Snowboarding the Balkans: Bosnia, Slovenia, Serbia and Montenegro
Interview by Sam Baldwin
Pictures courtesy of James Kellow (BoardnLodge.com)
Published November 2007
Something is stirring in the East. Whispered tales of exotic mountains, deserted slopes, untouched nature and undeveloped ski resorts are drifting in the wind. We speak to James Kellow of BoardnLodge.com about their new ski safari tour that offers snowboarders a taste of Eastern promise in Bosnia, Slovenia, Serbia and Montenegro.
What's the new Balkan tour all about?
The tour is about variety and discovery. The itinerary is designed to make the absolute most of the different resorts and terrain available while also getting a flavour for the culture and history of these newly emergent nations. We use knowledgeable local guides and this, along with our accommodations which are based in the centre of the medieval cities like Sarajevo and Belgrade, gives our clients a unique perspective on both historic and recent events in this part of the world, and tourism's part to play in its future.
Tell us a bit about:
Snowboarding in Slovenia
Slovenians are very sporty which combined with the fact that they live in such a mountainous country means that most of them ski and it is unusual to see a Slovenian beginner! The country is one of the most welcoming and generally pleasant in the world but Slovenians are not 'in your face' about it and generally will wait for a visitor to approach them (much like the English!). The population is young, well educated, fun loving and rightly proud of their fantastic little country. Slovenia's location means that in many ways it feels more like Italy or Austria than the rest of its former Yugoslavian neighbours.
Snowboarding in Bosnia
Bosnians are still fighting the consequences of the war and for most, every day life is still a struggle, but despite this, Bosnian people greet foreigners with open arms and are generally real party people. The resort of Jahorina is really old school with antiquated lifts. They only groom a few slopes after a snow fall, which makes for a powder paradise for snowboarders. The people on the hill are often dressed in old school parkas, some skiing in jeans, but with a great attitute; nobody takes things too seriously unlike a Slovenian skiers, who would come to the resort the minute it opens, and then try to catch the last lift before the end of the day. A Bosnian would do a run or two in jeans, then relax and have a beer. The snowboard scene is in its early stages of development, but there are more and more on the slopes each year.
Snowboarding in Montenegro
There is a famous Montenegrin saying which says "Please, lift up the ground, so I can lie down." Montenegro is a very mountainous country with the Durmitor range offering peaks of around 2500m, indescribable powder riding and great views. Coming from Slovenia (a country full of rules and accuracy) and then from Sarajevo's Baš-caršija (town area) into Montenegro, up the curved roads, it makes you feel that you are at the end of the world. The Montenegro wilds are where our local guiding really kicks in; this is a backcountry heaven only known to very few western European snowboarders and skiers, and a very special place.
Snowboarding in Serbia
Kopaonik in Sebia is a prestigious hi-tech resort for the posh Belgrade people and is much more expensive than the other resorts. It has completely new infrastructure, and the skiers and snowboarders there are kitted out in the latest designer clothes; a completely new world compared to Bosnia, Montenegro or Slovenia. This where we have the tour's last night party before returning to Slovenia. Belgrade is a city where the party goes on 24/7 and there's a strong Western influence on the nightlife meaning plenty of drum 'n' bass and dance hall house parties, not like other Serbian cities where the mainstream is more into Serbian folk music.
There are lots of new exotic ski resort frontiers opening up right now - where do you think will be the next skiing hotspot for Brits?
I think that Eastern Europe and Russia are going to be the big places in the coming years as they develop. The colder temperatures there mean they are snow sure and we are getting more and more used to this part of the world as Europe expands east and there are also more visitors/immigrants to the UK from that part of the world as well, meaning we're becoming more familiar with the culture of this region.
The well known ski countries of FASI (France, Austria, Switzerland, Italy) remain the most popular place for Brits to take their ski holidays, but why do you think adventurous skiers and snowboarders are now preferring to go further a field for their snow sports trips?
I think there are a number of reasons why we are beginning to look further a field; there are more people getting into winter sports each year and so with growing demand and a wider range of income groups getting interested, eastern European ski resorts make a lot of sense. Equally those who have 'done' the more traditional destinations are perhaps looking to tick new boxes. Generally I think there is also a move in some parts of the market towards experiences that broaden the mind as well as relax it. For many people skiing and snowboarding is about exploring and visiting new destinations as much as riding down a mountain.
We (the British) seem to attach a certain (largely undeserved) stigma to eastern European countries. Why do you think that is and how is this now changing?
As with most stigma or prejudice I think this comes from a lack of knowledge or a preconception rather than a factual basis. Some people think of a landscape of grey communist era architecture or of cuisine based around gruel and cabbage. Ironically, in most cases and in most areas this couldn't be further from the truth. Eastern Europe's delayed development, as compared with western Europe, means that there's far more natural, unspoilt landscape and traditional non-intensive farming methods (known in the West as 'Organic farming'!) resulting in food that looks and tastes fresh and natural. Only once UK visitors actually return from these countries with glowing reports do our views begin to change.
Why did you decide to offer snowboarding trips to the Balkans?
We have been offering ski trips to Slovenia for the last two years. The most popular of these are tours or 'ski-safaris' which mean each day is a new adventure and that clients get to see more of the country. With this in mind we thought that it made sense to expand the scope of these tours to take in some of the neighbouring countries to really get a feel for a region most people have never visited but which is close, accessible and incredibly exciting.
Where in the world have you snowboarded and what's your favourite place to ride?
I've been snowboarding all over the Alps; I love the riding and the atmosphere in Austria and as a place to visit I still think it's right up there. Having said that, as a place to base yourself after all these years I still love Chamonix. Europe is such a great place with so many different countries and cultures packed into a relatively small area.
Where would you like to go snowboarding that you're yet to visit?
Probably Slovenia! I think that most people have a fair idea of what they are going to get from the more usual ski countries (FASI) but everyone who visits Slovenia loves it and comes back singing its praises with plans to visit again soon or maybe even buy a place there!
Thanks James - I expect we'll see you on the slopes of the Balkans at some point soon!
BoardnLodge.com offer a range of ski and snowboard tours to Slovenia and the Balkans including tailor made trips. Details available at www.boardnlodge.com Tel: +44(0)20 7870 0720