Our drive in and around the European Alps took us first from Austria into Italy, Switzerland and then the tiny Principality of Liechtenstein. I’ve been using a motorhome-guide to find the best places to park for the night. There aren’t a lot of free camping locations like in Australia, but they definitely exist, and a guide like Camperstop identifies free and low-cost parks.

Italy

Italy is a maze of narrow, winding roads that lead inevitably to a cobblestone piazza and hopefully out the other side. It’s suited to pedestrians, Vespas and tiny cars. A wide campervan like ours is challenging to drive at the best of times, but in Italy it was downright scary. Our alternative to the back roads was the highways, but they’re tolled at excruciating rates. So I tried to balance the two.

The girls’ highlight of Italy was their outdoor games. As a family, we’re much better suited to the countryside than the cities. We found playgrounds and wide-open natural spaces where they could go out and transform into pirates (or tigers, or possibly both). The girls name their imaginary worlds and continue them as we move from place to place. In Italy, they started the game called “Magic Island”.

It was here in Italy that I finally caved in and bought a GPS. Navigating with a German atlas had its challenges — especially when we moved out of German-speaking territory! I was thrilled to plug in the GPS and type in coordinates for our next destinations. However, the navigator didn’t acknowledge the size of our vehicle (or the narrowness of Italian roads), and I found myself driving through cobblestone piazzas in the middle of the night, navigating narrow turns in villages punctuated by terracotta window-boxes where I could have reached out and plucked a flower for my lapel!

Much of our driving in Italy happened at night, as I found it easier to drive the narrow streets without needing to assess the width of oncoming vehicles. It was stressful — but just for me. The girls loved their time in Italy and the ornateness of the buildings, chapels and gardens.

Our passage through northern Italy took us through Venice and Milan before we crossed the border along the shores of Lago Maggiore. The transition from Italy into Switzerland was an immediate relief. The roads instantly became wider and the motorways are toll-free. Instead, Switzerland sells an annual vignette sticker that taxes the road-user. (Hungary and Austria have similar road-tax vignettes as well, but theirs are for set periods of time: 10 days, two months, one year.)

Rainbow in the alps, Switzerland, September 2014
A rainbow (and a little shower) greets us as we drive into Switzerland (on their beautiful, smooth, Swiss-made road).

Liechtenstein

Vaduz is the capital of the tiny state of Liechtenstein. It’s nestled in a valley alongside a grey-blue glacial rivers and completely surrounded by mountains so high they reach above the tree-line. A castle sits above the town, regally surveying the domain that has built up the reported wealth of the ruling family to A$5.7 billion!

We parked overnight at the local stadium. It’s offered as stop for visitors, and it was here that I met the first non-European road-travellers of our trip. Four Kiwis were touring as much of Europe as possible in three weeks. They were on holidays from their jobs in London and decided to see more of this part of the world before they headed home.

Vaduz is a genteel, cobblestone-lined village more than a town. The centre is a series of high-end boutiques, banks and restaurants. Tourists wander around, taking pictures of the many notable public-art installations and the amazing scenery. The outskirts of the town comprises immaculate homes with designer furniture sitting on the deck and a swimming pool for those warm summer days (though likely the pool is heated year-round).

Liechtenstein advertises itself as a holiday destination for its neighbours with summer-hiking and winter-snowsports both catered for. Although it has its own currency — the florin — most shops accept euros.

The girls were more interested in feeding the goats (with clanging bells hanging from their collars) than wandering around the historic cobblestone streets. We discovered a playground set in a natural woodland and wandered along the formed walking/bike tracks for kilometres, passing organic farms and picking fresh apples from the tree.

This is one place I’d love to come back and explore properly. Many of Europe’s grey nomads carry bicycles on the rear of their campervans, and I think they have the right idea. They park outside the town and cycle in to shop and sight-see. Perhaps one day I’ll be back in Europe on a bicycle, but even trying to contemplate the logistics of carrying five bicycles makes it seem too daunting to ever do as a family!

Camp Huttenberg

By the time we reached Switzerland, we’d been out of touch with our friends for a couple of weeks. Friends had organised a FB posse to try to track us down (and had successfully spotted us in photos taken at both the Redhead festival and the Rainbow Gathering!). So I booked us into a caravan park perched on a hill overlooking the Swiss shores of Lake Constance where we’d have access to wifi and a playground.

The Swiss like to display their flag whenever they can. It hangs from shops and homes, public squares and street signs. I wonder if it’s their way of reminding the bigger nations that surround them exactly where they are, especially as Switzerland officially uses the languages of its neighbours: German, French and Italian.

The girls loved playing at Camp Huttenberg. It had the first imaginative playground we’d seen since leaving Denmark. I could sit on the deck while talking to friends via Skype and watch the girls romp with the background of the lake and surrounding mountains.

As a caravan park, everything was lined up with infamous Swiss precision. We were allocated a parking spot that — had it been peak season — would have meant we were surrounded by neighbours. Travelling around Europe has certainly given me a new appreciation for the spaciousness of Australia, its wide roads and small population!

Annie and Fadioungou

One of the priorities on our list for Switzerland was to visit family friends in the village of Orvin outside Biel/Bienne. When I was a little girl, my family lived here for a couple months in the summer of 1981 while my mother studied French ahead of our move to West Africa. A couple — Annie and Fadioungou — became good friends with my parents, and they later visited us at our apartment in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire when en route to Mali, Fadioungou’s home country.

It was a delight to meet with Annie and Fadioungou again. We walked around the village I have only very vague memories of, remembering what it was like in the early 80s. Orvin is in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, and I was delighted to start using French again in casual conversation. This was the first time that the girls had heard me conversing in another language and has inspired me to find a way to immerse them in another language before they get much older!