Slovenia: Snow with everything
Slovenia can't match France for ski slopes, but with cross-country and toboganning also on offer, it's still a great winter destination, says Anna Jenkinson
Saturday 16 February 2008
This is not your average bar – unless you're used to sipping hot white wine while sitting on a sawn-off tree trunk covered with soft sheepskin. Chilled-out electronic music is playing in the background, the room is lit with candles, and funky figures are etched into the walls. Welcome to Slovenia's latest winter attraction: Igloo Village Krvavec.
As a ski destination, Slovenia struggles to match the facilities in destinations such as the French Alps: in a country the size of Wales there aren't enough slopes to go round. However, where the place comes into its own is with multi-activity winter holidays: combining downhill skiing with cross-country skiing and hiking or even ice-climbing.
The destination is also hard to beat from the point of view of cost – a euro goes a fair way in Slovenia. In recent years the skiing infrastructure – lifts, resorts, lodges – has been gradually modernising; the slopes will probably get busier as businesses such as the Igloo Village spring up.
Forget the ice hotel; this is a snow suburb. Krvavec's colony of igloos, each shaped from hard-packed snow, started business this season. It offers standard igloos for small groups or romantic igloos with pink-and-white mobiles of paper hearts hanging over the bed for couples. A central tunnel links the sleeping area with a large lounge, the main feature of which is a curved bar with vats of mulled wine on top. Behind the bar, a shelf has been chiselled out of the wall and filled with every bottle of spirits you can imagine.
Matija Koren, one of the directors, explained his attempts to introduce igloo-chic to Slovenia as being part of a "need to change people's perceptions", although he brushed aside my perception that it could get a bit chilly at night. The average low is typically zero Celsius, although expedition sleeping bags are provided which are suitable for as low as -30C. The beds are made from a block of snow covered with insulated material and sheepskins.
I arrived in the mid-afternoon, just as Matija and his colleagues were putting the final touches to the outdoor bar, where guests are greeted with an "Eskimo" shot – a mix of Finlandia vodka and apple liqueur – served in a glass made of ice. Guests then have their pick of the numerous winter sports available in igloo land: sledding, snowbiking and snowshoeing among them.
If you've already had a day on the slopes and a more relaxing evening is what you had in mind, then besides the bar the village has a sauna, not to mention cheese fondue in the Igloo Restaurant. Then you can either snuggle up in your thermal sleeping bag, or stay in the bar and party.
The new igloo village is at the foot of a ski lift at Krvavec. At just half an hour's drive from Slovenia's capital, Ljubljana, and a mere 8km from the city's international airport, this is one of Slovenia's most popular ski centres. There are 25km of trails, with the majority best suited to intermediate skiers.
The views at Krvavec are spectacular, with layer upon layer of snow-capped mountains, to be enjoyed with your feet up on a sunny terrace at one of the mountain cafés. However, should you wish to look further for winter excitement, you're in luck.
A short drive west brings you to Triglav, Slovenia's only national park. The protected area includes much of the Julian Alps and is home to the country's highest mountain, Mount Triglav (2,864m). The park, two-thirds of which is covered by forest, offers outdoor opportunities galore – skiing, hiking and climbing among them. Night tobogganing did it for me.
Five of us set off at about 7pm as the light had faded from the mountainside. Matevz, our guide, handed us each a head-torch and explained the basics of steering the sled: right foot down to go right, left foot down to go left, both feet to slow down – and if that fails just lift up the front of the sled. As I looked down the narrow, torch-lit path, with what looked like a rather steep drop into dark forest – and whatever wild animals lurked there – on one side, it did cross my mind that this might not be the most sensible way to try out sledding for the first time. However, having been assured that brown bears didn't live in this part of Slovenia, and after watching my Slovenian companions whooshing off into the darkness, I tentatively began my own descent.
With the others far ahead and out of sight I was the only witness to my less than impressive effort. Each time I picked up a bit of speed, another bend appeared and I quickly planted my feet in the snow for fear of skidding off the track. Just as I was beginning to get the hang of anticipating the turns and managing the steering, I emerged into a clearing and saw the others patiently waiting for me.
I landed at the bottom with zero points out of 10 for style, whereupon Matevz told us that that this had been just a precursor to the main event; the real fun would start after a hot drink at the Alpine hut.
Here I was offered tea with a shot of rum. As the old man who worked in the hut trudged along with our drinks, my fellow tobogganists whispered that he seemed in a bad mood as all he was doing was cursing a lot in Slovene. Given how remote the location was, maybe business was bad, they joked.
We were in high spirits, though, after our liquid refreshments and keen to return to our sleds. The whole tobogganing experience was magical; I felt like a child as I laughed and screamed my way down the trails. To round off the evening we walked through Triglav National Park, surrounded by the silhouettes of the mountains and a sky full of stars.
The Vogel centre in the Bohinj valley is hard to beat for skiing in or near the national park, with views northward over the glacial lake Bohinj and out to Mount Triglav. The ski lifts on the mountain take you up and over snow-covered stretches that are so smooth they look like glittering white sand dunes, and for accommodation you can either lodge on the mountain (while there are no igloos on offer here, there are alpine huts or the Ski Hotel to choose from) or down in the valley, where one possibility is to stay with a family and gain a peek into local life.
I was warmly welcomed into the Pekovec household. They showed me their garden, replete with a hayrick and a large churn which I assumed was for milk, but was used to make schnapps. Milk and cottage cheese were plentiful thanks to the family cow. The heart of the house was the kitchen. It acted as a meeting place for the extended family and the place to be invited in for schnapps after a day's skiing.
In contrast to the homely feel of the Bohinj valley, on the northern edge of the national park is perhaps Slovenia's most developed ski resort: Kranjska Gora, which is only a handful of miles from Slovenia's borders with Austria and Italy. The slopes start right in the village of Kranjska Gora. The place is geared up for visitors and there's a wide choice of bars, cafés and restaurants. The four-star hotels give the village a more expensive feel, though compared with western ski resorts everything is relatively light on the pocket. If the village seems a little too brash, take a 10-minute walk to peaceful Lake Jasna or 10-minute drive to the edge of the Tamar Valley for more hiking or cross-country skiing – the feeling of tranquillity will soon return.
The area around Kranjska Gora hosts World Cup slalom and giant slalom races for men on the slopes of Vitranc and ski-jumping events in Planica. There's nothing to stop you having a go at skiing down the Vitranc slope, although helmets are recommended. After all, sore heads are readily available following a shot or two of rum and a night in an igloo.
Ljubljana-Brnik airport is served by easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com) from Stansted and Adria Airways (020-7437 0143; www.adria-airways.com) from Gatwick. From the airport, Alpetour buses ( www.alpetour.si) go to Ljubljana and Kranj, where you change for Bohinj Valley or Kranjska Gora.
Igloo Village Krvavec (00 386 1 300 3845; www.humanfish.com). A six-person igloo costs €80 (£62) per person, or €€120 (£92) per person in an igloo for two, room only. Rooms with a local family can be found through tourist offices ( www.bohinj.si; www.kranjska-gora.si; www.rtc-krvavec.si) and start at about €10 (£7.70) per person per night; a traditional breakfast costs €5 (£3.80).
SKIING & ACTIVITIES
At Krvavec, cable cars operate from 8am-5pm in winter. A one-day adult ski pass costs €€26 (£20). Ski equipment can be rented; skis and boots cost €21 a day. Eventisma (00 386 4 587 9720; www.simply-slovenia.com), a local tour operator based in Kranjska Gora, offers activity packages in the Julian Alps.
Triglav National Park, Julian Alps (00 386 4 578 0200; www.tnp.si/national_park)
020-7222 5400; www.slovenia.info
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