The ski bums might not be decked out in the latest day-glo regalia, the toughest runs may lack that sharp edge, and the apre`s ski hangouts probably won't be serving your favorite goat cheese or Napa Valley vintage. Nevertheless, the newly liberated ski slopes of Eastern Europe cover some of the Continent's loveliest mountains, with lodging in grand old hotels. And the prices are likely to make habitues of fashionable resorts drool with envy.
From the eastern slopes of the Alps in Yugoslavia, up and across the crescent-shaped Carpathians into southern Poland and south again into western Bulgaria, skiable mountains dominate the topography of this region.
Americans who have made the customary jaunt through Prague, Budapest and East Berlin may be pleasantly surprised by the congeniality of the people in the rural regions, where the ski centers are located. Although the old socialist, lackadaisical attitude toward service still exists in some places, the people are generally engaging and enjoy meeting Americans.
Depending on your tastes, abilities and willingness to try the unknown, you can ski Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Poland or Romania. At the most basic, Romania's services, accommodations and lack of many amenities might discourage even the most adventurous. On the other extreme of the ski pole is Sarajevo, the Yugoslavian city that hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics and is as fully equipped and modernized as any ski area in the west.
But for a true Eastern European experience without having to rough it, the High Tatras of eastern Czechoslovakia and the Julian Alps of northwestern Yugoslavia are the places to start.
Czechoslovakia Slovakians are fond of calling the High Tatras the smallest giant mountain range in the world -- smallest because it stretches only 17 miles from west to east, giant because its summits reach 8,711 feet.
The High Tatras -- in eastern Czechoslovakia on the border with Poland -- look even loftier than they are. They rise steeply and dramatically from the floor of a wide plateau. Across this plain and a bit to the southwest stand their cousins, the Low Tatras, a range not as impressive in either altitude or appearance, but offering superior alpine skiing.
The summits of the highest of the High Tatras cannot be skied -- they are sheer granite and present a challenge even to skilled climbers. But lifts do carry skiers not too far below what is perhaps the most majestic peak in the Tatras, the 8,635-foot Lomnicky Stit. This mountain offers the most difficult skiing of the four areas in the High Tatras with alpine trails. It also provides the most breathtaking vistas; in fact, a gondola will carry non-skiers to the top of Lomnicky Stit -- providing the weather is accommodating -- for an unforgettable panorama that includes views into Poland.
Three small towns -- Strbske Pleso, Stary Smokovec and Tatranska Lomnica -- and a number of villages lie at the foot of the High Tatras and serve as entry points to the slopes, as well as to a network of cross-country trails. (The High Tatras actually are regarded as better suited for nordic skiing than for alpine, and in 1970 Strbske Pleso hosted the nordic world championships.)
The alpine skiing above Stary Smokovec and Strbske Pleso would not test the skills of a downhill expert, so skiers looking for a challenge should head for the more advanced slopes above Zdiar, about 15 miles to the north.
Ski jumps at Strbske Pleso and Tatranska Lomnica also can get one's blood running. (So, unfortunately, can the long waits in weekend lift lines, not uncommon during the high season, from January through March.)
Strbske Pleso is the most developed and unattractive of the three resort towns of the High Tatras. Stary Smokovec and Tatranska Lomnica, on the other hand, possess real charm, with much of the natural beauty and serenity that have attracted tourists to the Tatras for 200 years. Strbske Pleso and Tatranska Lomnica are about 14 miles apart, with Stary Smokovec in the middle. The three towns are linked by a good road and a narrow-gauge railroad that ferries skiers, or you can cross-country ski from town to town.
Yugoslavia There seem to be as many ski slopes in Yugoslavia's Julian Alps as there are fast-food restaurants on U.S. Route 1. Every village in the republic of Slovenia -- in the northwestern tip of Yugoslavia near the Austrian and Italian borders -- seems to have its own little run.
Almost all are bunched within about nine miles of Mount Triglav, at 9,393 feet the highest peak in Yugoslavia.
Slovenians love to ski, and besides the smaller village slopes, there are several major resorts that attract top local and foreign skiers.
The most popular is Kranjska Gora, with a network of 19 lifts, ski jumps, an active nightlife and a wide choice of hotels and chalets.
As in the Tatras, good snow conditions in the Julian Alps generally provide a skiing season that runs from November into April. But everything in Yugoslavia's Julian Alps is more expensive than in the Tatras. Slovenia is the most prosperous of Yugoslavia's six republics, and prices can be so high that locals cross the border into Austria or Italy to shop. Still, for the visitor from the United States, skiing in Yugoslavia is more steep in incline than in price, with lift tickets costing about $15 and double rooms in Kranjska Gora's top hotels $75 to $100 a night.
A bit more costly -- but worth it -- are the finest hotel rooms in nearby Bled, one of the loveliest towns in all of Europe, and something of a gateway to the Julian Alps. Surrounded by mountains and situated on a clear lake that surrounds a tiny island with a picturesque 17th-century church, Bled is a must-stop for skiers and other visitors.
There is ice skating on Bled's frozen lake, alpine skiing just outside town at Zatrnik and good cross-country skiing almost anywhere in the region.
Bled has drawn winter and summer tourists for centuries, and it has many of the amenities discerning western visitors look for -- as well as some of the kitsch that might turn others off (a gawdy gambling casino). It also is the home of one of Central and Eastern Europe's quirkiest restaurants. The Okarina is run by Yugoslavs but has an Indian chef and an Italian menu. A slide show is projected on one wall during dinner, waiters do magic tricks at your table, and the food is imaginative and good.
A quiet alternative to Bled is the equally splendid but less well known Bohinj Lake, about 19 miles down the road.. The mountains here are more grand, the skiing is better, the setting more serene and the prices lower.
Other popular Slovenian ski centers include Kanin, Krvavec and Slovenj Gradec/Kope, but if you have a car you can literally have your pick of mountains.
Louis Berney is a free-lance writer based in Budapest. Ways & Means, Page E12.
GETTING THERE: The High Tatras of eastern Czechoslovakia are about 275 miles from Prague, and about half that distance from Budapest. Daily flights are available from Prague.
The Julian Alps of Yugoslavia are easily accessible by road or rail from Vienna, Belgrade or Zagreb. The Slovenian capital of Ljubljana is a drive of less than two hours from Zagreb.
THE COST: Czechoslovakia's Tatras. Lift ticket prices for downhill runs in the High Tatras -- there are gondolas, chair lifts and T-bars -- won't be set until the season opens later this month, as operation of the lifts might be privatized. Last year, under state management, a day's lift ticket cost between $1 and $3, with discounts for a weekly or season pass, and charges of about 25 cents for a single trip up a lift. But no one expects a day pass to exceed $10 this year, privatization or not. A day's rental of alpine skis, boots and poles runs between $4 and $8, with cross-country equipment a little less. And there are no fees for cross-country skiing in the High Tatras.
Yugoslavia's Julian Alps. Lift tickets cost about $12 to $15 last year, and are not expected to climb appreciably this winter. Rental equipment is readily available, at prices somewhat higher than those in the Tatras.
WHERE TO STAY:
Czechoslovakia's Tatras. There are about 2,500 hotel beds in the High Tatras region. Double rooms with breakfast and dinner in four-star hotels go for about $60 a night per person, about $40 without meals. Moderate and budget accommodations also are available. And for those seeking a rustic experience and willing to do a little winter hiking, there are seven cozy alpine huts that take guests for $5 to $10 a night, with hearty meals included.
Czechoslovakians and German tourists seem to prefer the relatively modern, pyramid-shaped Patria Hotel, on a lake in Strbske Pleso. But far more authentic and pleasurable lodging can be had in two 85-year-old hotels, both named the Grand, one in Tatranska Lomnica and the other in Stary Smokovec. These monuments to days of elegance past may show a bit of antiquity, but it's more than compensated for by their atmospheric glow.
Yugoslavia's Julian Alps. Double rooms in Kranjska Gora's top hotels run from about $75 to $100 a night. The best hotel in Bled probably is the Grand Hotel Toplice, an elegant lodge on the lake with doubles as high as $150 a night.
INFORMATION: For more information on skiing in Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, contact:
The Yugoslav National Tourist Office, 630 Fifth Ave., Suite 2100, New York, N.Y. 10111, 212-757-2801.
Cedok, Czechoslovak Travel Bureau, 10 E. 40th St., Suite 1902, New York, N.Y., 10016, 212-689-9720.