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Car Camping Through Europe

Europe’s Superhighways Offer More Than Fast Travel

My wife and I spend every summer traveling in Europe, and we frequently stop and car-camp in rest stops along its great superhighways. We have never been bothered and have gotten to know many Europeans who do the same. One retired couple we met in Austria told us that they spend most of the year traveling and staying at rest stops and discovered that there is a large network of like-minded folks. Several car-camping websites provide information and advice on specific regions throughout Europe (just type "car-camping" on your search engine and you’ll find them).

The German Autobahn

The 5,000+ miles of the German autobahn system has long been considered the finest in the world, with silken roads, no tolls, and virtually no speed limits. Built by Hitler for strategic purposes, the autobahns reach into every region of the country. The ADAC, the German equivalent of AAA, has a fleet of repair vehicles on the road looking for stranded motorists 24 hours a day. On-the-spot repairs are free; drivers are only charged the price of parts.

Truck stops, or Autohofs, sprinkled along the autobahn, are safe and comfortable places to stop or spend the night. They offer 24-hour shopping, restaurants, travel information, and showers. One, near Bad Hersfeld, is home to a popular nightclub. Another stop, near Baden-Baden in the Black Forest, features the famous Autobahn Kirche, a fascinating modern church designed by two of Germany’s foremost architects.

Most stops are simply places to pull off the highway to rest. They are often set in quiet wooded areas, frequently patrolled by police, where drivers can sleep, picnic, walk their dogs, or just get out and stretch. The larger areas have playgrounds for kids.

Ironically, rest areas in the former communist East are the newest and flashiest in the system. At one stop, on Autobahn 2 at the old border post between East and West, some of the old guard towers, antennae, and lights have been left as curiosities from an earlier era. Instead of a depressing no man’s land of barbed wire and guards, the surrounding countryside is now a green, rolling swath of Thuringian beauty.

The autobahn between Munich and Salzburg boasts stunning views of the Bavarian Alps. Another interesting route runs between Karlsruhe and Basle, with the Black Forest on one side and the Rhine river valley and Vosges Mountains on the other.

For more information online, go to www.german-way.com and www.autobahn-online.de.

The French Autoroute

Like its German counterpart, the French autoroute, with 4,000+ miles of highway, reaches every part of this diverse country and offers a wide range of facilities. Amenities vary, from rustic outhouses with Turkish toilets to lavish complexes that offer anything a traveler might want. Most of the French autoroutes are toll roads.

For the past 10 years, France has been upgrading its autoroute rest stops, and almost every week another glittering complex for travelers is unveiled. One stop, on the northern edge of the Pyrenees near the Pic de Midi, offers a free film, with a wide screen and surround-sound, 24 hours a day with thrilling scenes of the Pyrenee’s highest mountain. Another stop, high in the hills overlooking Monte Carlo, offers a breathtaking view of Monaco, the Mediterranean, and the Riviera.

France’s autoroute system has many lovely areas that are perfect for overnight stops, with shady picnic areas, quiet parking areas, restaurants, and frequent police patrols.

One of the most remarkable stops in Europe is just outside Beaune, the wine capital of Burgundy. There travelers find several excellent wine shops, restaurants and cafes, and a fantastic information office with maps, books, and pamphlets on nearly every region of France. Best of all is the Musee du Bourgogne, a full-fledged historical museum with exhibits on wine-making.

Tolls on the French autoroute vary from region to region. You can pay with cash or credit card. Some websites—like www.autoroutes.fr, and www.franceautoroutes.com—can provide information on tolls, rest stops, and other information.

The Swiss Autobahn

The Swiss autobahn, with 1000+ miles of road reaching into nearly every part of the country, doesn’t get much use from summer tourists. Why rush through such a small country with so much staggering scenery? The cost to use the autobahn can also be staggering for a driver who merely wants to pass through—about $20 for a vignette or sticker that is good for a year. Fortunately, many rental cars in Europe, particularly in Switzerland and Germany, come equipped with a vignette, and for travelers who are exploring the country for a week or more the autobahns can be very useful.

You can dash through whole sections of the country in minutes, and savings in gas can more than make up for the price of the vignette. Vignettes can be purchased at most border posts, gas stations, garages, and post offices. The Swiss Automobile Club has a comprehensive emergency road service. For online information, go to www.autobahnen.ch.

The Italian Autostrade

Italy’s autostrade is the fastest and easiest way to travel around the country without getting lost. The Italian Alps, the Val d’Aosta, and the Riviera are served by autostrades leading through some truly incredible scenery.

However, like the French autoroutes, the Italian autostrade toll system can be frustrating. Even people who work on the autostrade don’t know how much tolls will cost in other regions. The only way to take the autostrade is with a credit card or plenty of euros. Charges are determined by region, and long journeys can be expensive, especially along the Riviera.

But if you need to drive a long distance—say, from Genoa to Rome, in the shortest possible time, it’s worth taking the autostrade. For more information go to www.autostrade.it.

The rest area restaurants feature a sumptuous assortment of regional specialties to eat in or take out. Facilities are generally less lavish than in France or Germany, but the shops sell an amazing variety of items—many of them local—from dolls, animal hides, and fine crystal to sexual aids, and knives.

The Austrian Autobahn

Driving through Austria can be a wonderful experience because of its inspiring scenery and baroque towns. However, it can be exasperating if you’re driving long distances on small roads. If you want to save time and gas getting from place to place, the autobahn offers an interesting toll system. You can buy a vignette good for ten days, two months, and a year (note that prices change yearly).

Austria’s main autobahn stretches from Vienna, in the east, to Feldkirch, in the west. Other branches swoop down from Vienna to the southern border and through the central mountains. Rest stops are generally excellent, with cozy restaurants, clean bathrooms, and scenic viewing areas. The OAMTC, the Austrian automobile club, offers breakdown service at a small charge.

As a rule, it’s more rewarding to see Europe slowly, savoring the little villages and other sights smaller roads offer. However, the autoroutes can be very handy. Late at night, when everything else is closed, they can be a godsend. You can even meet and get to know other travelers and exchange information. When you need to travel a long way in a short amount of time, autoroutes are the only way to go. Many are even attractions on their own.

C.B. HEINEMANN is a frequent traveler to Europe.

 
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