'Don't forget your flak jacket." That was the standard reaction of friends on learning I was taking my children skiing in Serbia. Oh, how I'd sneered at such ignorance. Yet here I was, at the top of a mountain, listening to my ski instructor explain how the national park we were standing in had been bombed by Nato in 1999, but not to worry as the whole area had been thoroughly checked for any unexploded ordnance. When? A year ago.
"And just to make sure, we left some sheep here over the summer. Ha, ha - lots of meat on the menu." Miki, our ski instructor for the week, was enjoying himself. He told us that the border with Kosovo lay 100m ahead. To our left we were looking down on Macedonia, and to our right was Montenegro, with a far-off glimpse of his native Bosnia. The mountains spread out below like a crumpled white blanket; war and its horrors seemed to belong to another world.
We were standing 1,975m up, in Kopaonik, south-west Serbia, a ski resort that is enjoying a revival with British visitors, helped by the fact that both Thomson and Crystal now fly into Nis airport, halving the previous five-hour transfer from Belgrade.
Kopaonik is Serbia's winter playground and as well as the British skiers enjoying the sun, good food and cheap prices, the resort bristles with Serbian celebrities. During our week's visit we spotted the footballer Mateja Kezman, the pop star Ceca and other local bigwigs. ("He is a political man," Miki sneered, pointing to one skier. "They are always fat and expensively dressed.")
Our holiday home was the Hotel Grand, a strange amalgam of modern facilities, such as pool, gym and spa, and old-style Eastern European officiousness: the restaurant closed at 7pm; paying the mini-bar bill was not allowed before the designated time. It's a similar story in Kopaonik itself; you can buy designer ski equipment in its fancy shops, but the post office will not sell you a stamp unless you hand over the postcard.
Kopaonik's town centre is the site of the other accommodation offered by our tour operator, Thomson; apartments built 20 years ago around a square of shops, bars and restaurants. In fact, the complex is the town centre, supplemented by a few market stalls selling local produce such as honey and pickled vegetables, and one that specialises in bullets, knuckle dusters, knives and what looked like real guns.
Those sinister wares flashed through my mind later that evening when loud bangs erupted around us, but it turned out to be fireworks, ignited at random. The Serbian take on health and safety is less developed than ours; no one suggested helmets for the children when skiing, and not smoking, like being vegetarian, is considered mildly eccentric.
The bangs contributed to the town's party feel. But while the younger holidaymakers could indulge in après-ski, the atmosphere wasn't quite so enjoyable for the middle-aged couple whose flat was above a noisy club where the DJ wound everyone up to a foot-stomping finale at 2am.
Being too young and too old for late nights, we spent the evenings at the ice rink, where my non-skating kids were whisked away from the sides by eager Serbian hands. Or, best of all, sliding down a gentle slope on soft plastic trays, which the kids seemed to enjoy as much as skiing with all its complicated paraphernalia.
Our hotel's great advantage, apart from the quiet, was that you could ski from the back door. We visited during the great no-snow of this past Christmas, so only two long blue runs were open, but the resort at full throttle has 44km of downhill skiing plus 18km of cross-country trails with 22 lifts. And my learner kids were thrilled to be able to sail down easy runs of 1,400m and 1,200m.
Miki regretted he couldn't show us Kopaonik at its best. "I could show you wolves. I could show you foxes. We could go all day and see no one," he told us.
He did manage to show us two wolf skins at a hut called Wolves' Way at the top of the chair lift. The coats, along with those of various other beasts, were nailed to the wall. We looked at them while sipping hot wine round an open fire that was being used to smoke hams, and grill hamburgers. ("Everything is organic," Miki assured us.) The braver among us tried rakija, the local brandy, and Miki got out his mobile phone to show off a picture of a wolf he had shot recently.
It was our last evening. We said our goodbyes and went off to pack, leaving Miki to prepare for his next pupil, the President of Macedonia.
THE COMPACT GUIDE: HOW TO GET THERE
Natalie Holmes travelled with Thomson Ski (0870-606 1470; thomson-ski.co.uk), which offers a week at the four-star Hotel Grand in Kopaonik from £399 per adult, £99 per child aged 2-11, £39 for under-2s, based on two sharing. The price includes return flights, transfers and half board. A six-day lift pass for a family of four is £174, and six-day ski and boot hire is £73 per person. Ski tuition was provided by the Elite ski school.
National Tourism Organisation of Serbia (serbia-tourism.org).Reuse content