Doesn’t it sound like a great idea right now to get out of your house, load up an RV and hit the road- destination unknown? We can’t do that right now but we can keep hope alive by planning a future get away. RV trips aren’t just limited to the US. You can travel abroad in style while really getting to know a new country. Jill Rogers with the blog, Your RV Lifestyle recently shared with us her definitive guide to a life-changing RV adventures recently took in the alps.
Jill explains travelers interact with the locals much more in an RV, often because you need little favors from people, like swapping a few Euros for Swiss Francs to pay for parking, or advice on the quietest places to park up around Lake Geneva. RV rental companies abound overseas, this is one of the most recommended, Auto Europe.
Here is Jill’s overview of the best way to see one of the world’s most beautiful places from an RV.
Essential Checklist for an RV Adventure in the Alps
- Gas cooker
- Wet wipes
- Wind up Torch
- Head Lamp
- Rope & Tarp for a Lean-to
- USB Adapter for Cigarette Lighter Charging
- Jumper Cables
- Tool Kit (Screwdrivers, Adjustable Spanner, Duct Tape)
We started with the Eurotunnel from Folkestone, England to Calais, France. Then on to Morestel in the Alps. From there to Aix-Les Bains and then to the Medieval Town of Annecy. Then it was over to the famous Mont Blanc and further north to Lake Geneva. The trip ended with a thundery drive over the Alps to Thun in German-speaking Switzerland.
I pulled in at tiny gas station somewhere in the Ardenne Forest. Still 350 miles South from my destination. I needed coffee and diesel. Also to double check my checklist for this RV adventure in the Alps. I didn’t want to get anything wrong. Not with 1,650 miles to drive in just seven days. All in my converted Vauxhall Vivaro van. Any little mistakes would not be helpful.
First things first, Diesel is Gazoil in France. The yellow pump chugged away. I paid at the cafe bar.. The middle aged proprietor poured herself a beer. I ordered a cafe au lait (coffee with milk) and sat down to go over my checklist.
Legal Requirements for Driving in France
- Driver’s license
- V5C.(Proof of vehicle ownership)
- Proof of Insurance
- Passport/national ID
- Reflective jackets for all passengers
- Warning triangle
- Headlamp beam deflectors
Yeah, it was all there. Packed into the back of my 1.9 litre diesel, neatly placed around the bed I had built a few years before.
The headlamp deflectors are only for right hand drive vehicles, to stop your headlights shining in the eyes of oncoming drivers. It’s also a good idea to carry a breathalyser, although you no longer receive a fine if you don’t have one. Autoexpress has even more information about French motoring laws.
The sun was beating down. Still early morning. 200 miles east of Paris, the city where so many people create their perception of France. An old man hunched himself into the cafe. An espresso was waiting for him at a round metal table. He walked past it and shook the other customer’s hand. The woman behind the bar greeted him with the obligatory two kisses. She lit his cigarette for him and he approached me with his hand outstretched. “Bonjour Garcon.” He inhaled his cigarette with one eyed closed.
I looked back down to my notebook. All the legal stuff was covered. Did I need to pick up anything else?
Planning an RV Trip to the Alps
This trip would be more than 1,500 miles. From the South West of England to Morestel in the foothills of the Alps. Here I would pick up my girlfriend and then head on to Aix-Les Bains, probably Annecy, potentially Chamonix and then maybe Switzerland.
The best website to plan your trip with is Mappy. It will tell you the estimated cost of the trip, including fuel and toll roads. It allows you to choose which route to take depending on your preference.
- Shortest Route in Miles
- Cheapest Route
- Quickest Route
Mappy also has an app with an in-built Sat Nav. The GPS works OK but takes a while to reset if you miss a turn. I found it better to choose the route via Mappy and then enter it into Google Maps on my phone. Data roaming charges have changed in Europe so you don’t have to worry about crazy costs for your phone. It’s worth checking with your provider about a data plan even if it’s just for using Mappy and Google Maps.
If you prefer the old school method then most European maps actually have green shading on the most beautiful roads. So you can plan your trip accordingly. I chose to avoid the motorways and toll roads on the way down, and arrived in Morastel 15 hours after disembarking from the Le Shuttle Eurotunnel in Calais. This included a cat nap at an Aire de Service.
Camping for Free at Aire de Services
Aire de Services are free or very inexpensive campsites you can use during an RV trip to the Alps. Or any other trip for that matter. They vary massively in quality and size but, at the very least, offer a good place to park up for the night. Plenty of English language websites try to make you pay for access to information regarding Aire de Services. Ignore them and use this free to use website. Here you will find the exact addresses and what the location offers for RV travellers, like whether there is access to electric hook ups, drinking water, chemical toilet disposal or grey water disposal.
All I needed was a place to park for a few hours. I cat napped and got back on the road. My girlfriend was visiting family in Morestel and I was keen to get down there as quickly as possible. I arrived on Friday afternoon. Then ate fois gras and lamb for dinner and slept well. In the morning we left for the thermal spa town of Aix le-Bains, built beside Lac du Bourget, the most beautiful lake in the Alps that no one has heard of.
Sights Unique to the RV Traveller
An RV adventure is as much about the journey as the destination. The Alps has some unbelievable stretches of road. One of them is the D1504 from La Balme to Le Bourget-du-Lac. A stretch of road that joins Morestel to Aix Les Bains.
We came through tiny agricultural hamlets lined with their silvery bunting, strewn from house to house to mark the celebration of farmers. Tractors and old wooden barns sat among odd trees and golden fields. The agricultural tradition is famous in the Savoie region, on the flat lands before you start climbing into the Alps.
Then the golden fields fall away and an overhanging gorge closes you in. The change in scenery is monumental. On your right the Cat’s Tooth (Dent du Chat) mountain leans over. You pass through its tunnel and the left side of the road drops into the chalk blue of Lac du Bourget. We stopped and stood and stared out for a while. Actually, we stopped a few times on this part of the journey. “Look at that river! Quick, pull in.” We hung over an old iron bridge watching the river cut into the rock below. That’s what an RV trip in the Alps gives you. The freedom to see all the little bits people on specific tours or stuck in hotels on the lake’s shore never see.
A Hidden Gem
Lac du Bourget looks like the tropical waters of SouthEast Asia. From a distance the water looks green, reflecting the vegetation climbing up the mountains. Up close, only flecks of sunlight block your view right to the bottom. Clear mountain water. At the Grand Port there are restaurants and a brilliant market on Sundays.
However, if you head north from Aix Les Bains and the Port, there is a hidden gem. A place we found accidentally. A grass beach running right up to the lakeside. You can park here for free. There are toilets, showers and probably the world’s best Mojitos. You can rent out Kayak’s for €14 and be alone in the middle of the lake in less than 15 minutes. It is no exaggeration to say this part of Lac Du Bourget is stunning. Where exactly is it? Well, that’s for you to find out.
Instructions to Find A Secret Destination
- Head North from the Great Port
- Stay on the Route D’Aix until you see the train tracks on your left
- Keep an eye out for a left hand turn into a normal looking car park
- If you get to Chatillon, you’ve gone too far
A Good RV Campsite in the Alps
After Aix-Les-Bains we made the short trip to Annecy. It was also time to have a rest from the big wide world and have a night staying at a campsite. The rule in France is that you can stay anywhere with your RV as long as you aren’t spoiling the view. It’s a brilliant piece of common sense which makes RVing really easy in France. Despite that, sometimes it’s nice to grab a shower, do some washing and plug into the mains electricity.
We stayed a few miles from Lake Annecy at the Au Coeur du Lac campsite. For €18 a night you get everything you need. Hot showers, a laundromat and electricity. It’s worth looking at adapters before you come to the Alps because most campsites run a P17 blue plug, which is the European standard but not applicable with British or American fittings. There are campsites in the Alps that charge less for a pitch, but they often add fees for all of the extras. So it’s usually better to double check what you are actually getting for your money, rather than just going for the lowest prices straight away.
Cycling in the Alps
We let the van rest for a day and rented bikes. Lake Annecy is famous for its cycling. There is a 50km cycling lane around the lake that includes a couple of steep climbs. Bikes take precedent in this part of the world, so the route is very safe and some of the views around the lake are incredibly beautiful. It was baking hot the day we went round so we stopped at one of the little beaches along the way, parked our bikes up and jumped in the lake to cool down. The locals must be used to this because nobody took any notice of the two English people in full clothes diving into the water and then hopping back on their bikes.
Annecy itself is known as ‘Venice of the Alps.’ In the old town, buildings open out into chalk green water. There is no doubt Annecy is a beautiful town but it can get really crowded. The best thing to do is visit early in the morning before the crowds of tourists have arrived. Or later at night once the sun has set and the narrow medieval streets have let some of the heat out.
The Tallest Mountain in the Alps
It wouldn’t really be an RV adventure in the Alps without visiting Most Blanc, the mountain range’s tallest and most famous mountain. The drive is one hour 20 minutes from Annecy to Chamonix. We stayed at Camping De La De Glace, which has a lot of amenities, including safe disposal for RV waste water.
The cost of staying during the ‘low season’ is €8.20 per vehicle, then another €8.60 per person. Electricity is another €3 at least. They also charge a fairly mysterious ‘tourist tax’ of 60 cents. This is all to be expected though. Chamonix is probably the most famous town in the Alps and attracts around 5 million visitors every year. So the costs go up while the temperature makes a significant drop.
We had absolutely no plan in Chamonix, apart from having a look at Mont Blanc and maybe getting a hot chocolate in this little chocolate box town. However, once you get to Chamonix you kind of feel like it would be mad not to head up the mountain and get a view of the famous valley. There is a cable car that takes you up to the final Mont Blanc basecamp for €45. We were thinking about it when a man covered in climbing ropes and carabiners walked past us.
The Hike to Mont Blanc Basecamp
“You are young, just pass behind those trees and you can walk up to the basecamp.”
So we did. Slowly. It took us around three hours of steep walking to reach the basecamp. Some of the paths were falling away, with mountain springs eroding the muddy pathway. It was a case of ‘don’t look down’. We pressed on. Passing other hikers heading in the opposite direction. Finally, we reached the top and ordered hot chocolates and blueberry pie. The view was spectacular. Blueberry Pie has never tasted so good.
By the time our big bowls of hot chocolate arrived, however, the blue sky outside had completely transformed. The wind started howling and everything around us was just white mist. The waitress gave us our change. “You guys better get down before you miss your chance.” So we did. Hiking back down as the mist swirled around us.
Apparently the staff at the basecamp cafe have enough supplies to last them two weeks just in case their cable car commute home is closed off by the extreme weather. Luckily for us the main problem in summer is the wet, rather than bitter cold, snow or ice. The only thing I would have done differently would be to wear better footwear and be prepared for a weather change. My running trainers didn’t have enough grip for the soft terrain heading up the mountain. Plus my sweatshirt got damp and heavy on the way down.
That night we slept well after a hot shower at the campsite. In the morning we pulled out the map. Where next on our RV Adventure of the Alps? Across the border to Switzerland seemed like a good idea.
Driving around Lake Geneva
We decided to avoid the main roads and head on the D902 straight for Lake Geneva. The final destination was Montreux, a town made famous by old poets and a Deep Purple song. After an hour of driving the whole environment changed.
Out of the colder climes of Chamonix, Lake Geneva is an Alpine beach resort. Decadent towns line its shores and every few miles the narrow road opens out into a beach or marina. The most famous town of this wealthy shoreline is Evian. We stopped for a coffee and almost decided to stay for the night.
RV holiday Vs Hotels
You can feel the history of Evian as you wander round. It’s unique and, obviously, famous for its water. And with the van we had the option to stay there for the night. Find a little place to park up, make sure we weren’t ruining anyone’s view and settle in for the night.
That option wouldn’t have been open for us if we were just staying in a hotel. This is a favourite holiday destination for Europe’s high society. At the gilded Hotel Royal a room costs £550 a night. Yes, we could of stayed somewhere cheaper, but with the van we would of had the same view and beachfront location for precisely 100% cheaper.
This trend repeats itself again and again on an RV trip. You get to stay in some of the most beautiful locations in the world at a fraction of the price.
Save Money in France with Fuel and Food
Switzerland is expensive. Fuel and food are always the main costs and both are cheaper in France than they are in Switzerland. We stocked up on baguettes, saucisson and cheese on our way down from Chamonix. The brilliant thing about the Alps is most of the shops and supermarches have incredible produce. Particularly bread, meat and cheese. And it’s pretty convenient that those three things happen to go together unbelievably well. In fact, it made up our diet for most of the trip. A 90 cent La Rustique baguette is plenty for two people, plus a good dose of cheese and whatever the local dried meat is.
So we filled up the tank just before the border and made our way to Montreax with no expectations, no real plan but plenty of food and fuel. Unfortunately there was nowhere to park so we kept driving along the lake’s coast for another 5 minutes and pulled up at Vevey.
“Let’s just have a look round.”
It just so happened the Fetes Des Vignerons (The Winegrowers Festival) was in full swing.
A UNESCO Drive from French to German
The festival was incredible. Great beer and wine and one of the deepest and richest sunsets I’ve ever seen. The mountains fading away in the background.
There was a massive element of the festival that was made good just because we found it. In a way it could have been anything. There was a real sense of satisfaction that we had chanced upon this place. Where thousands of Swiss people were celebrating their local produce. So we drank the local wine and watched the sun go down. Then a group of fire dancers attracted a crowd and we sat and watched until the early hours.
In the morning we drove up through an amazing cross-hatch of vineyards. Another accident. They happened to be the UNESCO-listed Lavaux vineyard terraces. For us they were just the beginning of a wild drive up over the French speaking Alps and down into the German speaking valley on the other side.
Beware of the Changing Weather in the Alps
We caught the 11 road through the Parc naturel régional Gruyère Pays-d’Enhaut. That’s when the thunder started. The blue skies of Montreux rolled back behind us. Ahead were sheets and sheets of water. There are a lot of laybys along the mountain roads. Every 20 minutes or so I pulled over and let the local drivers past. Needless to say they were more comfortable with the thundering rain as the roads twisted across the landscape. The thunder got louder as we passed through a village.
Time to stock up.
Some thick and frankly delicious Pain Au Chocolates. Some bread, local cheese. We needed meat, though, and they only had one type up there on top of the hills. So we set off up and down and up and down the mountain number 11 road with our La rustique baguette, chocolate croissants and sausage of dried horse meat.
Setting up Camp in Bad Conditions
We were greeted in the city of Thun with pretty terrible weather. The lake at Thun is, like most of the things in the Alps, extraordinarily beautiful. Sadly, it is also one of the windiest places on earth. Windsurfers skated along the lake but there was no way we were getting quite the same soft and sunny treatment as at Aix Les Bains or Lake Geneva. We sat and watched the waves and decided to find a place to camp before it got dark.
It got dark quick and I was extremely grateful for the rope we bought just before leaving England. The lean-to I was planning on building requires the poles to be stuck into the ground at each end. This was impossible where we set up, somewhere on a long and windy mountain road just north of Thun, Switzerland. Luckily, there were trees, so I tied the rope to both ringlet ends of the tarpaulin and then attached one to a tree and the other was wrapped inside the van door. It rescued us from the rain and actually made the camp feel pretty cosy.
The End of an RV Adventure in the Alps
The next day we had the little task of getting back to the UK, after an unforgettable RV Adventure in the Alps.
We drove back up to Champagne and stayed among the famous grapes for a night before making the final push for Calais and home to England. On the drive back up it occurred to me that we had only met welcoming and friendly people on our trip. You almost become a part of the community when you travel in an RV. Often because you need little favours from people, like swapping a few Euros for Swiss Francs to pay for parking. Or advice on the quietest places to park up around Lake Geneva.
I recommend this trip because you really do interact much more with the people whose land you are visiting. And, in a world where we are all becoming more disconnected through technology, that’s why I will always choose an RV adventure through the Alps rather than staying at the Hotel Royal.