Caroline Mills

See other Blog articles filed in ‘Travel and touring’ written by Caroline Mills
If city breaks in your 'van sound like a terrifying mix of tight streets and parking trauma, think again, says long-time motorcaravanner Caroline Mills

In the August 2015 issue of Practical Motorhome, we're celebrating all things urban in our city breaks special. And while, of course, there are lots of cities in the UK to explore, what about further afield? Here are some of my favourites if you're looking for the best city breaks in Europe to visit in your 'van – with a little bit of help from some of our Reader Team members.

Salzburg, Austria

With the surrounding mountains clearly visible from every vantage point, Salzburg in Austria has a very rural, clean feel. Its cultural centre is incredibly picturesque, and its energy for music is infectious, whether the birthplace of Mozart or the backdrop to the world's favourite musical, The Sound of Music (celebrating 50 years in 2015).

There are three garden-like campsites within Salzburg. Though for the budget-conscious (or for day-trippers), park in the aire in Freilassing (just over the German border) and hop on the 10-minute bus journey to the centre.

Don't miss the Hohensalzburg Fortress. It's ever-present wherever you are in the city. Take the funicular railway to reach it, with superb views above the city. There's a lovely restaurant with great views of the surrounding mountains at the top.

Another must-see is the Freilichtmuseum, four miles east of Salzburg, which provides a fabulous parkland setting for traditional rural buildings from the area around Salzburg. Wander through each house or 'farm' and enjoy the traditional gardens.

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

There are lots of things to do in Amsterdam, the capital city of The Netherlands. A web of canals that form the 'highway' to each street, it has a relaxed, youthful buzz where the bicycle and the boat are king. I love the café culture and the fact that the central core is sufficiently compact that you really can walk – or cycle – to see all the main attractions.

And great news for motorcaravanners is that there's a motorhome aire 10 minutes from the city centre – with a free boat ride across the Amstel to get there. Alternatively, you can stay at a great rural campsite, Camping Het Amsterdamse Bos, on the southern outskirts near Aalsmeer, and get the 20-minute bus into the centre. 

My top sights? The Rijksmuseum, Stedelijk Museum and Van Gogh Museum are sited next to one another in Museumplein and provide enough artwork of international importance to last for more than one visit to Amsterdam.

And if you want to know where that bunch of flowers you bought comes from, the chances are it passed through the Bloemenveiling at Aalsmeer, the largest flower auction house in the world. Visiting the auction house – the largest building in the world – is mind-blowing!

Florence, Italy

Motorhome holidays in Italy have long been popular, so why not visit Florence? It is generally hot and it's busy, but that is a part of its character and attraction. There's nothing quite like buying ultra-ripe peaches from the market, or watching the pasta you plan to eat for dinner being made in front of you. And that's before you've even begun to sink into the Renaissance architecture. Florence is one of those 'must-see' cities that epitomises the 'Grand Tour'.

Camping Michelangelo is, arguably, one of the loveliest of city centre campsites – and it really is in the heart of Florence, adjacent to Piazzale Michelangelo with fine views over the city. Set amidst an olive grove, the campsite is just a 10-minute walk to the centre. Alternatively, you can stay at the recently built Area di Sosta camping area specifically for motorhomes, next to the River Arno.

And what about my top two things to do in Florence? Firstly, the Duomo – actually you can't miss it! The sheer size of the building dominates both the city and surrounding landscape. The cathedral's dome is immensely beautiful, while the bells from the Campanile resonate through the soul. 

You should also take the bus up to the Etruscan ruins at Fiesole, a glorious hillside town above Florence, where you can catch your 'Room With A View' moment. It's a great opportunity to escape the heat and bustle of the city for a while.

Top Reader Team tips

So, what are the favourite European city break destinations of our well-travelled Reader Team members? 

Anne Dean tours in her Globecar Campscout and recommends Córdoba, Spain. "The Arabic influence is evident in Córdoba’s magnificent mezquita (cathedral/mosque), alcázar (castle/ palace) and warren of narrow streets, making it a fascinating city to explore. The El Brillante municipal campsite is located within the city and has a convenient bus service nearby."

Geoff Crowther loves taking his Auto-Sleeper Warwick Duo to Bergen in Norway. "This city can’t fail to delight if you love the sea. The focal point is Bryggen, the atmospheric old wharf by the harbour. We found a motorhome-friendly car park just minutes away. For seafood at its best, don’t miss the quayside fish market, and, if you have a refillable gas tank, Bergen is one of the few places in Norway where you can buy LPG."

He also reveals his love of Luxembourg City. "It's the jewel of the tiny principality," he tells us. "The free, on-street parking on the edge of the centre allows an easy stroll in. Highlights include Place Guillaume II, with the Duke’s equestrian statue, while the ultra-modern Musée d’Histoire de la Ville de Luxembourg gives a fascinating insight into more than 1000 years of the city’s history."

Next we speak to Donna Garner. "I love Strasbourg in France. ‘The crossroads of Europe’, Strasbourg contains both a beautiful historic centre and the most modern of parliament buildings. Don’t miss the awe-inspiring Cathédrale Notre-Dame or taking a boat trip around the city. For staying overnight, choose between the free aire in the east of the city, or Camping La Montagne Verte in the west. The local bus and tram from the campsite into the centre costs around €5 return."

From touring in her Ford Herald Squire 400E, Donna also rates Bruges, Belgium. "This unspoilt medieval city is one of the most popular destinations in the country. A stroll around the well-preserved medieval centre takes you past many fine buildings, including the Stadhuis (town hall), one of the oldest in Belgium, or the lovely, step-gabled houses which cluster around The Markt (market square). There are aires for both day and overnight parking in Bruges (there’s a charge for overnight stays) or stay at a free aire in a nearby town and visit Bruges by train.

It's back to Italy for our next recommendation which comes from Reader Team member Nicki Hatton, who holidays in a Swift Escape 686 and who's singing the praises of Verona. "A UNESCO World Heritage site, Verona is probably most famous as the setting for Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet. It’s a beautiful, small and manageable city, with a lot of history and many impressive ancient structures, such as the Arena, a 2000-year-old Roman amphitheatre, which is still used today. And there's good news for motorcaravanners, with an easy-to-find, barrier-operated, sosta (an Italian aire) in a quiet spot, just a 20-minute walk from the centre (Piazza Bra). Stays are allowed up to 48 hours at a very reasonable charge of €10 per 24 hours, or €5 for a four-hour stay, including use of services."

We've also got two city break destination ideas from Bob Reeves, starting in Stockholm, Sweden."Set on an archipelago, Stockholm is a laid-back city that combines the feel of a modern European capital with history and architecture dating back to the 13th century. The setting means lots of water and green spaces." He also recommends going to the Vasa museum to see the enormous, preserved 17th-century ship that sunk in the harbour on its first voyage – then, for a complete change of scenery, just 1km away is the ABBA Museum! But where to stay? "During the summer months, there's a city centre campsite just for motorhomes," he tells us. "It’s more of an aire than a campsite and is very urban but only costs around £20 a night and is just 1km from the centre."

Bob, who tours in a Hymer Camp, also thinks you should visit Barcelona. "It's a lively, thriving city combining interesting historical sites such as Gaudí’s unfinished cathedral, the Sagrada Família, through to La Rambla, the 1.2km long boulevard that cuts through the city. For unusual architecture look out for more creations by Antoni Gaudí, the best of which is Park Güell, which looks like something out of a Dr Seuss book. If you like your history and architecture a little older and more traditional then head for the Gothic Quarter. Football fans can make a pilgrimage to Camp Nou, the home of FC Barcelona, to take the tour. There are several good campsites around the city, some of which are right on the beach. There is an excellent transport network that gets you into the heart of the city from your campsite without having to take the ’van out. We use Tres Estelles, which is part of the ACSI scheme, has beach-side pitches and is just 10 minutes by bus to the centre."

Finally, we hear from Chausson Welcome 76 motorcaravanner Vera Whalley, and her first pick is Venice. "It's not a vehicle-friendly city," she warns, "but stay at Camping Fusina and you can see great views of Venice from the site. It’s also only a five-minute walk to the water taxi for a 20-minute ride into the city. Taking a vaporetto (water taxi) around the Grand Canal is a great way to see the city’s beautiful buildings; seek out small cafés and restaurants in the back streets and visit the Doge’s Palace."

She is also a fan of San Marino, the oldest republic in the world. "There's a lot of history to take in. Don’t miss a visit to the Towers, Liberty Square and the Public Palace. Take the cable car from Borgio Maggiore to the upper city and walk back down. And there are several motorhome parking areas around the city – parking 10 is probably the best, with lifts that take you up to the old city."

With so much food for thought, isn't it time you planned your next city break in your 'van?

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