It could have been the end of the world. The line between sea and sand was a shimmering mirage, impossible to pin down. From the knees up local women hovered in this bright fog, collecting shellfish for lunch, and all around me were miles of flat sand. I heard a distant sound, the toot of a horn: the bread van.
I jumped out of my seat and flagged down the multicoloured Renault. With two generators strapped haphazardly to the roof, this van travelled the length of the beach twice a day, plying bakery goods and cold drinks. This was the only service on Beauduc beach, which is at the edge of the Camargue, a national park on France’s south coast; everyone here brought their own water and took their waste away with them. I bought two chocolate croissants for breakfast and a fresh baguette, then waved as the van hurtled toward a group of French motorhomes half a kilometre away. You’ve got to love France, I thought, the nearest fresh water source may be ten kilometres away, but you can still get fresh bread delivered to your door.
After living in England for two years, I wanted to see Europe. But I didn’t want to rush around the continent in a blur of towers, cathedrals and priceless statues, staying in damp-smelling characterless rooms and eating in cheap restaurants. I wanted to get to the heart of the countries I visited rather than taking them at face value.
My partner, Jon, and I bought an eighteen-year-old VW campervan named Bessie, a grand dame of a vehicle in two-tone blue, and planned a prolonged tour of the continent. When we finally left in June there were serious doubts that we wouldn’t be back soon – our van, an LT35, had broken down four times before we’d even booked the ferry to Dunkerque. The first time was worrying, the second and third annoying and the last catastrophic, costing us a small fortune to replacing the cylinder head.
As a result we were hesitant to put a timeline on our trip: we’d just keep on going for as long as we could. This turned out to be nine months, covering 13 countries and 24,000 kilometres. We went through 17 jars of Nutella and an unspeakable amount of diesel (we decided early on not to keep track of how many bottles of wine).
Before Bessie, I’d never driven anything much bigger than a Ford Festiva, but it didn’t take long for me to get used to steering our three-tonne home around corners without clipping the wheels. It’s a lot more fun than driving a car. Sitting up so high meant we could see over stone walls and hedges and – we’d soon discover – wave to farmers in Sicily, who would down tools to return the greeting with both hands.
Thanks to a combination of her immense mass, the sturdy bull bars on the front and her unhurried cruising pace, I felt safe in Bessie. Even in Naples, where everyone performs illegal manoeuvres at breakneck speeds with an espresso in one hand, Bessie sailed through the traffic like a tanker.
Just as I got used to driving Bessie in England we were ready to leave for Europe. There were a few scary moments when we got to France – usually involving roundabouts – but within a couple of days I’d forgotten the Commonwealth way and was comfortable driving on the right.
France is mobile-home heaven. On weekends, it felt like every second person in the country owned a campervan or motorhome. At 5pm on Fridays, a tide of big white boxes flowed towards the coasts, forests and scenic spots in the countryside. And no wonder: the whole country is covered in étapes camping-car, designated areas for campervans and motorhomes to park overnight..
We made good use of these abundant areas – the book we used listed a mere 6,400, but we found more – staying in the middle of picturesque villages, with river views or by the sea. Most are free of charge, but in July and August popular spots charged a small fee. For ten days in August, we stayed 50m from Pampelonne beach, parked in a pretty bamboo grove for just 7€ per night. I got a certain thrill knowing that not many other people were getting such a good deal: Pampelonne is just round the corner from St Tropez and it’s here that the glitterati come to cool off.
After France – where you can find good, hot showers in many motorway service stations – Spain was a bit of a disappointment. It’s one of the only countries in Western Europe where you can’t stop overnight in your van and we were forced into campsites most nights. Tarifa, the southern-most tip is a stunning exception, here hundreds of campervans park wild by the beach in summer. We heard from other travellers that Portugal is a great place to take a motorhome, but we had to miss it out and head back up North to catch a Tour de France race – yes, it was a tough life, indeed.
When we arrived somewhere new the first thing I wanted to know was: Which day is market day? I became obsessed. I would happily have never shopped in a store again, if only European supermarkets weren’t packed with so many weird and wonderful things. After market day, a rope of garlic hung above the sink and my basket was overflowing with dirty root vegetables, shiny eggplants and kilos of sweet fruit. Into the fridge went cured meats, fresh fish and non-pasteurised cheeses. We learnt that vegetables are seasonal not available, shrink-wrapped, year-round, and became more creative with our meals, trying out local recipes based on semi-understood instructions from the fennel guy or a restaurant chef.
I still can’t decide which was the best market in Europe – Apt in France, Bruges in Belgium and Palermo, Sicily are close contenders – but one’s thing’s for sure: we were never without fresh produce. On a back road leading to Strasbourg we put a euro into an honesty box and chose from a pile of bright pumpkins, we bought a box of cherries on the N100 in France and a strange, hybrid brocciflower (or caulioccoli) out of a car boot in Sicily.
Following the lead of our fellow European motorhome owners, we weren’t afraid to take our van anywhere. Bessie trundled up dirt tracks to visit cheese farms in the Auvergne region of France and parked on harbours hastily built during the second war, we even took her over the Alps into Italy, although we did lose all our hubcaps on the descent and the brakes failed temporarily so I’d recommend the coastal route.
Italy, Germany, Austria and Belgium were all well-equipped for motorhome travel. It’s hugely popular with the locals so there’s always somewhere to fill up with drinking water and get rid of your waste. We stayed in campsites when we needed to do some laundry or if we were going to be leaving Bessie for prolonged periods of time, but when we weren’t on sites, we rarely had difficulty finding somewhere to spend the night. A carpark would suffice, ports are very secure, church carparks always a winner. Eight times out of ten we’d be joined by another van by the time we were ready for bed. And only once did we wake up to find ourselves in the middle of a wholesale florists’ market.
Living our freewheeling dream, it came as quite a shock when we were robbed. We’d only been away for about six weeks and it was most definitely not part of the plan. Laptops, camera lenses, our beloved generator: gone. We learnt our lesson, though, and stopped blithely chucking our valuables beneath the seats and abandoning all our worldly possessions in non-secure locations. On the night in question, we’d left Bessie in a carpark in a forest while we dined a five minute walk away. The thieves mustn’t have believed their luck. To rub it in, they nicked our French dictionary, making the morning’s visit to the gendarmerie an interesting challenge.
After that we realised how easy it was to secure our campervan, how effective the little things: thinking twice about where we parked; putting stuff away properly; covering our shiny new bikes and always seeking out fellow travellers (motorhome owners are, by nature, busy bodies, they’d notice anyone dodgy sniffing around). Jon had bolted a mini safe to the base of the van, so our passports, documents and credit cars were safe.
Summer seemed endless as we soaked up France, Spain, North Italy and Croatia, and when winter came, we felt it. After a tour of the Germanic countries and the Massif Central of France, we joined the migration south and spent two months in Sicily, escaping most of the cold weather. Travelling in winter certainly has its advantages – less tourists being the major one – but it does mean that there are fewer campervans around, campsites are far between and the nights are longer.
In Sicily we had our perfect day. We woke up on top of a mountain and by sunset had seen more amazing things than a holidaymaker would see in a week. From Enna, we could see snow-covered Mount Etna, hazy in the distance; we popped into Lake Pergusa, where Persephone was snatched by Hades before time began; then saw the most stunning Roman floor mosaics in the world at Villa Romana del Casale. And that was before lunch – a quick pasta made in the van and eaten overlooking the blue dome of the cathedral in Caltagirone. This village is famous for its 142-step staircase made with hand-painted tiles and high-quality ceramics. We ended up just 100km from where we’d started in Modica, a beautiful baroque town little-known to outsiders, but renowned in Sicily for its dolcerie that produce chocolate in the Ancient Aztec way. The evening was spent munching on a chocolate and meat-filled empanada and marvelling at the hidden gems of this rough island.
It was at our own leisurely pace that we took in The Sights as well: Rome, Paris, Munich, Barcelona, even Venice wasn’t out of our reach. We saw David, the Mona Lisa, the Sistine Chapel, even Cezanne’s studio. And it has to be said, after a long day traipsing around the big cities, it was a wonderful feeling to arrive back at the campsite, spy our two-tone bus and think, ‘Home at last’. There was our indefatigable pot plant, Velcroed to the bench, the doormat out the front and cold beers in the fridge.
Sicily is a long way from England and we took our time getting back, reminiscing as we went, and stopping off to see Pisa and Florence. After nine months, I didn’t feel that we’d visited Europe, but that we’d lived there. Through the windows of our moving home we saw that the hills are indeed alive in Austria, just how small (and dull) Luxembourg is, how diverse Italy and how integral food is to France.
Driving on a route nationale, we were surprised to see a detour in the middle of a quaint village. It was a beautiful summer evening and road had been given over to restaurant diners, the traffic diverted through the adjacent carpark. We were so impressed that we went back to dine on the road. Where else but France?
Bessie’s Big Adventure, The Sydney Morning Herald, July 29, 2006