Just a couple months ago, I was sitting in my Budapest Airbnb before I was supposed to board my return flight to San Francisco after 6 weeks of exploring Eastern Europe. I don’t think I ever truly had the intention to get on that flight because I was actively looking for any and all opportunities to “get out of it.” When the opportunity arrived, I grabbed it by the bullhorns and ditched my Lufthansa, US-bound flight for a train ride into Ljubljana, Slovenia. I asked Jess to postpone her own plans, and we soon found ourselves living the #vanlife in the driver’s seat of a 1980’s converted Vanagon that we ended up taking for one month through the mountains, snow, wind and cold. It was by far one of the most adventurous, craziest things I’ve ever done and it was some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen. But it was also stressful AF. Luckily the van is still in one piece… somewhere in Slovenia, and I made it safe and sound back home.
Since I’ve been back, I’ve gotten a LOT of questions about what exactly we did with a van for a month. Pretty fair questions, so… from where I brushed my teeth, to how often I got to take a shower, I’m going to try and answer it all.
Ha! I guess this is the best way to start, kicking it off with the crazy. I literally saw a sponsored ad on Facebook from a company called Balkan Campers. It’s run by 3 dudes in Slovenia who buy old beat up VW vans, refurbish them, and then rent them out to travelers. They were looking for someone to take one of their vans for a month in the off season in exchange for some marketing promo and photography. I messaged Nejc, the main contact, asked him a bajillion questions about #vanlife, made sure he wasn’t crazy, and then agreed to come to Ljubljana, Slovenia to pick up the van. I told him I had no idea how to drive a manual and he agreed to teach me. It would be easy, he said. (spoiler: it’s not) #FamousLastWords
Nope. Had never touched a manual car in my life. Ziga, one of the Balkan Campers guys took two days to teach Jess and I how how to drive the van. Bless him, that man is so patient and kind. He took us all around his hometown practicing our new moves, showed us Lake Bled, introduced us to his family, and even took us to a movie with his friends. When we finally had to leave him to drive on our own, it was pretty much sink or swim. Or as we like to say, drive or die.
Let me tell you about Old Lady, the green slime driving machine. The guys found her in a ditch covered in mud, cleaned her up, and today she is a real crowd pleaser. She comes fully equipped with two beds, a refrigerator, electrical hookup, cabinets, a gas stove, a surf rack, tables and chairs. She also has a nice luxurious aux cord so you can bump your own tunes. Old Lady really taught us how to be handy and fix things. Many things broke along the way, and we had to improvise using our favorite tools: duct tape and shoelaces. Also, you have to remember that she is old, hence the name, and even though she has a sink, she doesn’t always release the water.
Inside the van, of course! Old Lady’s back seat folds out (referred to as “the downstairs”) and then there is also an “upstairs,” where the pop top is. We mostly slept upstairs because all the windows downstairs let in the cold air, and it was freezing. Literally. Also, Jess and I are admittedly very lazy about certain things, and it was kind of an effort to move our stuff to pull out the lower bed. #Confessions
Are you kidding? Nearly winter in Slovenia… holy cow, it was cold. We did have a space heater, but learned very quickly that most campsites in Europe this time of year are closed and lock up their electrical boxes. That being said, we only had heat for approximately 4 nights out of the entire month. To battle the temps, we made do with tons of blankets, puffy jackets, multiple layers, hats, gloves, and in extreme cases, feet warmers in our socks. Beer also helped. There were a few nights where we couldn’t sleep because it was so uncomfortable, but no one ever cried from the pain, and there were no reported incidents of frostbite. Confession: as a result of the cold and not wanting to get undressed, we also rarely changed our clothes.
We got an insane deal because of the value exchange we did with the company, but if you are interested in renting one of these bad boys for yourself, it’s normally 60 euros a day. Plus gas. Gas is the real clincher. It’s about 70 euros to fill ‘er up, and depending on the terrain, you’ll be empty every third day. It’s safe to say Old Lady is quite the consumer.
Don’t judge me. I peed anywhere that I could find when no one was looking. For the record though, I never left a paper trail and I never went #2 anywhere other than a toilet. We usually brushed our teeth in bathrooms at restaurants, coffee shops, or outside Old Lady’s front door. Fine, you want another confession? We may or may not have peed behind a bush on a busy street in Munich, where our van was parked for a few days… Don’t tell the Germans.
Speaking of #2, one day we pulled over on the side of a two lane highway and I ran into the bushes to drop trow. When I got back to the van, there was an unmistakable smell coming from my feet. I had stepped in human poop. It was kiiind of funny… but mostly not. After freaking out for half a second, I took the kitchen’s dish soap, drizzled it over my entire shoe and scrubbed until the foam bubbles were no longer brown. I know, I know. I’m sorry for the mental image.
The longest we went without a shower was 6 days, at which point our hair was so matted and greasy that we broke down and paid 11 euros each to enter a day spa. Jess went for a swim, I brushed my teeth in the shower, and everyone was happy. After that, we managed to find a luxury campsite where they had laundry, electricity, showers and even WIFI! The next time we got clean from there was at a German gas station in which we paid 3 euros to go inside a private room that had a shower. There were no towels, but it was worth having to put on clothes while still wet. Luckily after that, we stayed with a couple of friends and were able to mooch their hot water and not be so disgusting. The last shower I got was after a 5 day streak, when we splurged for a night at a Croatian homestay at 10 euros a pop. If I’m counting correctly, I had 9 total showers in my month with Old Lady.
We went to the grocery store almost every morning to stock up on the day’s essentials: cuties (the little tiny oranges), bread, meat, cream cheese, nutella and water. We got it down to a science where we were spending less than 20 euros a day for both of us to eat breakfast, lunch and sometimes dinner. Dinner was a mixed bag of eating out, or cooking dehydrated soups and pasta in the van. We were less motivated to cook because cleaning pots and pans outside when it’s 25 degrees is actually not as fun as it sounds. I would say my favorite meal was lunchtime. We would make little open faced sandwiches of prosciutto, olive oil, cream cheese, salt and on a reeeeally good day, avocado. We had a little table in the shape of surfboard inside the van so we could pull over anywhere and set up a picnic!
If there’s anything Jess and I learned from Old Lady, it’s that teamwork makes the dream work. While we’ve done a lot of traveling together, this was probably the first time we truly NEEDED each other to make it through. There’s no way I could have done this trip solo, and on the whole, we probably got along better than any two other people could manage in a freakin’ van for a month. Of course there were moments when things were tense, but I’m gonna go ahead and attribute that to circumstance. The combination of living in a 12 foot moving box and enduring things like stalling down to 0 mph on a Slovenian highway are definitely going to push some buttons.
Every single day.
Driving this van was seriously scary. I don’t think either of us realized beforehand what exactly driving such an old, massive, vehicle without power steering across Europe would truly entail. At any given moment, things could go from zero to panic attack stage 1. As we were arriving In Wintertour, Switzerland, I was driving and very tired. We were looking for a place to park the van, and we pulled over to ask a friendly looking lady if there were any overnight parking lots nearby. While she was super friendly, she was also standing at a bus stop, and the bus happened to arrive while we were chatting. It was honking at me to move, but the only problem was that we were on an incline. If you’re not familiar with a manual car, shifting into first gear from a standstill on an incline is very scary stuff. For a newb, you are 90% likely to stall, burn the clutch, or roll backwards. None of which are great options. The bus was so close to me that I was scared if I put her into first, she would roll backwards into the bus. Everyone on the bus was staring, the bus driver was yelling at Jess in Swiss German, and I was in the driver’s seat freaking out that I was about to hit a bus. Luckily, I was able to take a deep breath and get Old Lady up the hill, but not without spiking my blood pressure and sprouting a few gray hairs first.
We had one single incident, that in the end was relatively harmless. One night as we were driving through Austria, the sun went down and we were in the mountains. Since Old Lady doesn’t have the best headlights, and there are no lights in the dash, we decided to pull over in a random town. We spotted the local watering hole and decided to warm up with a hot cup of Gluvhein. This turned into drinking beers with the local crowd until it was just about that time to go home. We were back in the van about asleep when all of the sudden the front door opened. It was one of the guys from the bar who had somehow found where we were parked. We were pretty freaked, but I politely told him that we were sleeping and that he should go home. He was drunk and supposedly just wanted to give me his email address. I sent him on his way, and no one else ever bothered us.
My favorite parts were definitely getting to explore the incredible scenery in Slovenia, crawling through the back mountain roads listening to great tunes, and the freedom to come and go as we pleased. We made up our itinerary on the fly and I absolutely loved waking up and going wherever felt right for that day. Exploring all the waterfalls, gorges, trails and castles along the way totally made the journey extra special.
I have to be honest that #vanlife was a lot of level 2 fun for me. That means that for a majority of the time we were driving, I thought I was going to have a heart attack, but afterwards I was able to look back and think it was fun. My least favorite part was finding a place to park each night. There’s nothing worse than arriving in a new place totally disoriented and tired, and having to find a home that won’t get you a ticket for parking there.
A close runner up was any time we had to put the van into reverse. Turning around usually didn’t go that well.
Max speed was 60mph. Hills were less than 20mph.
One of the best things about Old Lady is that she’s very gentle. She moves slowly, and carefully through life. This wonderful quality about her definitely kept us safe, and probably prevented a speeding ticket or two. We did make sure to look at weather conditions, but for the most part, we never felt truly unsafe.
Did I miss something? If you have any more questions, leave them in the comments!
Many thanks to the guys at Balkan Campers for making my dreams of living in a van come true.
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