It might not be at the top of the list for great skiing destinations, but perhaps it should be. Tiny Slovenia has a surprising amount to offer in the way of winter sports, from cross-country runs to great skiing resorts – all within easy reach of the capital. Rough Guides editor Helen Abramson, a seasoned snowboarder at heart, tries her hand at racing down the Slovenian slopes on skis.
As I clip my toes into the unfamiliar bindings of cross-country skis, I can’t help but think that more of my foot should be attached to these alarmingly narrow pieces of fibreglass. Has nobody thought about what my heel will be doing? I’m picturing sweat, frustration, tears and twisted ankles, but as soon as we push off into the first track my feet appear to be perfectly safe and the gliding motion comes smoothly and easily.
I’m at the Pokljuka Plateau in the Julian Alps of Triglav National Park, Slovenia, on the busiest day for years, according to Hike&Bike guide, Grega. That is, apart from when the Biathlon World Cup makes its annual stop here in a fortnight’s time. After weeks of terrible weather, today the sky is achingly blue, diggers are out on the roads to cut through the 2m of fresh snow on the ground, and it seems as if the whole of Slovenia is determined to get onto the slopes. It’s also the school holidays, and a Sunday; it’s mayhem out there.
Recent weather has reflected that of the whole season: unpredictable. In January, rain fell in the high-altitude ski resorts, and it was too warm to make fake snow. Then in early February, thousands of trees froze and died in ice storms, and a quarter of the country's homes were left without power. Electricity is now restored to most places, but over 40 per cent of the country’s forests – which cover around 60 per cent of the land – have been damaged by the freak conditions.
Having mastered the basics of cross-country skiing, I move on to the ski slopes of the Julian Alps. There’s no denying that by western European standards the alpine resorts of Slovenia are small. However, limitations on the number of pistes are overcome by several factors: the opportunities for beginners (excellent nursery slopes, plenty of wide blue runs and a high teaching standard), well-maintained snow parks, a smattering of challenging black runs for the more advanced, low prices (lift passes are around €30 and 0.5l of beer on the slopes is a refreshing €2.50) and last but far from least, the proximity of the resorts to the capital. You can see planes taking off and landing from the slopes of Krvavec, the second-largest resort in the country, just 10km from Ljubljana airport, and family-friendly Kranjska Gora and the smaller but higher Vogel, with its spectacular views over Lake Bohinj, both about an hour’s drive from the city centre.
After a night in the gorgeous lakeside castle town of Bled, a handy base for getting to the Julian Alps resorts, I escape to Jelka, a secluded forest lodge in Pokljuka. I wake to a burning orange glow through the window, as the sun rises for another glorious day ahead. The view from the balcony is like a fairyland, and children are lining up to begin ski classes at the button lift on the little slope next to the hotel. There are dozens of mini lifts like this around the region; where there’s a hill, there are skiers.
In Krvavec, an hour’s drive east of Pokljuka, I watch with awe as a 70-year old snowboarder takes on the smaller of the two snow parks, followed by impossibly tiny children leaping over every obstacles. I follow on tentatively, acutely aware that this is truly a nation of ski and sports enthusiasts. Per capita, Slovenia came second only to Norway in the 2014 Winter Olympics medals table, reflecting the enormous possibilities for learning to ski and snowboard here, despite the small scale of the resorts.
The attitude of everyone I meet is geared towards getting as much fun out of the alpine land as possible – Slovenia is a veritable haven for adventure-sporty types. Kravec guide Luka tells me that in summer you can wakeboard on the Zvoh reservoir on the resort’s highest peak, nearly 2000m above sea level, with breath-taking views over the valley. He also explains excitedly about a new eco-ski resort opening for the 2014/15 season with more options for advanced skiers, called 2864 – the height, in metres, of Slovenia’s highest mountain, Triglav. For now though, it’s time to plunge downhill on a snow-bike. Arms straight, lean back, keep your knees in, look where you want to go and you’re in for a thrill-seekers’ treat. More controlled than sledging (which you can also do here both day and night, of course), but just as fast. There’s so much to do in and around this national park, especially for the adrenaline-hungry, that I struggle to imagine anyone ever getting bored.
All too soon, it’s time to leave. On the way to the airport, I stop for a late lunch at Jezersek, a five-minute drive from the check-in desks, for the best meal I’ve had in weeks. It’s traditional Slovenian food at its best, with dishes such as bakala (cod paté), venison tartare, seabass with polenta and deer fillet with “hot goat” (goat’s cheese wrapped in bacon), in classy surroundings for a surprisingly reasonable price (€5 for a melt-in-your-mouth goulash) – a great way to ease yourself down from the slopes and get ready to return home.
Need to know
Getting there: Wizz Air fly from London Luton to Ljubljana three times a week from €56 return.
Getting around: Shuttle buses run from Bled to Vogel and Krvavec, but if you want to move around the different resorts with ease, you’re best off hiring a car. Most of the driving is on open roads or highways, apart from the drive to Pokljuka, which takes you up a windy mountain road.
Vogel has 22km of beginner and intermediate runs. It’s 85km from Ljubljana and 30km from Bled. Summit: 1,535m.
Pokljuka Plateau has 20km of cross-country ski routes and is 10km east of Vogel (70km from Ljubljana).
Kranjska Gora has 30km of pistes, mostly beginner and intermediate runs with good nursery slopes ideal for children, plus a handful of black pistes and 40km of cross-country tracks. It’s a 60km-drive from Pokljuka round the outskirts of Triglav National Park (85km from Ljubljana). Summit: 1,623m.
Krvavec is 10km from Ljubljana Airport and has 30km of ski runs, with majority intermediate runs, and more black runs than the other resorts. Summit: 1,971m.
2864 Bohinj Eco Resort is due to open Dec 2014, between Bled and Vogel (75km from Ljubljana), with 47km of pistes and direct access via train from Ljubljana.
Ski passes: Prices range from €27–31.50 per day, or €140–160 for six days. You don’t need a ski pass for the cross-country skiing at Pokljuka, though hiring the equipment costs €50/day.
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For more information on winter sports in Slovenia, go to www.slovenia.info, email [email protected] or call +44 (0)870 225 5305.