Van life in a big city

October 29, 2017

Most of the beaches I visited in the north of Spain and Portugal were perfectly suited for van life: Tons of space to park a 2m by 6m vehicle, public toilets and showers. Sometimes lively during the day but always quiet at night. While spending two unplanned months in Madrid, I’ve experienced a different kind of van life.

Unlike in other cities I’ve visited before, I don’t feel like a visitor in Madrid. I actually live here. I have neighbors. I meet co-workers for lunch. I work with local developers in their office. I attend tech meet-ups. I order and receive packages from Amazon. I go out with friends. Locals invite me to their homes and I invite people over to my “place”.

These activities read like things I did when I lived in Berlin. The only difference: in Madrid, I live in a van instead of an apartment.

Be quiet and move often!

In big cities, space is limited. Some of the lovely streets in the center of Madrid are too narrow for street parking. Even normal size cars don’t fit.

Narrow street in the center of Madrid

If you are really lucky, and find a spot for a 6m long camper van, you either have to pay and/or leave after a few hours. Definitely not ideal for working and sleeping. I usually park a little bit outside of the center and cycle into town to enjoy the city life.

Camping and long-term parking in public parking lots is officially not allowed in Spain. In cities, the police seem way more particular about these rules than in the countryside or at the beaches. In the beginning, the local police expelled me a couple of times. Once, I was on a video call with a co-worker, when an officer knocked on my door. He told me to leave instantly. Since I observed the police trying to tow away a van of some German travelers the day before, I immediately followed his order and drove to another parking lot around the corner to continue my call.

After a few days, I had learnt how to avoid conflicts with the law enforcement: Keep all your stuff inside your van, be quiet, move often and never park in the same spot more than once in four weeks. From the moment I stuck to these rules, I never ran into any issues again.

My favorite area is Casa de Campo, a huge park in the west of Madrid. There are plenty of big parking areas to rotate.

Parking lot at Casa de Campo

Although the park is close to the city center, it still feels like a very natural environment.

View from a parking lot at Casa de Campo

Close to a clean public toilet, where there is a beautiful water dispenser: well tasting, portable water for free.

Public water dispenser at Casa de Campo

I experienced two different sides of the park. During the day kids have fun in the playgrounds, people ride their bicycles, go for a run or have a drink in one of the restaurants near the lake.

My friends having a drink at Casa de Campo

Once the sun set, prostitutes show up and police cars regularly patrol. I never felt unsafe. However the strong presence of the police requires to strictly keep to the rules: no camping, no long-term parking! :point_up::cop:

Sometimes, when I’m tired of moving my van every other day, I spend a couple of days at a huge parking area in front of a shopping mall in Vicálvaro, close to Pavones. The parking lot isn’t so centrally located. But in return, there is less police and I don’t have to move the van that often.

Van parked in Vicálvaro

Answering the call of nature and showering

Whether I am in parks or by shopping malls, finding public toilets is fairly easy. Once I locate the “good” public toilets in my neighborhoods, I actually enjoy more comfort than I did at most beaches: spacious and clean toilets equipped with soap and toilet paper. I’ve seen worse things than this commendable bathroom at Casa de Campo:

Clean, public bathroom at Casa de Campo

In contrast to the toilets, I haven’t found any public showers. I actually don’t even know if they exist in cities? People usually shower at home, not in parks or shopping malls. When you want to take a shower in a city, you have to be more creative: public swimming pools, gyms or friends that allow you to take a shower at their places. I wash my body every morning with my hands and take one to three showers a week. I don’t feel smelly or dirty. Some people even say that showering every day is bad for your skin. :shower:

Getting in touch with the local van community

While frequently rotating around to the different parking areas in Madrid, I often got in touch with other van people. Some of them, like Gijs and Eefje from Netherlands, were visitors who left Madrid after a couple of days.

Selfie with Gijs and Eefje on a parking lot in Madrid

Others, like Mauro, do the same like me and stay longer. I also met several Madrileños who work in Madrid and live in vans. Like Axel, who has spent about two years in his Mercedes Sprinter at Casa de Campo. His girlfriend Olga prefers the comfort of her apartment in Madrid but regularly comes by to enjoy the van life.

Selfie with Olga and Axel

In Vicálvaro, I met Sebastián, a varnisher who has been living in his camper van in Madrid for more than four years.

Selfie with Sebastián

Everyone has their own schedule. Once in awhile, we spend a few days together in a parking lot, exchange news about the best spots or just hang out and have a beer.

Selfie with Mauro and Sebastián

Breathing some fresh air around Madrid

Madrid is an awesome city. If there was a beach, it would be the perfect city for me. However sometimes, I wanted to escape from the concrete jungle to relax and breath in some fresh air. When I needed a break, I got behind the steering wheel and left the city for a while.

Sun set view from behind the steering wheel

The mountains around Madrid offer great places to calm down and enjoy nature. Like Lago de Bolarque, east of Madrid:

Boats on Lago de Bolarque

A beautiful sun set at Embalse de Valmayor, west of Madrid:

Sun set view from behind the steering wheel

Or the relaxing sound of the water floating through Río Lozoya, north of Madrid:

Scenery at Río Lozoya

Madrid, see you soon!

I was never planning on spending so much time in Madrid. I’ve had such a great time with the people living there. I definitely want to come back! The weather in September and October was totally perfect: very warm but not too hot. However I can feel the summer slowly ending in this part of Europe, too. Soon, I will leave Madrid to visit warmer places. :wave: :sunny: