Things are about to change for the sport in Europe’s newest country as developers plan to rebuild and vastly expand the industry there.
by Tim Neville
The flakes stumbled into the windows, gathered themselves and then wobbled on like revelers caught between pubs. At times it snowed so hard I could hardly see anything out there at all. A wood hut. A concrete wall. When the storm finally broke three days later, some 40 inches of snow had fallen and everything sprang to life.
The timing was ideal. A few hours earlier, I had arrived in Pristina, the red-roofed capital of Kosovo, just as the first flakes corkscrewed their way to earth. It was February, frigid, and a worsted wool blanket stretched across the Balkan sky. I threw my skis into the back of a 4Runner with two Serbs I had hired to pick me up, and we rode south in silence toward the Sharr Mountains along the Macedonian border. In an hour we’d be at Brezovica, the most delightfully dysfunctional ski resort in Europe.
You’ve probably heard of Kosovo but not of skiing in Kosovo. Landlocked between Albania and Serbia, Kosovo was the last of the nations to congeal in the caldron of old Yugoslavia. For years it remained a largely autonomous province tucked in southwestern Serbia, but a full-blown war for independence erupted there in 1998 between Orthodox Serbs and ethnic Albanians, who are Muslims. The fighting grew so ugly with a Serb-sponsored campaign of ethnic cleansing that NATO eventually intervened on the Albanians’ behalf in 1999. Today, to the United States and the 110 other countries that recognize it, Kosovo stands as Europe’s newest country, an eight-year-old diamond of roughly two million friendly, westward-looking people still struggling to get on their feet.
But before all of that there was skiing, and Yugoslavia had plenty of it, from Kranjska Gora in the north to Papova Shapka in the south. The sport soared in popularity when the Olympics came to Bosnia in 1984 and a Slovenian, Jure Franko, won silver in the giant slalom to clinch Yugoslavia’s first Winter Olympic medal ever. Brezovica, about 250 miles southeast of Sarajevo, served as a backup for those games, but Yugoslavia’s more hard-bitten skiers already knew the place for offering the steepest slopes and deepest powder for the fewest dinars.
There near the Serbian enclave of Strpce about 35 miles south of Pristina, storms slam into the 8,000-foot Sharr Mountains that rocket out of the Metohija basin with abrupt ridges and mighty shoulders cupping some of the continent’s most extensive pasturelands. Back in the ’80s, the resort’s hey-decade, 10 lifts, including five surface tows, serviced nine named runs, though the real magic happened in the go-anywhere terrain of the open north-facing bowls. D.J.s from Belgrade and Skopje kept the parties going until dawn. In the morning you might awake to find so much snow had fallen that even the wild chamois were stuck.
Brezovica survived the wars but not the peace that followed. Throughout the early 2000s, INEX, the Serbian socially owned enterprise that managed the resort, stopped investing in Brezovica and everything began to crumble. One of the main hotels, a graceless rectangular prism, became a drafty concrete husk. The disco floor went cold. One by one the lifts failed, and by 2013 none of them worked. The storied resort was all but dead.
Then last April, a French consortium signed a contract with Kosovo’s Trade and Industry Ministry to bring Brezovica back to life; the plan was so ambitious that many locals weren’t sure if it was true. A group of some of the world’s biggest leisure resort development firms — MDP Consulting, the engineering firm Egis and the Compagnie des Alpes, the world’s largest ski area management company behind French ski resorts like Val d’Isère, Tignes and Méribel — agreed to invest half a billion dollars, about 410 million euros, over the next 17 years to make Brezovica one of the largest, if not the largest, mountain resorts in the Balkans. According to Jill Jamieson, a consultant who has worked on the finance package, that is the single largest private investment in the country since the war, if not ever.
The scope of the proposal is mind-boggling. The consortium has until May to put the financing in order, meaning work could begin this summer. When complete, the resort, at 8,000 acres, will be the size of one and a half Vails, nearly all of which is skiable and inside a national park. It will have the vertical drop of a Crested Butte, about 2,600 feet. The number of hotel beds will grow from 700 to 7,000 — three times as many currently available across the entire country. Visitors will have 100 miles of slopes, high-speed lifts and three gondola-linked villages. Two international airports, Pristina and Skopje, are no more than a 90-minute drive. One day Brezovica might even provide a more budget-friendly alternative to skiing in the Alps.
Skeptics abound, of course. Can the next greatest place to ski in Europe really be in a tiny war-weary country so obscure it’s hard to imagine anyone vacationing there at all? Is a mega-resort the most sustainable way to attract tourists? Will they even find enough snow on a warming planet? Never mind Kosovo’s rampant corruption and politics that are so cantankerous that politicians themselves have lobbed tear gas canisters in their own chambers at least six times in the last few months to disrupt their own proceedings.
And yet there is hope.
“If we can do this, we can do anything,” said Manik Begolli, an Albanian Kosovar who worked on a public-private partnership team contracted by the United States Agency for International Development to help find an investor.
Maybe. For the moment, though, I just hoped I could ski.
Seven-Elevens have bigger parking lots than Brezovica’s but that’s where the Serbs dropped me off just after dark as the storm gathered intensity. Igor Nikolcevic met me there in a camouflage snowboard jacket. He was 42, a Serb with closely cropped hair and soulful eyes. He grabbed my ski bag and led me up an icy path to a pizzeria that he started with his wife, Draginja, and which he named after his daughter, Tina. Tina now lives in Pristina. I could have her room, fuzzy kitten posters and all.
I followed Igor into the heart of the village, a collection of mostly hand-built cottages run by hangers-on who have eked out a living by offering basic services to the few who make it this far. There was the Cafe Braca and Restaurant Ljuboten. Skis lined the racks in a shop called Dane. The main chairlift out of the village, an ancient double chair, stood eerily quiet, the seats glazed in ice.
“You mean, if they start running,” Igor replied.
That was actually an improvement over the last time I was here, in 2013, when INEX was hundreds of thousands of euros behind on its power bill and the utility company had cut electricity to the lifts. All was not lost. Instead, for €7 — about $9 at the time — the Dane guys would give you a ride to the top in a snow-grooming machine, where an entire resort’s worth of untracked powder tugged at my tips.
It was some of the best skiing I’d ever had for less than a nickel a turn: an unlimited supply of deep, creamy snow on a steep, consistent fall line. Others just hiked up a small rise with sleds or sipped brandy outside while music pumped from competing loudspeakers. I loved the vibe and vowed to return.
This time, two years later, there was at least the possibility that the lifts might run. Sometime in 2014, as the French were quietly studying the resort’s prospects, a cadre of groups, including the Kosovo Electricity Corporation, local officials and the minister of trade and industry, hashed out a deal to get two of the chairlifts spinning again. The equipment was still old, maybe even from the 1970s, and too unsafe to operate in a blizzard. I would have to wait for fairer skies to ride them.
Igor pushed open a door and the pizzeria sighed a breath of warm air. Christmas lights hung from the log cabin frame and spilled a molten glow on the snow outside. Snowshoes, wooden skis and photographs of wintry scenes from the resort’s early days decorated the walls. A fire crackled in the wood stove. A pizzeria in Kosovo is one of the coziest places I know.
I took a seat at a long wooden table next to a local with an even longer face. His house two doors down had just succumbed to a chimney fire. With no firefighters to navigate the winding, snowy road up from Strpce in time, the men of the village had rallied to form a bucket brigade and fell a flame-licked tree. That saved the village but the house, a lovely wood and stone cottage, was a loss.
“It went up like paper,” said the owner, Andrej Kavcic. He poured two shots of slivovitz, the plum brandy, and handed me one. “What am I going to do?” he asked. “You pick yourself up and move on. What else.”
Stoicism seems to be a national trait in Kosovo, but there is no mistaking that the country is picking itself up. Some 80 percent of the population was displaced during the war. Now new furniture stores sit along new highways lined with new gas stations. The Pristina airport underwent a €180 million expansion in 2013 and is now the third-busiest airport in the old Yugoslavia after Belgrade and Zagreb. Problems persist, but the country is making strides to protect its landscape, integrate into Europe and normalize relations with Belgrade, the reason behind parliament’s self-tear-gassing attacks.
The resort’s rebirth comes at a time when Kosovo could really use jobs. Drive around the country and you’ll see smartly dressed people in cafes, in parks, in front of stores, anywhere but at work. The resort could provide as many as 3,000 jobs, some temporary, many permanent, in a country where half the population is under 30 and 58 percent of the work force is “inactive.”
But more than that, travel insiders around the Balkans have long yearned to trade the region’s oily image of strife for that of the crisp fabric of an emerging adventure-travel destination. The efforts appear to be working. In 2014, 3.7 million international tourists visited Albania, up from about 645,000 in 2004. And in Montenegro, you can sea kayak through the watercress on Skadar Lake or catch feisty trout in green Macedonian streams, both with guides.
Few Balkan countries beyond Croatia and Greece can entice transoceanic travelers as stand-alone destinations at the moment but, collectively, places like Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Albania can make for a wildly fascinating itinerary. Kosovo wants in on that action. Brezovica may be its best shot.
“Kosovo is absolutely ready for something like this,” said Pascal Roux, the chief executive of MDP Consulting and leader of the French consortium. “Brezovica could be the pearl of the Balkans.”
Maybe so, but “it’s just hugely important to be sure it’s done right,” said Christopher Doyle, executive director for Europe of the Adventure Travel Trade Association, which champions sustainable adventure travel markets. What is needed, he said, are “thoughtful supporting efforts to engage the local community and protect the environment.”
Across the Balkans, there is little doubt that skiing is having a moment. Ecosign, a Canadian mountain resort planning firm that has designed Alpine skiing venues for five Winter Olympics, has completed 15 master plans for new or drastically reorganized resorts, including three in Macedonia, four in Serbia and two in Greece. A Dubai-based firm in December announced plans to build a $5 billion “tourist city” with thousands of holiday homes near Bosnia’s Bjelasnica mountain, where the Olympics were held. Kopaonik, Serbia’s most developed ski resort, added a new six-person heated chairlift last year and a new hotel. Poiana Brasov in Romania recently spent €30 million expanding its terrain, adding snow-making and upgrading lifts.
If anyone stands to lose on the Brezovica deal, it’s Igor. His grandfather, Radojko Nikolcevic, was the ski area’s first general manager after the resort opened in 1954. In the ’70s he built a hut that would become Tina’s pizzeria under Igor in 1993. Today the Nikolcevices earn enough money selling pizzas in winter to last them the rest of the year. Now the consortium will level almost everything — the hotels, the village, the lifts. The Nikolcevices will get about $250,000 in expropriation fees, but money isn’t the issue.
“We’re happy people want to invest in the resort but never in my life have I been as afraid for my future as I am right now,” Igor said. “The mountains are in me.”
Over the next three days a frustrating pattern emerged. Each morning I awoke to another foot of snow, and each morning the lifts weren’t running. The Dane guys weren’t offering the seven-euro special. Hiking up alone would be misery. Still, I hoped for the best.
I lounged around Tina’s watching the snowflakes hit the windows or took naps under a shaggy blanket in Tina’s old room. The Nikolcevices treated me like family. We sat near the fire talking about life in Kosovo. On the war: “Stupid politicians caused it.” On being Serbs surrounded by Albanians: “We never have an argument.” On why I should not clear the table: “This is Balkans,” Draginja said. “Women do this.”
I helped anyway and then serviced my macho deficits by grabbing a shovel to clear snow off the pizzeria’s roof. The electricity flickered on and off.
“There is something beautiful when everything is broken,” Draginja told me later over a meal of tangy mountain cheese, winter cabbage and a Serbian dish of shredded pork called duvan cvarci. “Everyone comes together.”
On the fourth day, the storm thinned into a delicate fog, and, miracle of miracles, the lifts creaked to life. At last I could ski.
I raced out the door. Classic rock blared from the Che & Fox cafe. Vendors jammed folding tables into the snow to peddle Serbian beer, Austrian juices and Lucky Strikes. A man in the parking lot sat next to a delivery truck with a cardboard sign: ski rentals €5. I clicked into my own skis and scooted up to a double chair called Livada, or “meadow” in Serbian. It rose lazily over an abandoned stone mansion called Stojko’s house, one of the few buildings that will remain. A man stood next to the entrance ready to check my lift ticket. I didn’t have one. I asked where to buy it.
“No, no, you don’t need a ticket,” said a voice in English behind me. I turned to see two men on skis. One of them in a red jacket shuffled forward, said something in Serbian and pressed about $3 worth of coins into the attendant’s palm. “Come, come,” my new friend said, and off we went.
I spent most of the day skiing with the Krasniqis, who explained the ticket system. A price list said I could buy anything from a single ride to 10 days of unlimited rides, but almost no one consulted it. Instead they negotiated rates with the attendant. A single ride cost about $3.25, though Rexhep had bargained to get both of us at least two rides for that. As best as I could tell a day pass cost about $11.
Now, new for this winter, workers have installed an electronic ticket-reader and day passes have jumped to about $21, a fortune when the average worker earns about $380 a month. “No more corruption,” a local told me later, “but less skiers.”
We picked our way through a steep notch called the Lion’s Gate and found untracked lines through the trees. Wind-powered snow roared off the ridge behind us in great white flames. The snow hissed violently off the bottoms of my skis to form blue contrails. Most of the terrain was intermediate to expert-only. The revamped resort will have more beginner runs.
Eventually we stopped for lunch on a patio at a slopeside hut called Cafe Collmar, where a waiter brought us coffee, brandy and cheesy bread. Rexhep refused to let me pay the $5 bill. “No Albanian in Kosovo will ever let you pay,” he said, politely but firmly. “You are American, and to us Americans are like Jesuses.”
My last day dawned a piercing blue and the air shimmered with suspended snow crystals. This time Igor and a friend from Belgrade, Marko Nikolic, showed me a wild backcountry run that dropped through miles of open powder into a tight stream bed. Marko, a mountain guide, then invited me to climb to a high point in the resort, 8,274-foot Pribreg mountain, where we could find the longest, most challenging runs back to the base.
We rode Livada up as high as it went, then I slung my skis over my shoulder and kicked steps up the sastrugi beyond the top station. We gained an easy ridge and made the summit after 45 minutes. A lift once came all the way up here but it hadn’t worked in years, and the top wheelhouse was completely entombed in tons of feathered ice. The slope below was so steep it gave me vertigo.
Soon all of this would be very different. I tried to picture a brand-new lift stitched into the rock, the sprawling village where Tina’s once stood, and the legs I’d need to ski all those new runs. I had one foot in Macedonia, the other in Kosovo, and five more countries in view.
It may have been selfish, but Brezovica felt perfect as is. We have so many polished resorts already but so few that can foster skiing at its most authentic without any flash. Even more selfish: What do you do when you know one of your favorite places to visit, a secret, is about to blow up? Don’t you long for it to stay the way it is?
Brezovica has to change, of course. As anyone in Kosovo knows, stop moving for long enough and someone will come bury you.
Marko wasted no time. He strapped on his snowboard. I lowered my goggles. Then we both pushed off and floated through a beautiful, broken world.