Camper Thrills

Driving this camper van can be a pain in the arse.  I don’t think it would be nearly as bad in the U.S. – especially outside of the East Coast. Most roads in the U.S. have ample shoulders on the roads and significant height clearances. While this camper isn’t huge, it feels big on these roads and even more so on the village/city streets. It’s almost 11 feet tall and 9 feet wide. It can’t and shouldn’t be driven down many streets or roads in Europe.

The sadistic software folks at Google Maps – who just so happened to miss out on getting hired as gaming programmers – have somehow figured out how to make camper driving in Europe into a progressively more challenging gaming-like experience. Sarah, as co-pilot of this dirigible, plugs in our destination toward or out of a city onto the next and Google Maps somehow forces us down a street with clearances of only a foot on each side of our marshmallow on wheels. We undoubtedly get to an intersection or a “y” in the road with one option clearly much wider and camper-friendly heading in the direction we need, but our friends at Google Maps turn us toward the much tighter corridor. The clearances get progressively smaller each subsequent turn until the clearances are down to metric equivalents of centimeters, and we are bringing in the mirrors and letting air out of the tires to make it through obstacles. Inevitably, the “computer” always wins as we turn down a street that is impassible, forcing me to then make some jedi-like reverse three-point-turn back the way we came so that Google Maps can force the painful contortions all over again.

The first night we picked up the camper van, I looked through the library of vehicle and camper manuals that were included in the vehicle. The manual on the vehicle (the Fiat under the camper portion of the vehicle) was in German, so I only gave it a quick once over. I did note the vehicle had cruise control and a feature called a speed delimiter. I didn’t think much about it at the time as I figured I wouldn’t be using the cruise control function much over our travels. These key words are apparently more universal in language and were called out in the manual, but all supporting info was in German. Given it’s a manual six-speed, numerous round-abouts (even on highways), hundreds of small villages, and the need to always be changing speeds, I’ve not yet had the need or opportunity to use the cruise control on this trip. Heck, I’ve been passed by more vehicles on roads over the last month driving this camper than I have in my entire life of driving. Essentially, I looked at the manual in German that first night and didn’t think about it again.

One of our long drives was the day we travelled from Budapest to Prague. But, we had planned to break it up and check out some small towns on the way with the loose plan of staying at a camper site somewhere outside of Prague.

I’ve finally learned after circling tight city streets for significant chunks of time looking for suitable parking spots that many wider vehicles here just pull onto the curbs/sidewalks and call it a day. Many larger vehicles can be seen tilting as two wheels are on the road and the other two are sitting eight inches up on some sidewalk.

I must confess that I’ve “lost it” a few times while driving here….especially after a long day of driving through “obstacles.” As we didn’t find easy parking after our first drive through this small village in the Czech Republic, I opted for one of these tilted parking spot approaches. I didn’t get my first approach right and ultimately needed to try to parallel park the Marshmallow on a Fiat frame. As I backed in, I caught a tree branch on a corner piece of the camper’s plastic decorative trim and broke it. In my defense, I didn’t hit it hard, but enough that a branch caught and snapped the corner plastic piece, ripping it away from another panel, snapping a second panel in the process. I was pissed.

It looked like despite the cracks and broken pieces, it would still be drive-worthy and we toured the town. I sulked for a few hours for my bonehead parking move. Fast forward to the next day, the plastic piece eventually pulled away while driving and damaged another plastic trim piece. Max and I jury-rigged the mess, stored the broken panels in one of the compartments below and informed the rental company of my stupid mess. We’re going to try to make the Italian factory where these marshmallows are made one of our stops over the next month. Should be a fun way to spend the day.

Back to our trip through the Czech Republic……we couldn’t find a place to camp outside of Prague (same day as my busting up the camper) and made the decision to drive into the city to some sites we had identified for the next leg of the trip. It had gotten dark and we didn’t have complete Google Maps downloaded on our devices, which left us with a vague idea where the camper site was located. It was frustrating, but we were able to keep it together making multiple turns trying to triangulate on our location – back and forth over bridges, getting off/on highways, u-turns, etc. I was able to stay light on the situation until….we lost ALL engine power in 5th gear, then in 4th gear, then in 3rd gear. I was stuck going up a highway and only felt like I had partial engine power in 2nd and 1st gears. Some camper alarms was began beeping at 100 decibels non-stop and other vehicles were coming up at us from behind at warp speed.  “Capitan, we’re giving her all we got”, but we’re seemingly unable to make it up this hill with no shoulder. My mind is racing…..trying to analyze what is happening….I have rpms in the low gears, but not in high…..the engine isn’t over-heating….checked the oil in the a.m. before we drove….etc. Earlier in the trip we had been experiencing some weird, phantom radio issues and power issues….did it have something to do a faulty electronics?  We were able to limp to a turn off, then coasted down a hill to a parking lot near a building that served as an event center. There was some sort of a Czech cultural dance dinner show going on. Our phones weren’t working, but needed to find a phone to put in calls to the roadside assistance phone numbers we were given at the rental location.

We found two extremely nice people who were working late out of a space they sublet from the event center and started making calls.  I followed the call prompts to the English option and was connected to someone in Britain only to find out they couldn’t help us because we rented the vehicle in German. After 30 minutes of calling every number we had, we decided we’d have to deal with it in the morning.

We stayed the night in the parking lot and woke the next morning to try to drive it to a Fiat dealer in Prague. Oddly, the vehicle seemed to be driving fine again. I had spent the night mostly sleepless running what I little I know about vehicles in my head. I had also looked through all of those manuals again the night before. While I couldn’t read the German manual, a questioning seed was planted in my mind about whether it had something to do with that speed delimiter. That was my “Hail Mary” guess, but I still thought there was an electrical issue with the vehicle. A service guy confirmed my darn guess.

I had inadvertently pushed the speed limiter set button, which is located at the end of one of the 4 stick appendages, which also happens to be the turn signal stick. I hadn’t touched that button in the 3 weeks previously driving, but somehow hit it the night before, which limited our top speed to 35 kilometers an hour (20 mph)! A “governor” of sorts – we used to adjust them on golf carts when I worked at a golf course as a kid so that we could fly along at ridiculous speeds. WTF. Why would someone install a speed delimiter in a vehicle that is so aerodynamically inefficient it’s virtually impossible to speed in while driving? One would think that the speed would just be capped, but the symptoms of this function is that the engine just won’t work. Since turning it off, we haven’t had any issues. Another bonehead move on my part, but suppose there are several lessons that were learned.

While the big break on the vehicle was my fault, the panels that broke are constructed of cheap, thin vinyl.  The interior is made of ikea-like particle board materials, knobs have broken, seat buttons have popped, and scratches are inevitable on this thing.  I’m sure the damages will amount to a figure that will force us to decide if we’re just better off buying it when we return it to the rental company!


8 thoughts on “Camper Thrills

  1. Hey Jeff, I’ve been enjoying your families posts as you go through your journey. Thanks for sharing these with us, they’ve been fun to read and see all the great places that you have visited! Enjoy the rest of your journey…


  2. We have such a story,too. We bought an RV in England and ran into a store awning in a village in Germany. It cost us plenty. We also have a story about a tight squeeze down a side street that took us to the front entrance to a cathedral in Basil, SW. Pedestrians walked us out and we left the alley after a hard talk with police officer who fell victim to our small children who played notable act of poor me. Perhaps Max is a few years too old but he might try appropriate facial grimaces. Love this story you are weaving!


  3. Jeff: Susanna and I can only commiserate with you. Ireland was almost as bad, I only lost a mirror while whining along a tooo narrow road, and that wasn’t even in a marshmallow on a Fiat body. Happy (unknown) birthday to Sarah tomorrow. But keep up the comments. Obviously almost anyone who has traveled abroad can Identify. Denis


  4. My o My. May sometime in the not-so-distant future you feel a massive, amazing sense of accomplishment for learning all of the nuances of marshmallow on wheels travel. Here is to easy-street in Asia and more gorgeous scenery in Europe. Thanks for sharing!


  5. Jeff, your entries are so enjoyable. Having spent a little time in in Italy I would suggest staying on the main highways or just get out and walk. City centers are the worst. When traveling like you are you just have to roll with the punches. From the pics it looks like you are in some beautiful places. Life is an adventure.


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