By David Shore
Set aside your preconceived notions about the "right" way to travel in Europe for a few minutes, and take a little detour with me...
The morning sky is ablaze with color as the sun rises over the Swiss Alps. The first rays to clear the peaks pierce the cool morning air and like a warm, gentle hand reach through a louvered window, waking a pair of sleepy adventurers. They stretch lazily, enjoying the deliciousness of the crisp breeze wafting in off the lake, the warm sun shining now into all the windows, and the snugness and privacy of their own home on the shores of Lake Geneva.
But they've enjoyed their free Swiss chalet long enough. They've been there a week; it's time to move on. The rolling French countryside calls. They consult the map and discover a back road that winds from the border all the way to Paris. So they fold up the inflatable boat and stow it under the seat, put away everything loose, and they're ready to head for the open road.
Their lakeside villa will become a private tour bus. It will stop wherever they want to stop. It will turn off onto interesting side roads. It will even allow them to change their minds and head for Provence and the Cote d'Azur.
After a day of marvelous sights and pleasant human encounters, they pull off the road and into a forest glade rosy with the glow of sunset. Dinner is a feast, cooked quickly and intimately in the van kitchen with foods more flavorful and fresher than those available at home. They dine by candlelight at their private table as Mozart serenades them from the tape deck.
Later, the well-fed couple spends the evening hours brushing up on their French and reading to each other from tour books about the fascinating experiences that wait for them along tomorrow's path. Tomorrow night, or the next night, when they are in Paris, they may opt for an evening on the town — their city clothes are hanging neatly in the closet — but tonight in the quiet forest they admire the stars and then snuggle gratefully into their own comfortable bed for a peaceful sleep as the sound of crickets wafts through the louvered window...
A pretty idyll. But is it just a fantasy? After all, everybody knows that European travel isn't this easy. You can't just go there and see what happens — you need itineraries, schedules, reservations. Right?
Wrong. With a van or motorhome, you have total flexibility. You can change your mind whenever a more interesting option appears. As examples, once our family went to Europe with the general intention of driving down the boot of Italy, but it turned out to be a summer of record-breaking heat. So we went to Scandinavia instead, where everyone was delighted with the unaccustomed warmth. Another time we were driving in Germany one afternoon when we were struck with a powerful desire to have dinner in France. So we turned west, crossed the Rhine into Alsace, and had one of the most delicious meals of our lives in Strasbourg that evening.
Another thing everybody knows is that travel means hassling with luggage, check-out times at hotels, and train and bus schedules.
Not here it doesn't. You unpack only once, into your campervan's many handy cupboards and closets. Check-out time is whenever you feel like leaving — and it might not be until day after tomorrow. And you can spend your time seeing the beauties of Europe — not waiting on the platforms of endless train stations.
Everybody also is convinced that camping means roughing it. They probably have memories of sleeping on the cold ground on scouting trips. But your van is a clean, comfortable little house on wheels, not a drafty tent. European campgrounds are not wilderness outposts; they are pleasant grassy places with stores, cafes, and other civilized amenities. And every night you sleep in your own bed.
That same "everybody" suspects that driving in Europe is a nightmare of bad roads and wild drivers, and that trying to manage a motorhome under these conditions would be madness. Again, "everybody" is dead wrong. Most European highways and motorways are state of the art, and a campervan or small motorhome is as manageable as a car. European drivers must pass rigorous tests before they get their licenses and are usually quite skilled. Big-city traffic can be heavy and confusing, as at home, but you can avoid this problem easily by staying at a campground on the edge of town and riding the metro or a bus into the urban center.
And, finally, everybody really knows that a trip to Europe costs a fortune, right? Wrong once again. You can pay as much or as little for a van or motorhome as your pocket and your thirst for luxury dictate. You can choose among a wide range of rental vehicles from American-style motorhomes to that good-old standby, the VW van. For trips of a month or more, you'll save by purchasing a vehicle from a dealer offering a buy-back guarantee. You can even make a profit if you time it right.
The purpose of this article hasn't been to teach you how to see Europe by van — that would take an entire book. I just wanted to offer a little exercise to see if campervanning might fit your travel style. If it doesn't, that's fine. But if it might, and you'd like to dig into the real nitty gritty, please swing by www.roadtripeurope.com, where you can order a copy of Europe by Van and Motorhome, our comprehensive how-to guide to this great style of travel.