After driving several thousands of miles and staying on a variety of campsites – some lovely, some not so – in different countries, we have pulled up less than an hour after arriving in France to stay in what is probably the loveliest of them all, in the Savoie Mont Blanc.
Our very first pull-up after getting off the ferry at the Hook of Holland nine weeks ago was in a layby off the autobahn close to Munich, from where we set out early next morning and travelled past black-hatted churches and white-misted forest down into Austria and through the Alps to Slovenia.
That night we stayed in what was probably the worst of all the sites; marred by a suburbia of plasticated motor-homes replete with self-satisfied retirees from the north idling away their time and pensions in a back-slapping display of utter mundanity. So much for the wisdom of old age. Slovenia has apparently succumbed to the mind-sapping influence and affluence of nearby Austria. Take away people’s money worries, it seems, and what’s left is an air-hole between the ears. And that pertains to any background, royal or proletarian. So you can’t accuse me of any bias.
Well, good luck to Slovenia. We stayed in the country for about forty-eight hours.
Croatia had a different feel despite it, too, having been invaded by the northern pensioner hordes. Actually, we made a point of avoiding the county’s touristic coast and wandered inland; but even then we ended up staying on a plot of land bought by a Dutch family soon after the Balkans war when land there was still very cheaply obtained. An old, state-owned campsite dating back to the Tito years provided the only refuge; while in a friendly nearby bar we watched their football team dismantle Uruguay in the football world cup group stage, and England scramble a last-gasp win against Tunisia (not realising the two teams would meet up in the semi-final…).
Following Croatia, entering Bosnia-Herzegovina was like returning to an old Soviet state. The campsites were either non-existent or pretty dire – and dear. Ten euros to camp in an abandoned field, and fifteen to remain on a scruffy patch of grass next to a freezing cold river only good for trout-fishermen. For want of a decent place to stay we crossed back into Croatia, and from there on into Montenegro.
While the country is really rather beautiful and the people apparently laid-back and having a typically Mediterranean outlook, the Montenegrin campsites usually failed to meet our rather modest needs. Again, they were far too expensive for what they offered. On one, we had to park the van on a space outside the gate beyond which lay the amenities, and yet still had to pay twenty euros for the privilege (a figure that just seemed to be made up on our arrival). Up north a similar figure applied for staying in a large field.
So, we with our intended daily budget of thirty euros weren’t doing all that well. Wild camping wasn’t an option because we couldn’t find any decent spots and were reliant on the internet to keep in touch with family members who were either ill, preparing to leave for abroad or simply in the throes of purchasing their first property.
And the problem – if that’s what you can call it – as we see it is this. Camping used to mean getting out into the countryside and living in nature, often under canvas. To do this required an element of ‘roughing it’, but part of the pleasure was indeed getting away from everyday domestic comforts. Plus, because amenities were basic they didn’t cost much. Now that has altered. Everybody wants to bring their home comforts with them. And by purchasing a big plasticated box built on a wheeled chassis and powered by a modern gas-guzzling engine there is no reason to leave anything behind. You really can bring the kitchen sink (quite why you would want to do so is a different matter entirely). Not only the kitchen sink, but a motorbike or a hitched-up car, too. Just to make life really, really easy. Why forgo anything that alleviates any type of inconvenience?
And, of course, one can see the pleasure in this – the logic, even. You escape your everyday environment and don’t have to suffer any discomfort or apparent consequences. The ‘snowbirds’ of the northern USA have got this down to a fine art as they live in their comfy homes for the summer months and take their polluting high-spec RVs down south immediately the thermometer shows a dip in temperature. Arguably, the wealthy and privileged have always done this. Only last week we visited the site where Hadrian had built his exclusive country getaway. Certainly northern Europeans are beginning to follow this pattern in their droves, so that even far-flung Islamic Morocco is considered a desirable winter destination.
But, anyway, my gripe is not the fact that people like to travel in comfort – why shouldn’t they, since they have every right to? It’s that because the affluent north European pensioners are spending their time hitting the roads of the south and spending their money in places that traditionally have not seen the touristic euro/dollar, an over-inflated sense of what they – the campsite-owners – have to offer i.e. sunshine and warmth, has led them to understand that north European prices are somehow compatible with south European standards. What’s more, they naively imagine every north European must be wealthy. (We met with the same scenario in newly-opened Myanmar a short while back.)
In Albania, because we felt rather imprisoned, we got off the campsite which had been privately developed on the northern border, and really did achieve Germanic standards and prices, and walked up to the local shop and bar. We ordered local food and local drinks at local prices and got talking to the English-speaking daughter of the owner. She repeated what we had been told by the Italian-speaking care-worker in the mountains concerning how much the average Albanian could expect to earn right now and also about how many Albanians had made or were intending to make their way to London. These stories are rife and no bones are made about the advantages of doing so. We were told them everywhere we stopped and talked.
As a matter of fact, everything we heard and discovered in the Balkan states is exactly as we found during our winter sojourn in Greece nearly three decades ago as the northern Europeans flocked into the country to take advantage of relatively cheap property prices and the Greek way of living. In some parts of town – the nice parts – you’d only hear German or Dutch and the only Greeks around were the cleaners and unemployed. The one campsite we stayed on during this trip had a similar distribution of nationalities.
Italy was a different proposition altogether. There you pay high prices because the average users of campsites are entire families who expect to be provided with swimming-pools, shops and some kind of entertainment: a ‘camping village’, in fact.
Ciro was not like other campsite-owners. I would say he had the perfect set up and ideal philosophy. Inheriting a piece of Calabrian land from his nonna which had been used to grown corn, he gave up his humiliating and enervating job as a bagnino catering to the beach-needs of wealthy northern Italians, and planted it with all manner of trees to provide a hospitable environment for campers. He also grows vegetables and fruit (which he gave away freely), while his brother keeps bee-hives in the adjoining olive grove, and his father continues to look after some naturally-fed sheep and pigs and lives in the big, old family house. Ciro’s place was an absolute haven (excepting the arrival of a clearly dysfunctional Italian family in their big white camper…) We also lucked-out by finding an inexpensive state-run site in the pine woods by Lago Arva in the Sila mountain range. A find that was countered by being ripped off for basic food purchases in the nearby village (and perhaps the subject for a future gripe about travelling around in the van).
And so after driving up through Italy on its expensive autostrada in the aggravating heat – losing our exhaust and waiting to have a new one fitted outside Florence – and staying overnight on its expensive campsites, crossing the border into France by way of the Monte Blanc tunnel and heading immediately for a municipal campsite up in the mountains has come as a relief. The municipal campsites came about from the desire of the French people to have access to their own land at prices the average person can readily afford. They are usually set in natural beauty spots and provide just the right level of amenities. The site staff are universally friendly and give the camper a feeling that it is a shared experience living for a time out in the country, rather than one where the campsite-owner charges the highest price they think the poor, miserable saps in their diminished circumstances will be prepared to pay.