Skiing in Serbia: Balkan bonanza
The mountains of Serbia have plenty to offer the discerning skier, says Matt Carroll
Saturday 14 October 2006
In the 1990s, as the civil war tore the former Yugoslavia apart, Serbian tourism officials came to the World Travel Market in London to try to entice visitors. They got the cold shoulder. Yet with peace (mainly) prevailing in the Balkans, skiing in Serbia is now a reasonable prospect - especially for anyone seeking value. Before the war, the Serbian resort of Kopaonik was popular with a selection of British skiers; every season, a few thousand would fly over for a dose of quirky culture, excellent food and great terrain.
Two years ago, Crystal put Kopaonik back on its books, and the hotels are filling up with Brits once more. So what is it that we love so much?
For starters, the fact that everything is on your doorstep. There's no mucking about with shuttle buses to get to the slopes; everything is a short stroll away. This is just as well, given the long distance from the Serbian capital. Arriving here after a four-hour transfer from Belgrade, I was relieved to find that it took only a few minutes to dump my bags at the hotel and get involved.
There are 21 lifts here, which give you access to a good spread of easy blues and cruisy reds - all of which will have most beginners and intermediates grinning like Cheshire cats. Snow coverage is good too: the first flakes generally start falling just over a month from now, and stick around until early May.
As is often the case when I rock up to a resort, however, the steadily falling snow started turning to sleet while I sat on the chair lift for my first run down Karaman Greben. The result was a watery mess at the bottom of the slope. Rather than get angry (or risk an embarrassing wipe-out), I headed to the bar instead.
The Hotel Grand is one of the biggest in Kopaonik, and has good facilities including a well-stocked gym, sports hall and spa. Even though I probably didn't deserve it, I booked myself in for a "Swedish", in a bid to put some life into my legs. Next, I headed off in search of food. There's a good selection of restaurants in Kopaonik, but for a taste of true Serbian hospitality you must try Suri (00 381 36 71 072). Decked out in rustic style (think wooden rafters and various stuffed animals), it's run by Radomir Velickovic - a veritable Goliath of a man who warmly declares his "love" for you (in Serbian, naturally) the moment you walk through the door.
This is the place where Serbia's celebs come to feast. Sitting just a few tables away was Ceca - the country's best-known pop idol and former wife of the notorious paramilitary leader, Arkan, who was killed in a shoot-out several years ago. Avoiding all eye contact, I waded through eight courses of the finest Serbian cuisine, including pecenje (roasted ox), and various cured meats.
Slope-side eateries are also different in Serbia. I ended up at a cosy little cabin near the top of the Karaman Greben lift. The huge open fire in the centre of the room, and seats draped in furs, are just the ticket after a morning on the mountain. And at £7 for a huge spread, including a couple of local brandies, it's better value than you'd get in France.
Kopaonik can hold its own when it comes to nightlife, too. One of the more interesting bars I found was Kortina Ski Club, where sweat dripped from the ceiling as Serbia's bright and beautiful strutted their stuff to a selection of Euro-pop "classics". If flailing elbows are not your thing you could try the more understated Royal Bar, where you're more likely to get a seat (and a drink).
Having indulged in après ski beers before I'd properly skied, I was eager to hit the slopes the next morning. Thankfully, the snow conditions were better and I warmed-up on Duboka 2 (meaning "deep gulley"), which starts off as a red before becoming black halfway down.
What amazed me was the stash of untracked treasure I found beside the Karaman Greben lift. It was 11 o'clock in the morning, and not a single soul had ventured onto it. I quickly nipped under the wire and set about laying out some chunky turns, laughing to myself the whole way down like some maniacal snow beast - much to the amusement of the witnesses on the nearby lift.
The other benefit of coming to Kopaonik is that you can stop over in Belgrade on the way home. Many of the bars - like Ben Akiba, the first one I visited - are hidden away inside seemingly innocuous buildings. After climbing a flight of concrete stairs, I was shown into one of the most sophisticated cocktail bars I've ever seen. There, among the brushed aluminium and exposed brickwork, I began a night out that rivalled anything London and New York have to offer. What's more, my mojito cost less than £2.
Conclusive evidence, if you need it, that Serbia is a perfectly sensible skiing choice.
Throughout January 2007 Crystal Ski (0870 160 6040; www.crystalski.co.uk) is offering seven-night, self-catering packages to Kopaonik for £199, including flights from Gatwick. One-week half-board at the Hotel Grand costs £349
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