Camping in Italy, for travelers on a budget

By Alexandra Hiatt and Ross Arbes
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 28, 2010

By the time we'd reached the top of the mountain and pitched our tent beneath the lemon trees, the sun had begun its descent over the Mediterranean. From our cliff-top vantage point, the Amalfi coast gleamed like a movie set: rolling green hills that dropped into steep cliffs, pastel-colored towns with bougainvillea-covered houses and the endless blue of the sea interrupted only by Homer's Siren Islands.

We'd arrived in Minori, a small town two hours from Naples, after a windy, hour-long bus ride along the coast. Although we had directions, our initial search for our campsite, L'Agriturismo Il Campanile, was unsuccessful, and we asked a police officer for help. He looked at our heavy backpacks. "It's up the mountain," he said. "Don't you have a car?"

When we shook our heads, he gave us a knowing look and pointed us toward the start of our climb. Forty minutes and hundreds of steps later, wheezing and covered in sweat, we'd reached our lemon grove at the top of the mountain.

It was our seventh night of camping in Italy, on the final, European leg of a 16-month journey we'd begun immediately after graduating from college. We'd already traveled through Southeast Asia, Australia, China, India and the Middle East, living on a modest budget put together from past summer jobs and the teaching and writing gigs we'd picked up along the way.

Two months earlier, as we planned our European sojourn, we'd worried that a sizable stint on the continent -- and particularly in Italy -- would break the bank. So when a bleary-eyed Brit who'd spent three nights saving money by sleeping on the roof of our hostel in Syria talked about camping in Italy as a cheaper alternative, we'd listened.

Henry, a 20-something student from London, was a well-seasoned traveler in Europe, and it seemed impossible to mention a place he hadn't been to. As he cracked open beers from a 24-pack that he'd been rationing since arriving in Syria from less conservative Turkey, he recounted various adventures he'd had road-tripping through Italy. One night, he said, he'd slept on a train station floor next to an Italian girl he'd just met at a bar; another night, he'd crashed in a stranger's back yard. His eyes were red and his stories were wild, but his take-away message was clear: For the budget traveler, the tent was more comfortable than the train station floor.

Next thing you know, we were at an outdoor equipment store in Istanbul, a couple of weeks away from Italy, examining the selection of tents. We'd entered a world we knew virtually nothing about: Should we buy a waterproof cover for our tent? Sleeping bags? Camping mats? A ground tarp? Not yet convinced that we would actually do this camping thing, we were reluctant to spend a lot. In the end, we came away with a generic $50 waterproof two-person tent and a tiny electric lantern. Later, we gave in and bought two $3 yoga mats after realizing that a bed of clothes was not a good substitute for padding.

* * *

Those purchases turned out to be great investments. We camped for 19 of 21 nights in Italy: in Venice, Verona, Minori, Rome, Florence, Siena and Milan. And, as advertised, camping saved us money. During high season (roughly May through September) in Venice, Rome and Florence, one person would be hard-pressed to find a dorm bed for less than 25 euros (about $33). At a campsite during the same period, two people with a tent pay approximately 20 euros (about $27). Even when you add some of the extra costs associated with camping, such as transportation to and from the campsite, we ultimately saved about $20 each per day; together, we saved about $760 over our 19 nights of camping. And that buys a lot of gelato.

Though saving money was our original goal, it didn't take us long to start appreciating the campsite culture and community we'd unintentionally joined. Our travels became a little schizophrenic: During the day, we'd explore Italian history, art and culture, and in the evening, we'd immerse ourselves in outdoor dinners, group laundry sessions and showers among company in the communal facilities.

To navigate some of the over-the-top "luxury" campsites, we had to study the facility's map as carefully as we would the site plan of the Vatican or the Roman Forum. The map legend for Plus Camping Roma, for example, highlighted amenities that would seem more at home in a hotel: a grocery store, a swimming pool, a bar and night club, laundry facilities, free Internet and shuttle buses straight to St. Peter's Square. In the afternoon, the P.A. system would blare the name of the movie you could watch later by the pool as well as the bar's happy hour drink special. Or you could plug in at the area offering free WiFi and write that e-mail you owed your parents while eavesdropping on the New Zealand couple Skyping with friends from home about plans for their upcoming wedding. In the morning, as we wove our way through the campsite to the exit, passing enormous tents with several rooms and high-tech accessories, we'd experience twinges of serious tent envy, something we hadn't even known existed.

In the smaller, more intimate venues where we really got to know our neighbors, we were always amazed at the diversity of the campers. In Minori, our campmates were a Sardinian man and an Australian woman who had been traveling around Italy for four months. The two spent days at a time simply enjoying the campsite, reading and appreciating the view. At night, the Sardinian, a trained Italian chef, taught us how to prepare authentic Italian pasta on the outdoor stove.

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