Skiing: This may come as a surprise, but Slovenia is great for good, cheap skiing. You just have to know what you're doing
Saturday 15 January 2000
The introduction to the
Lonely Planet Guide to Slovenia lists "several important things to know" about the country which are "often misunderstood". The first of them is that "it is not Slovakia". In any other guidebook, this might be considered something of an insult to the reader, but in one on Slovenia (and there is only one available in the UK), it is probably wise to begin with the basics.
The introduction to the Lonely Planet Guide to Slovenia lists "several important things to know" about the country which are "often misunderstood". The first of them is that "it is not Slovakia". In any other guidebook, this might be considered something of an insult to the reader, but in one on Slovenia (and there is only one available in the UK), it is probably wise to begin with the basics.
Before moving on to the second important thing - that Slovenia is not in the Balkans - I paused to surf across the depths of my own ignorance about the country. I knew that it had a ski resort called Kranjska Gora, that a show of strength (and firm support from Germany) had enabled it to secede from Yugoslavia with little bloodshed before the civil war, that it lay cross the Adriatic from Venice and... that was about it. When, last week, someone asked where my flight to Slovenia would land, I found to my embarrassment that I could not remember the name of the capital city.
But even after digesting a wealth of information about Slovenia - a capital called Ljubljana, a population of about two million, an area about the size of Wales of which 80 per cent is forested - it still remained curiously elusive.
The language provides a formidable barrier, for a start. Slovene is grammatically complex and consistently irregular, with a vocabulary to defy even the most intuitive linguist. Once in the country, only a dim memory of drinking in Poland enabled me to identify pivo as beer, and it took a particularly lucid moment to work out that pomfri meant chips; both paradaiznik (tomato) and Benetke (which is how "Venice" is rendered in Slovene) eluded me.
The Lonely Planet selection of the key figures in the Slovenian arts didn't exactly build cultural bridges, either. Among those listed, I was barely familiar with the work of just two of them, the contemporary composer Vinko Globokar and the militaristic gothic-rock band Laibach, which enjoyed some fashionable obscurity in Britain in the early 1990s.
All this need not, of course, concern visiting skiers. For them, the important things to know about Slovenia are as follows: although the big British ski-tour operators concentrate almost exclusively on Kranjska Gora, there are as many as four dozen ski areas in the country, all small-to medium-sized.
Historical evidence from the 17th century suggests that Slovenians have been using skis for 400 years. And skiing is the country's most popular sport - hard to credit until you discover that Slovenia is so far out of step with the rest of Europe that football still has only minority appeal there.
On a clear day, you can see that this is skiing country (cross-country as much as Alpine) from the flight path into Ljubljana. Dropping across the southern Austrian Alps and Slovenia's Julian Alps, the plane descends into a furrowed landscape where snowy, misty valleys alternate with dark, forested ridges.
In an Arctic spectrum ranging from white to black on the ground with the coolest of blues in the sky, even the tiny airport (by comparison, Luton is a major hub) seemed attractive - although my mood had been excessively lightened by the Slovene word for Customs, which obliges the burly, khaki-clad officers to wear the word Carina ("darling" in Italian) on their hearts.
The lakeside spa town of Bled, Slovenia's main tourist attraction about 30km to the north-west, looked exquisite. A medieval castle hovered way above it on a rocky cliff; a church perched on an island jutted out of the flat Lake Bled, whose waters - slowly turning to ice - were stained an appropriate blood-red by visiting algae; and almost surrounding the town was a panorama of perfect, chocolate-box mountain peaks.
Some 40km further to the north-west, right up in Slovenia's top left-hand corner, is Kranjska Gora. While it may not be the country's best ski area (none of the Slovenians to whom I spoke thought so), it is certainly the best-known, because it has the most characteristically "Alpine" configuration, with an old village and hotel accommodation adjoining the resort base; because it holds one of the classic annual World Cup ski races on the slalom course in the linked area of Podkoren; and because it is less than a dozen kilometres away from both the Italian and Austrian borders. Apart from the World Cup run - a long, occasionally very steep but consistently wide swoop through the trees from about 1200m to the 800m valley floor - and the adjoining blacks at Podkoren, most of the skiing is easy stuff, with just a couple of long reds to amuse confident beginners and unconfident intermediates.
If Kranjska Gora didn't live up to expectation, offering barely a day's worth of skiing, the smaller ski areas nearer to Bled made up for that. About 25km west along the Bohinj valley (Slovenia is so small that nothing is far away), Kobla and Mount Vogel are hardly resorts, although Vogel does have a slopeside hotel at the top of the gondola that runs up from valley.
Essentially, they are quiet, local ski-fields - but good enough to also attract a fair number of Germans and Hungarians. With the closure of the lift to Kobla's 1,480m peak, it was difficult to properly judge the skiing there; but Vogel, which rises to 1,800m, is a beautiful if not particularly challenging ski area, its winding and undulating pistes set among the lower peaks.
Skiing in Slovenia also benefits from being remarkably cheap: the Crystal clients who turned up last Saturday at the four-star Park Hotel in Bled in which I stayed (it has excellent rooms, if slightly socialist-republic catering) were paying just £289 half-board for their week's holiday. And for about another £100 they could get a ski package, which included equipment, tuition and a lift pass for the Bohinj area, which is excellent for beginners. For experienced skiers, the problem with Slovenia is the small scale of the ski areas. But there is a solution to that. Ask local skiers about the best area, and you get a variety of answers. Some suggest the 2,300m Mount Kanin on the Italian border south-west of Kranjska Gora, others Maribor, to the east, which offers the most skiing and also hosts a World Cup race; the one mentioned most frequently was Krvavec, which is just outside Ljubljana.
Ideally, one would try them all - and in a country that squeezes 40 ski areas into only 20,000sq km, there's no reason why, with a hire car, one couldn't visit a different one every day. That's another important thing to know about Slovenia.
Crystal Holidays (0870-848 7000) offers flight packages to Kranjska Gora and Bled from £285 per person (based on two sharing). For further information about skiing and visits to Slovenia, contact the tourist office in London on 020-7287 7133
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