Sunday, February 1, 2004
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.