Friday thought #26 Discovering new places – Kosovo and Macedonia

Going somewhere new is always an amazing experience, especially when it’s in an entirely new part of the World, completely unknown and with no pre-conceptions. No matter what you encounter, it will be an adventure, and Eastern Europe definitely delivered. Our only basis for going was that we’d vaguely heard the skiing could be good, and the half term school holidays in France are as good a reason as any to get the hell out of the Alps. You can fly directly to Pristina, Kosovo from Geneva, so why not?

Some of the absolute highlights for me:

* One man chairlifts!

* Dinner for two for €3.50!

* A local Kosovar overhearing us speaking English in the street and proceeding to shake our hands, thank us profusely for our help in liberating his country, and paying homage to Tony Blair and Queen Elizabeth II!

* The wonderfully friendly and welcoming people

* The heavily armed ski patrollers on the pistes in Macedonia

* Hitching a ride with a cat ski operation in the back bowls of Popova Sapka in Macedonia

* Sledgers outnumbering skiers by at least 20:1!

* The severe looking guards at the Macedonia/Kosovo border seeing our skis, breaking out in to smiles and telling us through the hatch where to go next for the best skiing.

* The total and utter chaos on the roads to Brezovica ‘resort’, Kosovo, with cars, coaches and pedestrians all sharing a one track, rutted, snowy road.

* Getting a ride up to our hotel on the back of a skidoo.

* The touts flogging soft drinks, chocolate bars and cigarettes at the base of the chair lifts from rickety wooden tables.

What an endlessly fascinating and intriguing area, I don’t think I have ever come across a more welcoming, friendly and hilarious people. In both Kosovo and Macedonia there seems to be no logic, very few rules, and a definite lack of urgency. The lifts in the tiny ski areas may or may not open and if they do it might only be for half an hour.

What a wonderful place, we’ll most certainly be back!

Moonscapes in Popova Sapka, Macedonia
Moonscapes in Popova Sapka, Macedonia
Lakeside skiing in Mavrovo, Macedonia
Lakeside skiing in Mavrovo, Macedonia
The atmospheric one man chair in Brezovica, Kosovo
The atmospheric one man chair in Brezovica, Kosovo
The tiny resort of Brezovica, Kosovo, where sledging is clearly the national sport!
The tiny resort of Brezovica, Kosovo, where sledging is clearly the national sport!
Fresh lines in the back bowls
Fresh lines in the back bowls
Animal tracks heading in to the sunset
Animal tracks heading in to the sunset
Now this is what you call chaos!
Now this is what you call chaos!
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Friday thought #22 First powder day of the season!!

Well I don’t need too many words to describe this one, the pictures very much speak for themselves, even to those who have no knowledge and no interest of skiing! The European winter so far has been practically non-existent; easily the worst start to a winter in the Alps I can ever remember. Christmas and New Year were a nightmare, bare pistes and lots of angry holiday-makers, and January has been pretty snow-free so far, but finally, finally, the heavens opened last week and provided us with the base we need and at long last, the first powder day of the season!

Up until this weekend I must admit that my enthusiasm for skiing was starting to wane… Two months of attempting to ski on grass and ice will do that to even the keenest sportsman (!) But last weekend restored all my faith in the white fluffy stuff, and team this with blue sky, amazing pals and an obscene amount of brilliant banter, it all came together to provide one of the best ski days I’ve ever had.

Happy skiing to all!

Ah, fresh lines...
Ah, fresh lines…
First tracks of the day
First tracks of the day
Happy skiers on the chair lift!
Happy skiers on the chair lift!

Friday Thought #2 Mountains or Beach?

This is an age old question which I’m sure countless numbers of people have asked themselves at some point in their lives. I would be tempted to say that the majority of people would automatically say ‘beach’ simply because they have spent more time on beaches and very little or no time in mountains, but also because our society tells us that beach holidays are more exotic and the obvious choice for a summer break.

Growing up in the United Kingdom it’s safe to say that we don’t get much experience of impressive mountainous regions or golden sandy beaches, our highest peak being Ben Nevis at 1344m and the hottest average summer temperatures hovering around the mid-twenties. Holidays mean ‘getting away’ and we grow up believing that hot places and beaches are the only option worth considering. This is where the rise in low cost airline flights has come from to countries such as Spain, Greece and Italy; people want a cheap escape to somewhere in the sun, and understandably so. Why would you want a holiday to a freezing snowy place if you spend the other 50 weeks of the year grinding away in a rainy, cold city? Most Brits live in landlocked counties and only see a beach once a year on an annual summer holiday; sand and sea are exciting, different and best of all, cheap. To go on a beach holiday a family needs nothing more than themselves and swimming gear, no expensive hiring of equipment or paying elevated prices for lifts or accommodation. In my experience children couldn’t care less and often have no awareness of whether they are staying in a 5* hotel or in a tiny tent on a crowded campsite so it’s easy to see why beach holidays win for a family.

Skiing holidays are viewed as only for the wealthy and privileged, a pastime which is only ever viewed in magazines or on television for the majority of people. It’s too foreign, too difficult and too expensive, why not just get a cheap flight to Spain with your togs and towel and you’re all set for a holiday? But those who have never visited the Alps or indeed any high mountain range I find are often extremely naive. What people don’t seem to realise is that in the summer months the mountains serve a very different purpose. I remember heading out to the French Alps in July aged 18 to work my first ‘summer season’ and several people asking me if I was going to be a ski instructor. I found this hard to understand because firstly even at 18 and having never stood on a pair of skis, I was aware that you probably needed qualifications and experience to be an instructor, and secondly, it was the summer, didn’t people realise that snow is generally a winter phenomenon??

However I imagine this is a completely different story for those growing up in countries with a more temperate climate or surrounded by mountain scenery such as the States or a lot of mainland Europe. Much of these continents are covered in spectacular peaks which their inhabitants grow up admiring and using in every way, and perhaps these people would have little interest in a beach. You can’t climb it, conquer it, travel down it quickly. I think my opinion of how people view mountains and beaches is very much British as this is the main pool of experience that I can draw from. With the exception of a hardy handful, Brits generally don’t grow up roaming the hills and valleys, children will generally choose building a sandcastle over donning a pair of hiking boots and trailing after dad over the Yorkshire Moors. Most people’s earliest experiences of holidays are on the beach in the sun and this is therefore imprinted in to their brain as what holidays are all about.

But I feel people are missing out on what these places of natural beauty are all about and often it takes an inspirational teacher or a school trip to broaden a young mind as to what nature has to offer. How many of us have walked away from the crowds at a beach and simply sat down to admire the tranquility of the waves, or snuggled up on a rugged coastline to watch the ferocity of a storm? In a similar vein, on those annual skiing trips how many tourists avoid the over-crowded mountain restaurants, take a packed lunch and find a peaceful spot to eat where they can really take in the beauty of a mountain landscape? I worry that ‘holidays’ have become such a desperation for over-worked and fed up people that most don’t even consider where they are going anymore. Wherever is cheap and hot, nothing else matters.

So back to my original question, having spent many a happy summer working on the south and west coasts of France, and having had the fortune to experience the East Coast of Australia in all its glory, I love the beach and the sea. I fell in love with the ‘beach’ way of life in Australia, so simple, so chilled, so beautiful. Scuba diving, snorkelling, sea kayaking, it’s all hard to beat, but for me the mountains will always win. They are a geographical phenomenon and awe-inspiring doesn’t even come close. To me they are nature’s greatest achievement and will be there reigning supreme when everything else is long gone. Life in the mountains is constantly varied and I love that there are 4 very distinct seasons, all of which are magical in their own way. Rather than being a miserable, cold, dark period that everyone hates and wishes away, winter is highly anticipated and never long enough. Every year I think I like winter more and then when summer arrives I change my mind, until the following December when my love of snow is rekindled! Being in the mountains in winter, completely alone with not a soul in sight, having pushed your skis uphill for hours, you have truly earned your turns downhill, and in the summer, having got up at first light and climbed a steep, rocky and exposed ridge, standing on the top of that peak looking down at everything below is a feeling that cannot be beaten.

Beach or mountains? I think deep down, everyone is one or the other. It’s important to experience both. I’ll always spend time on the beach and in the sea, but the mountains will always take my breath away.

Mountains win
Mountains win