Have you been dreaming about a European road trip? You may have come across Balkan Campers. With classic converted vans ready for adventures across the Balkan countries like Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, and beyond, Balkan Campers have captured the imaginations of van life enthusiasts looking for an authentic experience off the beaten path in some of Europes most fascinating regions and landscapes.
But is it all it’s cracked up to be? Or is the allure and romance of a romp across Europe in a classic VW camper simply nostalgia for a time gone by?
Balkan Campers invited us to take one of their vans for a spin to see what we thought. As always the opinions here are our own. This is our honest Balkan Campers review.
Let’s cut to the chase and start with the verdict, and then, if you’re interested you can read more about our experience, and the fascinating Balkan Camper story.
Balkan Campers Review: The Verdict
Maybe we are biased because we love true van life adventures, but we think this is the ideal way to explore the Balkans. Call us hopeless romantics, but the idea of summiting the Slovenian mountains in an ex-ambulance VW Transporter or camping by a Croatian beach in a pop-top Westfalia is absolutely magic and an experience that just hits different.
We adored our experience traveling Slovenia in the van Špik, and our only regret is that we didn’t have longer.
The company’s tagline is short and simple, “Reconnect”, and that’s what we had a chance to do on our journey. It’s been more than two years since we last drove one of our own vans. Since then, the few trips we have done have been in large, modern, mass-produced, factory-converted camper vans, comfortable but a little lacking in character.
This trip was a return to basics. The type of van life we fell in love with on our first van life adventure when we drove the length of South America in a tiny Suzuki APV. The minimalist adventure of setting off into unexplored lands with everything you need, nothing more, nothing less.
The vans in Balkan Campers stable are vehicles of character and distinction. Each has been lovingly built out by van life enthusiasts for van life enthusiasts. They have everything you need and nothing you don’t, meaning you travel light, inconspicuously, and in style, but potentially with fewer comforts than a newer, large motorhome or modern boxy conversion van like a Fiat Ducato or Mercedes Sprinter.
Most of the vehicles are reliable VW models, mostly from the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s. Importantly, they are meticulously and lovingly maintained.
The camper conversions are DIY, minimalist, and rustic but done with care and attention, while at the same time, inclusive of all the essentials you need for a comfortable campervan trip. Vans include essentials, such as cookers, electric water pumps, 12v fridges, and diesel heaters.
For us, it was perfect. We found the character of the vehicles and the conversions charming. Traveling in a Balkan Camper reminded us of traveling in our own DIY builds, and we loved it.
One hugely notable benefit of Balkan Campers is the support and communication from the Balkan Campers team.
We arrived on this trip right off the back of a 2-week campervan trip in Scotland, where our van was through a multinational campervan rental company. When we needed support, we had to text a WhatsApp number that connected us to what was either an offshore support hotline or a malfunctioning AI. In either case, the garbled responses we received from the entity at the other end suggested it/they had seemingly never seen either the van we were driving or the country we were navigating. To questions like ‘Where can we buy chemical toilet solution in Scotland?’ we received answers such as ‘all can be bought at store’ …bad bot.
Fast forward to this trip, where the owner and builder of the van, Miha, was at the handover to carefully explain his rig and was available throughout the trip to answer any and all questions we had about the van and traveling the country.
The personal service extends beyond the vehicle and logistical support but provides a sense of confidence that if something goes wrong, someone will be available to guide and help you through it. The importance of this cannot be overstated for explorers navigating new and unfamiliar territory where they do not know the landscape or even speak the language.
Balkan Campers Review: The Pros and Cons
We loved driving and camping in our Balkan Campers campervan, but what is right for us may not be right for you.
Here is a list of pros and cons when it comes to renting a Balkan Campers camper to help decide if a Balkan Campers adventure is right for you.
- Beautiful, stylish, classic campers with warmth and character
- Well maintained fleet
- Incredible personalized support by a friendly and dedicated crew who know the vans and the land intimately
- More maneuverable than larger modern camper designs
- Great for getting off the beaten path and onto some of the narrow Balkan back roads
- Also great for stealth camping
- Well equipped with everything you need for a camping trip in the Balkans
- Affordable all-inclusive rental rates between €60 and €130 depending on the vehicle and the season
- Less space onboard than in larger, modern camper designs
- No onboard toilet or shower
- Most of the vehicles are older models which have racked up a lot of kilometers
- May not have all the bells and whistles of modern campervans
Our Experience With Balkan Campers
Picking Up the Van
We picked up our van in Ljubljana, Slovenia’s beloved capital, on a dreary November morning.
I met Miha in the parking lot next to the central train station. He took his time introducing me to the van Špik, named for a mountain in the northwest of the country (it’s always a good sign a van has been properly named).
Miha was more interested in explaining how his van worked and how to use it in Slovenia than shoving contracts or documents in my face, a noticeable difference between this local independent business and large multinational companies.
We went through operating the vehicle for driving; he knew all its quirks and intricacies because it was his. Next, he took me through the features of the conversion; once again, he knew the systems intimately because he built them, and he was able to point out the tips and tricks that we were likely to need on our trip.
Miha was also able to impart some wisdom about campervanning in Slovenia, where to camp, how to covertly free camp (something that is sadly not legal in Slovenia), how to find fresh water, where we could empty the grey water tank, and, of course, what to see during our short six-day trip in Slovenia.
The van itself was well equipped for two people, with a comfortable fold-out bed, a small 12-volt fridge, an excellent gas cooker with two large burners and an oven (bravo), a sink with an electric pump, a small table, a diesel heater (essential at this time of year), lighting, and a good amount of storage. The hightop was an excellent feature, and I was able to stand without cramping my neck, making the space inside a lot more functional and comfortable during these colder months.
To run the electrics, there was a small leisure battery that could be charged by plugging in, driving, or via the solar panel mounted to the van’s roof.
Our Road Trip Through the Land of Rivers, Mountains, and Churches
We set off from Ljubljana. Having just come from the UK (and grown up in Australia), I had to remind myself to drive on the right side of the road and switch gears with my right hand. However, after we emerged from the city’s Friday afternoon gridlock, we were on the highway, and the trip was underway. We weren’t going far; we planned to stop in the nearby village of Kamnik.
Although wild camping is not technically allowed, there are places (especially away from tourist hubs and during the low season) where you can park out of the way and expect not to be bothered; we used the app Park4Night to find such places.
We found an empty car park outside the town center hidden behind a large monastery, perfect. After packing our things properly and setting up the van to be ready for bed, we went out to explore the town. We couldn’t believe how empty it was. It was a picture-perfect old town, and we had it completely to ourselves. We found a cool beer bar and an incredible Arabic restaurant (not what we expected in Slovenia). After exploring the town, we returned to the van. We were starting to get really excited about this trip through Slovenia at the edge of the season.
It was starting to get cold so we fired up the diesel heater, just the way I’d been shown. It started to tick and whir and eventually shuddered to life, roaring toasty warm air into the van. Kelli looked panicked ‘Is it supposed to be this loud?’. I assured her it would be fine; I had, after all, seen the full demonstration. However, after 10 minutes, when the roaring hadn’t subsided, I started to worry too. I hated texting Miha after hours on a Friday night, but I also didn’t want to blow up his van. He texted me back in about three seconds with instructions and a link to a detailed video on the system’s operation.
The next day we hit the road early, stopping in the beautiful old town of Škofja Loka for breakfast before winding our way along the Sora River and up into the Soriška Planina (Soriška Mountain). We could have easily bypassed the mountains (especially as we would come back through the next day), but we were excited to get up amongst them.
Kelli and I both come from flat places. She is from the Southern US, and I’m from Northeast Australia. Mountains enthrall us both, but we are not so used to driving in them. Kelli, in particular, was shocked by how steep the roads were. ‘Are you sure we will make it up?’ but with four-wheel drive and a powerful motor, Špik was a reliable workhorse that took us up, up, up into the mountains without a worry.
We wound our way up through the autumn forest, to the snow-capped peaks, where eager skiers were hiking up into the light covering of dirty snow, passing under the still chairlifts, not yet operating for the season.
Then we began our descent. Down, down, down, into the Bohinj Valley. Along the way, we tried to find the waterfall Izvir Bohinjske Bistrice, but accidentally rolled past a warning sign and found ourselves on a washed-out gravel road. Thankfully, Špik was able to get us out of this particular situation without too much trouble.
We continued onto Lake Bohinj to find the town’s camper stop. While wild camping is not permitted, these public facilities are found widely throughout Slovenia. They offer a place to park, toilets, electrical outlets, fresh water, facilities to dump wastewater, and sometimes even wifi. They range in price generally from between €10 and €20 depending on the area and are a great alternative to private campsites which are surprisingly expensive in Slovenia.
The camper stop here was a wide gravel park, set amongst the lush green of a Slovenian alpine farming district, it was the most idyllic setting for a public camper spot we could imagine.
After a cold night, we awoke to a misty morning amongst the towering snow-capped giants of the Julian Alps. It was beautiful and peaceful in the valley, with only one other camper to share it with. We were starting to realize we had made a great decision coming so late in the season.
Then. it was onwards and upwards again as we climbed back out of the valley, today heading for the stunning Tomlin Gorge.
After exploring the deep river canyon, we made our way to the Kozjak waterfall and again were spellbound by the beauty of the Slovenian wilds.
In the evening, we did something incredibly un-vanlife. Pulling up in the town of Kobarid we wiped ourselves down with baby wipes, donned our smartest clothes, and went to dinner at Hiša Franko to celebrate our first anniversary.
This restaurant has been on our radar since we saw an episode of Chef’s Table in 2018. Self-taught Slovenian chef Ana Roš created one of the best restaurants in Europe based on the local traditions and produce of the Soča Valley. When the Michelin Guide finally came to Slovenia in 2020 the restaurant was awarded two stars, and this year they were awarded their third, an astonishing achievement. Despite our high expectations which have built up over many years, we were thoroughly impressed. The food was not only delicious but incredibly consistent over 12 courses, and the kind and warm service, included, stories, thoughtful gifts, and a tour of the kitchen and cellars. What’s more, they let us camp overnight in their parking lot! I’m not sure many restaurants of this caliber would agree to that!
We started our week with a little bit of work on Monday morning. The mobile network is sufficient to work throughout Slovenia using a mobile phone, even in the mountains.
Then, it was onto Bovec. We spent our day again gawking at the glistening mountains, ice-blue rivers, and beautiful little villages, as we made our way along the picturesque Soča Valley, before climbing once more high into the Vršič Pass, by now we knew that Špik wouldn’t let us down and cruised assuredly up the icy pass before descending back down into Kranjska Gora.
We continued from the pretty mountain town to park for the night in a highway service station and truck stop near Jesenice. Some highway truck stops in Slovenia offer special free rest areas for campers. We were thoroughly impressed by the quality of the rest areas. Green grass, trees, parking areas with rubbish bins, far back from the highway where there was no noise, and access to the fuel station’s coin-operated toilets, it was a nice surprise to find such a great free campsite at a service station.
Tuesday, we headed for Lake Bled. Lake Bled is undoubtedly special, but it’s extra special for us, as it was the site of our third trip together, aka the third date. It was absolutely breathtaking in the blue autumn sky, backdropped by snow-capped peaks.
Next, we visited the town of Kranj which has a beautiful old town. Once again, we enjoyed how quiet the town was in the lull between summer and Christmas. We set off once more to stay one more night in a service station, so we would be close to Ljubljana in the morning.
On Wednesday, we awoke once more to finalize some work before the short drive back into Ljubljana. We were met once more by Miha, who took back the keys as we bid farewell to Špik.
It had been a fantastic trip, one where we fell in love again with Slovenia, this time seeing a different side of her, one that could only ever be revealed through the independent adventure of van travel.
Our only regret was that our trip had not been longer. It was, however, long enough to know we would be back, not just for the rest of Slovenia but to explore more of the Balkan Peninsula.
And of course, we would use Balkan Campers to do it.
More About Balkan Campers
To understand what sets Balkan Campers apart from traditional car or van rental it helps to know a little bit about this truly unique company and its founder.
“This is a very special way of travel. We can actually say a special way of life. To know how to slow down. To know how to enjoy regional roads, with windows down and wind in your hair. To play some good quality rock music and wave back to the people next to the road. To feel the van’s energy and enjoy its analog functions.” – Nejc Martincic
Balkan Campers was founded by Nejc Martincic almost a decade ago when he quit his job to pursue his then-girlfriend across the world. When they reached Australia, he was shocked by how expensive it was to travel the country, even by backpacking. Until he came across a budget van rental company, which offered low-cost, old-school vans.
Nejc fell in love with van life and was inspired to take the idea back home where he set about creating Balkan Campers. He hoped that through his campers, travelers could see past the negative stereotypes and connotations of his homeland, to discover the Balkans for what it is, a place of beauty, wilderness, and open-hearted people.
The dream began with the purchase of the first Balkan Camper, a VW T3 called Grga. The van broke down on the drive home.
Undeterred, Nejc continued to build the company, trip by trip and van by van, until he was finally able to quit his day job.
Since then, despite many ups and downs, the company has continued to grow. At the same time, Nejc has seen demand for independent self-directed adventures through the wilds of the Balkans increase exponentially.
Today, the Balkan Campers family includes more than 20 classic vans but they are not all centrally controlled. Rather, the company now represents a network of passionate van owners across the Balkan countries who want to rent their vehicles through the Balkan Campers platform. What this means is that not only are vans available more widely throughout the region, but each van is taken care of properly by an individual who loves it, and the team at Balkan can continue to offer the personalized service they have become known for.
The philosophy of Balkan Campers is the overwhelming power of love, peace, and unity, a philosophy they extend to their clients through the appreciation, dedication, and personal attention they provide each and every customer.
This approach extends to their vans too. The vans carry names from their region, and the owners are as connected to them as they are to their homeland. The vehicles are individuals to be lovingly cared for, restored, and repaired.
Nature also takes center stage in the Balkan Campers story. Vans are the vessels for exploring and discovering the beauty of the natural world, a world that must be respected and protected at all costs.
The final core tenet of the Balkan Campers’ mission is nostalgia. Classic vans, fairy tales, and a yearning for times past, for a dream of one country called Yugoslavia, and for the era of peace, joy, and unity.
Now, the mantle has been passed on and the company is managed by Nejc’s partner, Sara. She plans to lead the Balkan Campers team into the future by keeping it firmly rooted in the nostalgia of the past and continuing to spread the good vibes Balkan Campers has become synonymous with.
The only way is up and straight down the nostalgic dirt roads.