One thing that has improved my life for nearly four years is access to mine and my girlfriends (Sarah), VW T5 Campervan. Campervan’s are something that go hand in hand with photography, they allow us to go places on a whim and stay at the foot of photographic viewpoints making logistics so much easier.
Many a time, we have set off with just a few hours notice to wherever the weather looks good and gone and camped at the roadside or in a small car park. Then we’re soon in the mountains ready to photograph or just plain old adventure.
It’s not always spontaneous though, we have had many planned trips away, especially to our favourite place of all, Scotland but September 2018 saw a much more adventurous and bigger trip planned. A euro road trip with our ultimate goals being the Italian Dolomites, Slovenia and Croatia.
Initially, we had this trip planned for 2017 but unfortunately someone drove into our van and wrote it off. We had still hoped to make it but the repairs had not been completed in time so we had to postpone.
Fast forward to 2018 and we knew we were going to make it happen, particularly as locations such as the Dolomites were becoming more popular. So read on for information about our trip, a selection of images, both my own landscape photography and images of the travels as such. I will try and give tips, hints and general knowledge about what we learnt on this road trip. Who knows, it may inspire you to take the leap to go yourself?
For info and reference, the landscape shots are my own. Some of the travel shots are Sarah’s of SLP Photography and will be credit appropriately. You can follow us on Facebook and Instagram if you want to keep up to date with our adventures.
Obviously, getting to Europe in a van is going to involve a crossing of the sea somewhere. The quickest way is from Calais to Dover on the Ferry or quicker still but slightly more expensive is via the Eurotunnel. In hindsight, we wished we had sailed to Dunkirk (slightly longer) as we inevitably ended up travelling past it anyway and would have saved us some miles and time. It’s worth thinking about when you want to arrive, the beauty of having a campervan is you can stay the night before somewhere locally and then catch an early morning ferry OR catch a late ferry and sleep in one of the many aires in France.
Remember before travelling to pack your V5, passport, driving license, European travel kit (warning triangle, breathalysers, high-vis etc) and don’t forget to put deflectors on your lights to alter your beam pattern. Ideally put these on at the terminal.
Plaquettes, vignettes and low emission zones.
A word of warning from experience. Plan your journey before you go and see where you will need vignettes (sometimes called plaquettes) and if you will be travelling in a low emissions zones (LEZ’s). We arrived in France and realised quite quickly that we would be travelling in a LEZ but there was nothing we could do at the time to obtain authority as it has to be done at least 6 weeks in advance. We therefore took a detour, thankfully not too much out of the way and through Belgium. Our next hurdle was Germany who has also recently introduced LEZ’s but thankfully a little more straight forward. Pop into a local TUV station with your V5 and obtain one. You can also (ideally) apply for these prior to the trip to save you time also.
A great resource for what cities have low emissions zones is at Green Zones.
Believe it or not, the best country for travelling through stress free was the home of the EU, Belgium. No vignettes or tolls and no LEZ’s at the time of writing.
The next thing to consider are your vignettes. Vignettes are probably somewhat viewed as an out of date toll system but often cheaper. If you want to travel on the motorway in certain counties then you will need a vignette. They can be purchased for different durations usually up to a year. They can also be purchased in close by in neighbouring countries. This is very important because if you are on a motorway vignette free in one country but join another motorway that continues on in a vignette country you must have the appropriate vignette before crossing the border. Check the countries and see if you think a vignette is needed. For example, we purchased one for Austria as it cut our journey time down significantly but because of our countryside touring in Slovenia it wasn’t needed. It is worth noting some apps such as Google Maps will divert you off motorways if you select avoid tolls, this can be a good and bad thing. Good if you don’t want to risk accidentally ending up on a motorway but bad because if you have a vignette you may as well use it! Remember to check your settings. The fines can be heavy if you get caught without a vignette.
Speaking of tolls, the vignette system is often cheaper than paying for toll roads. We generally tried to avoid toll roads on our journey unless we felt that the detour would cost more in fuel or it saved a significant amount of time. For example the toll roads in France are notoriously expensive so we would always avoid. We chose to pay some tolls in Italy between the Dolomites and Venice as it sped the journey up significantly. Unfortunately you often don’t know the cost until you’ve been through all the tolls and prices vary significantly.
Where to park overnight?
This took us a little while to get used to. In the UK, particularly Scotland it is fairly evident where you can and can’t park overnight. While not strictly legal it often doesn’t present any issues and at least if you run into issues with the law you are in your home country speaking the language. However in Europe you may want to be a bit more savvy. Wild camping in some countries, especially in the National Park’s is highly illegal and you are likely to get moved on, fined or even arrested.
Arriving in the Dolomites (having used aires the previous nights) we parked up in a suitable looking lay-by. Quite quickly my mind started thinking about the local laws and a quick Google started to throw up horror stories of people having their vans broken into, getting in trouble with the law and also more extremely, being gassed. Now being gassed refers to a thief gassing a van while the occupants are inside to knock them out and rob them. However, it seems to be more of a myth than truth as the amount of gas needed to knock someone out would often cost more than the robbery itself. Anyway, that aside we quickly started to panic and parked in a car park. It cost us €12 for the privilege of a car parking space. We knew we couldn’t sustain that for two weeks.
After a bit of research and friendly advice we came across some apps. The best being Park4Night. The app will guide you to suitable camping spots with a list of facilities and a reviews system. It is also useful for finding things like showers, water and grey waste. We ended up paying for the premium version which was completely worth it. We were soon finding good parking spots and often in the safety of numbers and didn’t have any trouble the whole two weeks. The app also often has reviews about spots highlighting any possible trouble, be it thieves or being moved on.
Aires are also something to look out for. They vary in quality and from country to country. An aire is essentially an authorised place for motorhomes and camper vans to stay the night. Some have water, waste disposal etc and some are simply a parking space. Again the app will often tell you about aires and look at the reviews. We found some great ones in France, Germany and Slovenia.
This may sound an obvious one but you will be visiting many countries speaking different languages. Some countries even speak multiple languages depending where you are in the country. Don’t expect everyone to speak English either!
By far our trickiest language barrier was the Italian Dolomites, especially the Northern Region. The Dolomites used to be part of Austria and as such a lot of them speak German, followed by Italian and thirdly a local language called Ladin is spoken. What we found is either genuinely or through stubbornness, people did not speak much English, even in the tourist areas. Sarah had a basic grasp of German but despite being Austrian, the people sometimes had the patience of an Italian!
We would often use Google Translate to help us and it’s worth downloading language packs so you can use them offline. You can type stuff for them to read and if you hold your phone sideways it will display the text large. We found this useful but their response would often be back in their language and you still didn’t have a clue what was going on. Cue conversation mode, you are meant to both be able to speak to the phone and it will translate on the fly allowing you to have a conversation. In practice we found this rarely worked, especially with the older generation who may not understand the technology. Trying to explain how to use something to someone you can’t speak to in the first place was next to impossible. We also found in many of the countries that people would get frustrated quickly and didn’t really want to know. We tried to scratch up on basic dialect to help and to show willing and it is a good idea for you to do so also.
Many of the places you may visit might not be hugely influenced by tourism and therefore many may not speak English. As I alluded to before as well, we got the impression sometimes that some did speak English but didn’t want to make the effort for us. We are often a privileged country as we generally expect all visitors to the UK to speak some form of English as it is the worlds business language and its easy to forget travelling to other countries not everyone will.
Money is going to be an issue travelling through multiple countries. Most will use the Euro but some will use different currencies, such as Croatia. Here is where a card such as Revolut comes in. Revolut is like a normal debit card of which there is an app attached to it. You can use it to make purchases in any country and it will give you the best rate available (I believe the Interbank rate) at that time. You can top up via the app instantly and see purchases instantly. This allows you to keep track of your spending while not having to carry too much cash around with you. We tended to top up small amounts rather than big chunks to keep track and to ensure too much money wasn’t on the card. We would top up in GBP and convert to Euro at the time. This means you accept the rate at that moment, for example if the rate is good it means you are better off or you can leave it as GBP and it will convert the rate automatically at the point of purchase. We found this system a much better way than having to draw out cash and losing money on what we hadn’t spent or using a travel passport style card and topping up a large amount at a rate worse than Revolut.
With Revolut you can also draw cash out from banks. With the free card you can draw out €200 per month which doesn’t sound a lot but as most places accept card now it usually isn’t an issue. Where we ran into trouble was fuel stations because often they don’t allow pre-paid cards as they can’t authorise a transaction before fuel is dispensed. Not an issue if the kiosk if open but if it’s a 24 hours station it is something to bear in mind. TIP: If there is more than one of you, get multiple Revolut cards. This raises your monthly limit significantly.
With all that out of the way, let’s get on with our journey. We left behind schedule from the UK and got to Dover late….although early for our ferry. Having had no sleep, we were quickly boarded onto an earlier ferry and a hour later or so we were in Calais. We found an aire just outside of Dunkirk and got our heads down just as it was getting light and slept until about mid-day. We quickly realised we had to alter our route plans and go through Belgium instead because of low-emissions zones but it wasn’t an issue and added another country to our list of places we had visited. However, we were gutted when we found out Belgian buns aren’t actually from Belgium, so we were left with chocolate instead. Of course.
We moved South, thankful that Belgium was a toll and vignette free country and we were soon in Luxembourg. We took a small detour off the motorway as fuel is much cheaper in Luxembourg and as luck had it, our tank was almost empty. After filling up, which was at sunset we proceeded further and on into Germany. It started to get quite late and we looked for somewhere to sleep and found an aire in a small but beautiful village.
Feeling rested the next morning we carried on. As we weren’t going too far out of the way, we decided to visit Neuschwanstein Castle just before the Austrian border. The castle is majestic and is said to be where Walt Disney gained inspiration for his famous castle. We had aimed to get there and shoot sunset but unfortunately due to having to get a LEZ sticker near Stuttgart we were put over 2 hours behind and got there just as the sunset was happening. Annoyingly it was to be a fantastic sunset too!
Our next issue was both our number plate bulbs had decided to blow, so we needed to try and find somewhere that sold them at such a hour. Most garages were shut at this point and we had no luck in Germany.
We now had the rest of our leg to reach the Italian Dolomites with our overnight location dialled into the SatNav as Lago Di Brais. We were soon passing the Austrian border, with full border checks in control. Fortunately we got straight through without the number plate lights being noticed and after a few attempts, found a garage who stocked them. We also took this opportunity to buy a vignette to make up for lost time.
We carried on, driving through Austria and found that the road from Austria to Italy was a toll road and no way around it. We duly paid our toll and carried on, arriving in the Dolomites in the dark and not having much of a clue about the landscape.
We drove up to Lago Di Brais and after deciding to give wild camping a miss, parked in one of the main car parks, paying for our stay the next morning. It was here we really started to encounter the locals of the Dolomites and some of the challenges. For our naivety, we assumed the people would speak Italian, however being part of Austria at one time, most spoke primarily German and Italian second with very little English. We struggled trying to use Google Translate and only just got by. It would become a couple of days where we would really struggle to settle.
We spent a couple of hours the next day exploring the Lake and looking for what we could shoot. It was an impressive and stunning place but evident sunset may not be easy as the lake was in a bowl of mountains. Instead it seemed sensible to shoot the stars. The moon was to be full that night but checking the timings we had a hour or so after sunset before the full moon would rise. Would it be enough to capture the Milky Way above the mountains before the moon came up?
We decided to try for sunset anyway but it was fruitless and hung around. It started to get dark enough to shoot the stars over the crystal clear and reflective lake. Quite quickly the moon started to rise and cast light and shadow on the mountains, just as you would expect from a sunrise or sunset. This worked in our favour and added to the scene. Quickly it would wash out the Milky Way but we had that small transition period where it worked for us. It was perfect in honesty.
Once we had done that, we knew we didn’t want to stay in that area and decided to move on, driving late through the night. Having planned some of the trip I knew the general area I wanted to explore would be around Ortisei. We used Park4Night and found a lovely large parking area at the top of Passo Gardena which we actually ended up using a few times. As there were a number of vans there, we felt safety in numbers. There was also a toilet which of course was useful. From here it was around a 30 minute drive into Ortisei. We were hoping that a larger, more touristy town would accommodate better but with the lack of British flags flying on the masts outside of hotels, we soon started to realise it wasn’t to be the case. Were we being snubbed after Brexit or did the area really not concentrate on English? Obviously a strange one because most of the signs on hotels, restaurants and shops were in English.
As the following day was clear skies, we decided to have a day exploring and getting our bearings. One of the priorities of the trip was to see and hopefully photograph Seceda. The mountain is a fantastic set of pinnacles and easily accessible by gondola and cable car. We dropped into the Seceda ski station and looked at passes. We decided to purchase a 3 day pass (which lasts 4 days so you don’t need to do 3 consecutive) and bought a pass for all the lifts in the Dolomites for around €90. Again, we were surprised that the staff at the ticket desk spoke very little English and purchasing the pass was a bit of an experience but we got there in the end. In my haste and midst of it all, I left the GoPro on the counter but fortunately when I returned around 20 minutes later they had it waiting there for me. At least that was smooth! In hindsight, we should have bought a pass for Val De Gardena which is the valley around Ortisei as that was all we used and would have saved us a fair amount.
On the first day with the pass, we decided that we would take the mountain bikes up. We had never biked in alpine areas before and it was to be a new experience getting an uplift. Arriving at 2500m we checked out Seceda and spent some time milling around the top. We used it as a good reccy with the intention of going back another day. In fact, it was essential we did this day. Despite all of our planning, some logistics really didn’t become apparent until we got there. The last ski-lift was at 5pm and thus no way back down after sunset except to hike, bike or stay in a Refugio. It also allowed us to figure said way back down. We couldn’t really stop in a Refugio as we felt uncomfortable leaving the van in the valley overnight.
We biked down, finding the route and finding how hard even a simple route in the Dolomites was testing. It was steep! Down, down and down. Good in some ways but challenging, particularly on the brakes. We got down and settled for the night having enjoyed ourselves.
The next day it was again to be clear at sunset, so rather than repeating our previous day, we decided to go and check Alpe Di Siusi. A classic location in the Dolomites that I had seen many shots of. In the day, we used our lift passes to take us up to the plateau and it gave us a chance to mill about, get a lay of the land etc. Again, the lifts would stop well before sunset, so we headed back down. I knew roughly where we would need to go. Driving out of Ortiesi, there is an access road up to Compaccaio overlooking Alpe Di Siusi which opens to all traffic after 5pm. Sunset was around 7pm. We got to the gates well before and waited before it was opened and headed up. We got to the top and saw that the car parks again got progressively more expensive the closer to the top you got. If memory serves, it was very expensive at around €20. However, no one was on the gates and we couldn’t see an apparent way to pay, so we risked leaving without paying. From what I could see, there were roads all the way to the ski lift we had been on earlier and it was about 3 miles. We knew if we stood any chance then we would need to bike it.
After faffing around, getting ready and going to the toilet, time was starting to get tight. We headed off, nearly feeling the wrath of a local driver who missed me but nearly took Sarah out. Getting further in, I spotted a lovely wood cabin with the impressive mountains behind. I made a judgement call not to go any further. Time was starting to run thin and while it was tempting to go further along, it could be risky if I didn’t make it to my chosen destination or spot anything else along the way. With how the evening panned out, I think I definitely made the right call.
The next day we were back in Ortisei and it was finally the day to shoot what initially drew me to the Dolomites, Seceda. As I mentioned before, logistically we wouldn’t be able to return via ski lift after sunset. We made the choice to mountain bike back down after sunset. Having ridden the route once, I was a little cautious but enthusiastic at the same time. It had been a tough ride down before and I had never ridden with full on camera gear plus I had never properly ridden in the dark. Nervous times! Emptying what I could out of my bag, I took the essentials and adding in spares for the bike plus a first aid kit of course! I knew a large bag would sway me side to side on my bike and potentially throw me off.
We parked at Col Raiser this time. I figured as we rode past this before, it would save some riding down in the dark and avoided roads in the dark or some horrible sting in the tail uphill. From here we took the road down to Ortisei and it was really quick going. We got one of the last lifts up, not wanting to hang around too long and pushed our bikes to the viewpoint, leaving them stowed near one of the closed ski lifts. We sought out some compositions and hung around not expecting anyone else. Soon, a German who lived a mere few hours away joined us. We got chatting and had a mutual understanding of sharing what was essentially a tight space. He was to wild camp in his tent up there that night. Something that seems to be strictly forbidden but actually you see a few people doing.
Heading into golden hour, we saw a number of photographers start walking up towards us, puffing and panting. There were around 8 in total. We were gobsmacked, we had put all this effort to get up here for people to rock up the last moment. We can only assume they were stopping in a nearby refugio.
To lay the scene out to you. The viewpoint to Seceda is small. If you aren’t roughly in a line, you are likely to be in somebody else’s shot. There is a wire fence which is easily by-passed that leads to a crumbling edge with a huge drop. This gives a little more platform to those risk aware, if you stay still. I had set up first and thus in prime position, in front of Sarah and the German guy. They were behind me, Sarah half over the fence and the German fully on the other side. No problem.
The other tourists turn up and things quickly become crowded. Everyone has a right to be there, we were all tourists. However it was the etiquette, or lack of that followed that infuriated. I was lucky to be at the front but really felt for Sarah and the other guy. They were swamped. The others would continually stand in their shot, push their way past and often knock the tripods. To make matters worse, they would typically have one camera on a tripod, another handheld, a form of other camera or phone doing a time-lapse and finally they would be using their drone while leaving said equipment unattended. What really took the biscuit though was one woman who insisted on moving back and forth, knocking the wire fence and knocking Sarah’s tripod twice, then proceeded to do it once more after Sarah already venting and kicking Sarah’s tripod towards the edge. Sarah luckily caught her tripod in time but it put a sour atmosphere in the air. By this point, the German had enough and had gone further up to shoot other scenes. The only solace was that the main offender, appeared to have lost her brand new drone (Mavic 2 Pro) after repeatedly ignoring the battery warning signs and staring blankly at her screen, trying to get her partner to help. I saw it leave, I never saw it come back. This isn’t a dig at drones as I was using mine, hastily I may add with the traffic but I knew what had happened from being a user.
Despite all that, we had a great sunset. The clouds had cleared from when we first arrived but some would stick around the main peaks. Once the sun had started to get red, they dissipated but as if by magic a new one formed before our eyes in front of the mountain. Splendid.
Sunset happened and it quickly got cold. We packed up and sorted ourselves out. We passed the German who said we were crazy for riding down. Maybe he was right?
This time we made good progress, easily riding sections we hadn’t before. After about 30 minutes it became too dark to ride without lights. It had dropped dark so quickly, we hadn’t anticipated this. I put my bar mounted light on and my head torch around my head. For some reason Sarah didn’t have her bar mounted light, so she had to use mine a lot. Having two sources of light really helps with depth perception as it creates shadows. We continued down, it was exhilarating. We felt like we were going fast, we hardly had any doubts and the ride seemed easy this time. It was however fun and full of adventure. A new way to do photography maybe? By the bottom, after over 1000m of descent, my brakes had faded and I wasn’t able to stop, only by using my feet! I had around 500m left to go, I let the brakes cool and started again, they were soon gone again. I coasted into the car park of Col Raiser, thankful we didn’t have to do anymore and felt alive.
The next days forecast wasn’t good. In fact snow was potentially going to fall higher up. We parked in our usual car park, a little concerned but knew we could stay and do nothing all day if needed. It was simply too late to drive elsewhere. We hadn’t much enjoyed our first two days in the Dolomites, feeling unsettled and sometimes unwelcome but by this point we were in love. We wanted to visit Tre Cime but figured if the weather was bad there would be no point, particularly if the road was closed due to snow. We woke up the next day to rain, which turned to snow but fortunately didn’t settle. Snow in September wasn’t lost on us though.
With the forecast not improving, we decided to leave the Dolomites and head to Venice, somewhere Sarah really wanted to see. I was sad to be leaving, I felt amazing to have done what I had but felt like I had unfinished business. I would need to go again. We made our way through the Dolomites, the further south we got, the more Italian it became. Eventually we were on the motorway, we grabbed a shower in a services and decided in this instance to pay the tolls to get there quicker.
Also to note, we found a lot of the Italian services have fresh water, grey water disposal and shows. Useful.
We parked on the outskirts of Venice, knowing the city was obviously car free. We did a bit of research and parked at San Giuliano, a short tram ride away. We had arrived fairly late but not too late to head in. It was absolutely heaving it down with rain though, being thankful we wasn’t still in the mountains. We spent the evening there, finding somewhere that did pizza, of course! Venice is like a maze, you think you’re going in the right direction to only hit a dead end, faced with just water. It’s amusing to watch everyone walking around, phone in hand, trying to find their way, us included! After a long detour, we managed to catch the tram back. We again used Park4Night. It was suggested that we could stop where we were if we wanted to risk it or there was an official place around the corner. However, around the corner had recent reviews on the app (another good feature) suggesting it had been a target for thieves.
Instead, we found a place a little further out but much safer. Who would have thought we could find a place in Venice to wild camp in the van for free? The next day it was beautiful and sunny. I later found out snow had fallen in the Dolomites and it was beautifully sunny but it didn’t matter as we wouldn’t have had the time anyway. Sarah had only wanted to see Venice for the day but I felt she hadn’t really done that in the deluge of the previous day. I suggested we stay another day before heading down to Croatia. We stopped and explored and did the touristy things, including getting swamped in St Marks square. I have to admit though, I didn’t do any photography. Even for the start of October, even in the pouring rain, Venice was rammed. We even heard people speaking not only English, but actual English people! The first since we had left Dover. It was too busy for me and I was happy just to bumble around and see it.
We left Venice and made our way south, we crossed the border into Slovenia quite late and found there was no where suitable to stop. We turned back and crossed the border once again and found a suitable place on the border of Italy. We still had a big drive ahead of us, we were to visit Slovenia but we had decided to go to Croatia first. This was partly a mistake in hindsight but the logic was that we would be closer to home if we visited Slovenia last. It turned out the weather was poor in Slovenia, which we wouldn’t have minded in Croatia as we were visiting waterfalls.
Our target was Plitvice Waterfalls National Park. I love a good waterfall and this seemed perfect. It was a long drive down but we arrived in the evening. I used SNAPP Guides to find a suitable spot for sunset and headed there. In theory, we should have paid for a day pass, even so late on but I felt at £17 each it was expensive for a hour, so we risked not paying and was fine. I visited one of the lower falls in the valley called Sastavci Falls. The initial and official viewpoint was poor. The view wasn’t great and so I sought out a new one. The guide had suggested you could go further down but as it turned into a knife edge ridge, I wasn’t so sure. I climbed down though, Sarah above not impressed and got into a position I was just about comfortable in. Only to see there was an easier path down which we had both simply missed. Doh!
It was completely clear skies and also we had found out that we were there at a poor time of year. The waterfall I had intended on shooting was only in half spate, with the right hand side totally dried up. The best time to visit really would be Spring. Nevermind. I concentrated my efforts in close to the falls with my telephoto.
We had to drive out of the park for the night. There were plenty of places we could have parked the van but it’s a strictly no camping policy in the park, with keen wardens reported to throw you out at all hours and even handing out fines. We initially found a large lay-by where lorries parked but looking once again on our new favourite app we saw that a restaurant down the road allowed vans overnight in their car park, completely free of charge. We went in and asked and they confirmed. Surprised by their hospitality we agreed to eat in the restaurant. Saved cooking!
We were glad we did, large pizzas were £4 each and were massive! We were super impressed. We had a massive meal, including chips, Greek salad and drinks for £20, plus free overnight, hassle free parking. Brilliant. The next morning I had set my alarm clock for sunrise but only for intention of getting out early to beat the crowds to the park. We drove in and it was already starting to get busy. It didn’t matter how early we were though as we had to wait for the first boats, which we knew anyway. It cost us around £17 each for a day pass to the park and £10 for parking, so £44 to see some waterfalls. This is a big difference to how we operate in the UK, we take for granted how much we get to see for free. In fact, we came to the realisation in Europe, not much is free. You can’t even park on a side street in most places like you can over here.
We caught the first boat across the lake allowing us access to the upper falls. The area is lovely and the waterfalls are impressive, they are crystal clear and the lakes have a lovely blue/green colour to them. We didn’t really know where we were going and how much time we had but walking up, we left the main path and headed for a viewpoint overlooking Veliki Prstavac. I got my camera out and instantly everything fogged up. The campervan had been cold overnight, particularly where the camera had been stored. It was now rather hot in Croatia and it was a recipe for disaster. I couldn’t do anything but wait. We spent about a hour waiting around, wasting precious time meaning it would only get busier but I had to dry the lenses out in the sun.
Eventually they did dry out but by this point the sun had got harsh and created deep shadows on the waterfalls. We headed down to the waterfall and carried on walking around. The trouble with Plitvice is that all the walkways are made of boardwalk. Couple this with 100’s of people walking along them at any one moment and getting a long exposure with a tripod is next to impossible. Every shot was ruined by image shake. Instead we decided to focus our efforts on just walking round and seeing the waterfalls. We exited for lunch late in the day and decided to go to the Rocky Cliff overlook near sunset, when it would be quiter.
We found the overlook and apart from a few people joining us, clearly seeing a tripod setup thinking we must know what we were doing, we had a peaceful evening. This was another one of the main photos I wanted to capture from here but the clear skies made it difficult, with the waterfalls obviously being in a deep valley. Once the sun had set, we walked down to the waterfall we were looking at and it was actually a tufa weir.
We stayed way past sunset but at least it was quiet, with very few people walking about to disturb the boardwalks, allowing us more creative freedom and finally the chance to capture some shots.
I left Plitvice with mixed feelings. It was nice but I don’t think I would go again. I felt it was expensive, restrictive and at the end of the day a bunch of waterfalls that are quite far out of the way from anything else. If you want to go here and get the best I would suggest spring time when there’s more water and early spring if you can to avoid the crowds. You really need more than one day here to get the best out of it and as such you may be better off stopping in a hotel where they can stamp your pass for a free second day.
By this point we were ready to relax. We thought the Croatian coastline looked appealing on our way down so we decided to look for a beach. Most of mainland Croatia seems to be rocky beaches, with the beautiful sandy beaches on islands out of the way. We decided to visit Senj, a place we had already passed through so it would be on our way back to Slovenia. It had some sand on the beach and as it was a lovely day we decided to take the kayak out in the sea, our first time using it and what a place! It followed by more pizza and ice cream to top it off. Soon we were on our way to the last leg of our trip, Slovenia.
We headed north, back to Slovenia and our destination would be Lake Bled, another famous photographic location and again we would be using the ever useful SNAPP guides and Park4Night. Slovenia seems a little more tricky when it comes to wild camping, with very few options and very much a big no-no near Bled. We used Park4Night and found a little aire randomly in the middle of nowhere but about 30 minutes away from Bled. The aire was well facilitated with grey water disposal and even free electric hookup if you needed it. It was next to a Police station and overlooking a leisure centre but all that said, it was a noisy place to sleep with many boy racers continually passing. However, for somewhere free and relatively risk-free we welcomed it.
The next day we went to Bled. We were really realising how hard parking becomes. As mentioned before, free parking is hard to come by and it seems that despite what people say, Europe aren’t campervan friendly. Often there are signs saying no campervans and if there aren’t, then the prices for campervans are much higher. Luckily, a T5 seems to be viewed as a standard car and campervan seems to apply more to motorhomes. Alas, we drove around and it was throwing it down. Then we did something rare, we decided to check into the campsite at the head of Bled. It would allow us to shower, rest and put us close to the Lake and saved parking charges.
Once we had paid and “pitched” we got the kayak out again. It was hammering it down so there was to be no photography and instead we spent a short while kayaking around the lake, heading round the church and coming back to shore. If we fell in, it wouldn’t have mattered it was that damp! It was however beautiful, the lake was calm and it was an experience that most wouldn’t get.
In terms of Bled itself, again I felt a little underwhelmed. I hadn’t realised it was next to a large town, visible from a lot of the lake. I had imagined it to be a serene lake far from anywhere with just a church. It was nice, don’t get me wrong but it reminded me a little of Derwent Water in the Lake District. Again an achingly beautiful place but one that only takes a couple of hours, not days to reach.
Because all I seem to be doing is moaning, I’ll swiftly move on. We woke up the next morning, briefly, for sunrise before going back to sleep. It was still hammering it down. This is why we should have gone to Croatia last and used the better weather in Slovenia. Not to worry, it improved a little later that day. We had decided Bled wouldn’t be a good choice for sunset and after looking at SNAPP guides again, the Mangart Saddle Pass took our fancy. It was almost three hours away, sitting on the Italian border. In fact, we would need to cross into Italy to get to the start and then back into Slovenia. The top of the pass literally forms the boarder.
We knew it was a long way but we had limited time left in the holiday and so we set off. We got there in plenty of time, paid the toll and drove up, It was starting to become overcast and cloudy. Perhaps not the spectacular sunset we had hoped for.
On arriving near the top, it was noted that the road ahead was closed and we would have to leave our van lower down. We wasn’t aware of this up until this point. We parked up and walked the extra distance, only to find plenty of cars at the top had ignored the advice. The closure was due to a landslip but passable I guess.
We got to the viewpoint and we had a few small moments to capture some shots. I took a large panoramic looking down the valley to Italy. The mountains of the Julian Alps here were very impressive, I felt at home again. The mountains surrounded me, with obvious knife edge ridges running out. Once it started to close in, we tried to get to higher ground to another viewpoint. We climbed and it was apparent that the path wouldn’t be easy to return down. In fact it wasn’t a path, it was a worn area of grass. We got to the start of the ridge and at that point we both felt a little uneasy. There were dubious drops all around and we couldn’t see the way back down for the mist that had rolled in.
We got ourselves into a position where we didn’t need to move and waited it out. We thought it would be over for the day. The clouds started to shift but no light would come. Determined anyway, I started to take some pictures as the clouds rolled around, revealing and hiding different parts of the landscape. The impressive Alpine mountain of Mangart on the opposite side revealed its slab wall and eventually in the bottom left corner, the platform we had been stood on before showed itself. I knew this was the time to press the shutter. What happened was me taking a shot which I may not usually take and also I processed it in a way I wouldn’t usually to emphasise the mood. In fact it turned out to be one of my favourite shots of the trip.
Darkness quickly began to fall in the cloud cover and we made our way back down. Just a few metres to the left of the path was the edge, with a gully ending in Italy. I had dreaded this on the way up, the exposure felt great. Fortunately, the visibility on the way down improved and our footing wasn’t as bad as we had thought it would be and we made a quick and safe return. We got back to the van and spoke about our plans for the next day.
We had decided we couldn’t stay 2 more mornings for sunrise around the area as we needed to make progress back. The forecast for the next day wasn’t good but as we were there, we decided to return to Bled for sunrise the next morning. We made a late and long drive back to the aire 30 minutes away from Bled and got some kip. The next morning we awoke and there was promise with some breaks in the clouds.
Unfortunately, once we arrived it was evident it was closing in. We were there well before sunrise and I concentrated my efforts on shooting in the blue hour. Once daybreak appeared, boats started moving and the tranquil waters were disturbed. At least I got a shot!
We decided at this point that we had seen enough of Slovenia and that we would start to make our way back. Better to be early than miss the ferry. We set off, our target for that evening would again be Neuschwanstein Castle as it was only a small detour. We had missed the amazing sunset before and couldn’t get to the castle, maybe we would have luck this time?
It turned out not, despite promise on the way. We carried on for the evening after getting food and stopped in the same aire we had one our way down near Stuttgart. We had a day and a half to get to the ferry so plenty of time. As it happened, we made it plenty in time for the ferry. We were under the impression that if there’s space, they’ll usually let you on. After all we had a flexi-ticket. It turned out the flexi ticket only allowed changes on the day and as such we wouldn’t be allowed on without paying £80. We didn’t want to pay that amount but we were allowed to stop overnight in the port.
We walked over to the restaurant to find it closed. Much to our dismay, just as we trying to exit the building, we were stopped by security as a bomb threat had become apparent. Unfortunately none of the police or staff spoke English and trying to get an understanding of the situation was impossible. It wouldn’t be a Sarah & James Adventure without something like this happening. Growing ever hungry, spending our last euros on the hot drinks machine, we grew frustrated. We knew it was for our safety but the lack of communication didn’t help. I was actually surprised that no-one spoke English where the port only goes to England.
More frustrating was when we asked what about people in their cars/vans in the car park, why were they allowed there, they had no answer. Eventually English police came along and we had a chat to them. They didn’t have a lot of info except that border control had been evacuated, as had everyone else but us and made a remark about it. Over three hours later, with no where to sit and very hungry, we heard a bang. We were informed it was a controlled explosion and we were free to return to the van. Turned out it was just an abandoned suitcase of clothes!
Surprisingly, we slept well in the terminal. It wasn’t as loud as we had expected. We boarded the first ferry and was happy to be home despite an amazing adventure.
We learnt a few things:
- Not all of Europe is as campervan friendly as people make out.
- Parking is hardly ever free.
- Two weeks isn’t enough to travel three(ish) countries. We would have loved to spend more time in the Dolomites.
- It takes a lot longer than Google Maps says. Plan in stops, breaks, food etc.
- Luxembourg is cheap for fuel. In our van we made it from the UK to Luxembourg on one tank. This was convenient to maximise filling up.
- Revolut makes managing money so much easier.
- Park4Night is a new favourite app. We now use it in the UK, particularly south of the Scottish border.
- Apply for LEZ plaquettes beforehand, particularly France if you want to go that way.
- Remember your V5.
- Download Google translate languages for offline use. We did this anyway and while not all people are tolerant of using it, it does help. We liked to at least learn the basic phrases of each language to show willing.
- They speak predominately German in the Northern Dolomites.
- Mountain biking in the Dolomites was a highlight.
- You can make your own, nice English brews in the van. I very rarely drink tea on holiday as it just doesn’t taste the same.
Thanks for reading. Our next eurotrip will be with a dog!