the Mogollon people during a short 25 year period about 700 years ago (1275 – 1300 CE).  The Mogollon normally built pit houses or surface pueblos but, breaking with tradition, the Tularosa Mogollon built inside the 5 cave alcoves of this canyon.  It is not known why the dwellings were abandoned after such a short period.

Cave mouth closed mostly by white bricks whie tourists looking up

The Second of Five caves

Of the 46 total rooms, most of the walls are still standing.  There were believed to have been occupied by 10 to 15 families.

A large cave half filled with a hite brick wall

Cave Three

The dwellings were a practical place to live.  They were protected from the weather, and their exposure allowed the low sun of winter to enter while keeping out the higher, hotter sun of summer.

The interior of a large cave with brick walls and structure visible

Inside Cave 4 and 5

Cliff Dweller Creek, at the bottom of the canyon, provided a convenient source of water, and the nearby Gila River valley was a good place for hunting, gathering, and growing food.  Of the 32 species of plant remains found in the caves, 24 were native (e.g. grapes, berries, acorns, nuts) while the other 8 including corn, beans, and squash were cultivated.

Very small corn cobs in a basket

700 Year Old Corn Cobs!

Visitors are welcome to enter and explore the caves.

Diane's upper body wearning puple fleece visible over wall in a cave

Diane exploring

Patrick in red shirt and jeans standing on a walkway in Cave 4 & 5

Patrick in Cave 4 & 5

Ladders and walkways are provided to move about the caves.  Scrambling around the cliffs reminded me of our visit to Petra, though this was on a much smaller and more primitive scale.

Patrick seated on a large wooden ladder made of poles that is exiting from a cave

Patrick descending

The first European contact with the Gila Cliff Dwellings was by Henry B. Ailman who was living in Silver City at the time, about 45 miles away.  Legend has it that in the summer of 1878, Ailman and some friends were on a jury list. To avoid serving, they organized a prospecting trip to the Gila River where this site was discovered.

Diane in purple tshirt and beige pants with Gila Cave 4 & 5 in the background

Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument is an interesting place to visit.  The beautiful drive, the remote location, the natural splendour, and the hands-on exploring of a historical site made for an really enjoyable day.


City of Rocks

March 25, 2013

After a night camped beside the stables at the fairgrounds in Safford, Arizona we headed east into New Mexico.  We crossed a desert where yucca, straight out of Dr. Seuss, dot the roadside, and arrived at City of Rocks State Park in the afternoon.

Tall strange y-shaped plant with hairy body, green leafy top, and stalks sticking up into the air

Roadside Yucca

We really didn’t know what to expect, but were immediately impressed when we saw the rocks rising from the desert in the distance.

A desert with rocks in the distance

City of Rocks from a distance

The best thing about the park is that access to the rocks isn’t restricted in any way.

Diane posting on path with rocks rising behidn her

You can hike among them,

Car campers among the rocks

camp among them,

Patrick standing on high rock

and climb them.

The desert landscape is even more beautiful against a vertical backdrop.

Yucca plant on desert with rocks in the background

The rock that forms the City of Rocks was created 35 million years ago by the eruption of a nearby volcano.  Over the millennia erosion sculpted the rock into its present form.

City of Rocks is a small, unique state park, not more than a few square miles in size.  The dirt road around the rocks is a bit bumpy, but still accessible by motorhomes.  Most of the campsites are primitive, without any hookups, but there are some bathrooms.  Some of the spaces will accommodate even large motorhomes.

Large motorhome parked amonth the rocks with nearby bathrooms as viewed from across the desert

Large motohome among the rocks

We found a nice spot up against the rocks facing nothing but miles of open desert.

Our motorhome against a backdrop of rocks as viewed from acsross the desert

Our campsite

In the evening we attended a star party, where astronomers gave a guided talk about the crystal clear night sky of New Mexico.  They pointed out the visible planets, major stars, and constellations using a green laser, and we looked through 2 telescopes, including one which is permanently mounted in a small observatory in the park.

Like cloud gazing, looking at the rocks brings images to mind.  What do you see here?

A grey rock against a blue background that may resemble a face to some

What do you see here?


After the Crash

March 25, 2013

After Diane’s mountain bike crash she wasn’t feeling very photogenic.

Diane with a gauze banadage on chine and scrapes visible on her upper lip and nose

Ouch!

But I did get the following pictures…

Diane drinking Starbucks

The day of the crash

Diane drinking Diet Coke

Diane drinking wine

Diane eating a banana

Diane with rocks behind her and her hair blowing across her chin

Almost healed

Diane about to eat lunch with Pecos River it the background

Back to beautiful


Cinque Terre

March 22, 2013

Flashback Friday — this is the first of a series of Friday posts about memorable events from recent travels.  They are a collection of writings that didn’t quite get published while we were on the road.

Our plans to visit Cinque Terre (‘Five Lands’) on the west coast of Italy in 2011 were thwarted by a killer storm on the night of October 25th.  We arrived in La Spezia during the early part of the tempest that did harm to the entire region, and catastrophic damage to 2 of the 5 villages of Cinque Terre.  In progress rescue work and the damage to the trail, the roads, and the rail line made doing the hike impossible at that time.  Not only could we not hike, but we were trapped in La Spezia for 3 days until the first road opened that would allow us to leave.

After this trying experience, we were glad to have the opportunity to revisit Cinque Terre in June, 2012.  We weren’t sure whether the famous Sentiero Azzurro (‘Azure Trail’) that connects the villages had been re-opened or what state it would be in, but we suspected that the people of the region would do everything possible to resurrect the primary source of their livelihoods as quickly as possible.

After our bad experience last visit in the only RV parking place in La Spezia, we decided to stay in a campground by a river in Ameglia, a few kilometers south of town.  The large, concrete bridge over this river that we had crossed during the storm had washed away later that evening, so on our return trip we had to detour upstream to another crossing and back down again to get to the campsite.  The receptionist said that the entire campground, including the buildings and the swimming pool, was flooded under 2 meters (6.5 feet) of water during the storm.  Thankfully everything was restored in time for the 2012 camping season and looked in fine shape to us.

We left our campground at 7:20 AM the next morning, drove to La Spezia to park, walked across town, and caught the 10:06 train to Corniglia, the 3rd of the 5 villages of Cinque Terre.  By doing so we avoided the crowds who walk only the easiest section of the trail between the 1st village (Riomaggiore) and the 2nd village (Manarola).  We would return to see these village and hike this section later in the day.  When we disembarked in Corniglia, while most others walked up the stairs, we hopped on board the free shuttle that runs up the steep hill (something the others may have been unaware of), bypassing the 368 steps and getting a head start.  Corniglia is a tiny village suspended on a rocky outcrop overlooking steep cliffs and the beautiful Mediterranean.  After a quick walk around (these villages are tiny, but we still managed to get lost in the labyrinth) we found the trail and started our hike.

Many coloured houses atop a green slope

Corniglia viewed from the trail

It took us about 1 hour to hike to Vernazza. Despite our proximity to the sea, it was very hot.  I was sweating like a tourist.  We found that lots of reconstruction had been completed (rock retaining walls, hand rails, trail work, etc.) and more was underway, but the trail was easily passable.

Diane standing on a yellow walkway that allows one to bypass trail construction work in progress

Trail construction under way

Vernazza also clings to the cliff along this glorious stretch of coastline.

Village with coloured houses on a cliff jutting out into the ocean

Approaching Vernazza

e ate the Italian salami sandwiches that we’d brought with us on the rocky point by the harbour while children were swimming around us.  Others were eating fresh pizza from the village, or sitting at the restaurant in the bay.  We continued hiking and soon were treated with a postcard view back on Vernazza.

Village of many small buildings surrounding a harbour

Vernazza

By mid-afternoon it was really hot and humid.

Patrick wearing maroon shirt and beige hat, sweating, with grees in background

Patrick Sweating

This last section of the trail was the most rugged and challenging.  We could see why most people skip it on the faces of those hiking towards us.

Steep cliffs covered in trees alongside the ocean

Rugged coastline between Vernazza and Monterosso

Despite this, It took us only 1 hour and 15 minutes to reach Monterosso al Mare.

A beach on the ocean with a small village and boardwalk behind and mountains in the distance

Rounding the point towards Monterosso

Hot and tired, we went for a swim here on the small section of beach which is open to the public.  It didn’t have the amenities of the private beach areas (umbrellas, change rooms, and lockers) but it did have a small fresh water shower to rinse off afterwards.

Looking along the beach with umbrellas and sunbathers and ocean to the right

The beach at Monterosso

I changed on the beach under Diane’s wrap and she changed in the train station bathroom across the street.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have another set of clothes, so we had to put our sweaty and smelly ones back on.  Afterwards we walked out to the point for yet another amazing view.

Small boats at anchor in the ocean with a beach and village in the background

Boats at anchor in Monterosso

We caught a mid-afternoon train back to Manarola (the 2nd village).

A narrow streat filled with people with balconies and awnings on both sides

Manarola’s main street

We watched the kids swimming and jumping from the rocks near the boat launch and then wandered out to the point for another tourist photo op.

Patrick in burgandy t-shirt and sunglasses with Manarola coloured houses and cliffs in the background

Patrick and Manarola

Leaving Manarola, we walked about 15 minutes on perhaps the best ‘trail’ I’ve ever been.  Hugging the cliff, it was more like a sidewalk and is wheelchair accessible.

Diane waving from the window of a section of the 'trail' enclosed into a rock tunnel with windows

Diane on a great ‘trail’

We arrived in Riomaggiore and decided to immediately catch the train back to La Spezia.  It had been a long, hot, and very memorable day.

Close up of Diane and Patrick seated on the train


Reminder – Help Name our RV Contest closes in just 3 days!

March 21, 2013

Thank-you to all of you who have contributed suggestions in our Help Name our RV Contest. Only 3 days remain to get your entries in, as the contest closes on Sunday, March 24th at 11 PM PST.

Please click this link for contest details. The suggestions that have been made so far are visible in the comments at the end of the post linked above, and may get your creative juices flowing. Among the good suggestions made so far, there seem to be a few themes emerging – dreams, our names, travel, and Germany. Can you come up with something new?

The winner, which could be you, will have the satisfaction of having the name they suggest used in perpetuity on this blog, and will be awarded a top-secret, fabulous prize. Have fun!