|Neil Pedoe and his young family return to Slovenia chasing affordable, late-season Easter snow. Did he find bluebird spring skiing? Or did rain stop play?|
Stepping out into fresh snow and dazzling sunlight at the top of Kanin-Sella Nevea’s main gondola was a somewhat surreal experience, as only 30 minutes before we were sitting on a grass verge in the sun, pulling on our ski boots – the very idea of snow in this balmy climate seeming fanciful.
But now, at 2,200m, we were squinting through the light at pristine, snow-covered slopes rising on three sides from the powder bowl top station. Above us the ever-steeper, rocky ridge summit of Mount Prestreljenic rose towards the Italian border, while below, the snow-draped mountain dropped out of sight, Persil white slopes in high-contrast to the green, flat-bottomed Soca valley beyond where we had started.
On the distant left we could pick out Slovenia’s highest peak, Triglav, while beyond the Soca valley rose countless ridges and peaks, ranging ever-paler towards the bay of Venice that was just visible in the southern horizon’s haze.
Half an hour is a long time in a ski lift but nothing when you consider the fuss-free way it delivers you from the valley floor to the slopes above. Especially considering you’d only take the Kanin gondola all the way at the beginning and end of the day.
Not that we cared: my wife and I beaming at each other over the heads of our over-excited nine and ten-year-old children, because we’d struck it lucky. We’d scored a perfect bluebird day in late Easter, in Slovenia’s beautiful Julian Alps.
Going, going, almost gone…
To be honest, it was touch and go. The year before we’d spent February half term exploring this small but perfectly formed mountainous country’s little resorts from our base beside the magical Lake Bled – every morning waking to wonder at the eerie beauty of its frozen waters, with its island church stranded in the middle and fairy-tale cliff-top castle above.
That year we’d rented a car and skied three of the five resorts included with the Slovenia Alps Ski Pass – Krvavec, Vogel and Kranjska Gora – all within a traffic-free 45-minute drive of our hotel. We’d even skied little two-run Straza above Lake Bled for an evening’s floodlit slope time before dinner.
On that trip, we’d fallen for the all-natural resort of Vogel, a vertical kilometre’s cable car ride above the mirror-like waters of Lake Bohinj. There we’d found just the right amount of mostly intermediate pistes for a long family weekend, surrounded by a mountain landscape of wonderful freeriding possibilities in the unspoilt Triglav National Park.
But this year we’d left it almost too late, chancing our hand with a last-minute, late-season booking in the second week of Easter holidays. The very day we arrived Krvavec resort closed – this closest resort to Ljubljana airport (you can see the planes land from the slopes) might be Slovenia’s second largest but it’s a little too low and too sunny for so late in the season.
Then we lucked out with Vogel. We were desperate to rekindle the previous year’s love affair – only to have cold water poured on our passion. Literally – as wind higher up the mountain followed by killjoy rain put paid to our wishful thinking. By lunchtime only a handful of the lifts were even open, so, soaked and cold, we consoled ourselves with a long lunch of hot chocolates and hearty local stew in the slope-side Chalet Merjasec.
The nervous start to our holiday wasn’t helped by basing ourselves at Kranjska Gora for this year’s adventure. Of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Kranjska Gora – on the contrary, Slovenia’s biggest resort, in the north west of the country, has everything you could need for a short week’s in-season family ski break – 18 slopes for all abilities on the folded flanks of Vitranc mountain between Kranjska Gora and next-door Planica, 75 percent snow-making coverage, and ample accommodation at the base of the slopes. But it was already shut when we got there.
Not that we’d actually booked it thinking it would be open. We really chose Kranjska for its great value hotel accommodation, and above all its geographical position, within easy reach of all the northern resorts – especially Slovenia’s highest, Kanin-Sella Nevea.
High and dry
So, after an evening at the large and almost deserted swimming complex in Kranjska’s Ramada Resort hotel, we woke early, collected our massive packed lunches and added to the slightly perverse logic of staying in a closed ski resort by driving to Italy – as that was the quickest way to the slopes of the now joined Kanin-Sella Nevea ski resort.
We’d learned the year before that the key to Slovenian ski holiday success was a hire car, with the experience a huge contrast to driving in the high Alps. For starters. First of all, it’s a small country, and secondly, there’s no need for all that white-knuckle, vertiginous hairpin bend driving, as all the resorts have free parking on the valley floor, with uplifts onto the mountain. The exception is Kranjska Gora, where you simply walk across the car park.
Which is why, ten minutes after heading west out of Kranjska Gora, we were crossing the Italian border post, the unmanned barriers a reminder that Slovenia was for so long part of the former Yugoslavia, hidden behind the communist iron curtain until 1991, and only becoming a full member of the EU in 2004.
The drive to Sella Nevea took us through dramatic scenery, without any real drama – the climbing gradual as we followed the pale blue waters of the Rio del Lago to and past the mist-shrouded Predil Lake, soon arriving at the resort itself.
As it was mid-week and end of season, the car park was only sparsely occupied, the surrounding hotels all but closed, as if the little village was preparing for a nap between the ski season petering out and the springtime awakening for walkers and bikers.
But there was still plenty of snow stretching up the mountain from the bottom of the gondola just below the car park, all the way up and past the foot of the towering limestone cliffs of 2,146m Bila Pec, 1,000m above us.
Parking right next to the piste, we skied down to the bottom of the gondola and were soon soaring up to where the sunlight was hitting the uppermost peaks. Almost all of the rest of Sella Nevea would remain in the shade most of the day – which is also why the season lasts so long here.
Stepping out at the top station, I shepherded the family towards the three short, easy blues that ran down to the bottom of a chairlift at the lowest point of a long, wide snow-filled saddle, the far end of which led across the border to Kanin in Slovenia.
After only a few easy runs in the rain of Vogel the day before, I was keen to get some confidence-building turns in for the family before we took on the pair of long, challenging red runs that wove back down under the cable car to the resort.
First though, we stopped to take photos next to what we thought was a small shrine on the ridge, and take in the breath-taking views to the north, the rising ridge of Montasio mountain beyond Sella Nevea photobombing the Austrian border beyond.
It was only later that we discovered the ‘shrine’ was actually the rooftop bell tower of the Capella degli Alpini chapel, buried under four metres of snow.
Confidence boosted, we were ready for the reds under the gondola, the first 100m of which dropped beside the towering Bila Pec cliffs, making an already steep piste extra intimidating for the inexperienced. But with a bit of cajoling and encouragement, we all made it down, before racing back up to do it again.
Without Vogel and Krvavec it’s true that our best options were now red runs rather than the comfort zone blues that my wife and daughter especially might have preferred. But as it was, they both rose to the challenge, at the same time raising the capability of the whole family for future ski adventures. Good snow and Easter sun certainly help.
Throughout the remains of the day we eyed the far end of the valley and the recently built 100-person cable car which led to the Slovenian border there. But time was short, and unsure of whether we’d be able to get the linking lifts back in time, we decided to save our cross-border skiing ambitions for another day.
Sunny side up
Keen to actually ski a bit more in Slovenia on our Slovenian ski holiday, the next day we drove to Kanin on the south side of the mountain. It only took an extra 10 minutes as we headed out of Slovenia to Tarvisio in Italy again and then back across the border above Lake Predil. But from the minute we pulled up in the sunny carpark at the Kanin base station, the contrast with shady Sella Nevea was like night and day. Almost literally.
South facing Kanin was awash with spring sunshine – almost blindingly so, once Slovenia’s longest gondola had taken us the vertical kilometre to the top station. It was no wonder that the deck chairs at the informal Ski Bum bar on the snow beach by the top lift station were in so much demand.
The downside to so much sun on so much snow became apparent later, coming back up the chairlift on the south side of the mountain. My daughter and I were busy watching a snowboarder carve the undulating piste-side powder stashes under the cliffs of the Mali Skedenje cliffs away to our left when a sudden low rumble had us snapping our heads to the right.
There, slipping and rolling down from the high, serraced Stador ridgeline was an avalanche, which didn’t stop until it had reach the side of the piste we’d just skied down. It was a sobering moment, and although we saw others carving the perfectly rolling powder spilling over the edges of the mountain, it was one that kept us well within the piste boundaries for the rest of the holiday.
Break for the border
In the end, it wasn’t until our third day on the slopes that we managed to ski both sides of Kanin mountain, tackling it from the Italian side with it slightly quicker journey time and much quicker uplift.
From the top of the main gondola, we rode the Prevala cable car across the mountain to the head of the valley, then gingerly skied down the narrow linking piste towards the bottom of the chairlift that would take us over to Kanin.
First though, we enjoyed the novelty of straddling the border, the kids putting one ski in each country while we took in the sweeping views from under the Sella Prevala rocky outcrop – left across to Sella Nevea’s top station, and right, down into the powder stashes of the Krnica valley ski touring nirvana.
One more chairlift took us to Sella Nevea–Kanin’s highest point at 2,200m, just under the summit of Mount Sedlo, before we skied down an easy blue into the sun. An enormous burger cooked on the barbeque at the Ski Bum Bar and a couple of runs in the sun later and we headed back over the mountain to the dark side for our final runs of the day.
In a journey that took us over an hour of family skiing, we took the short chairlift to the very top of the resort again then the long, sweeping Prevala red down across the border, into Sella Nevea’s high lateral valley, all the way to the chairlift that would take us to the top of the Sella Nevea gondola. One last long red and we were done.
On our last day of skiing we did it all again in reverse, stitching together the two small, contrasting but seamlessly linked resorts on either side of this beautiful mountain from the Slovenian side. This time it worked perfectly, leaving us at the end of the day soaking up the afternoon rays at the Ski Bum Bar under the summit, waiting for the last lift of the day, and the end to our Slovenian-Italian ski odyssey.
This story was originally published in Snow Enthusiast magazine. Read the full issue free at http://magazine.snow-forecast.com/snow-enthusiast-sf-2018#!page1