As you may remember from our earliest posts, one of our first challenges on planning a trip of this magnitude, and especially on a continent as expensive as Europe can be, was that of how we were going to transport, shelter, and feed our family of three comfortably and affordably. We landed on the idea of a camper van to fulfill these needs.
Who could argue with the freedom of the road with our own wheels, the same comfortable bed to sleep in every night, and a place to cook our own meals when we’d like?!
We’ve had lots of questions about our motorhome “Charlie” and thought we’d share with you his story.
After months of perusing the internet, reading travel blogs of those that have gone before us, checking prices of rigs both in Europe and the U.S., weighing the option of shipping a rig to Europe, and figuring out if we could even register an auto in Europe, we landed on the website www.dutchcampervans.com run by Donna Turner of Turner Cars and Campers located in Utrecht, Netherlands. Donna has spent the last 40 years outfitting folks outside of Europe with a variety of camper vans, from small pop-top VW vans to overland rigs outfitted with snorkel gear to traverse Africa, to small motorhomes which is what we finally landed on as what would suit our family best.
Donna provides a service by which she holds the registration of the vehicles, has an onsite mechanic, and will help resale vehicles or store them when folks are finished. After several more months of communicating directly with Donna, we put a down payment on a 1998 Pilote Galaxy on a Fiat Ducato chassis.
While Aaron and I were inclined to find a newer vehicle, this rig only had 103,000K, or about 60,000 miles on it – amazingly low for its age and price. The Fiat Ducato chassis was an important feature as it is a common truck chassis throughout Europe, has a great reputation for durability, and could be worked on easier as it is ubiquitous. As a diesel, we spend less on fuel throughout Europe and are getting great mileage (although we have to convert liters into kilometers, we’re getting about 18 miles to the gallon)! The manual transmission has allowed us to slow waaaay down when necessary, and still to drive 110K (about 66mph) on the highways!
Additionally, it hosts a largish “garage” on the side that holds our luggage, our tent and sleeping bags (should anyone want to meet us and camp), our stock of wine and beer, a few tools, and our bike helmets. A ladder on the back reaches the rooftop where we store one bike, a satellite dish sits dormant, and I fantasize about having a rooftop deck. 🙂 The back sports a bike rack with two of our bikes, and the camera for backing up. Charlie came with lots of features we didn’t know about before meeting him, and some we don’t use. The back-up camera is one we use every time we move!
The Pilote company, out of France, is less well-known, but the features of the motorhome seemed to fit our family well. As you can see from the photos, it has a fixed double bed in the back, a pop-down double bed over the cab, swivel driver (pilot) and passenger (navigator) seats, a table for four, a small kitchenette with fridge, porcelain sink and drain, and a three-burner propane stove.
It also has an onboard loo with a shower (we haven’t used yet) separate from the toilet and sink. It has a half closet (Aaron and I have all our clothes in there), a shoe closet, and multiple small cupboards for Mali’s stuff, books and art supplies, and our food and dishes. All this and in a rig that measures about 18 feet in length! The rafts we floated down the Grand Canyon in were just as long!
We didn’t know in advance that Charlie came with a TV on a swivel arm and with a satellite dish, a built-in safe, or a special inverter to charge items when driving. We haven’t bothered to figure out the TV as we are content reading books and playing games. We also don’t know if we could get any English language stations anyway!
From the moment we left Donna Turner’s place in Utrecht, Aaron has been driving and I’ve been navigating. Our six weeks across the western United States with my driving and his navigating pointed that we should take advantage of my cartography skills and his chutzpah driving a bigger rig on narrow streets.
I’m using a simple map app on my iPad called maps.me which allows me to hone in close on streets, pin places of interest, and navigate without internet or GPS or unfolding a paper map. We like the feeling and spontaneity of adventure, which sometimes includes getting lost, which a GPS doesn’t allow. We’ve had a few times, especially when we miss an important interchange on a freeway, that knowing where we are would be helpful, but thus far, we’ve figured it out and gotten to everyplace we wanted to go! Aaron describes driving Charlie like driving a moving truck – it’s pretty wide by European standards, but we’ve been lucky thus far to not put it on extra narrow roads or places we can’t get out of.
Another big question we get is about where we stay and what it’s like. We’re staying primarily in European campgrounds which are abundant and run between E13-E35 ($15-$42) a night. These are NOT like American-style campgrounds. While the campgrounds we’ve used in America are primarily in the wilderness, have sites sporting a picnic table and campfire pit, and facilities that range from flush toilets and cold running water to a drop pit toilet with no running water, European campgrounds seem almost bourgeois in comparison.
Our campsites are usually a pull-in sometimes separated from the neighbors by a small hedge, have electrical hook-ups, and facilities with showers, laundromats, and dish cleaning sinks. Oftentimes, they also have a small market, a games room, a bar and restaurant, and a pool. The highest end ones have multiple pools, playgrounds, tennis courts, and their own farmer’s markets! WiFi is sometimes offered at our site or in a commons area but is often very slow and is sometimes charged by the hour. Most of the time the showers and hot water are free, sometimes we buy tokens for their use. Only once (in Trier, Germany) did we pay for electricity by usage and had to keep plugging the meter throughout the evening to keep our small electric heater running!
Most of the campgrounds are located just outside of town and we either bike, bus, or train in to see the sights. The unfortunate part of these campgrounds is the lack of natural beauty, and no fire pits! We “free camped” several times in France whereby you can pull into a wayside rest stop and spend the night. We were amazed at how easy and accessible the French make free camping.
You may wonder how Charlie got his name?! When we bought him, we thought about his make and model (Pilote Galaxy), and started thinking of names that related to the cosmos. Of course, the ol’ Grateful Dead song, Cosmic Charlie, came to mind and stuck. Now we’re also stuck with the musical “ear worm”: Cosmic Charlie, how do you do? Truckin’ in style on the avenue, dum de dum de doodulee doo . . .
-by Tammy, photos by Tammy, Aaron, and Mali