Where reality meets fairy tale
Slovenian ski resorts blend the best of regional culture with superb views and authentic food at a price that can't be beat in neighbouring Austria and Italy
A light snow fell as I stood waiting for my instructor outside the ski rental shop. Skiers came to a stop outside the chalet, laughing easily as they placed their skis on the rack outside. All around I could hear lively Italian voices and one or two Austrian-accented German ones too.
But I was in neither Italy nor Austria. It was just after Christmas and I was in the ski resort of Kranjska Gora, in the Julian Alps.
Slovenia's largest and best-equipped ski resort is one of those places in Europe where borders blur and you can easily forget what country you're in. Uniquely positioned on the Austrian-Italian-Slovenian tri-border, or tromeja in Slovenian, the village of Kranjska Gora blends the best aspects of the three cultures.
My ski instructor, Nejc Sabolek, a burly man in his mid-20s, met me outside Intersport Bernik, the ski rental shop and ski school he manages. Nejc (pronounced Nate) and I boarded one of the chairlifts, and he put me in the picture. "There hasn't been much snow yet this winter, so unfortunately most of the pistes are closed," he said. "We're not allowed to make a lot of snow here because we're inside the national park."
Nejc was referring to Triglav National Park, dominated by the 2,862-metre-high Mount Triglav. Slovenia's tallest peak is an icon of the jewellery-box country's national identity and resistance to Germanization during the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
And, since 1991, when Slovenia gained its independence from the former Yugoslavia, Triglav National Park has stood as a symbol of that hard-won autonomy.
While there are clear advantages to being located inside Slovenia's only national park – untainted forests, pristine mountain lakes, the spectacular sawtoothed peaks of the Julian Alps and little human development, to name a few – this also means that the ski resorts have restrictions on snow-making.
Kranjska Gora Tourist Information
Sadly, Kranjska Gora is sometimes referred to as "a poor man's Austria." Admittedly, its peaks do not soar as high as those of Austria or Switzerland, its runs are shorter and the facilities may not be as cutting-edge, but the scenery in the Julian Alps is worthy of The Sound of Music.
Additionally, there are 30 kilometres of lovely pistes ideal for beginner and intermediate skiers and 21 perfectly good ski lifts. The culture is more authentic here and the people are more congenial and less jaded about foreigners than their wealthier, glitzier neighbours in Switzerland, France, Austria and Italy. And the icing on the cake? Prices are much more affordable.
Arriving at the top of a gentle blue run, Nejc had me ski ahead of him so that he could observe my technique. After determining that I needed to improve my turns and rhythm, he gave me some exercises. "The best way to develop your rhythm is to plant your pole before you turn and to keep it planted as long as possible," he said.
LTO Kranjska Gora/slovenia.info
On the next run, the busy main red piste directly above the village, Nejc drilled me on rhythm. He would watch me from a little farther down the hill, counting aloud for me: "One and two and three and four and five and six and seven and eight, pole plant, turn."
"Now count it out to yourself," he encouraged on the next run. I concentrated on trying to maintain my rhythm, feeling a bit foolish as I counted aloud to myself, one and two and three and …
After my lesson, Nina Petersec, my bubbly guide for the afternoon, took me to Bor Pizzeria and Tavern at the foot of the mountain. I started with the mushroom soup. Foraging for mushrooms is a popular activity in Slovenia and mushroom soup is ubiquitous here in the Alps. For my entree, I had the brick-oven pizza topped with tomatoes and arugula. I had heard good things about Slovenian wine, so I ordered a satisfying white from Primorska, a wine-growing area abutting Italy's Friuli-Venezia Giulia region.
After lunch, Nina led me on a brief tour of Kranjska Gora's Old Town, whose main square, with its medieval church, Austrian-style architecture in soft pastels and dark chocolate-hued huts selling mulled wine, looked as if we had landed in a Grimm fairy tale.
We visited Planica, the famous ski-jumping hill where World Cup events are held annually, as well as the Slovenian Alpine Museum, but my favourite site that day was the park at Jasna Lake. Actually two interconnected artificial lakes at the confluence of two streams, Jasna is guarded by a statue of Goldhorn, or Zlatorog in Slovenian, the white chamois of Slovenian fairy tales.
The next evening, barrelling along the dark, winding road on my way to the Vogel ski resort, I worried I was lost and would end up having to sleep in the car, so sparsely populated is the park. As I later learned, this two-lane highway is the park's only road, skirting Triglav's entire 838 square kilometres.
What was meant to be a 60-kilometre, two-hour drive from Kranjska Gora turned into three and a half as I drove in circles and desperately reversed the car, making three-, four- and five-point turns to extricate myself from private farmyards and impossibly narrow country lanes. British-accented "Judy" on my GPS seemed confused, directing me to dead-end lanes in rustic farm villages that called to mind Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird.
But the village of Bohinj, where my guide, Matej Kandare, took me the next morning on our way to Vogel Ski Centre, is nothing like the backward Eastern European villages of Kosinski's novel.
Making a quick stop in the village, Matej pointed out the medieval Church of St. John the Baptist, which is ideally positioned at the head of Lake Bohinj and is reached by a stone bridge. While most visitors to Slovenia head to Lake Bled to gape at the fairy-tale church on Bled Island, tranquil Lake Bohinj, with its fir-tree-dotted mountains and shoreline and its ethereally blue glacial waters, is the more scenic and atmospheric of the two.
Emerging from the Vogel gondola 1,535 metres above Lake Bohinj, Matej joked that we would "soon be sitting at the bar."
Since all the pistes but one were closed because of warm weather and a lack of snow so far that season, we were only able to get in four or five runs on a gentle, disappointingly short blue piste before heading inside for a meal at the Burja Mountain Hut.
A former physical-education teacher, Matej, who has taught skiing in Australia and now acts as sales and marketing manager for Vogel, recommended pelinovec, or wormwood schnapps. I was pleasantly surprised at how smoothly the amber-hued liqueur went down, as it's meant to be a bitter drink.
Upon learning that I'm a vegan, Matej observed that in the Julian Alps, "it's a real mountain cuisine here, boar, deer, cheese." He suggested the ubiquitous mushroom soup. This one, brawny, herby and probably containing a few splashes of wine, was the best I tasted.
We placed more logs on the fire, ordered a feathery light local cake dripping with chocolate sauce and sank deeper into our seats. As the sky darkened outside, Matej regaled me with tales of holidays on the slopes of Chile, Argentina, New Zealand and Western Canada.
I could have stayed chatting by the fire for several more hours swapping stories with Matej over wormwood schnapps, but with the light fading, I hit the the long, dark road again.
I can't say I was sorry to leave the twisting roads behind, but after several days spent driving in the park, it came as a rude shock when I merged with the high-speed traffic on the expressway toward Ljubljana. I would certainly miss this strikingly beautiful, tri-cultural land of glacial lakes, soaring peaks and enchanted forests. Goldhorn, for one, had it right when he chose Triglav for his home.
The writer travelled as a guest of the Slovenian Tourism Office. It did not review or approve this article.
If you go
For more information on the Kranjska Gora Ski Resort, visit kranjska-gora.si/en/activities/winter-activities/skiing.
Where to stay
For a ski-in, ski-out experience, family-owned Boutique Skipass Hotel, located 300 metres away from the slopes and 200 m from the centre of the town, has 10 rooms decorated in a modern, alpine style. Facilities are limited, but there is a restaurant with an excellent reputation. Doubles start at $160; skipasshotel.si
The recently constructed Alpine Wellness Resort Spik has 56 modern, well-appointed rooms, many with large balconies and stunning views of the Alps. Only five kilometres from Kranjska Gora, the environmentally conscious hotel is located in a forest setting off the main road and features both a buffet-style restaurant, an à-la-carte restaurant, a café and a spa and wellness centre with relaxation and swimming pools, including a glacier-water pool. Double rooms in the four-star section of the hotel start at $150; hit-alpinea.si/en/hotel-spik
Where to eat
The most upscale option in town, the restaurant at the Skipass Hotel, serves beautifully presented dishes influenced by the cuisines of Slovenia, Austria and Italy. The three-to-five course chef's menu starts at $40.
Behind the cheery yellow façade at the family-run Hotel Kotnik Restaurant and Pizzeria Pino are two restaurants: The more formal linen-napkin hotel restaurant with fireplace serves traditional steak, fish and pasta dishes while the adjoining wooden cabin extension, Pizzeria Pino, puts out the best pizzas in town for €6 to €9 ($8.75 to $13). www.hotel-kotnik.si/eng/restaurant and www.hotel-kotnik.si/eng/pizzeria
For more information of the Vogel Ski Center, visit vogel.si/winter.
Where to stay
Owned by an Australian-Slovenian couple, Rustic House 13 is a typical alpine house, right down to the wooden balcony and the tree-trunk bench outside. This eco-friendly house fitted with solar panels and carbon natural wood heating offers charming, comfortable, yet rustically decorated suites starting at $85; studor13.si
Slovenia's first certified Eco Hotel, the Bohinj Eco Hotel, is a full resort hotel offering a range of standard and luxury rooms and suites with balconies, as well as an aquapark, spa and wellness facilities, a restaurant with panoramic windows and even a bowling alley! Doubles start at $170; bohinj-eco-hotel.si
Ideally situated in a tranquil setting by a stream, and a six-minute walk to the lake, Vila Park Hotel has eight elegant, understated doubles with balconies starting at $110; vila-park.si
Where to eat
Strud'l, a charming restaurant decorated in a Heidi motif, is popular with both locals and visitors for their home-style cuisine and local specialties. Yes, it serves apple strudel! facebook.com/gostilnica.trgovinica.Strudl
Gostilna Rupa, one of the best places to eat between Lake Bled and Lake Bohinj, is a family-run restaurant in the picturesque village of Srednja Vas.
It serves local home-cooked favourites in a charming decor featuring lots of antique curios and farming implements. gostilna-rupa.si
Ski lifts, equipment rental, lessons, ski bus and packages
For a Slovenian Alps ski pass valid for Vogel, Krvavec, Kranjska Gora and Cerkno, go to slovenian-alps.com/en/what-to-do/activities/winter/skiing.
Skiers build their own package, but sample adult prices include €62 ($90) for a two-day ski pass, €18 a day for skis, boots and poles, and €90 for two hours of ski lessons over five days.