#1177. Campervans, the unspoken heroes of travel photography ?

By pascaljappy | How-To

Mar 08

Italy offers a wide range of sleeping accommodation, from charming locandas, to classy hotels and luxurious palazzos. So why would anyone in their right mind choose a white tin box instead?


I’ll try to answer this from multiple points of view.


Maybe I’m just an old fart. But eating at a restaurant once is a pleasure. Eating at a restaurant twice is OK. Eating at a restaurant 3, 4 or more times in close succession becomes a real pain in the wotsit.

With a van, you can shop around for local products and have picnics, or eat indoors. Restaurants are never a necessity, only a joy when you fancy them.

Dine at home …
… or out

Nomad base camp

How often do you limit your gear choices when travelling, knowing all you haul will have to be carried on a shoulder or in a suitcase?

Not so with a van.

There are charging points everywhere, electricity at all times (particularly with a solar panel), ample storage, and a convenient work place to clean/charge/backup/edit … Few hotel rooms offer that.


The doll house experience

Small is cosy.

There’s no denying the draw of a very luxurious suite in the center of a tourist hotspot, but there’s a fuzzy feeling of homeliness that only a strong tent on a high mountain, a small cabin in the snow or a hut in a forest can provide. While not as adventurous, a van provides that sort of experience.

After only a few hours on the open road, a good van becomes home. In my experience, not one hotel room, cheap, expensive, exotic, or charming, has come close to it.

Home from home

Room with a view

Maybe it’s time to mention the list of places you’re actually allowed to sleep in.

Most cities provide dedicated parking sites. Usually somewhere between the local refinery, the dump and the motorway. Sometimes quite expensive. Often drab and offering only relative safety and legality as incentives. Let’s call them the yuck parks.

Sometimes, however, those car parks can be wonderful. As below, in the beautiful city of Volterra, Tuscany. Located right at the doors of the old town, quiet, free, safe feeling, and beautiful, it also offers …


… this view.


How many hotel rooms do?

But there are alternatives.

Such as forests. See the first photograph above, or the one below. This scene was a very short walk from our van, on a stop in France during our return from Tuscany.


Or agritourism sites (below).

Many farms are now opening up to campers. While cities often object to their presence, precisely because they don’t enjoy spending their whole life in restaurants, farms welcome their custom with open arms because of the clientele they offer.

In our trip around the Aubrac, previously described in DS, we slept in a cheese farm and bought fantastic cheese, vegetables and wine, and enjoyed a wonderful night in a safe and secluded spot.


In Italy, this practice is even more developed and widespread.

At Tenuta Crocce di Mezzo, for example, we were offered free parking with electricity, video surveillance and were able to purchase lovely Brunello wine and olive oil. The owners, campers themselves, were charming and interesting.

Staying in farms is a wonderful way of meeting interesting people and eating fantastic food. In Italy, particularly, you will often find simple food prepared with great skill. This is not to say high-cuisine isn’t part of the culture. But my favourite gastronomical experiences have always been from that simpler end of the spectrum. And farms can be great providers of that experience, if you also enjoy it.

Occasionally, you’ll end up in weird but wonderful places, such as the backyard of this garage, in Lucca.

Inside, the owners kept many luxury and vintage cars safe under cover for local residents. On the morning after our night there, I was given a tour of the ancient Alfa Romeos, Modern Porsches and Ferrari, 1957 Corvette and more (though I was asked not to photograph them). Speaking in broken Italian to another car enthusiast was a lovely moment we’d have probably missed on a more conventional tour.


Roadside opportunity

As I’ve described before, my main photographic modus operandi is to walk. A lot. Moving all the time gives me the greatest chance of encountering interesting scenes.

The same goes with driving.

During one drive from the North of Tuscany (Lucca area) to the South (towards Bunello country) the weather took on an … interesting … turn. Wind, heavy rain, sleet, snow, you name it. Driving in Italy requires focus at the easiest of times. But driving on ice, on severe slopes, in a van, with locals zooming all around us took this to new heights. However, on the other side of the storm … this :


Lighting up with my headlights, those signs just created a lovely scene. I stopped, reversed back to the signs and grabbed my phone. It would never have happened if we’d stayed in hotels in large cities.

The elevated position

In a car, hedges often obscure the most interesting sights. Not so with a higher driving position. And being higher up also provides a more natural perspective. (Note: the very low traffic on smaller roads allowed me to stop completely or drive at crawling pace to take those photographs through the windscreen).


Closing thoughts

All of this doesn’t mean vans are the ideal means of transportation for every situation.

Driving the lovely Tuscan roads in a Fiat Barchetta would undeniably be more fun. And navigating/parking inside Florence or Siena with a van would be no fun.

Vans have their place in a more rural setting, and for a certain type of treasure hunt, such as our largely wine-tasting driven tour could be described. In the next post, I’ll describe this in more detail.

All but the 2 B&W photographs on this page were made with my oldish Samsung phone. To me, this is in keeping with the vibe of van travel. Simple, nimble if not luxurious, or highest quality. There is a place for both in a photographer’s life 🙂


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  • Pascal Ravach says:

    Great pics… mmm, that purple 🙂
    Vans (the “camping cars of my youth) have gained such a traction, even outside photography, that “Van Life” is a word everybody and their mother understand in North-America… often motivated by the desire to “let go” the trinity “day job-income-apartment” etc…
    I feel intimidated to drive big stuff, so I refrained until now (plus the rental can be stupefying expensive, costing more than a traditional travel until you are 4 people in the van)… but it is damn tempting! in Canada, some national park now accommodate vans… fabulous places and unique views.

    • pascaljappy says:

      I wouldn’t want to do it full time, and many youtubers have documented the drab “behind the scenes” aspects of it. But for limited periods of time in well suited areas, I find it hard to beat. You can carry loads of gear to go hiking, making photos or videos, bring back loot from where you visited (wine, in our case) and be on location at the best hours of the day rather than having to travel 90 minutes from the hotel. Hard to beat!

  • Lad Sessions says:

    Thanks Pascal. I’ve never been to Tuscany nor “lived” in a camper van, but you have given me a vicarious glimpse of both. And with a smart phone! Interesting sun rays, and enticing views. Kudos.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Lad, the interesting sun rays require a very expensive filter called a greasy lens” 😉 😉 My bad for not cleaning the lens, but the photo is quite fun with them. Interestingly, I made the same with the ‘proper’ camera and the highlights don’t look as good. Ugh!

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Ah well – once again, pole position. Yes – caravans almost get you there – but there’s a very real danger of the tail wagging the dog under certain conditions, and if you don’t know what you’re doing, it can chuck both your vehicle and itself off the road. “Pass” on that idea.

    So – campervans. The good old VW version, with a roof that rises when the occupants want to stand indoors. Or the more luxurious versions, like the ones depicted in your images.

    Americans go much further – they have variants on “Winnebagos” – motor homes – a stately ride that might even include a “garage” under its belly, housing something like a Lamborghini or a Ferrari.

    As a small child, I used to dream of something like that – getting hold of a furniture removalist’s van that had a section of the storage space above the driver’s cabin – converting it into a mobile home like that, and my three teddy bears and I used to drive around all over the place in it – fitted with everything we needed, kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, dining & living area. We had a wonderful time!

    I have to agree with you on the subject of restaurants. A soft protest though – many (maybe not all, but certainly a very large proportion) of the restaurants I’ve found in rural Italy aren’t very much different from dining at home. Italians do have “posh” restaurants, where you might fill your stomach without feeding your body properly – but they are mostly for tourists. I remember one night returning home from Venice (actually it was from Lignano – a beach resort made famous by Ernest Hemingway, who fell in love with the place during WW2) – stopping at a trattoria perhaps similar to the one you mention, and after we’d eaten, our host flatly refused to allow us to pay for our meal until he had cross-examined us all, and we’d convinced him that yes, we really DID enjoy his cooking! You don’t get that kind of treatment in a “posh” restaurant – in Italy or any other country!

    So you save on washing the dishes, or shopping for the ingredients – but you eat just as well. The trick is, to eat the way the locals do. Or put more subtly – try to find out where they go for a feed. It won’t be to one of Gordon Ramsay’s food outlets, or one of the millions of eateries that cater for the tourist trade – the “If it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium” kind of tourists! It might even have a fixed menu – take it or leave it – but it should turn out to be good nourishing food, well prepared, leaving more time for photography.

    There was a time long after my teddy bears were passed on to my cousins when I did actually go on camping holidays. But that kind of came to an abrupt end, during a trip from one end of Australia to the other. And on the way home, we camped at the south end of the bridge over the Alligator River, just north of Rockhampton, Queensland. At the time, we were in a “Beetle”, the traditional VW passenger car, so we camped out on the railway station at the end of the bridge – good shelter, no need to erect a tent! Next morning we headed south and when we arrived at Bundaberg, several hundred miles later, there were headlines everywhere, about a murder that had been committed at the other end of that same bridge. Apparently someone else had the same idea, camped in the station at the other end of the bridge, and someone murdered him during the night. A fifty/fifty, toss of the coin chance – we won, he lost out, the poor guy. It kind of put me off camping. I’ve never really had the heart for it, ever since.

    Pass on your confession of ignoring the Hassy and flooding the world with even more cellphone images. I’m currently seeing just how creative it’s possible to get with Nikon’s retro Z fc, so I’m quite the wrong audience for that.

    I do love the photos though. The love of my younger days came from further north, but I do appreciate the scenery right through Italy, and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing these pictures. I’ve had heaps of fun driving similar roads – actually further north, a lot of them are (they were, anyway) a lot narrower, and you only had a few centimetres margin on the left side of a normal car, to miss the oncoming traffic, while the right side felt the roadside vegetation swishing against it. Where you were driving, there’s another peril – OK while you’re on the bitumen, but those roads all have a drainage ditch alongside them, and there’s no margin for error if you drift off to one side – you’d be upside down in a snap!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Pete,

      We didn’t see any large campervans on those tiny roads. They might be at home on interstate highways but the driver would get very sweaty palms in Tuscany 😉

      You’re right about restaurant experiences. After chasing down a quite a few 3 macaroons Michelin restaurants and only enjoying a couple, I’m now *a lot* happier in a place made for actual human beings who like actual food. I (un)fondly remember a checkerboard made of white and dark tuna, frozen then laser cut to be perfectly adjusted, that was visually impressive but didn’t look or smell or taste like food. No more of that for me …

      Wow, that’s a tragic story. We’ve rarely stayed in places that made me feel uncomfortable, but it has happened once or twice. Today, I would just drive on to a campsite or to the countryside. It’s very rare that anyone comes to harm in a forest, for example.

      Ah smartphones, your pet peeve 😉 When we travel, I make camera pics for DS and personal use. And phone pics to share and to store in the cloud as easy memories. Google does an excellent job of reminding us regularly where we were x years ago, creating montages, and other fun stuff like that. I just used the phone pics here because that felt more in keeping with the van vibe 🙂

      The roads are scary and fantastic throughout Italy. The area around Turin and Alba, which I hope to revisit later this year, is no exception. And the roads around the lakes are particularly narrow and bendy. Lots of fun everywhere 😉

  • Frank Field says:

    The “Camera Car” is in the finest traditions of landscape photography. Ansel Adams seems to have been a pioneer with his wood-sided station wagon and large deck atop the vehicle — large enough for his 8×10 camera and tripod. You never see foreground distractions in Ansel’s images — just middle and far ground. Nothing beats the ability to be in the landscape for both evening and morning golden hours.

    The camper van is also a very good way to tour thinly populated areas such as Alaska. The distances between lodges are large, the dining choices limited to the great American “greasy spoon” restaurant, and the places to camp almost unlimited. There is a thriving camper van rental industry in Anchorage, near the airport. Skip the rental car desk and pick-up your transportation, lodging and dining in one stop then get out and see “The Great Land” with your camera.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Frank, the idea of touring Alaska in a van is very exciting. I would love that.

      Sally Mann is another large format photographer using a large station wagon to sleep and as a lab for processing her plates. There’s a sense of focused purpose in a small mobile accommodation that’s not equalled by hotels or any other lodging that forces you our of the perfect spot.

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Shades of my ancestors! I had a couple of pioneer photographers climbing around in the family tree – great-great-uncles, but on different sides of the family. And the one on dad’s side built a darkroom onto the side of the house. As well as commandeering one of the horses, and a cart, and ranging all over the place, taking wet plate glass negatives in a wooden field camera. Rigging up a tent, to make the glass plates and then process them, before the return to base. Not quite a Winnebago or a campervan, but the 19th century equivalent I guess, for a photographer out in the field. Must have had a tent to sleep in, I suppose.
        Dearer to your heart, Pascal, my gardener – Paul – has a brother who, with wife and kids, is roaming around Australia in something like a “Kombi”, I’m not sure what. Fitted with solar, a small refrigerator, no microwave, gas. Very little external power required (except fuel for the van). Picking up enough casual work along the way, to cover their cash flow needs. They’ve been all over the place in the northern half of the state, and before that, the Northern Territory & Queensland. Right now they’ve passed Perth, and currently heading on from Margaret River to Pemberton & Augusta, then across through Denmark & Albany to Esperance, and crossing the Nullarbor to head into South Australia. I don’t know what they’re doing about schooling for the children! – but for the adults, it would be fun.
        Imagine the equivalent lifestyle in Europe! – a bit cooler in winter, perhaps – but in a similar area, so many different countries, so much to see and do! And fill the cloud storage with pictures of it all.

        • pascaljappy says:

          Pete, your gardener’s brother’s trip is indeed something that would appeal to me. On our last visit (2016, long time ago now) we rented a very old Hiace Van (485 000 on the odomoter, let’s hope it wasn’t miles). We were instructed to refill the oil levels every 500km. After our first 500km, I tried to … find the engine. Imagine how puzzling it is to look everywhere for a car engine 😉 😉 😉 Eventually, I looked under my seat and there it was. The old bugger never missed a beat. Above the driver and passenger seats, there were carpeted wood planks that we used as a bed, to keep all the rear of the van free of bedding clutter. We toured the South-West of WA for 10 days, from Pemberton to the Goldfields and everything in between. Pure bliss. I fell in love with that van.

  • Dan says:

    Very inspiring posting! We did a 2 week RV trop in the Canadian Rockies last summer – and it was fantastic. Yes, there is more freedom and convenience than with the hotel/car combination. The fact that you have all your belongings with you all the times is very liberating. Even though in Italy I would be more stressed due to the professional car burglars operating there. 😀

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you, Dan. In Italy, (or France, for that matter) I wouldn’t take an RV in town. It wouldn’t feel very safe and parking would rarely be in nice places. In the country side, crime drops considerably and my guess is it’s very safe. The Italians are very fond of campervans as a rule and provide a lot of very sheltered accommodation in farms and forests. Cheers.

  • Pascal O. says:

    Pascal, I have always dreamt of renting an Airstream and visit the western American parks. Your post definitely rekindled that idea now that we can travel again.
    Congratulations as usual on your pics. Stunning, even though I keep repeating myself.
    Quick questions, you say all but two of your pictures were taken with your phone. Did you do any post on these pics or are they soop?
    I did notice a camera body on one of the pics, though…
    Second question, do you need a specific licence to drive (and thus rent) your van or does a regular car one suffice?
    Thanks again!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Pascal, yes, the two b&w pics come from my main camera, the rest is from the near-ancient Galaxy S9 with greasy-lens filter 😉

      No PP on the phone images, except for straightening the horizon. I’ve no idea why but my photos are never straight. Oh the wasted pixels …
      The campervans based on delivery vans and the smaller RVs (camping car in French) with the plastic cells all weigh under 3500kg, so they can all be driven with the normal licence, in France. My guess is it’s the same for you. The longer models over 7 meters tend to be heavier. They are also very cumbersome on small twisty roads, I’d never advise one of those, except for (easily accessible) campsite living. When you see the huge RVs in the US, you’ve got to admire the driver !!!

      Hope this helps. Thank you for the kind words.

  • PaulB says:


    These images show that you had quite the adventure.

    We are not quite ready to trade traveling by car for a van or RV yet.

    Though when returning from Arizona last spring we met a woman in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, who was driving a small RV about the size shown above that demonstrated one of the advantages. She was parked at one smaller pull outs along the road in the park adjacent to a very scenic viewpoint. She had been there all day and she was waiting for sunset; she was also a photographer. While talking with her it became apparent she had a good travel/photo rig. While she waited for the day to progress, she had everything she needed; a comfortable place to sit, a place to eat, entertainment, and her private comfort station. She was where she wanted to be and had no need to move until it fit her schedule.


    • pascaljappy says:

      Indeed, Paul. Being where you need to be with all the necessary comfort and utility is the main attraction of a van. It completely changes how you can photograph a rural area. Cheers

  • PaulB says:


    Here is a link for those of you thinking of going “BIG” in terms an RV or your photography.


    I stumbled into his story on Instagram.


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