European Vandweller

My name is Jan, my wife is Elvira. We’re Dutch but we live and work in Spain. We run a non-profit organisation called Amata (look at www.amata.es– it’s also in English). Amata organises small craft fairs and medieval markets throughout Spain. We own a high top standard length Ford Transit with a 100 hp diesel motor which we use for:

  • travelling to and visiting potential sponsors
  • transporting goods to be used for setting up a medieval market
  • sleeping and cooking over the weekend of the market
  • longer holidays spent in other parts of Europe

Based on our previous experience (we have lived five years in other vans when we first started travelling) we opted for what we called a Q-ship (from the Wikipaedia article “A Q-ship would appear to be an easy target, but in fact carried hidden armaments”) but is now apparently called a stealth camper. No windows, no grilles, no bits and pieces tacked on the outside, no pretty pictures or sign writing. Just a plain van that we can park anywhere, stay for the night and carry on without exciting comment or getting attention from either cops or robbers (photo 1). This particular model is fairly standard in Spain and western Europe. There is room enough inside to stand, which is fairly important if you want to spend longer than the odd weekend in the camper. Inside, from the driver’s seat to the rear door we have a clear length of 2,90 m (9′ 6″).

Obviously we don’t have to pay overnight charges for camping in a designated camp site – and these can be pretty steep in Spain, though they are much less in many other countries in Europe. We don’t attract the attention of police wanting to check papers or thieves wanting to empty one of those pretty plastic motorhomes. Some countries will not allow you to spend the night outside a proper camping, others are fairly relaxed if you keep out of nature reserves or away from the sea. Often police and forest rangers will tell us that we cannot stay where we are, but will recommend a really good spot elsewhere – they know the area.

Our usual technique is to cook a warm meal in the middle of the day. At night we drive along a country road till we spot a wooded area and watch out for side roads that take us into the woods. We drive a little further on along the road till we can safely turn round, wait till there is no traffic in sight, and then drive along and nip into the woods. A little further along the track through the woods we look for a spot to turn off the track, so that even if a car were to drive along this track, it wouldn’t spot us easily.

Our van uses about 1 litre of diesel to 12.5 km (35 mpg UK, 29.4 mpg US) running around the neighbourhood but this goes down to 1 litre every 13.5 km (38 mpg UK, 32 mpg US) over longer distances. Normally we cruise at about 95 k/h (about 60 mph) although we can easily hit speeds of 140 k/h on French peages and German Autobahns but that’s not our idea of travelling in comfort. Still, we can accelerate so as to pass slow vehicles on narrow roads, something we weren’t able to do in less powerful vehicles we have owned in the past.

The van came equipped with a single driver’s seat and a double passenger seat. The passenger seat is tight for two people and you sit at a funny angle if there’s just one passenger, plus you can’t go between the seats to the back if you want to stop for a cup of coffee when it’s 20 degrees below zero outside. So we replaced the double passenger seat with a driver’s seat taken from another Ford Transit van. Behind each seat is a bulkhead; we can pass direct from the seats to the van interior via an open doorway which can be curtained off at night (photo 2).

We use the van as a mobile office and hotel when visiting potential sponsors. As these can often be as much as 500 km (300 odd miles) away, we try to combine several visits in one morning (Spanish offices usually only work from 8 to 3) which means that our first visit often is at 8 o’clock. So we drive up in the afternoon or evening before, spend the night somewhere unobtrusively, and present ourselves bushy-tailed at the sponsor’s office at eight the next morning.

In the van we work mostly with a small netbook (uses only 10 watts/hour) which has about 15,000 photographs of past events to show to sponsors, and a database of crafts people and entertainers. A small widget at the side allows us to receive and send e-mail. A laptop (using 40 watts/hour) is used for designing printwork for leaflets and posters when we are away for a week or two and we need to prepare artwork for events coming up shortly; the design is sent directly to our printer by e- mail and we can pick up the finished printwork on our way home. A fairly basic scanner and a back-up hard disk plug directly into the netbook and laptop USB ports. We use a digital camera to take photographs of sites, and can store these almost immediately on our netbook and back-up hard disk. We can also up-date our web site, since within a few days we post 60 or so photographs of the most recent event we have organised and we also announce forthcoming events.

On these two- and three-day trips we keep clean using a small plastic washing up bowl and a face flannel; if you stand on a towel to catch the drips, you can stand next to the table and wash yourself all over. The great outdoors provides sanitary accommodation, although occasionally we use the toilets in a public building if we are spending all day in a large town.

Our van has a very small but fully-equipped kitchen (of which more later) and we mostly cook our own meals at mid-day with the sliding side door open; in the evening we enjoy a glass of wine with all sorts of nibbles before we go to bed. And a decent cup of coffee made using our espresso coffee maker plus a couple of croissants straight from the baker’s oven is our idea of heaven.

The van’s interior is designed for maximum flexibility as regards storage. Our storage system consists of 8 large green plastic boxes plus 4 medium sized blue and pink plastic boxes, a kitchen unit with 4 drawers, plus two large overhead storage spaces for bedding, hammocks, awnings and the like (photos 3 and 4 above). Thus the van can be used for light removals if all the boxes are taken out, or converts into a comfortable motorhome with plenty of storage for a three-month journey. The big boxes came from a company supplying boxes for the fruit packing industry, the medium sized boxes were supplied by a wholesale butcher. All the boxes stack with an ingenious design that allows them to lock on top of each other.

Our seating area (photos 9, 10 and 11) converts into a double bed at night (photos 14, 15 and 16) using the foam rubber squabs of the benches which sit on the large plastic boxes; the quilts and sheets we store in the space over the kitchen. We can seat four people at the table (but cannot legally travel with more than two people, and to change the van specifications so that we can carry more people is extremely complicated and very expensive in Spain) so that we can invite people for a meal or a drink only if they have their own transport.

When we travel to an event that we have organised, we need to take a lot of equipment and attributes with us. The table lifts off and is stored over one of the wheel arches. The plastic boxes that support the benches are taken out, the benches fold down, and the full boxes are placed under the kitchen counter. Thus we are left with a huge amount of space (see photos 7 and 8) which we fill with a set of stocks (collapsible), a gallows complete with victim, 8 boxes of decoration, 4 boxes with clothes, photo boards, music equipment, folding benches and tables – well, have a look at our web site and you’ll see a lot of the stuff we take along. When we get to the market, we unload the van and then it converts back into our stealth motorhome so that we can sleep and eat in comfort. At the end of a very busy weekend, all goes back and we collapse once we get home. Incidentally, on such a weekend, there will often be 40 to 70 crafts people, most of whom will sleep in their own vans, although few of them have made their vans really comfortable.

At the fair or market I will be taking 500 or more photographs using a digital camera, including a lot of detail photographs of the craftwork being sold. I can transfer these photographs direct to my laptop so that I can examine them inside the van to see if they are exactly what I want, and take further photographs if they don’t come up to scratch. Often I make a CD copy on the spot to give to the sponsor or to some of the participants.

For longer trips we travel thousands of kilometres via France to England, Holland, Germany, Denmark and the Czech Republic. Most of it is along secondary roads since main roads are expensive (in Spain and France) and very boring (almost everywhere). We buy fairly small quantities of fresh food every day and store cold or frozen items under our duvets to keep cool till we are ready to cook. Cold drinks are the one luxury we miss but a small electric fridge simply drains any battery within 24 hours, although there are new types coming onto the market which promise a much lower consumption. Gas fridges don’t work very well and are more than a little dangerous.

Perhaps we are fussy, but we believe that there is no real need to rough it as far as eating well is concerned. Although they are not common, it is possible to find gas burners with three rings – one for meat (we’re both carnivores), one for potatoes or rice and one for vegetables (see photo 13). Instead of an oven we use a Dutch oven – a small cast iron pan with a heavy lid. We store a small gas bottle in our kitchen unit (see photo 12), of a type that can be replaced everywhere in Europe. When we first started our travels (25 years ago) we used to make a small fire every evening and grill our meat, but most countries now have strict laws about open fires, so these days we stick to a frying pan or Dutch oven on the gas burner. Our kitchen work top is big enough for our three ring gas burner plus a little space for one person to prepare food, but we can also use the table if we both work to prepare the meal. As soon as we sit down to eat, we put on a pan of water for the washing up, which we do in a plastic basin resting on the table; one washes, the other dries.

Our kitchen is designed so that there is enough room for everything and no wasted space, with shelves at various levels to suit the content. The washing up basin slots in to place and can contain a few dirty dishes if we want to continue to travel in a hurry and wash up later. Everything else is arranged so that nothing can shift – if we break or lose an item, we have to replace it, otherwise we have to listen to it all rattling about. The gas burner unit slides out of its travelling slot when we want to make use of it for cooking or making coffee. We have three pans, two frying pans, a Dutch oven and a cast-iron griddle. Cups and mugs, big and little glasses, plates and bowls, as well as a drawer full of eating and cooking utensils. We can – and have done so in the past – cook and serve a proper four-course meal for four people. Our water is carried in 5-litre and 8-litre plastic bottles – easy to carry to and from a spring or water tap for a refill. After a few years it becomes almost automatic to watch out for taps, pumps and springs in the street or along the road – we make a habit of filling up as we go and rarely need to take more than 15 or 16 litres (2 or 3 bottles). If we feel desperate about a shower, we park near an official camping, take along a carrier bag with towel and soap, and head for the showers – we’ve never had any trouble. Some big restaurants on main roads also have shower areas – they are there to attract the custom of long distance lorry drivers.

The little doors to our kitchen unit either hinge to their left or above/below. To keep them shut while travelling over some very rough forest roads, we use a wooden bar which sits across all doors (see photos 5 and 6). It is easy to see from the passenger seat whether we have remembered to put this bar into place.

Lighting in the van is through the new LED lamps which use very little current – we buy the 12-volt type and push the two pins at the back into the openings of a small plastic connector block which can then be screwed to the ceiling or wall. Most of our travelling is done in summer, but the interior of Spain can be extremely cold in winter so we take along a small gas radiant heater but only use it in day-time for 10 minutes or so at a time, with an open window. I am thinking of installing a direct flue caravan heater but it’s a major operation and rather expensive so I keep putting off the day.

The ceiling is insulated using sheets of expanded foam plastic and then finished with tongue-and-groove timber which is just flexible enough to follow the double curve of the roof. There is not much van side to be insulated, since from the middle rib down the walls and doors are finished in hardboard panels by the Ford Motor Co and the space above the rib we left since we want as much room as possible for our bed – we can get just 1.84 metres (6′) sleeping across the van, if we leave out insulation. We are both 1.73 long (about 5′ 8″) but to sleep really comfortable the bed needs to be a little longer than standing height. To stop our feet freezing fast to the bare metal we stuck carpeting to the inside of the outside metal van panels. The floor consists of sheets of plywood finished off in floor paint, sitting on 4 cm of expanded foam. We haven’t been able to find any old-fashioned linoleum, and vinyl just tears whenever we load the van with heavy stuff.

When we go for a few weeks, we put all our possessions into the four green plastic boxes under the benches plus four additional ones that go under the kitchen unit – that makes 8 boxes all together. Easily more than enough for six weeks or so, and we know from experience that we would not need there are four medium sized plastic boxes with tools and components (hinges, nails, screws etc.) that also sit under the kitchen workbench. Lastly we add a large bottle of gas under the kitchen unit, since to fill the large bottle (enough for three months) costs the same as filling the small bottle that lasts us barely a week. I have found a 12-volt drill and a 12-volt jigsaw that is extremely useful, after I removed the bulky and heavy battery component so that the tool will plug directly into the van’s 12-volt system. On longer journeys I usually take a work-mate along so that I can continue to work on the van as we travel – there’s always room for improvement, and I enjoy a bit of DIY standing in the middle of a forest.

An extra battery (deep cycle solar type 200 Ah) under the passenger seat is connected via a no-return relay so that it loads up as we drive but takes no load from the starting battery when we park and enjoy life. Now that we have 12-volt tools, a 12-volt music system, 12-volt lighting and an adaptor for our netbook and notebook, an inverter is something we do not need. I can’t imagine using a microwave oven, and when it gets hot we park underneath large trees which provide pleasant shade – it easily gets to 45 degrees (about 113 Fahrenheit) in Spain – so that we don’t need air conditioning.

We have stored the equivalent of 300 or so CDs on the hard disk of our netbook and this plugs into the van’s built-in CD player – and if we needed more we could use our back up hard disk. We also take along books that we can read on our screens, although we like to stop in bookshops selling second-hand and remaindered books on our holidays.

On our longer journeys we take along two light-weight hammocks that we can string up between trees for a cool siesta. We also have a large sheet of plastic awning that we hook onto tiny holes drilled in the roof gutter of our van and are held up by two poles knocked up out of broom sticks. Not so impressive or quick as one of those pull-out awnings, but remember, we are a stealth van. The awning means that we can keep the side door open if it rains not too heavily so as to let in some light; in the summer it provides shade if we eat outside, although we usually take care to park under trees if at all possible.

We are still exploring possibilities; we may well decide to buy one of the new small fridges, since cold drinks of an evening while watching the sun go down seems to us the acme of luxury. We may also invest in some electric legs to level the van when we’ve found a nice spot that slopes more than somewhat. Lastly, we are still looking into the possibility of an electric winch to get us out of muddy or icy spots when we camp in the middle of a forest, since the ground under trees stays muddy or slushy much longer than when camping out in the open. Other than that we feel that we have everything we really need in our 5.2 m (17 foot) van and can enjoy a luxurious weekend or a year out.

Contact us at janfrank@amata.es