Guide To Travelling Europe In a Van (Part 1: The Calamities)
I’ll start off by saying, 4 months travelling Europe in a beaten up campervan was some of the best travelling I’ve ever done. Not having an end date and not knowing where exactly we're going from one day to the next is one of the most freeing experiences in an otherwise very planned and meticulous modern life.
We’re not that old and smart phones had just come out but we didn’t have one and without knowing it at the time, it was liberating. Today if I was to eat out in a new place I find myself consulting Aunty Google and Uncle Tripadvisor and whilst they will often save me from bad experiences and rip off artists they also sanitize us from discovering the unexplored and unexpected. Even those that were awful experiences are now some of my fondest memories.
I’m a total hypocrite as I am writing for you a travel guide of sorts (this is the disaster version, the guide part will come later) but take my advice and ditch the phone every now and then and let your feet (or wheels) take you for a wander into the unknown.
Buying a Campervan
First off we had been living in London for the previous 3 years so we had time to hunt out and find the perfect (cough cough) campervan. I was told you could go to a street in Earls Court where people finishing their travels would sell their vans to people starting out but to be honest we never found it and I suspect it’s a thing of the past.
Tip Number 1: Buy a Decent Campervan
We didn’t. In an effort to save money we bought a 1981 Talbot Van (Talbot went out of business in 1994 : 1st clue!)
"Kristos" our home for the next 4 months
Guess which one is ours??
She was bought for 3000 pounds and was not in good condition but was a genuine self contained campervan with shower and everything.
To be fair the previous kiwi owners didn’t lie about anything but I was too impatient to hear their subtle warning signs. They had mentioned that the fuel tank could leak if you filled it right up but I assumed they meant a small dribble and only if parked on a hill.
We had a long drive scheduled and I’m a numbers man. I desperately wanted to know what sort of mileage we could get out of our new baby so I filled her to the brim, reset the odometer and went in to pay. With a glance to the forecourt I noticed a problem not in the form of a dribble but a rapidly expanding flammable puddle escaping from under the van. My sweet wife Francesca, oblivious to the danger beneath her feet smiled and waved back at me. I’m not proud of this but faced with this growing problem, I quickly paid, quietly prayed for no explosion, started the van and drove off.
I’m very sorry Shell Petrol Station of Oatlands Drive, I really needed those numbers…..
BTW we also sold the van for 3000 pounds so did we save anything by being tight………
Tip Number 2: Changing Down Saves Lives
I’m led to believe that Talbot brakes weren’t the best when they came out of the factory and they certainly didn’t improve when someone ripped a hole in the top and added an extra 600kg of weight to make it into a campervan.
Somewhere in the mountains around Oberaudorf Germany, Kristos was in the zone as we smoothly took crisp mountain corners in our stride cruising down steep mountain passes. I didn’t want to cramp our style by down shifting and hadn’t come across the term “brake fade” before so I decided to hold in the brake gently and keep us in the "zone".
The air was crisp, the views were breath-taking until they were filled with the smell of burning brake fluid and the views of mountain drop offs were breathtaking for another reason. Try as I might, I now couldn’t stop the van with the brakes and with a sharp corner approaching and a top heavy van I swore loudly and applied the handbrake to bring us to a stop. We breathed a sigh of relief, jumped out and had a cup of tea (cos we’re badass) and waited for the brakes to cool.
Jumping back in, we were now in a position on a 21% decline and a 90 degree corner 100 meters ahead. In the interests of safety I made Francesca jump out and stand at the corner below where she would have prime view of me falling to my death. Thankfully they worked, she jumped back in and off we went, down shifting all the way.
And they say chivalry is dead….
Not actual corner. Between cursing and skidding with the handbrake I didn't have a free hand to take a picture for my years later blog
Tip Number 3: JB Waterweld Is Made Of Magic (not sponsored)
Coming from a very temperate Northland, New Zealand climate I was not aware that water freezes outside of freezers and frozen water bursts pipes. In my haste to try all the “features” of Kristos, I decide to test out the onboard water heater and then leave it overnight in the middle of the UK winter. For some reason the ability to make hot water in a van amazed me at the time, so the next day I tried it again to the inevitable soggy results. With not much hope and not much money, not only did JB Waterweld fix it, it stayed “fixed” for the ensuing 11,000 miles (17,600km). It also turned my curses into praise when our rusty radiator developed a gaping hole on the outskirts of Rome. I think I probably blocked up a quarter of our radiator in the process but it did the trick allowing us to explore that magnificent city and more.
Tip Number 4: Fuses Are Really Cheap But Sometimes Mislabeled
"Kristos" was fancy and had a gas heater. The previous owners had told us it works but under no circumstances were we to use it until its exhaust hose was fixed (cue carbon monoxide poisoning). I was onto it and in my haste to fix the hose it just stopped working. I imagined I knew what I was doing but after an an hour I gave up and told Francesca, the heaters not working but we won’t need it anyway because we’ll be travelling in summer.
It was 4 months later when I found out the fuse I thought was a unlabeled spare was actually the fuse for the heater. 20 cents later it worked………..
Tip number 5: Don’t Throw Chairs In The Dark
We found this fantastic spot to park up for the night somewhere in Sicily, Italy where there was an dried up riverbed where we decided to start a fire and cook our fish caveman styles. I was down below gathering wood, Francesca was up top getting the chairs when she called “incoming” and with uncanny aim which I’ve never seen before or since hurled a chair hitting me squarely in the shin.
Believe it or not, Francesca's an ED Nurse.....
It didn’t stop us climbing Etna the next day, even shunning the bus (sissies) to walk the whole way instead.
Francesca felt the need to verbally and with gestures harass the tour bus. She showed them....
Tip Number 6: Nothing Beats Exploring a Continent With a Campervan
Europe is filled with some truly beautiful sights free to be ruined with an ugly van. I can’t help but feel young people these days are missing a trick by shunning the campervan tiki tour of Europe. We thought the stops would be filled with people our age but to be honest it was all retirees. You can’t beat the freedom to explore and how cheap it is to travel. Europe has a huge network of campervan stops, most of them free, or sometimes 2-3 euros. These are usually in pretty villages, lakes, cities or beaches, have free water fill up and waste disposal. One in Italy even had electricity hookup for free! It got to the point where if they were asking for 5 euros for the night we’d tell em “they’re dreaming” and move on. We’d be walking through the cities with only a water bottle in hand, where the poor backpackers would be lugging all their worldly possession on their shoulders. Where others were confined to the cities, we’d discover unspoilt frozen lakes, deserted coastline and “man make big boom” (more on that in later blogs) because “the road looked cool”
So in summary I dedicate this piece to "Kristos". Even though you were the ugliest van ever to grace this earth you were our chariot through Bosnian landmines and Sicilian drivers. You kept going despite missing fuel caps and dodgy fuel, leaking gas and knackered engine mounts. Your memory will be cherished forever.
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