Andrew RobinsonSee other Blog articles filed in ‘Travel and touring’ written by Andrew Robinson
The plan sounded simple: buy a cheap campervan and tootle around Europe for six weeks on a quest to find the perfect campsite, preferably costing no more than €10 a night. We’d all love to enjoy more low cost holidays, right? We’d bought the maps, done the research and read dozens of blogs by couples who had done it before us.
The only difference is that we had a new baby, just seven months old. And we didn't have a ‘van.
Being newbies and with a budget of just £7000 we ruled out the big motorhomes, and quickly realised that most VW campervans were out of our price range, too. Nightly searches of eBay kept throwing up ‘vans we had never heard of, like Bongo, Hiace, Granvia and so on. It’s intimidating for first timers worried about getting it wrong and reading horror stories.
After months of anguish we settled on a Mazda Bongo Friendee, which scored 10 out of 10 for its comedy name and for value for money. Our £7,000 bought us a 1995 model with a 2.5-litre diesel and four-wheel drive, and about 70,000 miles on the clock, all of which were done in Japan prior to being imported. It was a simple, no frills buy, a bog-standard ‘van with folding seats that made a bumpy bed and a roof which lifts to reveal another impossibly small sleeping area; no kitchen, no loo.
It was time to pimp our ride. Or at least make it suitable for touring. Naturally, our first concern was how to chill our beer, baby food and brie. A £295 decent Waeco fridge plus another £200 or so on a leisure battery and fitting solved that problem.
But this was meant to be a budget trip, so it was time to stop splurging. We made thermal window blinds using silver insulation material from B&Q and bought storage boxes from Poundstretcher, then got the rest of our touring gear together, including a pop-up travel cot and a sun canopy.
Finally, after months of planning, we were aboard the P&O ferry from Hull to Zeebrugge, enjoying a beer on the deck and a good night’s sleep in our bunks, our final 'luxuries' before hitting the road for 40 days and nights in a ‘van the size of my dad's garden shed. Just me, my partner Ellie, our baby son Harry and the open road. It was time to sink or swim.
Despite pondering this holiday for so long, we only had a vague idea of where we wanted to go, other than wanting to cross the Alps on a high pass and zoom through Italy towards Slovenia and Croatia.
From Zeebrugge, we headed to Metz in France, a drive of around 250 miles which we did in about five hours, with plenty of breaks for eating, drinking and nappy checking. Arriving in the early evening, we were reminded just how beautiful these old towns are.
After admiring the imposing cathedral, we soon found the free stopping place for motorhomes. Great! However, not only was it already full, but the ‘vans were all huge – we felt like impostors in our campervan. Thankfully, a kind Dutch couple put us at ease and pointed us in the direction of the overflow car park. It was time to get ready for night one in our ‘van.
A lot of kit needed to be moved and stowed, preferably without upsetting the baby, which wasn’t a simple task. But once done and settled in our camping chairs with our Cadac Safari Chef, we enjoyed a lovely al fresco meal overlooking the Moselle river.
One downside was the lack of an on-site toilet. Not having one on board nor with a portable loo and with so many all singing and dancing motorhomes nearby, our ‘van envy was rising with every passing moment. I’m pleased to report we found some facilities a short walk away.
After a good night’s sleep, Harry 'upstairs' in his fleecy all-in-one and sleeping bag, cocooned in the travel cot, us ‘downstairs’ on a pair of futon mattresses, we were up early to explore Metz and its wonderful indoor food market.
In the afternoon we set off for Dijon for our second night. After driving for a few hours we stumbled on an aire which, for €3 a night, gave us a washroom, a toilet and a lovely picnic area. However, it was that night – only night two! – that the harsh reality of touring with a baby came into sharp focus at 3am. And 4am. Our diary simply records: "Harry up twice in the night. If it is going to be like this we might as well go home." Imagine soothing a crying baby in a broom cupboard, while trying to locate milk, without losing your sanity.
The following day, bleary-eyed and feeling a bit fraught, we were Grenoble bound. And it proved to be an ideal ‘summit day’, being bright and clear, as we asked our 16-year old Mazda Bongo Friendee to carry us and our mountain of kit to 9000ft, over the pass of Col Agnel from France into Italy.
And we made it! We had a small overheating scare, but once the Bongo had spent a little while cooling down in a car park, we were ready to go again. And it was well worth it. We noted with pride that we were the only vehicle of any size to attempt the Col Agnel that day – racing cyclists and Porsche drivers gave us nods of recognition as we had a brief pitstop at 9000ft.
Descending the endless hairpins into Italy was a delight, but wasn't without problems. The motorhome’s brakes became so hot they decided to have a rest from doing their job, forcing us to pull over every now and again.
Our next overnight stop was at Arvieux in the Hautes-Alpes, near the Col d'Izoard, just in Italy. We parked between some pine trees, bought a few cold beers from the campsite shop and enjoyed a chilled evening – in more ways than one. We must still have been at a fair altitude as it was a pretty nippy night for the brave warrior who slept in the roof space (me, obviously).
Still, we’d made it to the end of the first leg of our adventure. With France behind us, it was time to see what Italy had to offer. We will be back soon with part two – read it here.