Visiting Europe like the Europeans Do
Revised October 24, 2010
There is no better way to get to see Europe and get to meet Europeans than to stay in campgrounds. If you are someone who goes camping in America to enjoy the solitude of nature, you'll be shocked by European campgrounds which focus more on amenities and comfort than on solitude. Typical campgrounds during the busy season have restaurants and bars, warm swimming pools, and laundromats. Some of our favorite campgrounds provide transportation to the cities (so that you don't have to drive in urban traffic) and host social events to make the experience feel like a real vacation.
For me, travel is not only about seeing spectacular places, it is about interacting with the people who live there....taking the time to discover who they are and what they value and to experience life as they live it. In Europe, the campgrounds are a place where you'll meet Europeans on vacation in a setting that fosters communication...whether it is while you swim in a pool or having drinks in a bar. Buy a bottle of wine or some beer at the grocery store and then invite your neighbors over for drinks. If your neighbors are as charming as the folks we have met, you'll have some of the most memorable experiences in the campgrounds.
One of the things that will surprise is the way that Europeans get ice. They typically use less refrigeration and electricity than we do, so the way that they make ice for coolers is by filling empty soda bottles and storing them in a common campground freezer. Put them there at night and you have fresh ice for your cooler in the morning. If you don't spot the ice chest, ask if the camp employees if they will freeze your bottle for you.
But remembering that there are limited supplies of ice, don't buy much food that needs refrigeration. Drop into local farmers' markets or small grocery stores and get enough food for dinner and breakfast the next day. Cook only what you will eat soon. You can get just the amount of cheese you need, store it in a plastic bag and then enjoy it over the next few days.
You will find many campgrounds on the outskirts of major cities. We have camped near Rome, Venice, Brugge, Florence and Amsterdam, stretching our travel dollars by sleeping cheaply and being able to prepare many of our meals on our own, rather than staying in hotels and dining at restaurants. Just like hotels and motels, they vary in quality.
The easiest way to travel between campsites is via car, though we met travellers who arrived at the campgrounds on foot or by train. When you think about what you are saving over Eurail passes and the fact that you have significantly more freedom of movement, a car becomes a very affordable way for groups of two or more to see Europe.
In Venice, the campground was amazing with one of the largest grocery stores we saw in Italy, a book store, a laundry where you could get your clothes cleaned for you, a shoe store, an ice cream shop, a photo lab and beach store serving hundreds of guests. Situated on Punta Sabbioni, a sandy spit between the Venice Lagoon and the Adriatic Sea, this resort was run like a cruise boat. Showers and restrooms were immaculate, snack shops catered to guests on the beach and every night the staff had an activity to entertain the guests. The campground outside Amsterdam was less elegant and, because Amsterdam is the world's greatest party town and draws young people from all over Europe, the campground showed the signs of enthusiastic partying in the morning. Generally, the campgrounds we stayed at were very well-maintained and much cleaner than what we find in America.
In France, many of our nights were spent at Les Castels campgrounds. This chain provides clean, friendly resorts throughout France, usually situated on the site of a historic home. We stayed at their properties in the Loire Valley, the Dordogne, northeastern France and Normandy and had delightful experiences.
In Venice, we stayed at the very comfortable Marina di Venezia. In addition to the amazing array of services, one of the added benefits of this resort is that it provides bus service to the ferry to Venice. One of my most memorable moments in Europe was the approach to the city of Venice from across the lagoon. St. Mark's loomed in the distance and grew as we came closer. It was breathtaking and something we missed on the next trip to Venice when we stayed in the city and arrived via a bridge.
On both of our trips to Rome, we stayed at Camping I Pini, a friendly campground just north of Rome. Before settling on I Pini on the first trip, we visited other campgrounds just west of Rome which seemed comfortable but not as well maintained as I Pini. If you can arrange it, be there on the weekend when the campground throws a wonderful reasonably priced feast for all the visitors. It is a great time to meet other travelers and swap stories and advice. The campground provides bus service to Rome for guests, but if you have a car, it is better to drive to the train station and ride into the city, which makes it possible for you to spend more time in Rome. If you are traveling with kids, this is a great place to take a break from endless hours of museums and historic sights. Also, you will find that Rome is one of the most expensive cities for lodging in all of Europe so the savings are greater at I Pini than almost every other location.
Conveniently located outside of Florence is Camping Il Poggetto, another clean, comfortable resort in the hills of Tuscany. One of our best meals in Europe was at this campground restaurant. Again, you can easily reach Florence via public transportation, picking up a bus to the city just outside the campground.
Expect to pay about 25-30 Euros per night for a couple with a tent, with rates at their highest during "high" season in July and August. For not much more, you can usually rent one of the campgrounds bungalows, which generally have a bed and bathroom. In addition to what you save on lodging (probably at least 50 Euros per night if you camp rather than stay in a hotel), you will also be able to save on meals if you have a small cook stove and pan. For more information on what you need, read the section on Camping Equipment.
If you are staying in a bungalow or chalet, you may want to purchase your own sheets to save on the rental cost that most campgrounds charge. To accommodate the varied sizes you may encounter, by flat queen sheets.
We found most of the campgrounds we stayed at in Italy over the Internet. One of the best sites for Italy is www.camping.it/english/ . We had a guide book for campgrounds in Europe which we used to find campgrounds in Austria, Germany and the Netherlands. In Brugge, we just headed toward the coast and found many camping spots on the North Sea. Additional campgrounds in the Dordogne (southwest) region of France can be found at Dordogne Campsites, a page that is French but if you follow the links, most of the campgrounds have English language websites.
As first time travelers to the eastern European countries of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia, we chose hotel accommodations in the cities where we stayed. Particularly in the cities of Prague and Budapest, where hotels are spendy, camping can be a very affordable option. As you pick a campsite in these places, remember that you may have issues with parking if you drive into the cities; if you choose to use public transporation, be sure to have someone with good English skills verify the hours of operation and how to read the route information; you don't want to be forced to use a taxi to get back to your campsite at night. Sunny Camping is a clean, modern facility a short drive from Prague; during high season, a tent spot for two and parking for a car will cost about $40 per night.