Wild Camping in Europe – Day 23:
We travelled through four countries today. We started in Austria, decided to lunch in Liechtenstein (famed for being the world’s largest producer of false teeth), found a famous mountain pass through the Swiss Alps (Furka Pass), and ended up in Italy at Lake Como. It was a long day of scenic driving and we tried to stop overnight at a few places along the way in hopes of getting a sunny day on the pass the next morning (the cloud cover obscured our views all afternoon). However, we could not find any campsites and the tidy, picture perfect little Swiss town that we had hoped to free camp in, was very suspicious of our vans. The Swiss town seemed to be very strict on every parking space, and I was certain we would have been noticed and chased off had we tried to park overnight.
We decided at that point that we really wanted Italian Pizza and we were going to make a mad dash to make the Italian border before nightfall. Why not? I loved the idea of a side trip to another country for Pizza. I’d had heard Lake Como mentioned before and since it was near the border we decided to head there. It was pretty late when we arrived, but we stopped in the first pizza joint we saw. The only open parking space in the city seemed to be free until 6am the next day, so this patch of asphalt became our home. You will never find a pizza as good as a pizza in Italy. I had waited maybe 8+ years since my last one and I had been dreaming of another ever since. It was loud, the streets were crowded and the bustling nightlife at our doorstep was deeply tempting, but after an incredible Quattro Formagio pizza, a couple bottles of Chianti and Gelato, we all were ready for a heavy sleep.
Wild Camping Day 24:
The alarms went off at 6 am and we rushed to leave our parking spot before getting ticketed. As usual after a free camping night, our first task of the day was to find a toilet and breakfast. I was dying for an Italian espresso and hopefully another pizza if available at 6am. I was determined to make up for lost time and eat Italian pizzas at every opportunity that I had including breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We wandered around the lake a bit aimlessly trying to find a photo spot and as well as looking for George Clooney. I heard that he had a villa here and with our good luck thus far, I thought we could possibly stumble upon him and kindly ask him to join our photo shoot for a little bit. I was also buying time, as I contemplated our next move/direction.
The lake was postcard worthy, but it was a gloomy day so we did not stay long. I finally decided to make another major detour and go the opposite way of home and head down to the Italian Riviera. It was only a few hours by GPS, but as usual, a few GPS hours turned into about another 6 hours on the road. I had been to the famed Cinque Terra before and really wanted to photograph there again. But, when we finally got to the coast we had driven far enough for the day. We had not showered for days and our supplies were very low, so we found a campsite on the coast and splurged on the basics. It was the weekend and we all wanted a big night out. You guessed it, Pizza, Peroni, Lemonchello, Espresso and Gelato! After dinner we realized that we were right in the middle of the biggest Italian party of the week, and happily joined a wild dance party on the beach. I can’t say enough, how friendly all of the locals were!
Wild Camping Day 25:
Headaches…. but what a night! The lemonchello was just too good and I was ready for another pizza. We spent the morning driving up and down the Italian coastline looking for photo opportunities. It was madness driving here. Although I had been here before, I had never driven and had only used public transport. I was shocked we had survived this far without any accidents. When I finally parked the car, I literally rolled out the car in due to pure mental exhaustion. The streets were so narrow, and the Italians drive like madmen. The constant honks in the background became our soundtrack, and I started to consider them a badge of pride (sorry Italian drivers, I was that tourist). There was not a single parking spot on the entire Italian coastline, so we couldn’t even stop for coffee. We decided to try our luck on the French Riviera instead and headed along the coast that way. The views were spectacular alongside the ocean road but, I was pulling my hair out as there was no place to stop and take any photographs. A stunning tease around every corner but, no parking anywhere! And the traffic was mad! We got nowhere. My thoughts of revisiting previous trips to Cinque Terre and Nice were being crushed. Finally, in pain and anguish I pulled the plug on this side trip. I had wanted a day on the beach on the Riviera, cocktail in hand, floating in the warm waters, mingling with the beautiful locals and practicing my horrific Italian and French, but we were getting nowhere. Two days of driving, so many tolls, so many K’s, the views were beautiful, but sadly I got nothing photo wise. Normally I’d relish the chance to just be here, but I was on assignment. I was quite defeated, as this was turning out to be our first real fail on this trip of chance.
We headed back towards London/home, which was north! We decided to try Switzerland again and brave more mountain passes and maybe pop by the ol’ Matterhorn again. I was still pretty bummed about the wasted photo opportunities, but the team was ever optimistic and rightly so. We heard rumors of a great ancient road through the Alps that Napoleon once used called the St. Bernard Pass. There was a shelter at the top of the pass for these magnificent animals (and hopefully barrels of brandy around their neck). We heard that there was an older road on this route that was the incredibly scenic and we aimed for that. Ignoring all of the road signs that we could not read but, were very aware that it resembled “road closed” all too clearly. We risked it and went for it and the drive was another scenic masterpiece. My spirits were raised again! We stopped for herds of Alpine Ibex and packs of cute Marmots playing in the snow. It was all working out now and luck back on our side… until we reached the end.
We were right there at the Swiss/Italian border and only a small patch of snow was blocking the road causing its closure. We had come so far and were so close! But it was stunning up here and we had it all to ourselves. The team suggested staying here for the night…why not? So we raided the last of our supplies and cracked out some Chianti and called this home. It was one of the nicest sunset dinners that we had, nestled in the mountain peaks. It was a bit creepy at night being surrounded by abandoned hotels and buildings. We saw an eerie hotel/hospital across the border and thought they might have a bar and be open, so we crossed the snowfield and snuck across the border and escaped into Switzerland (well it felt like we were sneaking across borders) and sure enough, it was a bar! We got last call and drew the interest of the friendly locals before sneaking back into Italy for the night, ending with drinking games in the snow and rain.
Wild Camping Day 26:
Can you ever get tired of waking up in these spots? Well I guess having a shower or a toilet nearby is helpful, but it was just another beautiful morning in the Alps… all alone. We had to drive back down the way we came up, but it was a scenic joy to repeat this after a good night’s sleep. Our trip was ending though and we needed to get back to London ASAP, so it was time to race north. We went through the newer section of the St. Bernard pass and found the views to be equally stunning, but this road was much, much busier.
Our aim was to get somewhere deep into France and camp in a vineyard. We carried on through Switzerland and ran across the enormous Lake Geneva and headed there for lunch and a swim/shower in the glacier waters.
We had no direct aim but we wanted to put in some K’s and get closer to home and with two cars and four drivers, we all had to put in a lot of time behind the wheel. We managed to make good headway into France, before we couldn’t go any further. We took aim at a random lake on the map and tried our luck camping there. The lake was beautiful and a great spot for free camping, with the exception that there were numerous no camping signs posted all over. Still we set up for some photographs and cooked up a tasty feed. It got a little dodgy by the lake at night, as we were attracting attention.
So I opted to move the cars out of the lake and into a parking spot around the corner. We set up our beds and headed to the lake with drinks, cards and candles and hung out lakeside, under a full moon, playing drinking games. I can’t recall laughing as hard, as we put into practice the unique European accents that we had crossed thus far. It was great to have our beds waiting for us, but it made us a bit uneasy as we discovered our parking spot was in an old graveyard (parked perfectly legally, btw but just had not noticed where we actually were).
Wild Camping Day 27:
We woke up in a quaint old tiny Gothic city. We spent the morning enjoying the French bakeries and driving around this cute city. It was so great to experience a countryside outside the major cities. We continued the long journey north. By this point we all were worn thin and the vans had taken on an unpleasant odor. Our clothes needed a laundry, and we needed a washing urgently. We aimed towards Champaign, France and I thought this the perfect place to stay for the night! I figured I could talk my way into sleeping in a vineyard, but it was too late to invest the time. We stopped at a winery, did some tasting and then some buying. We were set on finding a proper campsite and shower tonight, but it was not to be. Our outdated GPS had us running circles to places that don’t exist with dead ends everywhere. We were running out of gas and had no food or water and in the middle of nowhere in the French countryside. Getting stranded was at our doorstep.
We had warm Champaign and a bed so we would be okay but it would seriously hamper our return home. We aimed to the closest station hoping to make it. Everything was closed and it was only 6! We happened to find one restaurant open and pulled in. The locals could not stop staring at us. Nobody spoke English. We managed to order, but received constant stares the entire meal. We decided to join the bar and see what these locals were all about and from there on the evening went mental. As it turned out we happened to be the only English-speaking tourists ever to visit the town and nobody spoke English. They loved having us here and would not stop buying us drinks. I wish there was video/photography from that night but then again it got really crazy. Someday I might share the stories if you really want to know 😉
The End of the Trip:
The last night in France was unique, especially in that small town and a first in my own odd travel experiences. We are still not sure quite what happened, but we woke up very early, in the vans, in the restaurant parking lot. The locals from the pub were watching us intently from their hotel rooms which was adjoined to the restaurant. We politely declined their offering of a shower and breakfast, said our goodbye’s and kind of snuck off. It was just weird. We had come a long way and now were on the home stretch. We had one day to kill so we opted to visit one of our first inspiring stops in Bruges. It was only a short drive to the ferry tomorrow morning and as it was a sunny afternoon, we spent the day resting, recovering and enjoying warm Champaign in the hot sun. The relaxed afternoon of drinking turned into a wild night out in Bruges. I was a bit worried about us making our ferry next the morning. There is no telling where this group might end up in the morning.
The following morning was one of the most difficult of the trip in terms of actually getting up and driving to the ferry. The job had been finished and the team celebrated hard, so in our self-inflicted morning agony, we crawled down the road and into the French port of Calais. Lucky a couple of us were able to at least drive. As the day went on, our spirits lightened and we were looking forward to sleeping in a bed and being back in London city central. Alas, we were greeted warmly with mountains of traffic and our easy drive into the city tried our patience over the next few hours. By the point we got to the rental depot, I think there was no remorse in turning our vehicles in. We were all very happy to take a break from driving and sleeping in vans for a little bit. We loved the vans, but it was the constant racing around which provided little rest along the way. I considered it almost a miracle that we did not have any accidents, or major troubles with the vehicles after all that we put the cars through. We turned in the cars, grabbed our bags and were backpackers on foot once again, as we headed for the London tube onto our next adventure.
And there you have it! A year in a month; a month in a day. For a short while this was our life a new adventure awaiting us every morning. It could have been the same for much longer, but on this journey, it was a job and we had a deadline. We clocked in at just under 6,000 miles and around 16 countries. Next time however, it’s all about having more time to plan, budget and have more time to explore. By the time we hit London though, we all were ready for a bit of respite. It was 6 people sharing two cars, long drives, sleeping side by side and being in twenty four hours a day of partnership. But, I couldn’t imagine another group better suited for this trip. It was bittersweet giving up the vans. You become attached to these mini-hostels on wheels that they gave us the chance to travel with full freedom. There are those people out there with a plan, a plan in life, a plan in travel and looking back it would have been so much easier and efficient to have had a plan. But, then again so many of the places we loved would have never been reached if we had a plan. I just wish we had more time for more of the same. A big thanks to Simon, Steve, Alex, & Emma, and Robyn for being so good looking, so much fun, content with getting constantly lost and being professional all at the same time.
A big thanks to Lonely Planet for sharing the journey and of course to Spaceships. I’ve worked with Spaceships for years. I want to own one of these vehicles, drive around the world and see what kind of mischief I can really dig up!
His portfolio can be found at www.mwrightgallery.com
As photography for top tier magazines, television, and film production companies in the world, Micah has traveled extensively through 50+ countries with an eye for tourism trends.
Micah’s impact on the photography world can be seen in over numerous Lonely Planet guidebooks from the past 12 years. Micah’s work is represented by companies such as Getty Images, Lonely Planet, Corbis, Firstlight, and a variety of other libraries.