Europe's forgotten slopes

The ski resort of Brezovica in Kosovo has been left behind in time, but that will change with plans to make it a more budget- friendly alternative to the Alps

The flakes stumbled into the windows, gathered themselves and then wobbled on like revellers 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, about 1m 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 towards the Sharr Mountains along the Macedonian border.

In an hour, we would be at Brezovica, the most delightfully dysfunctional ski resort in Europe.

You have probably heard of Kosovo, but not of skiing there. Landlocked between Albania and Serbia, it was the last of the nations to congeal in the cauldron of old Yugoslavia.

  • GETTING THERE

    Pristina (PRN) and Skopje (SKP) are the closest airports to Brezovica. There are no direct flights to either city from the United States or Singapore. Check fares on Turkish Airlines, Swissair, Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines, SAS, EasyJet, Delta, Alitalia and Norwegian for connecting in Europe.

    WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW

    This winter will likely be the last to see Brezovica in all of its rundown glory. In its current state, the resort is not for everyone. The lifts may not run every day. There is no such thing as customer service. It is unclear what facilities will be open next winter. For updates, check the Sar Planina-Brezovica Facebook page or the Brezovica Resort Facebook page. The ski area also has a website (www.brezovica-ski.com), but it is not very helpful.

    GUIDES

    Hiring a guide to help you find a place to stay and arrange airport transfers is a must at the moment. Igor Nikolcevic is neither a guide nor an outfitter, but he speaks very good English and can help arrange transfers, especially from Pristina, lift tickets, guides and lodging. Message him through the Pizzeria Tina Facebook page. Outdoor Albania (go to www.outdoorAlbania.com or e-mail info@outdooralbania.com), an outfitter based in Tirana, also runs customised trips to Brezovica.

    TRANSFERS AND LIFT TICKETS

    Expect to pay about €50 (S$76) each way for transfers from Pristina. Lift tickets now cost €20 a day.

For years, it remained a largely autonomous province tucked in south-western 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 recognise 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 Sapka 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.

Brezovica, about 400km south- east 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.

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.

Then in April last year, a group of some of the world's biggest leisure resort development firms agreed to invest US500 million (S$690 million) over the next 17 years to make Brezovica one of the largest, if not the largest, mountain resorts in the Balkans.

When complete, the resort will cover 3,240ha, nearly all of which is skiable and inside a national park. It will have a vertical drop of about 790m. 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 160km of slopes, high-speed lifts and three gondola-linked villages.

Two international airports, Pristina and Skopje, are no more than a 90-minute drive away. One day, Brezovica might even provide a more budget-friendly alternative to skiing in the Alps.

For the moment, 7-Elevens have bigger parking lots than Brezovica's, but that was where the Serbs dropped me off just after dark as the storm gathered intensity. A Serb, Igor Nikolcevic, met me in a camouflage snowboard jacket. He led me up an icy path to a pizzeria that he started with his wife, Draginja.

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.

"What time will the lifts start running?" I asked.

"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 (S$11), 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.

This time, two years later, there was at least the possibility that the lifts might run. Some time in 2014, a cadre of groups, including the Kosovo Electricity Corp, 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.

Over the next three days, a frustrating pattern emerged. Each morning, I awoke to another foot of snow and each morning, the lifts were not running. The Dane guys were not offering the €7 special. Hiking up alone would be misery. Still, I hoped for the best.

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. A man stood next to the entrance ready to check my lift ticket. I did not 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 US$3 (S$4) worth of coins into the attendant's palm. "Come, come," my new friend said and off we went.

Rexhep Krasniqi, 58, had fled Kosovo 23 years ago as a refugee and now worked as a contractor in London. He had returned to ski with his younger brother, Isak.

I spent most of the day skiing with the Krasniqis, who negotiated rates with the attendant. A single ride cost about US$3.25, although Rexhep had bargained to get both of us at least two rides for that.

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 US$5 bill.

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 kilometres of open powder into a tight stream bed. Marko, a mountain guide, then invited me to climb to a high point in the resort, the 2,522m 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 had not worked in years and the top wheelhouse was 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 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 favourite 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.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 06, 2016, with the headline 'Europe's forgotten slopes'. Print Edition | Subscribe