In Slovenia, a ski and a swim make an unusual pairing
By NOAH CHARNEY | Special to The Washington Post | Published: May 7, 2018
Living in Slovenia, you often hear about the benefits of the wonderfully compact yet diverse terrain of the country. Stretching over a territory about the size of New Jersey, it runs the gamut of landscapes.
Consider the vast underground limestone cave systems, just a short drive from the flatlands of the Pannonian Plain, populated by storks and gypsies. The dark, fairy-tale forests of the southern region, dotted with castles and small churches, are mere minutes from the 30 miles of Adriatic coastline that stretches far south into Dalmatia. Yet this is just an hour or so from the northern mountainous region, fringed by two ranges of the Alps, looming on the horizon, capped by snow deep into spring.
As an American expat happily living in Slovenia for many years, I love exploring my adopted country and looking, more deeply than perhaps even locals do, into what makes it such a wonderful place to visit and reside. One line I hear frequently, and which guidebooks like to boast about, is that the country is so compact, with such a diversity of terrain, that you can ski in the morning and swim in the ocean in the afternoon.
Logistically, in terms of transport time, I recognize that this is easily doable. To get from the town that I now call home -- Kamnik, which boasts three castles and stands at the foot of the Kamnik-Savinja range of the Alps -- to the coastline takes just about 90 minutes. But I don’t know anybody who has actually tried it.
Could I actually ski in the morning and swim in the afternoon? Beyond the idea that this might make for a very warm morning of skiing and an extremely cold afternoon of swimming, there was the question of whether any ski resorts stay open long enough into the spring (or open early enough in the fall) to make swimming feasible without wearing a dry suit. The most important question was: Even if it is logistically feasible, would it be any fun?
Only one way to find out. One morning in April, I decide to give it a go.
A quick look at a map reveals that covering distances is the least of my worries. Krvavec is the nearest resort to Kamnik -- only a 20-minute drive away -- and is therefore my go-to local ski site. The problem is getting to the top of a mountain to ski down it. Most of the ski resorts close at the end of the season, in late March or early April, Krvavec included.
Instead, I’ll have to go to Vogel, which is about 30 minutes farther away from the coast and the highway. Vogel is the highest ski resort in the country and keeps snow the longest, so that’s my best choice to balance a functional gondola and snow-thick trails with a quick route down to the coast and an Adriatic Sea that has as much time as possible to warm up.
To hit the slopes early, I spend the night in a tiny village just a few miles from Lake Bohinj and a few more from the Vogel ski resort. Artpartment is a rental on the top floor of a family home, converted into a wood-clad oasis by young master craftsman Izak Mrgole, whose parents, Leonida and Albert, are famous psychologists in Slovenia. In the attached kitchen, I prepare a traditional breakfast of unpasteurized yogurt, home-baked bread with local honey, apples and "mountain" tea (a mixture of wild alpine herbs), as well as an enormous mug of Turkish coffee. I’m off at around 8 a.m. to be on an early gondola up to Vogel. The drive takes just 10 minutes, winding through spectacular scenery that recalls the climax of "The Sound of Music," which was filmed on a distant section of the same mountain range.
Vogel is ideal for me -- a lousy but enthusiastic skier. It is full of long trails of mid-level difficulty, including one that is open only weather permitting, but which runs seven full kilometers, sweeping all the way down the mountain in a single beautiful run that is skiing at its most delightful and least fussy, in terms of lifts.
Because the distances are short, I can take in a good two hours of skiing before I need to think about setting off. And because it is a weekday late in the season, there are almost no other skiers on the slope.
After that, I’m off to the coast, and since the highway takes me right past the capital, Ljubljana, I have time to stop off for lunch. I could opt for a quick meal and grab some cevapcici -- the favorite fast food of the Balkans, a cross between a meatball and a sausage eaten with fluffy, warm pita bread called lepinje and a butter-cheese hybrid called kajmak. But with a country this compact, why rush? Instead I stop for a proper meal at JB, which is possibly the best deal among San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants, with a five-course prix fixe for about $50.
After lunch, while driving the smooth stretch of highway to the seaside town of Koper, I begin to get nervous about the impending swim. Adrenaline is certainly not my middle name, and if a swimming pool isn’t bathtub warm, I’m unlikely to opt for a dip. I recall the advice from Urban Praprotnik, a running coach and ski instructor who leads sporty tourists on combination ski-run-swim holidays as long as the slopes stay open. He makes a point of swimming at least once a month, including during the winter, and in February he took a dip in the ocean when it was 40 degrees. This time of year, it’s a balmy 55 degrees, he assured me, so it’ll be a piece of cake.
He does advise me to walk actively before entering cold water, then enter it slowly and calmly, "convincing my prefrontal cortex that all is well." Easier said than done. I’d been planning a quick cannonball, followed by screaming and running out to shore, so this is a rather different approach.
Once an import city as the capital of the Istrian Peninsula, Koper is an endearing maze of narrow streets, with surprising bits of architecture, fountains and palaces, such as the Praetorian’s Palace, with its fishtail-shaped ramparts. It also boasts an impressive cathedral housing a worth-a-journey painting by the Renaissance Venetian master, Vittore Carpaccio.
With a keen desire to get the swim behind me, I head straight to the piers at the edge of town. It is many degrees warmer here than it was in Ljubljana, and I’m struck by how few miles I’ve traveled to go from wearing my ski pants and jacket atop Vogel to the 60-degree air of Ljubljana to the 72 degrees of Koper. Slovenia truly is a concentrate of terrains and climate.
The sea spreads out before me, but I notice, with some trepidation, that there is absolutely no one swimming. Hmm. All the same, I strip down to the bathing suit that I have been strategically wearing all day under my ski pants. My wife awaits, rolling her eyes, with a thick bathrobe and -- a key bit of advice from several Slovenian friends -- a hip flask of my grandmother-in-law’s village-prizewinning homemade schnapps.
I still feel like a cannonball would be the best approach, but I take Urban’s advice, jump around a bit to warm up, then breathe slowly, have a chat with my prefrontal cortex and step into the sea. It is cold. Really, uncomfortably cold. I manage to inch my way waist deep, count to three and then ... off I sprint to my wife and the bathrobe and, especially, the schnapps.
My ultimate Slovenian day trip proved a success. I was able to comfortably ski and (sort of) swim on the coast, all in one day, and without even feeling rushed. I have proved the oft-spoken, little-undertaken cliche that Slovenia’s miniature size but grand variety allows you to do it all.
But I wouldn’t recommend it. In the future, I’ll keep my skiing and swimming holidays apart.