I have just returned home from 22 days spent in a camper van and I want to write about my experience on the road, but where to begin?
From exploring tiny, rural villages and hairpin bends along craggy mountain roads, wandering through enchanting Roman ruins to feeling the sand between my toes on a deserted beach…
I feel like I have done it all.
Not to mention experiencing a first: living in a camper van and all that entails.
But how do you pithily summarise a 3160 mile road trip that started on a rainy afternoon in Yorkshire, England and took me through Belgium, France, Spain and Portugal?
Life In A Camper Van Is A Lot Of Fun
I liken my excitement for road tripping in a camper van to that of a child who has been allowed to sleep in the tent pitched in the back garden. Only this time, my outdoor fort has wheels, a sink, a fridge, a gas hob and it can be driven to wherever I want.
My friend and I embarked on the road together after several red wine fuelled planning sessions and packing of the van in a pub car park.
It quickly became apparent that harmonious life in such a confined space relied on a subtle adopting of certain roles: I was chief navigator, in charge of map reading and snap directional decisions, whilst my friend faced the challenge of driving the van from the curb side of the road. She enjoyed doing the cooking whilst I ensured that everything was washed, swept and tidied away.
As well as people, it turns out that every item also has its place in the van. Pots and pans in one cupboard, cutlery and cooking utensils in a drawer. For a girl who loved to play with the giant Fisher-Price pretend shop when she was little, this enforced neatness on a tiny scale provided a deep level of satisfaction.
Map Reading Can Be A Rewarding Challenge
As we disembarked the ferry in a foreign country, about to drive thousands of miles on the wrong side of the road, I looked at the map in front of me and wished I had paid more attention in orientation exercises at Girl Guides.
But, whilst you would think that navigating around the outskirts of Paris, or working out the quickest route, avoiding tolls, from Point A to Point B, would be the most difficult, it turned out that following the signs for the humble ‘centro urbano’ was the thing to be done at your peril.
You would be forgiven for thinking that aiming for the centre of town for parking, shops and amenities would be the most obvious choice. But before you know it, you are being channelled down incredibly tiny, narrow one-way streets that are definitely not camper van friendly, whilst being stared at by all the locals for your total gall or just general stupidity.
After another tiny maze of a village that yielded nothing but no-entry signs and intense seven-point turns, a vow was uttered never to trust the words ‘centro urbano’ ever again.
All of these challenges must be dealt with in the spur of the moment; it is either left or right, straight on or pull a U-turn, and with your map on your knees and a lack of helpful road signs in front of you, you have just got to make a decision.
I find that you get better at reading your map, more wise to the judgement calls you have got to make, or simply just less flustered by making a choice based on a vaguely directional signpost.
In the end, roundabouts driven the wrong way cease to be scary once you have circled them three times.
Finding That Perfect Camp Spot Is Harder Than You Think (But The Search Is Always Worth It)
Whether wild camping or not, searching for the perfect spot to park the weary wheels took more time out of the day than I ever anticipated. Who would have thought that finding a place to pull over would be so difficult? (If you need a little help getting started, check out this website that lists free camping spots in France).
As the sun set after a full day of driving it was not unusual to find ourselves still on the road in search of a campsite. I came to believe that searching for the real-life campsites based on the tent symbols that seemed to be generously scattered across the map were a test of faith, and should be rewarded with a gold medal for perseverance.
On the quest for that mythical blue campsite symbol, finding yourself edging along unsealed farm tracks where the weeds grow from the middle of the path, or high up in the mountains on a road so remote that you share it with wild pigs, you are forced to ask yourself the pertinent question: which runs out quicker? Your sense of adventure or sense of humour?
Thankfully, whether or not an official campsite was ever discovered, a suitable spot always materialised before the last slivers of the sunset faded away. Just in time to crack open the deck chairs and a bottle of wine.
A Hot Shower Is Seriously Underrated
I found that life in the van continued to chug along quite contentedly for several days, eased along by the variety of my surroundings, excitement for the journey and the reward of yet more wine and cheese after a day of travelling.
However, there comes a point one morning, roughly day three, when you emerge from your sleeping bag chrysalis and find that no amount of wet wipes are going to make you feel like anything resembling a decently clean human being.
Now, I loved wild camping; the opportunity to pull up in off-the-beaten-track spots in the middle of pine forests, by a lake or the beach was an entirely new experience for me. But the general rule of thumb for all of these hidden nooks is that they are entirely devoid of all facilities.
Avoiding any reflective surface in which I could possibly catch a glimpse of my reflection can only be sustained for so long, and so eventually the quest must go on in search of a campsite.
Cries of “I feel like a new woman!” may or may not have been uttered upon stepping out of the cubicle following a much needed wash. After several days on the road, I felt like nothing could quite beat that post shower moment – unless of course it was the post-shower wine and cheese moment.
And Finally: Not All Cheap Red Wine Is Good (But Some Of It Is Excellent)
In England I realise now that we are spoiled for choice. Our wine selection in the supermarket spans numerous countries across several continents, but how much of it do we really drink? We all have our favourites and we stick to them. I am a sucker for a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc; I know it is good and I am lazy so I regularly buy it without bothering to lucky-dip any others that wink at me from the shelf.
Now, plonk me in small-town Portugal where the choice of plonk is suddenly reduced to, well, Portuguese red, and I am flummoxed.
Vino tinto is pretty much all you’ll get. And my goodness, it is cheap.
So cheap in fact that I start getting giddy, throw caution to the wind, and fill our basket up with so many 2.50 Euro – or cheaper – bottles of wine that I clink all the way to the checkout.
Dead cheap booze, is on the whole, never the way to go in any country. As soon as it is open I remember, to my dismay, that a bottle of 0.99 Euro wine is probably going to taste like exactly what it is: the dregs of (numerous, unspecified) barrels of wine rolled into one and ‘blended’ with a hefty slug of vinegar for good measure.
So, whilst I lick the fuzz from my teeth and say to myself that perhaps that one had better breathe, I must remember that there are many, many more very reasonably priced vino tintos on that particular shelf and most of it, in fact, is wonderfully drinkable.
I’m a huge road trip fan, if you hadn’t already guessed. A lot of my adventures on this blog are based on a road trip of some kind. From driving the length and breadth of Australia to the Outer Hebrides in Scotland.
If you loved this summary of camper van life, you may want to check out:
- My pre-Spain road trip thoughts
- My 5 favourite journeys (and the transport that took me there)
- The many options for travelling down the east coast of Australia
- What’s the best way to travel?
Have you ever travelled by camper van? How was your experience? Where did you go and how did you find life on the road?
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