Extraordinary Sites

Our family has had four Eurocamping adventures over the years and people often ask which campgrounds were our favorites.  Sometimes a campground is interesting because of its proximity to a beautiful natural area or a great city.  But other times a campground can be memorable and extraordinary.

Here are a few of the most memorable.

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Camping Castel San Pietro above Verona

Camping Castel San Pietro (Verona, Italy)

Imagine camping in the ruins of the ancient city walls high above Verona.  What could be more exciting?  The tent sites are fairly small, but there is an extensive network of wooded terraces with enough space to set up a tent.  The views of the city are incredible and we enjoyed the covered picnic shelter for dining al fresco.

Camping in Budapest

Camping in the Buda Hills

Zugligeti Niche Camping (Budapest, Hungary)

Located in the hills above Budapest, this campground was once a historic tram terminal and the station building now houses an on-site restaurant offering authentic favorites such as goulash.  The owner is friendly and helpful and greets guests with a welcome drink and free breakfast.  Nestled in a wooded setting, the campground is fairly convenient for public transport to the city with a bus stop right outside the entrance.

Luxury camping in France

Luxury Camping near Chambord

Camping Chateau du Marais (near Chambord, France)

This campground is far from roughing it.  On the grounds of a chateau less than 1 km from magnificent Chateau du Chambord, this site is in a beautiful setting and features a water park, tennis courts and mini golf.

camping above Florence Italy

Camping Michelangelo above Florence

Camping Michelangelo (Florence, Italy)

Camping Michelangelo offers the best views of Florence and rates are a steal for staying in the city.  With a terrace restaurant, store and the city of Florence a short walk away, camping under the olive trees is convenient and memorable.

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Gearing Up for Eurocamping (or “Hotel Room in a Bag”)

I won’t lie.  Flying to Europe with all the gear necessary for camping is not exactly convenient.  But it makes family travel a more affordable possibility and adds to the sense of adventure.  And it is possible.

We decided long ago that hotel rooms for a family of 5 were out of the question and investing time and money before you leave will mean that you are prepared and save quite a lot on food and lodging in Europe.  Our family has camped in France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Hungary and The Czech Republic and have found that campgrounds are plentiful and easy to locate.  Websites like Eurocampings.co.uk include lists of amenities and customer reviews, and GPS coordinates make finding even out-of-the-way sites easy to locate.  Campgrounds range from adequate to luxurious, but almost all have the basics of sanitary, dishwashing and laundry facilities.  Campgrounds at the higher end are more like resorts and may include fresh baked goods, a store, cafe and recreational activities.  We certainly aren’t roughing it in most cases and see our tent as a place to stay – not the main attraction.  Days are spent exploring interesting sights and nearby cities.

More restrictive baggage allowances mean that we have to pack light, but we’ve found equipment that makes it easier.  Here are some of our more recent discoveries.

TENT

One word of advice – invest in a decent tent.  We started years ago with a cheap model from Target and were sorry when we had to deal with torrential rains that turned every stitch hole into a mini fountain.  Our tent is a North Face Mountain Manor 6 and although it’s not ultra-light it’s manageable and fits into a large duffel bag .  Remember, your tent is your home and the investment is about the same as a couple of nights in a hotel.  The Mountain Manor is roomy with standing room and includes many nice features such as vents at top and bottom, a waterproof rain fly and a good-sized vestibule.  The best thing is the easy setup!  Two people can easily set this tent up completely in less than 10 minutes thanks to a handy clip system and color-coded tent poles.  Check out this nice review from another satisfied customer.

North Face Mountain Manor

North Face Mountain Manor Tent

SLEEPING BAGS/PADS

Go for lightweight sleeping bags and pads, especially when you can only carry a few bags.  We have several different kinds and have been happy with the REI brand.  Ok, it’s not like sleeping in a luxury hotel with adjustable beds but you’ll live, and for us the rewards of travel are worth the sacrifice.

DUFFEL BAGS

You can’t beat this 32″ expandable rolling duffel bag for the money!  Found at Wal-Mart, this $14 bag is sturdy and fairly easy to maneuver.  Soft sided and easily collapsible, these bags are great for limited trunk space.

SPACE BAGS

This year we discovered Space Bags at Target and they were a revelation!  Using either a vacuum hose or the roll-up method, the handy valve really works and makes it easy to triple your space.  We even used one to compress a particularly fluffy sleeping bag.

CAMP KITCHEN

We have 2 micro camping stoves that are compatible with Campingaz, which can be found at campgrounds, supermarkets and hardware/garden stores across Europe.   Small and easy to use, a stove and a fuel canister will allow you to cook simple meals or reheat convenience foods.  We also brought along our trusty mocha pot espresso maker for morning coffee and a small saute pan and cooking pot.  Throw in a thin cutting surface, wooden spoon, spatula and a Swiss army knife (with can opener) and you’re all set.  Plastic cups, plates and silverware are easy to locate once you reach your destination.

CLOTHING

Pack light and take less than you think you need and remember that most campgrounds have sinks for handwashing laundry as well as washers and dryers.  This year I discovered lightweight Magellan Islander pants at Academy and think that these pants/roll-up capris are stylish, practical and a great buy at $19.   Eddie Bauer’s ultra-light First Ascent product line is ultra-light and quick dry with simple lines and a nice fit.  Bring just a few t-shirts and buy others as wearable souvenirs.  And think layers for cooler climates.

Breakfast at Langenwald

Camping Breakfast

Plan ahead, invest in a few good things, buy a few useful souvenirs and enjoy the trip!

Touring with Teens

International travel can be an exciting adventure or an unsettling challenge, depending on your perspective.  We come back from our adventures with wonderful stories and mostly good memories – even from our teenagers.  Believe it or not, teens can enjoy the family vacation.  In fact, the time that you spend together during your travels may give them cherished memories for years to come.  The best way to ensure a great experience for everyone is to plan with your older children in mind.

Here are a few ways to involve your older kids and make the family trip fun for everyone.

  1. Involve older children in the planning.  It’s probably best not to start out with a world map and ask, “So, where do you want to go?”  You might get some interesting ideas that way, but an archaeology expedition to Mongolia might not be your idea of a good time.  Instead, present family members with three or four options and discuss the various possibilities.  If you’re stuck for ideas, pay attention to what your children are studying and find out what interests them.  Would they like to visit a castle, a music festival, or funky street markets?  You’ll probably have to make the final decision, but if you’ve considered available time and your travel budget when pre-screening, the family should be able to come to a reasonable consensus.
  2. Check out your library.  Once you’ve decided on a destination, you can create interest by checking out a few books from your local library, but don’t make it a research project!  Most libraries have a decent travel section, and many publishers have user-friendly guides that are full of colorful photos.  Dorling Kindersley’s travel books and the Fodors “See It” guides are especially appealing for teen-aged travel planners.
  3. Start with a plan.  Don’t count on your teen to make a detailed itinerary, but she can help by making suggestions.  To avoid being scolded for forgetting your child’s favorite pair of jeans, ask him to make a packing list.  Many good examples can be found on the internet and easily modified.  Teens are usually pretty computer-savvy and can do online research or type up a schedule.
  4. Travel with teens in mind.  Museums and art galleries can be interesting, but kids are intrigued by the unusual.  Try visiting a theater or fashion museum, touring an historic ship, or exploring a science museum with state-of-the-art interactive activities.  Pay attention to your teen’s interests and use these as your guide.  Shopping can also be a fun experience and it doesn’t have to be costly.  If you’re visiting another country, a trip to a street market which sells everything, an athletics store featuring sports team paraphernalia,  or the cosmetics section at the local drug store can provide interesting souvenirs.  Instead of the obligatory T-shirt, try out a clothing retailer like H&M in Europe for reasonable and hopelessly trendy finds.
  5. Hop on, hop off.  Kids who aren’t used to public transport have a great time hopping on the subway or using the bus to get across town.  Taking public transportation can be tricky at first, but don’t be afraid to ask personnel for information about payment, departure times or destinations.  Riding on the bus or tram gives you a chance to take in the scenery and get a flavor of the local population.
  6. Get the Soundtrack.  We have a tradition of finding new music or making a playlist for each trip that serves as the “soundtrack” and brings back good memories for years to come.  You can choose new release or compilation that everyone likes, or use international travel as an opportunity to discover local artists in the countries you visit.  Large music stores like Virgin or HMV usually provide listening stations where your kids can sample the latest tunes.
  7. Dining out.  Invite your teens to try the local fare, but don’t make it an issue if they prefer to stick to standard favorites.  No matter where you travel, you’re sure to find simple foods like chicken, potatoes, pasta or bread in one form or another.  If you aren’t fluent in the language, be sure you or your teen know a few food terms or you might be in for an interesting surprise!  If your teenagers are culinary adventurers, have a great time and eat like the locals.  Many European department stores have affordable restaurants, and you’ll often find a café in the larger parks.  Alternatively, bakeries and delis offer a tempting array of picnic ingredients.
  8. Save your memories.  A small diary or sketchbook is a great bon voyage gift.  Find a book that’s light and sturdy and can be carried easily in a jacket pocket or backpack.  Moleskine makes great journals and sketchbooks in a variety of formats and other diaries have maps or travel motifs.  Encourage your kids to take photos or collect postcards.  Save tickets, travel passes, wrappers, brochures and maps for scrapbooks.

Traveling with teens can be trying or it can be a delight.  When children are older, you can travel light, share some of the responsibility and visit places that parents of toddlers don’t dare to go.  Enjoy the time with your teens.  Even if you face a little resistance now, your grandchildren will probably hear stories about your fantastic adventures!

Summer Playlist

Spending hours in a car is never my idea of fun, but Daughter #3 volunteered to make a playlist and I loved hearing new music and getting to know unfamiliar artists.  Every trip has ended up having a new soundtrack.  Summer 2004 in Andalucia was the chill out music of Cafe Del Mar and Borrowed Heaven by The Corrs.  France 2005 was when we discovered Coldplay’s X&Y.   Other journeys had other themes or were a blur of different favorites.  This summer’s favorite tunes are a tie between Riverside (Agnes Obel) and Hold On (Sbtrkt).

What are your favorite road trip tracks?

The Camping Way

Camping Langenwald, Freudenstadt Germany

Beautiful Black Forest campground – Camping Langenwald, Freudenstadt

Years ago, in exasperation at having to pack up camp and move on yet again, our eldest daughter muttered, “What is this, the Montes Family Traveling Circus?”  Frustration quickly turned into laughter and the name stuck.  This year the Montes Family Traveling Circus World Domination Tour was live on 3 continents at once, as 3 of us visited Germany, Switzerland and France, while Daughter #1 returned to Egypt for a year and Daughter #2 spent the summer in Kyoto.

The European Contingent traveled in camping mode, a.k.a. “Hotel Room in a Bag.”  Baggage restrictions make this a challenge, but we have pared down to lighter equipment and bare essentials.  This is the fourth time that we have experienced family Eurocamping and each time the process becomes more refined.  It’s not as easy as getting on and off the tour bus, but the time invested means that you shape and own the experience.

Here’s the process:

  • Initiate and commit:  Stop resisting and book a flight and a rental car.  Look for a car with decent trunk space or a station wagon-type that has a cargo cover.  GPS is a must.
  • Map the itinerary:  You have a ticket and a car, and know the place and time of your arrival and departure.  The rest is up to you. Chart a circuit and try to minimize driving hours and campsite changes at first to minimize exhaustion and conflict and maximize time for exploration and fun.  Check out sites like VirtualTourist.com or TripAdvisor.com for ideas and list interesting destinations in the places you plan to visit.  Your itinerary can change on the go, but a list is a good starting place.
  • Research:  Time consuming, but it can be fun.  Think of it as extending the mental voyage.  Investigate your local library for current travel guides and mine the internet.  If you’re interested in camping, there are many good sites with campground listings complete with gps coordinates, a full list of amenities and customer reviews.
  • Gear up:  Research and buy the basics – tent, sleeping bag and pad, small camping stove compatible with locally-available fuel like Campingaz, lightweight cooking and eating gear and utensils.  Decide what to bring and buy at your destination.
  • Pack:  Leave plenty of time to pack and decide what to leave at home.  Work with your baggage limitations.
  • Documentation:  Make sure your passport is up to date and valid for 6 months after your trip.
  • Travel:  Air travel isn’t much fun, but relax.
  • Explore:  Be receptive and open to new experiences.  Know when to be an observer and when to jump in and interact.  It’s revitalizing to wake up knowing that the day is full of possibilities.
  • Memories:  Take lots of pictures, blog, journal, sketch – you’ll appreciate it later.  Laugh at the hardships – they make great stories.
Camping Breakfast

Breakfast spread

This year’s journey was different because we were not all together for the first time.  A little sad sometimes, but exciting knowing that each person was somewhere interesting, learning and growing.  The Montes Family Traveling Circus 2.0 – alive and kicking!

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