The Joy of Freecamping: Dachau, Hitler’s Berghof, Sanssouci Park

Biking Sans Souci

There’s really not enough I can say about free-camping (or wild-camping) in Europe. We try to stay out of campgrounds and free-camp as much as possible.

The benefits are huge. Obviously it saves money. So far campgrounds have been costing us between €25 and €35 a night. That adds up.

And we love the challenge of finding the perfect parking spot. It should be

  • Quiet but not dangerously remote.
  • Within an easy walk or bike ride of what we want to see
  • Hopefully by a patch of grass for Archie.
  • Away from upscale residential neighborhoods so we don’t alarm persnickety neighbors.
  • And of course legal, so we don’t get a knock on the door from the neighborhood policeman first thing in the morning.

But the very best thing about freecamping is the way it enhances roadschooling.

It gives us flexibility to explore popular places — museums or historical sights, for example — comfortably, either first thing in the morning, when things are still quiet, or late in the day, once the crowds have gone home. Scout has much more energy to engage with a place if she doesn’t start the visit already tired from biking in from the campground or a long transit ride. Usually we only need to walk a few meters from our front door, and there we are.

We try to arrive the night before, so we can settle in and start fresh in the morning. Usually it doesn’t take very long to find a spot.

Then, once we’re parked, one of us will bike off to tomorrow’s destination to gather intelligence. We pick up maps or brochures and question staff about what’s worth seeing and what isn’t. We find out what time of day is best for visiting. We used to assume first thing in the morning was best, but this often isn’t the case. Bus loads of tourists often roll in very early, which makes later afternoon a much experience.

Usually the staff will be candid and give us great suggestions about using our time wisely. This legwork really pays off the following day when we bring Scout, who has a much better time when we have a game plan and aren’t just wandering around aimlessly.

Here are some of the great free-camps we’ve enjoyed recently.

Hitler’s Berghof


When we freecamped meters away from Hitler’s Berghof complex in the Obersalzburg, we stopped in just before closing and learned from a particularly chatty staff member that there’s no point in going up to the Eagle’s Nest, Hitler’s famous mountaintop chalet, when it’s rainy. The only way to get up there is to take a shuttle that costs more than €30, and if the weather is bad, the gorgeous view is obscured by clouds. Once you get there, there’s no museum, just an expensive restaurant.

In other words, a waste of time and money in bad weather.

That turned out to be prescient advice, since the next day was wet and the local mountains were totally obscured by a wooly sky.

By skipping the famous Eagle’s Nest, we were able to spend our time where it counted, down in the Berghof documentation center and visiting the bunkers. Scout learned a ton about the Nazis’ sophisticated propaganda techniques.

Learning about Nazi propaganda techniques

Learning about Nazi propaganda techniques


Learning about the Volksempfänger. Nazi Germany brought out a series of affordable radio sets — the Volksempfänger, or people’s radios — so poorer Germans, who generally did not have radios before 1933, could listen to Nazi propaganda and the infamous Nuremberg rallies. Not much else was broadcast other than a few benign local stations. People listened together at home and work.


Stalagtites in Hitler's Bunker

Stalagtites growing in Hitler’s bunker


"I'm done now, Mom." Drawing in Hitler's bunker

Journaling in the bunker.


Berghof, Listening to Hitler's speeches

Listening to recordings of Hitler’s speeches. Scout loved listening to Hitler’s speeches. She thought his dramatic speaking style, punctuated by the bursts of applause, sounded like waves crashing on the rocks.


View from Hitler's Berghof

View from the Berghof

Dachau Concentration Camp


When we freecamped at Dachau, we parked right outside the entrance.

We were ready when the doors opened at nine and got to spend some quiet, contemplative time in the museum before the tour buses rolled in. Later, when the crowd got thick and Scout wore out, she and I headed back to the camper for lunch. We brought our (excellent) audio-guides with us, and while we ate, we listened to survivor interviews and additional information that we hadn’t been able to focus on earlier.

While we refreshed, Mark got to linger in the museum. Later, about an hour before closing and when the camp was nearly empty, I went back alone to return the guides, take some more photos and spend some quiet time on the grounds.

It was a wonderfully deep visit to a place that deserved our full attention.

Dachau Concentration Camp

“Work will make you free.” Dachau, the first concentration camp, was a model for the others and also an SS training center.


Dachau Concentration Camp

A punishment table and cane


Dachau Concentration Camp

Learning about life in the camp


Dachau Concentration Camp

Learning about the crematorium


Dachau Concentration Camp, crematorium

Crematorium ovens


Dachau Concentration Camp, gas chamber

The “showers.” Of course, this is really the entrance to the gas chamber.


Dachau Concentration Camp, gas chamber

The gas chamber




Sanssouci Park in Potsdam was one of our most memorable free-camps to date.

Sanssouci (meaning Without Cares) was the summer palace of Prussian King Frederick the Great. Built around 1745, it’s the German Versailles. The massive park includes not only the Rococo Sanssouci palace but also lots of other palaces and fine buildings. The whole park is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

That photo at the top of the post was taken at the Neues Palais (the guest palace). Because we were parked right outside, we had the entire place to ourselves one evening, and Scout got to ride her bike all around the empty grounds. She examined statues that had been taken down from the roof for cleaning. She ran up and down staircases. She had a blast. We all stayed until dark and just absorbed the place.

I just can’t describe the thrill of turning a popular place like this into your own private backyard for a few hours.

Freecamping at Sanssouci Park, Neues Palais

Where we spent the night.


Neues Palais, Sanssouci

Sanssouci Park was all ours after the crowds went home


Neues Palais, Sanssouci

The front of the palace


Neues Palais, Sanssouci

Scout scampering around the palace


Neues Palais, Sanssouci

The Neues Palais

The next Mark spent a few hours exploring the park alone. Then he came back and collected Scout and me, and took us to see the best stuff. We do this to make it easier for Scout. When you’re 11, if you’ve seen one palace you’ve seen them all, so she enjoys it more if we keep things short.

But the NIGHT she spent at at Sansscoucci is what Scout will remember forever. And that’s what we’re trying to do here. Give the kid an experience she will remember forever.

So far, so good.

Sanssouci, Potsdam

Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Zac July 4, 2011 at 7:58 pm

Great post! Amazing photos, too.

How have you found the general attitude/policy towards free camping so far? I’ve heard some countries frown on it.


2 Renee July 4, 2011 at 8:29 pm

Hey there, Zac. Thanks. Yes, the policy varies from country to country. In Germany the law states that campers are allowed to park for one night to refresh themselves, though of course you can’t park anywhere specifically illegal. Now we’re in Italy where the rules (surprisingly) are stricter. Also there’s a much bigger burglary problem here, so campgrounds are a better choice.

Also we only free camp when we’re in transit between two long-term stays; otherwise we stay in campgrounds for safety, playmates for Scout, and the amenities: electricity, showers, water, etc.


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