Andrew RobinsonSee other Blog articles filed in ‘Travel and touring’ written by Andrew Robinson
On day 15 of our grand tour of Europe we drove our trusty Mazda Bongo Friendee out of Slovenia and into Austria.
Of course we is me and my partner Ellie, plus our baby son Harry. You've already read how we acquired and equipped our campervan ready for our European adventure, and about our adventures in Italy and Slovenia. Now we were in new territory – Austria.
Virtually the moment we arrived in the country, the heavens opened so we decided to keep driving for as long as the stormy weather persisted. As the miles rolled by and the thunderclaps kept coming, we got thinking what we'd learned after two weeks on the road in our 'van.
The automatic gearbox and lofty driving position made it a pleasure to drive and the air-con proved its worth in red-hot Italy and Slovenia. The Mazda's compact size meant we were at ease on narrow roads, Alpine hairpins and cruising along the big roads at 70mph. And the 4x4 capability had left much heavier 'vans with that sinking feeling on more than one occasion – I'd even offered to use the Bongo to drag one huge motorhome out of the mud at one site!
So, Mummy and Daddy were happy, but what about baby Harry? Most nights he had slept soundly in the roof space, in a travel cot secured by a bed guard. 'Downstairs' in the campervan we had created a reasonably comfy double bed with futon mattresses, a duvet and cushions to even out the bumps. It wasn't the Hilton but we slept well enough.
Motorcaravanning with a baby might sound tricky, but it is fun if you are well organised – and we had to be, with such a small 'van to call home. Our carefully packed boxes stacked in the boot space even drew admiring comments from one or two fellow campers. And Harry, cute and cuddly at just seven months old, turned out to be the ultimate ice breaker when it came to meeting people. Wherever we went there were cries of "cuckoo, cuckoo" – the standard greeting for babies round these parts – from holidaymakers from all walks of life.
After driving on-and-off for around three hours through Austria we arrived at a damp and misty Berchtesgaden, over the border in Bavaria, Germany, randomly choosing the Familien AktivCamping for a one-night stop.
This site is surrounded by magnificent peaks, but we couldn't see a thing because of mist. What did catch our eye was the ultra-modern toilet block, with its motion sensitive doors and heated interior – a great place to give Harry a bath. Seeking out well-kept washing facilities became our little obsession while on tour and stopped us from envying the big motorhomes too much.
Of course, our little Bongo was very much a budget buy to get us on the road. However, we'd discovered another downside of an unconverted 'van. With no indoor hob, when it was raining I had to cook dinner on the Cadac Safari Chef gas stove whilst sheltering beneath the open boot door, while Ellie and Harry waited in the 'van.
It got us thinking more about the motorcaravanning accessories we had purchased – and the items we hadn't brought with us. Buying 'cheap' had already cost us.
The £5 budget water carrier had split, sending around five litres of water onto the Bongo's carpet. We had also managed to accidentally rip our cut-price canvas storage pouches. And the plastic storage boxes didn't fare much better, though they could easily be patched up. I guess the moral of the story is to pay as much as you can afford for each and every piece of kit – I've learned the difference between 'budget' and 'cheap'.
What about the things we left behind? Well, my decision to leave the sleeping bag at home had meant enduring a chilly night in the roof space as Ellie and Harry enjoyed a toasty night below. I also wondered whether we ought to have bought a decent awning for those days – admittedly rare in June and July – when it rained.
Anyway, back to our Bavarian campsite after a wet wander through Austria, and after a few sweet treats in the centre of the wonderfully touristy Berchtesgaden, we decided it was time to hit the road. I had wanted to visit Hitler's former mountain retreat, the so-called Eagle's Nest, but gave it a miss because of the low clouds and mist.
We were back on the road on day 16, heading in the direction of Munich. Always with one eye on the budget, we were beginning to think that camping charges in Germany were a little steep (almost €30 a night at Berchtesgaden).
As we got nearer to Munich, we asked our sat-nav to find the nearest campsite. It hadn't let us down so far, but on this occasion it took us to a long since closed site in the middle of a housing estate on the edge of Nowhere-Ville. Fortunately, about an hour later we found a modest campsite in the Munich area.
As we went through the 30-minute routine of setting up our Bongo for the night – putting the seats down, stowing unwanted kit in a little tent – we thought about where to go next. From the outset, our aim had been to find cheap campsites in beautiful places. It was at this point that we considered that what we were looking for were probably in plentiful supply in France, the country we were so keen to race through just two weeks earlier. Of course, this is the joy of motorcaravanning – you can change your mind and choose your route.
It was, therefore, time to head out of Germany in the direction of Alsace, to see if we could finally find that ever elusive campsite which wouldn't break the bank and we could call home for more than a night.