First, the best night: It was in Italy at the campground at Cortina d'Ampezzo. The season was closing the next day, but already the campground was empty. It was just us in our van in a 300-acre field flush against the sheer gray rock of the Dolomite Alps.
The night was cold. We layered up in sweaters and parkas, downed Chianti and spaghetti primavera and were awed by the grandeur and the silence.
Now the worst night: It was at the campground a few miles outside Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia, although it could have been anywhere. I was slamming shut the sliding door of our 8-year-old Volkswagen van and it fell off.
Even after it was reinstalled, it wouldn't shut. We tried to secure it with a rope and plugged up the open space with towels but were up the entire night killing mosquitoes.
The next day was no winner, either. There was a VW repair agency in Dubrovnik but nobody there spoke English. When the mechanic finally understood the problem, he hammered the door shut. So now the door could not be opened and we spent the next three weeks climbing over the front seat whenever we wanted to get to the back.
Adventure is inevitable when camping in Europe.
Theoretically, it's a tremendously easy way to travel, at least if done by van. Perhaps we looked harmless, or perhaps because our van had a Netherlands license, but with the exception of Yugoslavia and East Germany where visas were required, we were always just waved through borders.
Campgrounds are everywhere, in large cities and small, out in the countryside. They're well-marked, they're secure, the setting is picturesque, and very often the campground will have a restaurant or bar, even a swimming pool. Camping by van, you don't have to pack and unpack. You just drive all day and when you're tired, pull into the nearest campground and you're home.
Travel has a whole different perspective at a campground, rather than a hotel. Especially in places such as Cortina or Innsbruck, Austria, where the landscape is so much a part of the environment. It's as if you're melding into the Alps rather than just looking at them.
Plus with campgrounds from $10 to $25 a night, depending on the number in your party and whether or not you want an electrical hookup, camping may be the last way to travel at bargain rates.
Mostly, though, camping is an experience completely separate from merely touring. Anybody can sightsee, but add hitting the road in a camper van and there's never any jumble of memories. Every day is gloriously distinct, every memory solely yours, not some post card impression shared by every other person who's traveled in Europe.
Of course, we didn't know that when we started out. The idea of camping was appealing, but the decision was financial. We were hardly experienced campers, maybe twice each summer in U.S. national parks. But heck, we figured, we were adventurers. We'd figure it out.
We bought our van in Utrecht in the Netherlands. There too, in a grand shopping spree, we stocked it with pots, pans, towels, sleeping bags and other camping gear.
The plan: From Utrecht, pick up the Rhine and follow it through Germany into Switzerland for stops in Basel and Geneva and somewhere in the Alps for some hiking; through the Alps to the Lake Country of Italy, on to Venice, Florence and Rome, then down to Naples and the Amalfi Coast.
Over to Bari for the ferry to Dubrovnik (that ran about $100, $25 for the van, $75 for first-class accommodations for us); up the coast of Yugoslavia and into Austria via the Dolomite Alps; a few nights in Innsbruck, then to Munich, West Germany, in time for Oktoberfest; east to Salzburg, Austria, and a week in Vienna.
Then back north through East Germany to Berlin, back into the Netherlands for a week or so in Amsterdam and, finally, back to Utrecht.
We spent a fortune on Michelin maps, plus acquiring probably the world's largest collection of city maps.
We bought the Automobile Club's "Guide to Camping and Caravaning in Europe," which is available at AAA offices in Southern California. There we learned about the International Camping License, which we bought at the Automobile Club in Paris for about $20.
You can get other books on European campgrounds in good European bookstores. Like its guides to hotels and motels, the AAA guide to camping lists only approved campgrounds, and doesn't list much in Yugoslavia where campgrounds are plentiful and generally good. Elsewhere on the road, however, it took us only three nights to realize that if a campground isn't listed in the AAA book, there's usually a reason.
Living in a van is probably a lot like living in a boat: a tight, tidy existence with everything secure in its place.
Ours was not the super-luxurious Mercedes or VW Westfalia. It was a conversion with homemade draperies, a raised fiberglass roof so we could stand and the back turned into an amazingly comfortable queen-size bed with storage underneath and above.