Camping in Italy, for travelers on a budget

By Alexandra Hiatt and Ross Arbes
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 28, 2010; F01

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.

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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.

In Siena, the last bus ride back to the campground from the center of town was always a festive 15 minutes, packed with lively fellow campers excitedly talking about their long days and late dinners. One couple, an Australian man and a pregnant Israeli woman, were in town for a wedding and decided to extend their time in Tuscany. They rented one of the campsite's bungalows and spent their time shopping in Siena's boutiques.

We encountered young families that arrived in cars loaded with tents, coolers and stoves; older couples who had wine and hors d'oeuvres under the overhang of their motor homes before heading out for a nice dinner; and young backpackers of every nationality who stumbled into rentable bungalows after a night of exploring the city's bars and clubs.

Some of the campsites boasted prime real estate. Camping Michelangelo in Florence was right next to Piazza Michelangelo, where hordes of tourists came to photograph the city's skyline and red-domed Duomo. When you stood by your tent in Verona, you were rewarded with the best view of the city made famous by the love story of Romeo and Juliet. The campsite in Siena, amid tall cypress trees, was an authentic taste of the Tuscan countryside -- like renting a villa in the heart of Tuscany without the cost of renting a villa. Though our Minori campsite was a steep hike away from the sights, we delighted in waking up in a quiet, pungent lemon grove with yet another unbeatable view.

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Of course, the camping experience wasn't always a pleasant walk in the proverbial lemon grove. The campsite in Milan was on the edge of town. We tried to get there by bus late the first night, but an hour later we found ourselves lost on a highway leaving the city limits. After a couple of bus switches and a walk through a deserted, dingy area, we found the campsite next to the parking lot of a water park. If you ventured out of your tent in the middle of the night, you were greeted by a petting zoo let loose: Apparently sheep, chickens and goats patrolled the grounds at night. In Venice, the mosquito-filled campsite was located in an industrial part of town that didn't lend itself to the same quality of photos as the island's storied canals. And even in the nicest campsites, the cushiest mat couldn't compare to a comfortable bed, while the larger campsites got loud in the morning.

Camping takes advance planning, too: You have to do research online or in specialty books because information about campsites often isn't listed in mainstream guidebooks. The campsites are often outside the city center, so you can't easily go back for a nap or to get the sunscreen you forgot to take along when you left in the morning. You also need to know when the buses and subways run if you don't want to get stuck with an expensive, late-night cab fare. And you need to carry your valuables with you during the day, because locking your tent isn't the same as having a hotel room with a safe.

Still, camping was a great way for us to experience Italy on a budget. It provided access to expensive areas that we wouldn't have been able to visit otherwise, and it was an exciting alternative to the typical tourist track, which often was literally and figuratively miles away from our tent.

On the Amalfi coast, we were almost a mile above everyone else. Had all those tourists down below looked up, they would have seen us enjoying our home-cooked pasta dinner in front of our cozy tent, framed by lemon trees and watching the sun set gloriously over the Mediterranean.

Hiatt and Arbes, 2008 Harvard graduates, visited 22 countries from Indonesia to Morocco in 16 months. They now live in Washington but haven't lost their wanderlust.

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