Heading for new heights

Can Serbia regain its appeal as a low-cost ski destination? With terrain that's ideal for beginners, and a resort modelled on a medieval monastery, it's well on track, says Stephen Wood

The phrase: "Have fun in Serbia" just didn't sound right. It suggested what seemed an inappropriate form of behaviour, like whistling in a church. The words were merely the postscript to an e-mail from a friend, not a marketing slogan (probably a good thing, although the official Serbian tourism board's effort: "Fall in love again", bears replacing). Still, the trauma of recent Serbian history - most of the country's history, in fact - made me reluctant to admit that "fun" was the purpose of my visit. But what is the point of going skiing if not to enjoy yourself?

The phrase: "Have fun in Serbia" just didn't sound right. It suggested what seemed an inappropriate form of behaviour, like whistling in a church. The words were merely the postscript to an e-mail from a friend, not a marketing slogan (probably a good thing, although the official Serbian tourism board's effort: "Fall in love again", bears replacing). Still, the trauma of recent Serbian history - most of the country's history, in fact - made me reluctant to admit that "fun" was the purpose of my visit. But what is the point of going skiing if not to enjoy yourself?

At first sight, on the flightpath to Belgrade airport, Serbia doesn't look a promising place to ski. As a fellow passenger remarked, it was like flying into Kansas, but colder. The city lies on a huge plain, its farmland stretching up towards Budapest. This, the northern region of the country, called Vojvodina, provides enough food to feed the whole of Europe, I was told later in the trip - and it seemed quite plausible. But skiing? Quite the opposite.

Neither did Belgrade promise much fun, at least initially. It has about two million inhabitants and a lot of traffic. The combination of the evening rush-hour and a blizzard was bad enough; but add to that the difficulty of navigating with a map that spelled out street names in the Latin alphabet while the signs themselves use Cyrillic, and you'll get an idea why I despaired of ever finding my hotel.

How difficult is it to transliterate from Cyrillic? Let me offer a single example. The route south out of Belgrade towards the mountains starts on the E75 motorway, heading towards Nis. That is how the city's name appears on road signs, which generally are in Latin script. But on those occasions when Cyrillic is used, the letters that make up its name are an "H", followed by the mirror image of an "N" and finally an "E" on its back. With three-letter names you know approximately where you are, but merely counting letters isn't so effective when, on a dark, snowy night in the capital, you're looking for Kralja Petra the First Street.

Were it not for the help of several friendly, English-speaking Serbs - plus the street's location near Belgrade's biggest landmark, Kalemegdan park - I would have probably spent the night in a rented Honda Civic instead of the Aleksandar Palas, a hi-tech, high-style boutique hotel.

The Aleksandar Palas is too new and too small to be a landmark. Not so the imposing, 89-room Hotel Moskva, a useful reference point for a newcomer to the city on a morning stroll. A fabulous concoction of green and brown glazed bricks and ornate, deep-green ceramic motifs dating from 1906, the hotel is near the central Republik Square - and in the vicinity is a fine collection of architecture from the first half of the 20th century, some of it influenced by Secessionist and Bauhaus styles. Signs of the Nato bombing during the Kosovo war six years ago are evident elsewhere, but not in the heart of the city as far as I could tell from a couple of hours' sightseeing. Although probably better without ankle-deep slush, Belgrade turned out to be a great place to explore on foot, particularly because if you have time to stare at Cyrillic street names echoes of their Latin-script equivalent do emerge.

The E75 motorway connects with Zagreb to the west and Thessalonika to the south. It is a major European route, and therefore a corridor of affluence: its service stations have attracted Austrian and Greek investors. In the fast lane it's easy to forget what a museum-piece the Serbian economy is, having only escaped from centralised Communist/nationalist control a few years ago. The output of the Zastava car factory reportedly amounts to no more than three of its 1975-vintage, Fiat-designed vehicles per worker per annum and foreign companies fight shy of buying state-owned companies because of the requirement that staffing levels be maintained, at least for a few years. Kopaonik, the country's premier ski resort and ostensibly highly attractive to investors, remains effectively 100 per cent state-owned.

Once you turn off the E75, a more authentic Serbia of scruffy, impoverished towns emerges. The villages are more charming, but life in them is obviously hard. News coverage of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia revealed a fairly grim picture of rural life in the Balkans, and that is the picture you see on the drive on to Kopaonik, near the border with Kosovo. At Brus, the town where the winding 25km ascent to the resort begins, there are men standing by the roadside. They are plying their trade, that of fitting or removing snow chains, for a small fee. Watching them lying in the snow, grappling - bare-handed - with your chains is a rather dispiriting experience.

Until the end of the 1991/2 season, Serbia was a fairly popular budget destination for British skiers, and Thomson sold about 3,000 holidays per season in Kopaonik. But with the outbreak of the civil war, UK tour operators withdrew. Kopaonik continued to function each winter during the war, and with the suspension of UN economic sanctions in the mid-1990s began to attract foreign visitors once more, mainly from Greece and Bulgaria. By 1998, with charter flights going into Nis airport, the resort seemed a viable proposition. But Thomson's hopes of returning were dashed by the outbreak of war in Kosovo, a conflict in which Nato bombing raids destroyed the telecommunications tower at the top of Kopaonik's ski area, a hotel nearby, and Nis airport. This winter, though, Thomson has restarted its Serbian programme, initially using scheduled BA flights to Belgrade. With Andorra moving upmarket, the tour operator wanted another budget destination, and Serbia fills that niche admirably: with package prices starting from £275 per week half-board, the holidays to Kopaonik are the cheapest in the 2004/5 Thomson brochure.

You don't get what you don't pay for, of course. The hotels could be better and the food more palatable, the lifts faster and the terrain more challenging; but were that the case, Kopaonik could afford to be more expensive. There was pleasant intermediate skiing last month, but a lack of snow meant that only two-thirds of the area was open, not including the more challenging stuff. A longer-term problem denies access to its highest point: during the Nato strikes, cluster bombs fell near the lift up to the 2,017m peak, and it will remain closed until funds can be raised to clear the area.

Although its accommodation standards are old-style Eastern European (the "four-star" Hotel Grand doesn't have a single bath, not even in the massive suite used by the heir to the Serbian throne), the architecture of Kopaonik's "village" centre is remarkable. A majority of the resort's 2,500 tourist beds are in the Konaci, an apartment development modelled on the defensible monasteries of medieval Serbia.

In parts seven storeys high, the apartment buildings almost enclose a central pedestrian piazza. Skiers coming off the mountain have easy access, but on the other side the main entrance is a stone archway hung with wooden doors 20ft high. Instead of the glass-and-concrete architecture of Eastern Europe in the mid-1980s, Konaci's façades have an ethnic, Elizabethan-revival look about them thanks to their dark wooden beams and white rendering. The complex façades step in and out, up and down, and dormer windows pierce the steeply pitched, wood-shingled roofs. There is an odd, post-modern lunacy to the whole busy ensemble, most of all on the octagonal watchtower that emerges - medieval-stone extrusions and all - from a car-crash of roof-lines.

Does it sound tacky? It isn't, apart from the sleazy bars among the shops in the roofed, ground-floor arcades. The austere historical references - including a wooden covered market with narrow passages and stalls - prevent Konaci from seeming too eager-to-please. Kopaonik's skiing may not be the best, nor is its bed and board. But it's still a bargain, because Konaci is almost worth the cost of the trip on its own.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING AND STAYING THERE

Thomson Ski (0870 606 1470; www.thomson-ski.co.uk) offers seven nights in Kopaonik, including Heathrow-Belgrade flights, transfers and half-board accommodation, from £275 per person (£390 at the Hotel Grand, based on two sharing; £325 at Aparthotel Konaci, four sharing).

Six-day lift passes cost from £55 for adults and £40 for children; learn-to-ski packages (including lift pass, ski/boot hire and six half-day lessons) cost £115 for adults, £90 for children

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