04/10/2012
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Cycle camping in Europe

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Sitting on the grass outside our tent, sipping cups of tea and feeling the warmth of the late afternoon Sicilian sun on our shoulders, we finally relaxed. No matter how stressful your day, once you get the tent up you know you’re home.

Two days previously, we had set off on a six-month cycle tour of Europe. After months of planning – fussing over the right equipment, the route, the endless details – and a long day’s confusing cycling down from Catania, here we were outside our little tent in an agriturismo campsite near Siracuse, Sicily. The sun was warm, the site was quiet, and life was good.

We planned to spend the next six months on the road, usually cycling for three days and then taking a rest day to explore. Sitting there that first evening, though, that seemed a bit of a daunting prospect.

SICILY

SicilyAs we had discovered on that first day, when Italians say you’re there ‘out of season’, they really mean it. Campsites looked like building sites, full of bulldozers and mud, dogs snarling at the high gates. Whole towns along the lungomare promenades were deserted, full of nothing but dust and drifting rubbish. Finding somewhere to stay – even when we gave in and looked for hotels – was challenging.

“Oh, well, we’ll just wild camp,” we said. Every book you read on cycle touring has people camping in out of the way spots, waking up in heavenly isolation - but the reality of it, looking for a secluded site, waiting until dusk, surreptitiously cooking… it was all bit much for us. And I do like my campsite shower. So we wimped out, and kept on going, and going, until we finally found somewhere. 

Having since read about wild dogs mauling people on the beaches of Sicily – and we certainly got chased by some – I think we made the right choice. Learn from our mistakes and check things will actually be open wherever you’re going.

GREECEgreece

Things started to improve once we arrived in Greece at the start of April. The campsites were open, if still empty, the weather was warmer, and Jason could get his beloved tyropita (feta cheese filo pastries) every day. 

Sunset still came really early so we’d have to eat by 6pm and then cosy down in the tent, listening to Greek music on the radio and sipping ouzo from tiny bottles. We’d be fast asleep by 8.30pm, which led to early rises. It’s a strange feeling for a non-morning-person to be up and bright at 6am…

Anyone who’s been to Greece will know it’s a very hilly country and the cycling was tough at first, on fully-laden bikes. But by the time we’d done a circuit of the Peloponnese, we knew we could tackle anything Italy could throw at us. Our highest climb in Greece was to Kosmas, at 1,200 metres – almost the height of Ben Nevis. We set off from sea level, on a road that rose and dropped back down several times before we even began the real climb – it was a tough day. Kosmas is a tiny place, home to about 600 people in whitewashed houses piled on top of the mountain. No campsite, so we found a room, only to go out for dinner later and find some intrepid mountaineers pitching their tiny tents in among the swings and see-saws in the playpark in the middle of the village. There’s always someone more enterprising than us.

ITALY

We got a ferry to Ancona, Northern Italy, at the end of April and started to work our way north. The day we knew the holiday season had finally begun was when we checked out of a campsite in Urbino, and were charged 23 euros a night, instead of the 12-15 euros we’d been used to. We were furious at the site manager for his greed (and his cold showers and squat loos), only to find as days passed that this was the new price – it was May, and life had got more expensive.

No matter how much you pay, you can’t guarantee the sun, or peace and quiet. We set up camp one day by the edge of Lago Verde (in the Italian Lakes) only to have workmen come back from lunch and start building a wall right beside us. Then, overnight, it began to rain and we realised we had pitched, rather stupidly, in a dip, with the wall preventing the water going anywhere but under our tent. By 7am, I squelched through the mud to the office and begged to rent a caravan.

As we sprinted back and forth, taking things from the sopping tent to the cosy van, a head popped out of the next door caravan. “You look like you could do with a cup of tea, my love,” it said. Five minutes later a tray appeared at the door of our caravan, with chocolate biscuits and milky tea, and instructions to just bring it back round when we’d dried out a bit. Brian and Joyce spend every summer on the site, and they looked after us for the day, even taking us out on their motorboat on the lake. Camping people are great!

FRANCE

We crossed the Alps into France at the start of June. We chose the Col de Larche/Colle della Maddalena because it seemed less busy with traffic, and took two days to reach the border at 1,996 metres. There wagreeces still snow lying, even in June, and we watched a small avalanche roll down the slopes as we crossed the border.

France brought us back to super-cheap camping, with municipal parks charging about six euros a night. There was more choice of easy-to-cook food in the shops, and lovely, wide, empty roads.

My parents were on holiday near Bordeaux, so that gave us a target – get there and scrounge some free food. We followed the Canal du Midi where we could – it’s often bumpy and muddy – and slowly curved our way north, finally meeting them by mid-June. My mum had found us a campsite nearby, so we camped and rode over to their tiny apartment for every meal. The site was pleasant enough, but plagued with brutish mosquitoes. Putting up a tent while leaping about slapping your limbs and swearing is a challenge – and taking it down we found a whole colony sitting on the inside of the flysheet, obviously longing to get through our inner tent and get stuck in.

After a few days it was time to get moving, so we waved goodbye and set off eastwards, heading for the Loire Valley. Three hours later, we stopped for lunch and I went looking for our cutlery. Only to remember exactly where I’d left all the breakfast dishes - in the washing up area at the site. Pots, bowls, cutlery, the lot.

“Em, Dad… do you fancy a drive?” Forty years old and still a pest. But my parents duly turned up with our dishes, saving the day.

North-east France really suffers from a lack of campsites, and even hotels. We often had to ride much further than we’d hoped, just to find somewhere to stay. One late-arrival spot turned out to be a Godsend, though – the blissful La Croix Badeau, at Soulaines Dhuys. Our own hedged-off pitch, great showers and – heaven – a washing machine. We stayed a couple of days, just relaxing in the beautiful little village, reading, cooking and washing sleeping bags and everything we could get in the machine. Oh, and listening to the parents from the neighbouring tent have some private time in the next shower cubicle. France, eh?

GERMANY

Talking of national stereotypes, we finally arrived in Germany at the start of July and found the most efficient, regimented campsite that we’d ever come across. Each numbered pitch had its own thick booklet of rules and explanations, and we had to put our tent up twice because we pitched it before the grass man had time to mow the grass.

German campsites, generally, are super clean and friendly, though. We often had people come over to speak to us, and I’d manage to explain in mangled German what we were doing and where we’d been. People would dash across the park to lend us cushioned chairs and tables, give us washing powder for washing machines, strike up conversation as we did dishes and help us translate menus and signs that had us stumped.

German cycle paths, on the other hand, are rough and bumpy and lead to sore bums – give me tarmac roads any day! Finally it came time to start heading west, back towards home. Our last night camping in Maaseik was as perfect as you could hope for. Warm weather, a field to ourselves, a sink and tap nearby, and that heaven-sent item for small-tent campers – a picnic table! We revelled in that last night, while also desperately looking forward to our own bed, to cups of tea and to proper toast. Camping’s wonderful, but it’s nice to get home, too!

CULTURE CLASH – the differences between neighbourscycle camping

There are some real differences between European countries. Starting with the loos! The further south you go, the less likely you are to see toilet roll, soap, toilet seats – or even toilets, other than squat ones. You get used to them, but it’s a relief to get to France and find a loo with a seat. And to get to Germany and get loo roll. It’s so undignified, striding across a campsite with your loo roll under your arm. And of course there are Greek toilets, where you can’t flush the paper at all.

Driving on the roads of Greece and the south of Italy were the scariest for cyclists, France the best. Road rules would take a couple of days to get used to in each country. Were we allowed on the road? Were there likely to be lorries on a ‘yellow’ road or just the ‘red’ ones? And did that horn mean ‘Hello!’ or ‘Get out of the way or I’ll squash you’?

Maps differ hugely between countries, and it always takes a few days to get used to a new style, working out routes, identifying monster hills, and spotting campsites.

Food obviously changed from place to place and each new country would see us having to rethink our lunch and dinner habits. Breakfast – tyropita cheese pie? Croissant? Biscuits in Italy or a vast platter of meat, cheese and boiled eggs in Germany? We grew to appreciate the range of convenience foods in the UK – easy to camp-cook, and lots of choice.

Campers, though, are similar everywhere – friendly, happy to help out, and interested in what you’re doing and where you’ve been. Our aim now is to be just as helpful to any tourists we meet – it’s time to pay it back.

OUR EQUIPMENT

  • Blacks Octane 3 tent - This was a great little tent. The only issues were that the pole channels were narrow and inclined to tear, and the plastic window started to crack and leak after a while – it ended up patched with big slabs of black gaffer tape. I think both issues have been sorted in the latest version. We also took a groundsheet – a cheap one from B&Q – to make the porch more liveable.
  • Primus Gravity stove - Low and stable, a great cooker. We took the unreliable piezo lighter off though, and used cigarette lighters.
  • GoSystem TravelPak gas converter - This undoubtedly saved the trip. It’s very hard to get anything other than piercable camping gas canisters throughout Europe and this let us use them with our UK stove, which needs screw-top canisters. You can disconnect the stove from the converter to carry it. If you use a canister-top cooker this would be more stable, too.
  • Tiso pillows - We used these in hotels, too, because French and German pillows can be quite peculiar
  • Plates, cups and cutlery - A mishmash of things we’ve bought over the years.
  • Opinel knife - Don’t get the non-stainless-steel version, unless you fancy it going black every time you use it. I had to sprint off to wash and dry it immediately after we’d chopped the ingredients for dinner, which got tedious
  • Swiss army knife
  • MSR non stick pans
  • Snugpak Softie two-season sleeping bags with cotton liners
  • Thermarest mats, his and hers
  • Ring Cyba-Stretch Torch, supplemented by a variety of bike lights
  • And to carry it all – one Roberts touring bike called Penny, one Hewitt Cheviot called Claude, and a mix of Ortlieb and Altura and Revolution panniers. And lots of food to fuel us.
 
ROUTE

We covered 4621 miles and visited seven countries. We camped a lot, but stayed in hotels when it was too wet, when we couldn’t find campsites – and when we wanted to be in town. It’s a frustrating thing about camping, that you’re often so far from cities and towns you’d like to visit. But that’s usually made up for by the joy of not having to bother with hotel receptions and just settling down in your ‘home’.

Have you tried cycle camping at home or abroad? Share your trip with us on our forum by clicking here.  Plus read more about camping in Europe by clicking here.

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