At Kranjska Gora, Skiing The Way It Used to Be
By Robert V. Camuto
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 1, 2004; P01
Okay, so I didn't really train with the Slovenian National Ski Team.
But I was able to keep up with them through some turns. Not on the slopes, exactly, but around the breakfast buffet at the Hotel Kotnik, a family-run property in Slovenia's premier ski resort, Kranjska Gora.
The guys from the downhill team -- bleary-eyed 20-year-olds dragging off to another day of work -- were training for the World Cup event that comes every winter to this town nestled in the Julian Alps, 10 minutes by car from the Italian and Austrian borders.I was there last month simply for a ski getaway in an unpredictable setting -- tired of overcrowded, overpriced resorts on both sides of the Atlantic, of long lift lines, high-strung jerks, too much concrete, ridiculous prices and mini-malls.
I wanted to tune my technique for a few days in an easygoing mountain community, to get some real bang for my tolars (the local currency) and to experience Slovenia -- that New Jersey-size sliver of the former Yugoslavia known in Europe as "La Petite Suisse," or the "Little Switzerland" of the Balkans.
As I'd crossed the border from Italy in my rental car, I knew I'd found the right place. Entering the Zgornjesavska Valley, which I couldn't begin to pronounce, I saw nothing but small villages, dairy farms and clear mountain streams framed by steep white peaks and evergreen forests.
Though it's been known in the competitive ski world since the early 1960s, Kranjska Gora is just now becoming a favored winter destination for Europeans who seek an Alpine ski trip that costs half or less than one in France, Italy or Switzerland. Thirteen years after the Slovenian Republic declared its independence from Yugoslavia (the war for independence lasted only 10 days), Slovenia is set to become a member of the European Union in May and to switch to the euro in 2007.
In Kranjska Gora, it is clear that things are changing. Hotels and guest-houses are being renovated. New hotels with casinos, saunas and "wellness centers" have been built on the edges of town. In an effort to show off its international appeal, the new Hotel Prisank features a Manhattan Cocktail Club and a London Tearoom that overlooks its skating rink.
But Kranjska Gora has retained much of its down-home character -- more Austrian than modern-day Austria, with its superstores, car dealers and high-rise apartments.
In the village, you can access the slopes by walking down winding streets lined with tiled-roof alpine houses with puffing chimneys and the occasional wooden barn. At the slopes, the crowd is a mix of families pulling toddlers on sleds, weekend hacks like myself and young hotshot snowboarders. Over the sound system of a cafe at the mountain base, I heard a Lenny Kravitz song segue into a polka.
Bargain Hunters"Do you have any of those real short skis?"
I recognized the accent in the ski rental shop immediately. Another American, in this resort populated by Central Europeans, Russians, Italians, Germans and the occasional Brit.
The guy working at the sports shop understood the question and produced a pair of two-foot-long skis. Thanks to the public education system and the fact that American movies are broadcast on Slovenian television in English with Slovenian subtitles, almost everyone -- particularly young people -- speaks some English.
I introduced myself to my countryman, Lance, a mid-career Philadelphian getting an advanced degree in London. He had come to Kranjska Gora with his British mom and her husband on a whim. They found deep-discounted fares to Klagenfurt, Austria, and rented a car for the hour's drive.
That evening I ran into the three of them at a local inn, Gostilna Cvitar, and joined them for dinner.
The Cvitar, like all the inns I saw, was a tidy family place that looked as though it were decorated by someone's Slovenian grandmother -- right down to those little doilies they put under your bowl of soup.
Dinner started with cheeses and smoked ham and was followed by plates including beef goulash, sausages and dumplings filled with millet and cheese. We went through several pitchers of local red wine and finished with desserts. When the bill arrived, we were all struck by inverse sticker shock. We'd run up a 12,000-tolar tab -- about $65.
"This," Lance said, gloating, "is really going to be a reasonably priced vacation."
Small but DeadlyVitranc, the mountain above Kranjska Gora, is not huge. With a peak of a mere 5,150 feet, it is a relative molehill in the Alps. For example, better-known and more chic resorts within a half-day's drive of Kranjska Gora -- Innsbruck in Austria's Tyrol and Cortina d'Ampezzo in Italy's Dolomites -- are built on mountains twice as high. On the other hand, in Cortina, a mere three-hour drive away, you could easily spend more on lunch (fur coats and cell phones, extra) than you would for a whole weekend in Kranjska Gora.
A series of 18 lifts -- five chairlifts and 13 primitive drag lifts that pull you up the mountain on your skis -- wrap around the mountain. The easiest and most popular ski runs slope directly into Kranjska Gora. The steep black runs, where the World Cup slalom and giant slalom events are held, turn away from town on the mountain's back side.
Vitranc's summit has been off-limits to skiers for more than a decade after several skiers fell to their deaths. You can ride a chairlift up to the mountaintop, where a restaurant operates year-round. But if you go in winter, you'll be told to leave your skis behind. The summit is scheduled to reopen to skiers next season with a new lift and new, less perilous trails.
As for my skiing ability: Let's just say that had I started skiing at age 2 -- as opposed to 32 -- I'd probably have some impressive moves. It didn't help that I learned to ski just as skis and ski techniques were changing drastically. My technique is a hodgepodge of what I've gleaned from numerous ski instructors -- from the Taos hippie chick who explained (in words I can't print here) that I should basically have sex with the mountain, to the French ski bum who smoked a joint before a class in which he spoke a total of two words: "Follow me."
My technical goal at Kranjska Gora was to get back to the basics. There was something reassuring about learning from a guy like Jernej (pronounced "Hair-nay"), a no-nonsense Slovenian with a buzz cut and just enough English to make a blunt point.
"You ski old way," Jernej said less than a minute into my lesson. "You must learn new way."
Jernej explained that with the "old way" on longer skis, you shifted your weight to the downhill ski. For the "new way," he went on, you skied in balance on both skis, which were always kept on edge.
For the next two hours Jernej put me through a series of drills on the practice runs, including skiing with my hands on my knees and skiing with my poles held against my back with my elbows.
I think I finally got the new way. I could hear the difference as my skis stopped slipping around turns and started slicing through the packed snow.
'Good for the Spoon'After this athletic epiphany, it was time for lunch. And since the sun was shining and it was a perfect day to be outside in the mountains, I decided to drive a few miles to Planica, the ski-jumping center where the current world record was set by a Finn during the qualifiers for the world championship finals last year.
At Planica, I parked the car and headed up the walking trail (there is also a cross-country ski trail) for the hour's trek to the Tamar Valley, popular with hikers, climbers and cross-country skiers.
"The woman up there makes things that are good for the spoon -- very good for the spoon," said Romana, the woman who runs the Hotel Kotnik. I gathered that she meant I would find some good hot food up there.
The hike started perfectly -- a postcard winter day in a forest surrounded by granite peaks and snow. But about halfway into it, the weather took an arctic turn as clouds moved in, along with gusts of wind that whipped snow into my face at what seemed about 50 mph.
Finally the clearing of Tamar came into view, with a small religious shrine next to a wooden house. Inside, I took the last of five tables and ordered something called jota with klobaso, which the English translation on the menu explained was soup made from beans, sour shredded turnips (Slovenian cooking uses a lot of this sauerkraut-like ingredient) and sausage.
The soup arrived in a bowl filled to the brim with a large sausage listing in it like a shipwreck. I regularly ski in France and Italy and I can tell you that I have never had a better, more warming ski lunch than that soup. It cost less than $5. This was turning out to be one of the few vacations where I had a problem spending money.
The next evening, I headed up to the sleepy farming town of Ratece -- a couple of miles from Kranjska Gora and 300 feet from the Italian border -- where, I'd heard from a pair of locals, I was to find the best local cooking in the area.
I arrived at the inn, Gostilna Mojmir, famished from skipping lunch and a hard day on the slopes, with the objective of spending my last 5,000 tolars -- about $26.
I sat in the bar, where a color TV broadcast a ski-jumping competition from Poland and a group of about six local men -- with no apparent use for the slick new casinos up the road -- were huddled in a card game.
I started with dumpling soup, then moved onto a big fresh trout served with potatoes and a kind of parsley pesto. Not stopping there, I asked the waitress for another pitcher of red wine and ordered a large plate of grilled porcini mushrooms. For dessert, course number four was gibanica, a confectionary brick of cream, nuts, dried fruit and cheese stuffed between layers of dough. I ate half and could eat no more.
I'd ordered some of the most expensive items on the menu but still left the restaurant with money in my pocket.
Blinded by SnowOn my last ski day in Kranjska Gora, I awoke to the sound of rain -- the killer of all ski vacations. I walked through the resort, but the locals seemed unconcerned: A blast of cold was supposed to arrive that morning and turn it all to snow. It happened just that way, and by the time I hit the slopes, the snow was coming hard.
Skiing through drifts of fresh snow is as good as it gets, and as my confidence built, I drifted closer and closer to the back of the mountain.
There is something eerie about being the only person on a chairlift in the middle of a storm, particularly when the machinery looks as old as you, and you are 45.
But I did just that. When I reached the top of the lift, I asked the lift operator for directions in English. He was an old-timer in a wool cap caked with snow and he answered me in rudimentary Italian. Basically he indicated that one way would be trails that were easy and the other way -- he held his hand almost vertical -- would be Pista Alberto Tomba, named after the former Italian ski champion who won five World Cup events here -- on the back of the mountain.
"Me no Alberto Tomba," I said, shaking my head.
At its best, the rest of that afternoon provided some of the greatest conditions I've ever been in, my skis disappearing in fields of virgin powder. At its worst, it had the earmarks of a Jack London story. I tumbled down some pretty steep terrain, then sunk thigh-deep in snow when I stood up in my boots. I was in blizzard conditions, and stopped every 50 feet to wipe snow from my goggles. That helped little -- the trails were obliterated by a dense white fog, and I could barely see which way was up and which way was down. I was alone.
At 4 p.m., the church bells of Kranjska Gora sounded for what seemed a full minute. I pointed my skis in that direction and let gravity pull me home.
Robert V. Camuto last wrote for Travel about the Cotes de Provence wine country.
Details: Kranjska Gora, SloveniaGETTING THERE: Kranjska Gora is in northwest Slovenia, about 10 minutes by car from the Italian and Austrian borders, and within easy driving distance of four international airports. Flying directly into the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana (about an hour by car) can be expensive. Winter fares on United, for example, start at $750 round trip, via Munich.
An alternate route is to fly into Klagenfurt, Austria (also an hour by car), from about $550 round trip from D.C., or to northeastern Italy. Venice (about $520 round trip), for example, is a little more than two hours by car, and Trieste (about $570 round trip) is less than two hours away.
Another possibility: Combine a Slovenian ski getaway with a trip to London and do like the Brits -- hop on a low-cost carrier to Klagenfurt, such as Ryanair, which offers London-Klagenfurt fares for less than $55 round trip.
WHEN TO GO: Ski season runs from Christmas through March. Avoid the last seven days of February, when World Cup events take over the resort. In May, the area is filled with an extraordinary blooming of wildflowers. In spring and summer, explore the region with guided hikes, mountain bikes (rentals possible) or rafting tours.
WHERE TO STAY: In Kranjska Gora, the charming family-run guesthouse Gostilna Pri Martinu (Borovska 61, 011-386-4-5820-300) is about 800 feet from the ski lifts; doubles are about $55 per night, with breakfast, in high season. For half-board (breakfast and dinner) in the cozy restaurant, add about $7.50 per person.
Just up the street and closer to the ski action is the small family-run Hotel Kotnik (Borovska 75, 011-386-4-588-1564), which has 15 newly renovated and impeccably maintained rooms along with hearty breakfasts. The Kotnik also has a good restaurant (figure about $12 per person, including wine, for dinner) and a pizzeria. Bed and breakfast is about $40 per person.
The Hotel Lek (Vrsiska 38, 011-386-4588-1520, www.hotel-lek.si) is Kranjska Gora's original grand chalet-style hotel, recently renovated, with swimming pool, sauna and workout facilities. Half-board (breakfast and dinner) is about $62 per day per person.
WHERE TO EAT: Enjoy hearty Slovenian mountain cuisine -- soups, stews, chestnuts, dumplings, goulash, sausage, strudels, baked desserts and breads and local wine -- at gostilnas (inns). In the heart of town, try Gostilna Cvitar (Borovska 83), where a typical dinner with wine costs about $13 per person. After a day of exertion in the mountains, drive a couple of miles to the town of Ratece and the Gostilna Mojmir (Ratece 88) for some of the region's most savory home cooking. About $12 to $15 per person, with wine. For lunch, take an hour-long hike or cross-country ski from the ski-jumping domain of Planica up to Domaine Tamar, where you'll find a lunch of hearty homemade soups for less than $5.
SKIING: There are several ski schools and equipment rental outlets in Kranjska Gora. Skipass Travel (Borovska 95, 011-386-4-582-1000) offers complete packages, such as lessons and equipment for five days at about $168. A five-day ski pass is about $120; a single-day pass is about $26.
-- Robert V. Camuto