A lot of us have dreamed of taking off on a campervan trip with road-tripping supplies, our partner and our dogs. Before the pandemic turned the travel world upside down, Annie Groves did just that, so we asked her how it went and what we might be able to learn from her experience.
More of her adventures with her partner and her dogs can be found at her blog, A Contento Adventure.
Tell us about yourself.
My name is Annie, and I live in Greater Manchester, England, with my partner, Phil, who I took the trip with. We both ordinarily work in health care for the National Health Service. I like to dabble in photography, roller skating and love to travel explore new surroundings. I enjoy writing and would love to turn our trip into a children’s book eventually.
How about your dogs?
We have Toby, a long-haired Jack Russel. We got him from some local kennels around five years ago where he had been abandoned by his previous owners. We don't really know much about his past, not even his age (we think he is around 7 or 8 now). He's hyperactive but also very intelligent. His favorite thing is playing ball – or anything actually, he demands lots of attention!
That brings us to Sundae who is a chihuahua cross. She’s almost 3 years old now and we’ve had her since she was a young pup. She’s the sweetest girl, very gentle, loves to sleep and comfort, and everybody that meets her just falls in love with her. She loves nothing more than a cuddle.
They are the best of friends and chase each other around the house like Tom and Jerry a lot of the time!
Interested in Vanlife? Check out The Vanlife Companion.
What made you decide to bring your dogs along?
When we started planning the trip, the thought of not taking the dogs never crossed our minds. We knew we would be gone for a while, and they are our family, so it seemed like the only possible option. It gave us the opportunity to let them escape the boring routine of life (like us), of being locked up in the house every day while we went to work as they waited for us to come home. They got to see and explore a whole new place every single day. How amazing is that?
What was the route you took? How long did it take?
The trip took around four months in total.
Our only plan when we were starting out was that we wanted to reach Italy and hoped to start a life there. We never planned how we would get there except that we would begin in England and explore France on the way by simply heading down to southern France and driving across to Italy.
The drive from Calais to Marseille was a mix of the beautiful French countryside and small French towns.
The southern coast, although very beautiful lacked the simplicity we had found and loved during the trip the first week or so. The cities such as Marseille were so busy, the parking was difficult to find in such a big vehicle. So we found ourselves getting frustrated which wasn’t what we wanted from the trip.
So, we decided to begin traveling up again through France and head to the Alps, both for cooler weather for the dogs and to find the open country and nature that we craved.
We soon found that we loved being in places where the dogs could swim and explore off their leads. We never initially planned to travel to the Alps, but this ended up being the most memorable part of our trip. We have learned that a lot of the things that come around unexpectedly are the things that make the most amazing memories.
We have learned that a lot of the things that come around unexpectedly are the things that make the most amazing memories.
The trip was an unplanned adventure with stumbled steps into amazing sights and places. We never sought out tourist spots because in fairness when we did encounter them, during the trip, we didn't enjoy them. Mostly because these places are usually busy and somehow it does not feel as magical as finding something unexpected and experiencing it on our own.
We went to busy beaches and could not wait to leave, often having to keep the dogs on their leads to stop them from interacting with people who clearly aren’t dog lovers. But then we found the most beautiful, quiet little swimming spots by lakes where the four of us were able to relax, swim and experience it together. The things we planned or researched never lived up to our expectations anyway.
Our next plan was to cross the border into Switzerland before realizing our European insurance didn’t cover us to travel through Switzerland. The van was already showing signs of wear, so we decided after spending a few hours near Lake Geneva that we should travel back into France and begin our route to Croatia and Italy (which ended up being a good decision later in the trip).
When we eventually arrived in Italy, the trip completely changed. It was harder to find camping spots. The small towns lacked the lust and magic we knew Italy for, and although the towns we loved Italy for (Venice, Lake Garda) were as magical as ever, we knew we'd never afford to live in these places. Our dream of living in Italy wasn’t yet meant to be.
... And so, we decided to leave Italy and cross the border to Croatia via Slovenia. In one day, we visited those three countries – Italy, Slovenia and ending in Croatia. It's illegal to wild camp in Croatia but luckily we were visiting in the low season, meaning all the campsites we stayed at were half the price. We found some beautiful spots. We mostly traveled and camped on the coast, allowing us to see some amazing sunsets and listen to the waves of the ocean.
The drives along the coast were like no other we have seen, with beautiful mountainous landscape on one side and turquoise blue waters on the other. The roads were also exceptionally quiet too. We weren’t sure if this was because of the time of year, but I imagine it can get very busy in the summer months. We got to enjoy the beaches and the landscapes alone, and the dogs got to happily roam free.
We decided from Croatia to start heading back home so we doubled back through Slovenia, then through Austria and finally through Germany where our journey came to a big end when the van finally gave up and broke down.
How did you pass the time on long drives?
Because of the dogs we kept our drives short. We tried not to drive for more than 3 hours at a time and searched for places to stay along our route that would fit into this. This provided us with some amazing stops, and we really got a feel for the countries instead of just visiting all the tourist spots.
What's it like to travel in Europe with dogs?
For the most part it was good. We realized quickly that city life is hard with two dogs and the heat is hard on them. But when we were in the countryside, by a lake or even up a mountain it was a beautiful thing to share it with the dogs.
What was the highlight of your trip?
I learned to appreciate the little things all the more, like lying on top of the van's roof and looking at the stars and meteors shooting across the sky. We're from a busy town, so we never get to see the stars like that. Or swimming in a lake with nobody else around.
In my blog I wrote, "It’s amazing just having those simple moments makes life and our decisions to make this trip worth it. Life on the road is a wonderful thing in that we get to see and experience a whole new place every day. Life is simple. Life is happy. Life is free. Life is peaceful and it is quiet. It is experiences and adventures. Mostly it is appreciating the little things."
We have learned to appreciate the beauty that is in the quiet and realizing the inner peace that nature and being away from the stresses of a busy world gives to us.
Another highlight was Venice. Mostly because I fall in love with the city every time I visit, and this time we had the bonus of sharing it with the dogs. We took a train ride into the city (the dogs' first ever) and walked the beautiful streets. The dogs got so much attention from tourists and locals alike. Because we got the train to the city we didn’t have to worry about parking the van which took a lot of stress off.
The French Alps were a highlight too. Never before have I been so in awe of the amazing sights of a snow-topped mountain. It felt like I had stepped into an oil painting or the set of The Sound of Music. I felt like I was in some kind of made-up land where everything is perfect, and all is peaceful, safe and quiet. The natural, untouched landscapes seemed to go on forever.
What was the lowlight of your trip?
Breaking down in Germany. We were driving down the motorway when suddenly the van started to lose power and smoke burst from the exhaust. We immediately pulled over and looked around to find that oil had exploded from the exhaust and the entire outside of the van was covered in it.
We opened the bonnet and panic hit us; the whole engine was covered in oil too. It was a total mess. We took a minute and tried not to panic. We were in Germany with a broken-down van, on the motorway with two dogs and roaring traffic passing by. We called our insurance company who sent out a tow truck. They took us to a garage in Bonn, Germany.
The next two weeks in Bonn were not a fun time during our trip (it’s a whole other story) but eventually our insurance company funded a taxi from Bonn to Calais. Then we got a “dog taxi” who took us via the channel tunnel back to UK soil. The van was then later repatriated back to the UK and to us a few months later.
It was a crazy end to an amazing trip it was also a memorable one! We embraced every part of the adventure (good and bad).
What are your recommendations for travelers with dogs?
First of all, just do it! Try to keep your journeys short. Avoid big cities. Embrace the adventure. Check out all the natural landscapes our world has to offer and let them enjoy swimming under the warm sun. They are animals. They aren’t meant to be locked up inside all day while we go to work. They should be given the opportunity to sniff out new smells and explore too!
What are the downsides to traveling in a van?
- Breaking down and constant repairs!
- Living in a small space.
- When it's cold, it’s really cold, and when it’s hot it’s really hot!
- If you’re rough camping, you need to constantly find water to fill your tanks for cooking and washing.
The daily life was not what we expected. We thought we would have the time to fill our days relaxing, reading or playing games. It isn’t like that. By the time we have finished driving for the day, explored the area we are in, showered, cleaned, filled the water tanks, bought food, cooked, done laundry, done the van's maintenance and planned the next day's journey – the four of us are well and truly ready to sleep!
If you could have changed anything about your trip, what would it be?
Actually nothing. It was an adventure and every experience both the good and bad gave us memories and stories. We can’t predict what’s going to happen. Of course, we’d have preferred if the van hadn’t have broken down but if we knew that was going to happen, we probably wouldn’t have taken the trip. Embrace every part of the adventure.
Do you have any upcoming travel plans?
We will always seek new adventures and amazing places in the world. We have recently had a baby boy, named Ollie, who we plan to share all these adventures with him (and not forgetting the dogs of course) as soon as possible!
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