Sixteen ill-equipped travel journalists drive nine, massive campervans in a convoy of RV travel around southern Germany.
Travel journalists are frequently called upon to partake in new and strange activities while on press trips – and sometimes, when temporary insanity strikes, while on vacation.
In more than a decade of such trips, I’ve swum with dolphins, swum with seals, sea kayaked, earned my PADI SCUBA diving certification and gone “ultimate” fly fishing.
I have bathed in seaweed and bathed in wine.
Of all these exploits, none filled me with as much pre-trip dread as an ill-fated RV travel and wine tasting combo odyssey through the Baden-Württemberg region in southern Germany.
The original grand design for this press trip was that 16 travel journalists from North America and Northern Europe, plus two guides, would climb into nine campervans and motor from place to place, taking in tourist sites and consuming prodigious amounts of wine, while living out of the campervans.
The selling point for the RV travel hook (and our soon to be irrelevant pre-trip editorial pitches) was the allure of wine tasting without having to worry about driving back to a hotel afterward. We would just stagger to our campervans and RVs in the winery’s designated parking lot to sleep it off. Alas, this theoretically excellent adventure unraveled barely four hours into the three-and-a-half day trip.
If I’m being honest, I strongly suspected we were doomed months earlier after receiving the trip itinerary. I had visions of 16 hapless, city-softened journo-geeks, some of whom were half blind from the jet lag of crossing six or seven time zones, piloting giant vehicles with no training. We’d be attempting to do this alternately on narrow country roads and the terrifying Autobahn, in caravan formation, never more than five waking hours removed from a cross-eyed wine tasting.
The glaze on top of this doom doughnut was a mysterious bout of crippling insomnia that hit me about two weeks before departure, leaving me in a fragile, barely functioning state for most of the trip.
Our situation’s comedy of errors got warmed up before we even slid behind the wheels of our house cars. We were given quick tours of our vehicles by someone seemingly on their first day of work at the campervan dealer, who may have been the only person working in Baden-Württemberg tourism who couldn’t speak English.
This increasingly flustered guy mimed detailed introductions for the cooking appliances, toilet/shower, electrical systems, and quick lessons on how to patch tires and empty the black water tanks. Meanwhile, imperative campervan topics like hooking up shore power and how to shift the goddamn things into reverse were curiously omitted.
His effort was basically performance art, however, because just minutes earlier we’d learned that the dealer failed to fill any of the fresh water tanks in the campervans. Since filling the water tanks in all of the vehicles would have taken hours, and we were already behind schedule, our plans to sleep and live out of the campervans were reluctantly scrapped.
After we’d all finally been assigned vehicles, and our poor guides had finished grappling with the now urgent issue of where we were going to sleep for the next three nights as we couldn’t sleep in waterless campervans, we slowly and awkwardly lumbered off. The nine vehicles in our convoy ranged in size from a conversion van to a six-wheeled beast we simply called “The Bus.” The vehicle I was given was mid-sized.
Our merry band of unqualified noobs proceeded to cause traffic pandemonium across southern Germany for the next three days. Even nine expertly driven campervans and RVs are bound to cause trouble, but precious few vehicles in our convoy were being expertly driven. A couple Dutch guys, who wrote for a magazine dedicated to RV travel, were driving The Bus and doing it with flair. The rest of us ranged from barely competent enough to stay on the road to “what the fuck is she doing??!!”
At one point a huge truck towing a trailer that was longer than The Bus passed us, quite easily I might add. That’s how slow we were moving.
As with any group of socially challenged writers, we had a few special characters in our crew whose idiosyncrasies were magnified by the rigors and personal responsibility of piloting a campervan. Between you and me, an alarming number of travel writers are actually horrible travelers, who wouldn’t last two hours alone in the safest neighborhood in Stockholm without a local tourism representative to keep them from dying in hilarious fashion.
Two older writers from Belgium talked incessantly while our guides were, you know, trying to guide. This not only meant they never knew what was going on, because they never paid attention, but the rest of us also had a hard time hearing our guides over their babbling. When they were once politely invited to shut the fuck up, they told us to mind our own business, which was impossible because we couldn’t hear our own business.
Two motoring writers from Finland took themselves way too seriously and demonstrated this with their contempt for the rest of us parasites when we had the gall to try to take pictures or ask questions when their needs were clearly more important. Oblivious to the schedule and the other 14 other journalists with jobs to do, they staged elaborate photo and video shoots that frequently put us (even further) behind schedule.
One writer from London, who I’m pretty sure had never driven a vehicle in her life, was in the habit of leaving anywhere from 10 to 25 car-lengths between her and the vehicle in front of her. This caused chaos at every turn and roundabout, since she, and everyone behind her, had no idea which direction the out-of-sight people ahead of her had gone.
In one of these instances, when half the convoy ended up on an entrance ramp to a road going the wrong direction, I actually hopped out of my campervan and stopped oncoming traffic, like a cop in cargo shorts, while four campervans executed wide U-turns.
This ever-present giant gap also allowed several hapless vehicles that were not part of our convey to slip between her and the campervan half a click in front of her, causing our convoy to become even more strung out. When our guide, driving the lead campervan, decided we were too far apart, he’d stop and wait for everyone to pull together, trapping unsuspecting, increasingly flustered vehicles that could not pass or escape on the narrow roads.
This same writer walked like she drove, always way behind. She got so far behind at a park we visited that she got lost and our guides spent 45 minutes trying to find her. She offered no apologies when she was finally found and dragged back to the group. I’m not entirely certain she understood that she was “lost.”
Amazingly, in three days of RV travel, there was only one accident – involving my campervan. During one particularly bad interval when the convoy became so strung out that our guides had disappeared over the horizon, my cohort, who was driving, chose the worst place in five kilometers to pull over.
After several minutes of me begging him to stop so we could be found by our circling guides, my cohort decided to pull over at the exact moment we were passing a roundabout directional road sign. While a car would have easily passed under it, I realized at the last instant our campervan would not. Before I could even emit a yelp, the roof of our camper slammed into the corner of the sign, turning it 90 degrees so that it was now parallel with the road. The campervan’s roof sustained a deep gouge.
For unsuspecting Germans who weren’t inconvenienced by our presence, we were the day’s entertainment. Cars slowed to gawk in wonder. As we cruised through villages, people froze on sidewalks and yards, watching us pass like we were a parade. Sometimes they were gathered in groups, which had me wondering if people from previous villages had called ahead to warn friends and relatives to stay off the road.
Though some people slept (miserably, I’m told) in their campervans one evening at a campsite with access to bathrooms 100 meters down a pitch black path, the fact that the campervans had essentially been reduced to serving as giant cars was probably the biggest disappointment for everyone involved. Except for the original tour and once to change out of wet clothes, I spent no time in the living quarters of my campervan.
In addition to the dry water tanks rendering our campervans useless as living quarters, the final itinerary bafflingly did not include a single vineyard that hosts over-nighting campervans, never mind that this was the original hook of the press trip and these overnight parking wineries exist in great numbers in Germany.
Instead we parked at normal campervan parks and took long, expensive taxi rides to our objectives. Even if the campervans had been habitable, this inexplicably poor planning erased any hope of us selling our original RV travel pitches to editors back home. One of our guides briefly let slip that this planning own-goal was the result of too many cooks (i.e. demanding stakeholders) in the kitchen back at the office, but recovered his PR veneer before I could delve further.
By that stage, it really didn’t matter. My original story pitches were toast and I was never able to cobble together a new thematically coherent pitch with what actually occurred on the trip. In fact, this post is the first time I’ve ever written about it. My guess is emotions were high at the post-trip Baden-Württemberg tourism debrief.
There was not one among us that was sorry to alight from those campervans for the last time. The poor guides were harried from the constant problems, ranging from finding us places to sleep with running water, wayward campervans and, due to our pathetic pace, our ceaseless tardiness at events, wine tastings and meals.
Had we simply left the campervans behind and just piled into a bus, the trip would have been quite pleasant, punctual and perhaps even re-pitchable to our editors. When all of southern Germany wasn’t being inconvenienced, the itinerary was filled with disjointed, but worthwhile activities and outstanding meals that simply lacked the glue of the RV travel angle to hold it together.
We visited the super fun Erwin Hymer campervan museum (pics above), castles, parks, ancient cathedrals and of course several wineries. Perhaps the campervan nerd highlight was the accidental encounter with another RV that had a tiny garage in the back that housed a Smart Car.
Alas, many of us came home unable to write the stories we’d promised our editors. I checked several months later and only two stories (the Dutch guys and the Fins) had managed to publish stories about the trip.