Campervan and SUP roadtrip
Switzerland and France
A camping holiday characterized by water: A campervan and SUP roadtrip to Switzerland and France with roadsurfer’s VW Bulli. Thomas Pfannkuch was guided on his journey by the rivers and lakes along the route as well as by the azure blue sea of the Côte d’Azur. As a stand-up paddling blogger, the next water spot is never far away from him.
Author: Thomas Pfannkuch
Lucerne: Picturesque little town on Lake Lucerne as an interim goal
I start my roadtrip from Munich to Switzerland with a campervan and an SUP. Passing Lake Constance and Zurich with my VW California Ocean Camper, I make a first short stopover in Lucerne. Luckily, I find a huge underground car park with a suitable entrance height near the city center and directly at the train station (“Bahnhofparking 1+2”).
The “Chapel Bridge” and the “Water Tower”, two of the world-famous landmarks of Lucerne – even of Switzerland – are only a few meters away from the station. The Chapel Bridge was built in the first half of the 14th century and is the oldest wooden bridge in Europe. It bridges the Reuss next to the 35-metre-high water tower. When you walk across the bridge, you immediately notice the picture panels on the ceiling that show scenes from the history of Lucerne and Switzerland.
The “Dying lion of Lucerne”
High above the city center is another highlight of Lucerne: the “Museggmauer”. Wth its new towers, it belongs to the old city fortifications. The “Zytturm” offers a free exhibition of the historical tower clocks. After a short walk over the wall, we discover the “Dying Lion of Lucerne”, an oversized lion carved into the rock. It was created in memory of the heroic death of the Swiss who died in Tuileries in 1792. Even Mark Twain was impressed by the lion and described it as “the saddest and most moving piece of stone in the world”. From there, it is not far to the lakeside promenade of Lake Lucerne with its seaside resort, nice cafés, bars and boat moorings.
The – little-known – roof terrace of the Manor department store offers an outstanding view over the roofs of Lucerne as well as the surrounding countryside. I take a short break and treat myself a crunchy fresh Caesar Salad and a cool Rivella – Perfect at temperatures of around 30 degrees.
Campervan and SUP roadtrip: Along beautiful lakes
After an entertaining visit to Lucerne, I drive in the direction of Geneva – but not directly. I want to have a look at some beautiful mountain lakes along the way. That’s why I first drive along Lake Lucerne and then turn onto the freeway number 8. It goes past the Sarnersee and on to the Lungerersee. From the viewpoint “Chälrütirank” at the pass road behind Lungern, I enjoy a fantastic view through the valley and of the turquoise blue lake.
On the other side of the pass are Lake Brienz as well as the famous Lake Thun with the towns of Thun, Interlaken and Spiez. Before the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland, the German national football team developed the famous “Spirit of Spiez”. I continue on the motorway number 6 via Bern, and then I take the motorway number 1 past Lake Neuchâtel (French: Lac de Neuch’tel). Finally, I arrive at the first destination: Lake Geneva. It is the second largest lake in Central Europe with an area of 580 square kilometers.
Up on the SUP and paddle off
I set up my “camp” for the next days on the campsite “TCS Camping Genève – Vésenaz”, which is only a few kilometers away from the center of Geneva, directly on the south shore. I booked a standard cell in advance. But I am a really lucky today: My place is just a few meters away from the lake shore – a dream for every paddler. After connecting the external power supply to the VW California, I inflate my Starboard Allround SUP Board and paddle off.
Geneva's landmark: The water fountain
Unfortunately, the wind is blowing up quickly over the lake. That’s why I interrupt my tour meaning that I cannot reach my actual destination: The famous Geneva water fountain. Therefore, I take the bus to the city the next day. The public transport ticket is free for the duration of the camping. That means you can leave your roadsurfer on the campsite and are still mobile.
The first stop of the sightseeing tour is the water fountain – the landmark of the city. The “Jet d’eau” was built first as a pressure relief valve for a pressurized water pipe that powered the machines of the Geneva jewelers. Today it is “only” a tourist attraction. The pumping station ejects 500 liters of water per second at a speed of 200 km/h! With this power, the fountain reaches a height of 140 meters.
Only a few kilometers to France
After all, the fountain isn’t Geneva’s only attraction: Europe’s “smallest city of the big metropolises” impresses with its small, winding old town lanes, with their elegant boutiques and – how else could it be – a lot of jewelers, where you can buy the most beautiful and expensive watches in the world. St. Peter’s Cathedral, a little higher up, dominates the old town. All around, you will find some nice cafés or restaurants. Geneva is only a few kilometers from the French border why the cuisine is often characterized by the culinary arts of the neighboring country. All in all, it’s very sophisticated and delicious.
The UN Headquarters in Geneva
As the “capital of watches”, Geneva is not only home to the art of watchmaking but also to an important political organization: the United Nations. In addition to New York, the “United Nations” has its second headquarters in Geneva. Today, the spacious site has over 2,800 offices and 30 conference rooms. The central building is the mighty Palais of Nations. It was built in the 1930s and was the headquarters of the League of Nations until 1946. The historic symbol of the League of Nations can still be found on the door handles. The League of Nations’ efforts to pacify the world were powerless in the face of the Second World War.
A visit to the UN headquarters in Geneva is definitely worthwhile. The guided tours will inform you about the history of the League of Nations, the UN and the buildings. You’ll see historic and modern conference halls and some curious gifts presented to the UN by international leaders. The tours take place from Monday to Saturday at 10 am, 12 am, 2 pm and 4 pm. A prior registration is not required.
Mont Blanc - High up in Chamonix
About an hour drive from Geneva, located in the border region of France and Italy, you will find the 4,180 meters high Mont Blanc. As the highest mountain in the Alps, this is the alpine highlight of my roadtrip.
Chamonix, a mountain village with a long history of winter sports, is the starting point for the trip up to Europe’s highest point. But first I dive into the small place, which is marked by fashion and shops for all alpine sports. Chamonix attracts tourists both in summer and winter.
Close to Mont Blanc
The closest place to the Mont Blanc – without unpacking your mountaineering equipment – is the Aiguille du Midi, which is 3,842 meters above the sea level. From Chamonix, the cable car takes you up to the top within 20 minutes. For the ascent, it is advisable to buy a ticket online in advance, so you can choose the time as well as your “gondola number” and don’t have to wait on the spot. When buying a ticket on site, you may have to wait for hours. Less traffic at the tickets offices can be expected early in the morning or later in the afternoon.
Thrills at the glass box
The air’s getting thinner and climbing up the stairs is getting more and more difficult. I arrived at the top, an extraordinary place with a fascinating panorama – Except the clouds hang the Mont Blanc with its massif. Gangways are cut through the rock and an elevator in the middle of the rock leads to the summit house with a unique viewing platform. If you are looking for a thrill, you can stand in a glass box. Below it is 1,000 meters deep. Elsewhere you can make direct contact with snow and ice.
Turquoise blue water at the Lac de Serre-Ponçon
I leave the campsite in Geneva and continue south on the Route Napoleón, past the Lac d’Annecy. My next destination is Gap. Since I didn’t find a (nice) campsite there, I go to the hotel for two nights which is sometimes pleasant, too. Especially when it rains heavily, like on my arrival. But luckily, the sky is bright blue again on the next day. Only half an hour away from Gap is another wonderful lake with the Lac de Serre-Ponçon. With a height of 123 m and a width of 650 m, the dam at the southwestern end is the largest dam in Europe. It dams the upper course of the river Durance. Behind is the second largest reservoir in Europe on an area of 30 square kilometers. Turquoise blue and wonderfully embedded in nature. A water sports area of the finest. Shortly after the Museum of the history of the Reservoir, I turn right, and a few hundred meters further on I park the Bulli on a gravel parking lot. I make breakfast on a park bench directly at the shore under shady trees and enjoy a wonderful view of the lake. It couldn’t be any better.
Paddling a round
The recreational area by the lake is particularly popular with locals. They bring their picnic, enjoy the cool water, doing wakeboard or waterski or rent a stand up paddling board from Jerome. For some years, he is operating an SUP station with “Serre-Ponçon Aloha” offering rentals as well as courses and tours both on the reservoir and in the white water.
I get my own SUP board out of the trunk, pump it up and start a big round on the lake. It is a dream to paddle under the rugged mountain peaks, on the azure blue water and to experience the impressive nature. However, the wind and the weather should always be taken into account. Especially in the north is often a strong wind, which makes it a top area for kite- and windsurfers.
Spectacular and worth seeing: the Verdon Gorge
At some point, even the most beautiful day at the sea comes to an end. After a second night in Gap, we continue south. Before I reach my destination – the Côte d’Azur – I stop at a very special highlight: the Verdon gorge. The river Verdon flows through the about 21 km long and up to 700 meters deep canyon before it flows into the Lac de Sainte-Croix. The lake is the perfect starting point to explore the gorge with my Stand Up Paddling Board. But I am not the only one here. Hundreds of rubber dinghies and canoes besiege the gorge. Therefore, in midsummer it is worth coming very early or late in the evening since it is somewhat emptier.
I paddle far into the canyon where it gets calmer. I enjoy the breathtaking view along the rocks high into the sky. The landscape fascinates me. Very impressive. A short stop at the Verdon gorge is definitely worth it. If you don’t want to get on the water, you have an excellent view from the bridge of road 957 directly into the gorge – and onto the lake. I stow the board again in the spacious boot of the VW California Ocean. Then it’s another hour to the final destination of my roadtrip.
Bonjour Côte d’Azur
Summer. Sun. Beach bars. Luxury yachts and cars. Walking with flip-flops in the sand. Wearing fashionable sunglasses. Fleet and airy summer clothes. One could describe the most fashionable coastal region in Europe like this. The Côte d’Azur is all over an exciting place. Beautiful beaches, fascinating places and grandiose restaurants.
My base for the next days’ explorations: camping Leï Suves, which is about 10 kilometers north-west of Fréjus. The 4-star campsite offers spacious and shady pitches, a large swimming area, a small but well-stocked supermarket and a restaurant with a garden terrace.
Parking with the van? In the city center, please!
I don’t want to stay long on the campsite. I want to explore the Côte d’Azur! My first destination is the Gulf of Saint-Tropez. The big bay has countless luxury yachts and pompous sailing boats. Here, one boat is bigger and more beautiful than the other. Sainte-Maxime and Saint-Tropez offer small but exquisite harbors, where you can park the Bulli close to central parking lots. In Saint-Tropez, it is worth strolling through the narrow side streets with old houses and beautiful shops. Something special, but worth seeing is the cemetery with graves of famous personalities as well as the citadel a little above. On my way back, I make a stop in Sainte-Maxime in order to explore the center directly at the harbor and have dinner in one of the numerous restaurants.
Walking along the Formula 1 circuit of Monaco once…
…has always been my big dream. So let’s go to Monte Carlo! The principality is known for its tunnels, narrow streets and partly unclear roundabouts and intersections. The underground car park “La Digue” (maximum entrance height 2.5 meters) directly in the wide, outer dam of the famous port is perfectly suited for the VW Bulli as you don’t have to worry about the entry height – the VW California Coast is only 2 meters high.
Before I walk to the race track, I first pass the Fürstenfelsen to the palace, the cathedral Notre-Dame-Immaculée and the Oceanographic Museum. Although it is Sunday, the place in front of the palace is only sparsely visited. From high above, I can enjoy a view down to the harbor with its magnificent boats, the roof terraces and the fascinating panorama.
A grandiose view of the azure blue sea
Now down to the 3.4-kilometre race track, which passes many highlights of Monaco. For example, the Hotel de Paris. And directly opposite is the Casino of Monte-Carlo. We continue to the so-called Loews curve, the tightest curve in the Formula 1 calendar. Right next to it is the most beautiful Starbucks branch I’ve seen so far: On the roof terrace of the building complex “Ni Box”, you can enjoy a magnificent view of the azure blue Mediterranean Sea next to enjoying a delicious coffee specialties. A break here makes dreams come true.
We continue through the tunnel to the harbor passage, past the yachts straight to the swimming pool. Last stop on the race track: The famous bar “La Rascasse”. But before sitting in the Bulli again, I want to go swimming in the sea – directly at the harbor. Where? At the big harbor dam, where my camper stands two floors below! On the outside of the dam is a small terrace bath with free showers and ladders leading directly into the water. Nevertheless, I prefer a courageous jump into the cool water. With an outside temperature of 32 degrees, this is really good!
Enjoying the Côte d'Azur to the fullest
Get in and drive off. Via the curvy coastal road, we slowly drive back to Frjéus. But no doubt, stopovers in Nice and Cannes are a must. In Cannes, I can recommend the big parking lot west of the harbor close to the festival and congress center as well as to the famous boulevard Croisette with the Carlton-Hotel and noble shops. At the beach, countless bars invite you to have a drink – but admittedly, they are not quite cheap. For dinner, I decide on a restaurant right at the harbor: La Pizza Cresci. Since 1960, tasty pizzas, delicious pasta and freshly caught fish have been served here with a fantastic view of the hustle and bustle.The pizzas in the traditional restaurant have an enormous diameter why they only serve one half at a time. I choose the Pizza Reine with ham and mushrooms. After finishing this, you will definitely not be hungry anymore.
Roadtrip with Campervan and SUP: One last time Stand Up Paddling
My last day on the Côte d’Azur is all about relaxing. Fréjus isn’t far away from the campsite why I make a short side trip to the old town and a traditional sight: the cathedral Saint-Léonce. Afterwards, it goes directly to the sandy beach between the harbor of Fréjus and Saint Raphael. I enjoy the sun. The water. The sound of the small waves when they hit the shore. My roadtrip with the campervan and the SUP comes to an end – for the last time, I pump up my Stand Up Paddling Board and make a fast round on the Mediterranean Sea.
Milan and Lugano – a stopover for shopping and food
Pack everything. Munich is calling. Not quite. I don’t want to drive the 900 kilometers back to Munich in one piece. That’s why, I say goodbye to the Côte d’Azur early in the morning and start my way back home with the van. I drive on the motorway along the coast over countless bridges and through numerous tunnels. Before Genoa, I turn left towards the first destination of this day: Milan – the “capital of fashion”. I park the VW California on the spacious P+R space at the subway station Lampugnano in the northwest of Milan. It takes approx. 20 minutes to the Milan Cathedral and to the shopping paradise of the city center.
Delicious food and wine
After I’ve bought a few beautiful accessories, I drive another hour further north to Lake Lugano. For a short time, I get a place on the camping site “TCS Camping Lugano” directly at the lake – even with a view to the lake. As already in Geneva, the train ticket is included in the rental costs. And so, of course, I don’t miss the opportunity to travel from the train station, which is a good 10 minutes’ walk away, to the city center. The short train ride is an experience as the train has a historical character. It swings. It is loud. And the wooden seats are not very comfortable. The funicular takes you from Lugano station directly to the city center with its nice alleys and great restaurants. I recommend one of the restaurants directly at the town hall square. Enjoying delicious food and wine. A perfect end to the roadtrip! In the next morning, I drive via the San Bernadino Pass and past Chur and Bregenz directly to Munich.