This past summer, I found myself sleeping outside a lot more than inside. Even after our cross-country American camping trip, I was still sleeping in a tent in the backyard.
Perhaps it was the failed ventilation system of our 50-year-old house, or me wanting to get the bang out of our $70 Coleman tent, but it just made more sense to prefer falling asleep under the stars and waking up to bird songs.
Riding off this camping craze, I decided to continue my stargazing habits in Europe. As long as the Earth was warm/dry enough, there’s no reason not to sleep outside.
However, I learned, a few times the hard way, that camping culture in Europe is quite different from the American s’mores n’ campfires experience.
Camping in Europe – The Perks
I was absolutely shocked at the extravagance and convenience of many of these campgrounds. In France and Spain, where camping is surprisingly popular, you could find entire supermarkets, restaurants, swimming pools, and bars within the campground. Campers can access fresh groceries and bottles of locally brewed beer and wine for €2, all within the gates of the campground.
With this convenience, our neighboring campers seemed to be staying at these sites for weeks or months at a time, possibly never leaving the campground. Talk about a vacation!
While camping near Marseille, the adorable Camping le Grillon campground even had a bakery truck that would arrive every morning to sell fresh and cheap croissants and baguettes. I mean, that is just too French!
The Culture Shocks
The hardest thing to get used to was the fact that almost all campgrounds had gates and curfews, and it was often 8pm or even earlier. This made it almost impossible to travel spontaneously, and it’s a necessity call ahead and arrive on time.
Some of the campgrounds felt congested, especially those closer to big cities. A few campsites were literally just big enough to fit your car and tent, separated only by a small hedge or a tree. A few nights were met with struggling to sleep through neighbors snoring.
The prices can also vary a lot between different campsites, from €15-€26 for a single tent non-electric. The facilities also ranged from horrendous to squeaky clean. I can only emphasize once again to be a smart camper, and research the camps before going.
The journey went from Paris* > Rennes > Mont Saint Michel > Noirmoutier > Dunes du Pilat > Oiartzun Forest > Pamplona > Huesca > Barcelona* > Montpellier > Marseille* > Gorge du Verdon > Cannes > Nice > Balestrino > Turin > Montreux (Lake Geneva) > Basel > Freiburg > Heidelberg > Frankfurt.
(*Airbnb was used only for Paris, Barcelona, and Marseille, mostly to do laundry)
If you ever find yourself going on a similar path, these were just a few of the best ones I got to experience.
The Best Camping Spots
Nicest Staff (Montpellier, France)
The French aren’t always the most helpful, so it was nice to meet a receptionist who was so friendly. Although the Camping le Grillon itself wasn’t extravagant, it was affordable and located right by a beautiful beach that was wonderful to stroll through both day and night. You also won’t go hungry in the morning with the wonderful bakery truck that honks its horns when delivering fresh croissants. (I just love it, can’t emphasize it enough!)
Cleanest Campground (Barolo, Italy)
Although prices were a bit steep at €26 a night, Camping Sole Langhe was the only campground with facilities I could’ve eaten food off the floor of. It was located in a quaint vineyard countryside, with wonderful hiking trails and hilly views. Despite its lack of visitors, the campground was equipped with its own outdoor bar and restaurant.
Best View (Settimo Vittone, Italy)
Upon arriving to this campground, a very nice old lady immediately greeted us with a smile and allowed tent setups anywhere on the campground. With practically an entire field to choose from, the Camping Mombarone was by far the most spacious spot, with the most distance from other campers, while offering the best view.
Most International (Saint-Louis, France)
Located at the intersection of Germany, France, and Switzerland, this one was situated in probably the weirdest spot, while also being one of the most affordable. Camping du Petit Port is located just across the river from Germany, and just a pedestrian bridge from Switzerland. Everything in this area is trilingual — ironically in seemingly every language except English. You can get your groceries in Germany, shop in Switzerland, and then spend the night in France, all within walking distance.
Best Attraction (Dunes du Pilat, France)
We stayed at the Panorama du Pyla, but the touristy area is surrounded by tons of campsites, crowding around the attraction that is the Dunes du Pilat. Believe the hype — the sheer height of the sand dunes was absolutely impeccable. The campground was quite crowded, and most in the area are about €25 night at least. However, it was fairly worth it for an opportunity to explore the Dunes and the clothing-optional beach.
Best Location (Gorge du Verdon, France)
Camping Verdon Carajuan was one of my favorite campgrounds due to its spaciousness, quaintness, and lack of tourists. Located right in the middle of the valley, you are surrounded by just the tip of the impeccable Gorge du Verdon area, whose endless size puts Taroko Gorge to shame.
The campground was one of the cheapest, with a friendly staff, and was close walking distance to the nearby river. Although be aware of some freakishly huge thunder storms that might strike during the night. This was the only possibly near-death experience during the trip.
The Best Underrated Cities
During September, it rarely rained in Europe and camping really became the best way to travel through so many places without spending so much. When it did rain, most of these campsites also provided caravan rentals, which were often also affordable.
It was the best way to get a glimpse of the famous cities, and the world in between. I found myself falling in love with cities we were merely passing through, and vowed to return.
Located in the southern shore, Cannes shares the beauty and beach culture of Marseille, without the noise, tourists, and city filth. Not to mention its important role in European film, with the renowned Cannes Film Festival.
Rennes is a historic town with centuries-old structures, yet it’s lively and bustling with young student crowds. Perhaps there’s bias due to having friends as a local guide, but I thoroughly enjoyed Rennes.
Although it’s known for the annual Bull Run, during the rest of the year the city is calm, spacious, peaceful, and just historically breathtaking. It’s a great place to take a break from moving and have a nice European-sized coffee and some afternoon tapas.
Although it’s a major city, it’s worth the mention because despite not being as well-known or touristy as Milan or Rome, it was a breathtakingly beautiful place. The historic structures, the outdoor-seated restaurants, the statues, and the spacious city squares — all incredible to explore. Although I probably wouldn’t return without at least learning basic Italian.