Almost every European goes skiing the Alps. What about something more exotic?! This year I went to the Balkans.
Why the Balkans? I have plenty of reasons. The Balkans is a very cheap place. The tickets from Bratislava and Budapest cost around 15 Euro. I promised to Dimitar, about whom I wrote in the article Macedonia adventure, that I would come one day in winter for skialpining.
I don’t like staying in one place for a long time and doing same things over and over again. I planned to visit 5 ski resorts in 4 different countries: Mavrovo in Macedonia, Brezovica in Kosovo, Kolasnik and Zabljak in Montenegro and Kopaonik in Serbia. Eventually, I didn’t go to Serbia because of a complicated traffic and I didn’t go to Kolasnik because of the lack of snow there. Besides, I was for the first time in Popova Sapka in Macedonia.
All visited resorts have fantastic terrain (above the forest level) in comparison with Bohemia. The prices are below 20 € / day for a ski pass and you can borrow skis for less than 10 Euro.
Skiing is not very popular here so you won’t see many skiers. And if you see someone, there’s a big chance that he will be skiing only on the easiest ski slopes. In all resorts there’s a possibility to freeride around the ski slopes. Locals, with exceptions, are not so much into skiing, so the only one who will be there with you are other foreign madmen, but you won’t see many of those either.
Just like everywhere else, even here you will see several pubs in every resort. Those are definitely cheaper than their alternatives from the Alps. Expect smokers here by the way. There are many ski rentals in every resort. I recommend you to always use those which are in stores. Most of the time they offer high-quality goods and even for lower price. Unfortunately, higher quality means that you would rather burrow yourself under the snow if you were in the Alps so nobody could see you. The real problem is finding a helmet, ski goggles or freeride skis (but not true for every place I’ve been to).
Balkan is situated more to the south than the Alps and on top of that, it’s a peninsula so the sea is always near. The temperature in winter is always higher. This means that it is very complicated with snow. Furthermore, I’ve never noticed any snow cannons. I would definitely recommend looking at the weather report and current snow status at least 2 weeks before the departure. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to look up any information regarding this matter. It’s always the best to contact someone local.
The locals don’t usually fix up the ski slopes. You will experience smooth ride only in some parts of the ski slopes and only if it wasn’t snowing at night. Snowpark or trail for cross-country skiing is not seen very often.
The most of the resorts were built in times of communism and since then, they have placed only some anchors. There is a small number of cableways and even if you find one, it’s going to be super-slow, uncomfortable and maximum of two people can get on. Besides, a small cold breeze is enough to stop the cableways.
The next disadvantage of local resorts is the absence of ski buses or any other kind of official transport, which can get you from point A to point B in the surroundings of the resort.
The most famous ski resort in Macedonia is situated north to Mavrovo, 100 kilometers from Skopje in the northwest of Macedonia. Like in many ski resorts in the Alps, you can find here one long cableway above the tree level. There are many anchors and ski slopes in the vicinity of the main cableway, but they are very short. The summit is therefore the best for beginners. There was enough snow, but not for freeriding. I would like to see few more decimetres. By the way, not all ski lifts were running. There was almost no snow when I was skiing back to the cableway, only one centimeter of dirty ice. So, the only enjoyable moment during the skiing was at the first half of the ride. The ski resort is not suitable for freeriding because of the lack of snow. You can’t go downward and the summit is mild and short.
When I was at the ski rental, I encountered a problem. The ski rental didn’t have enough skis to offer, even on Tuesday. If you decide to borrow something from stands near parking lots, be cautious. I recommend you to make them a little competitive competition.
If you seek skialpining , Mavrovo is the best. You can choose from many levels of difficulty, with or without a guide. Unfortunately, you canť borrow any equipment here. You have to take it with you. I didn’t know that and I failed because of that during my trip. The mountains are wonderful though, as I witnessed when I was here in summer.
According to the map, there should be two more cableways. But those were probably closed.
Popova Sapka is situated high up in the mountains above the city of Tetovo, approximately halfway between Skopje and Mavrova. Probably, you will see more snow thanks to the high altitude. Its quality is worse than in Mavrovo in my opinion. Ski resort is half an hour far away from Tetovo. There’s no ski bus. I had to take a taxi up to the mountain and on the way downhill, I was hitchhiking. In the store, skis cost just 5€. The assortment was much better than in other stores, but it was still inadequate for me.
This was the only ski resort in which they didn’t use chip ski passes. They used only a piece of paper which was briefly checked by cableway operator.
Almost every skier is in the south-east part of the ski resort. Here you can find several mild, well-tended ski slopes, one cableway and few ski lifts. The most important thing is in the north-west area. Slow double-chair ski lift will take you to the highest point of this site (2,360 m). From here, several long pistes lead back to the start of the cableway. Because of the lack of snow, only the difficult slope (black diamond mark) was opened, also it is the shortest piste. Its only advantage is the option to get to the cableway (located about halfway through) and avoid the lower part of the slope, where there is no much snow and it takes too long to get to the end. You won’t miss anything if you don’t ski to the bottom (and you save half of the time spent on cableway). Freerides of all difficulties are perfect for this snow-less area. There are nearly no rocks, so you don’t have to be afraid of getting stuck or falling between rocks. Except for beautiful clean pistes you can ski through a narrow valley, which leads to the mentioned shortcut to the cableway. It’s possible to get to the second part of the ski resort while freeriding.
There were other not-functioning cableways in the ski resort. One of them looked like modern four-seat cableway which led to the area between the two mentioned parts. If it was functioning, it would be really useful. It seems, that Macedonians have built pillars and stretched cables, but there was no money left for seats.
If you love freeriding just like me (and have a snow day), then Popova Sapka is definitely a great choice.
Brezovica is situated at the Kosovo side of the mountains, facing Macedonian city of Tetovo. It is the biggest ski resort in Kosovo.
If you don’t go here from Pristina (the capital city of Kosovo), then you will face many problems due to horrible traffic. I traveled from the nearest city (pleasant, historic city of Prizren), which was only 30 km far away and it took 4 hours…three times I had to hitchhiked because the bus somehow didn’t arrive. And even if you get here, expect a long walk from the car or a bus. The is no parking lot, so people have to park around the access road. Therefore, be here as soon as possible. If you like skiing through a forest (or you don’t like your skis), then you can even get to your car, when there is enough snow.
There is a ski rental, just beneath the first ski tow, where you can rent skis for 8€. They probably offer freeriding skis, according to URL address on their doors. Unfortunately, I rent skis in ski rental by the cashier’s desk, where it cost me 10 €.
The previous day it snowed heavily all night. Because of that all of the main cableways were closed. After an hour spent in a restaurant drinking tea, they finally decided to launch at least one cableway. Unfortunately, people visiting the Balkans love spending their time just riding cableways all day. They dress up light, go up, go down and all over again. I spent more than an hour waiting for my first ride. I was surrounded by excited teenagers who wanted to ride the cableway. In the end, I went only two times.
The only opened ski slope wasn’t even well-tended. It was really fun to watch desperate Balkan people, who don’t even know how to ski on a well-tended ski slope and now trying to ski in dug up powder snow. I was doing pretty good on normal skis, but I was jealous of the dudes with freeride skis.
At the bottom part of the ski resort are one short, always-running anchor and one closed ski single-chair lift. Other cableways are usually higher. Even here was beautiful terrain and especially terrific snow. Unfortunately, every one of them was closed.
Taking this into account, it was probably the most expensive skiing in my life. The potential is tremendous though. Given the high altitude which is higher than in Popova Sapka.
Kolasin is the biggest ski resort in Montenegro (according to the number of ski slopes). But it has low altitude. When I saw, how much snow is in other higher built ski resorts, I decided to totally skip this place. While driving through the city of Kolasin, I didn’t see any cableways, no snow either.
The city of Zabljak is situated in the north-east of Montenegro in Durmitor National Park. You won’t see many tourists during winter, but you will find everything needed in the city. The information center right across the street from a supermarket is especially useful.
Ski resort Savin Kuk is situated approximately 4 km to the north of the city. Supposedly, a bus goes here, but honestly, I’ve never seen it. Luckily, hitchhiking works perfectly here, even to or from the city.
You will find double-chair ski lift here and two anchors. Unfortunately, just in the day I was here, was the cableway to the top closed because of strong wind.
Thanks to the fact, that the two previous days snowed heavily. Finally, I could ski properly. The snow conditions were fantastic for skiing on perfectly well-tended ski slopes and even for freeriding around the ski slopes. Only opened ski slopes were the ones marked by blue square and frankly, for a decent skier, it’s not enough. There was one red ski slope, but it wasn’t well-tended, so the only ones who had skied there were freeriders and poor fellows, who didn’t know what are they getting into. A black ski slope leads from the upper cableway. It’s nothing special in my opinion, because it leads through a narrow valley between the rocks. But, one of the drivers I’ve met told me, that he had enjoyed it.
Local ski rent is definitely the most equipped I had seen during my trip. I rented freeriding skis, helmet and ski goggles for only 10 €. You can rent even cross-country skis and snowshoes. One of the employees speaks Czech very good and they will gladly chat with every Czech.
Except the ski slopes, you will find a marked trail for snowshoes leading to the Black Lake deep in the forest 3 km from the compound. The trail was already beaten by snow scooter, so I completed it with my snowshoes in my bag. I continued on summer hiking by the lakeside to the to the lookout mountain Curovec, from where you have a view on the canyon of the lake Tara. It is 12 km from the ski resort to the top of the mountain. The path took me 3 hours. According to the map, the path should be made partly by roads, but the truth is more snow-ish.
Many skialpinists have been walking around ski slopes on Savin Kuku. Unfortunately, I don’t have further information about them.
Kapoanik is a Serbian ski resort not far away from the northern borders of Kosovo. The main reason, why I eventually didn’t go there, is the current political situation between Serbia and Kosovo. Officially, you are not able to travel to Serbia from Kosovo (unless you didn’t go to Kosovo from Serbia). In addition to this, the traffic is bad as well.
If you don’t choose from ski resorts listed above, look around for something in Bulgaria (Bansko) or in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Jahorina and Bjelasnice).
Even when the Balkans is not so popular amongst Czechs, it offers a lot of amazing ski resorts suitable for beginners and undemanding skiers. An advanced skier must be lucky to have enough of high-quality snow. Either way, skiing here is rather unconventional.
Skiing, accommodation, transport and even food are extremely cheap here. And those people…
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Translated by Dave