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The unpopulated slopes of Brezovica, Kosovo, where the lifts have been closed for a year. A hardcore group of skiers and snowboarders have kept the local scene alive.
The unpopulated slopes of Brezovica, Kosovo, where the lifts have been closed for a year. A hardcore group of skiers and snowboarders have kept the local scene alive. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)
The unpopulated slopes of Brezovica, Kosovo, where the lifts have been closed for a year. A hardcore group of skiers and snowboarders have kept the local scene alive.
The unpopulated slopes of Brezovica, Kosovo, where the lifts have been closed for a year. A hardcore group of skiers and snowboarders have kept the local scene alive. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)
Hiking for turns at Brezovica, Kosovo, a majestic resort that's missing just one thing: running lifts. The lifts have been dormant for about a year, but for the adventurous, that means great ski touring and few to compete with for fresh tracks.
Hiking for turns at Brezovica, Kosovo, a majestic resort that's missing just one thing: running lifts. The lifts have been dormant for about a year, but for the adventurous, that means great ski touring and few to compete with for fresh tracks. (Guilhem Gineste/Courtesy of Stars and Stripes)
Some of the Balkans' best skiers and snowboarders party before a race at Brezovica, Kosovo, in March. While the lifts have been closed for a year because of what some people say is a combination of nonpayment of bills and ethnic dispute, riders from all different ethnic groups of the former Yugoslavia come together at Brezovica.
Some of the Balkans' best skiers and snowboarders party before a race at Brezovica, Kosovo, in March. While the lifts have been closed for a year because of what some people say is a combination of nonpayment of bills and ethnic dispute, riders from all different ethnic groups of the former Yugoslavia come together at Brezovica. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)
A longtime resident of Brezovica, Kosovo, spins a yarn at one of the bars that remained open even though the ski lifts have been closed for a year.
A longtime resident of Brezovica, Kosovo, spins a yarn at one of the bars that remained open even though the ski lifts have been closed for a year. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)
The base of Brezovica, a ski resort in Kosovo that still has a loyal core of skiers and snowboarders, despite the lifts having been closed for a year. The resort is currently being shopped around to developers, but it's unclear if the lifts will turn this winter.
The base of Brezovica, a ski resort in Kosovo that still has a loyal core of skiers and snowboarders, despite the lifts having been closed for a year. The resort is currently being shopped around to developers, but it's unclear if the lifts will turn this winter. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)
Long-dormant lifts lashed together by wind high on the slopes of Brezovica, Kosovo. The lifts haven't turned for a year due to some combination of non-payment of bills and ethnic dispute.
Long-dormant lifts lashed together by wind high on the slopes of Brezovica, Kosovo. The lifts haven't turned for a year due to some combination of non-payment of bills and ethnic dispute. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)
Fred Colin, a skier from France, skins up the mountain at Brezovica, Kosovo, a large ski resort that has fallen on hard times. The lifts haven't turned for a year, but that means ski enthusiasts can have the place to themselves.
Fred Colin, a skier from France, skins up the mountain at Brezovica, Kosovo, a large ski resort that has fallen on hard times. The lifts haven't turned for a year, but that means ski enthusiasts can have the place to themselves. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)
Opportunities to make fresh tracks are plentiful at Brezovica, Kosovo, for those willing to work for them, as the lifts haven't turned in a year.
Opportunities to make fresh tracks are plentiful at Brezovica, Kosovo, for those willing to work for them, as the lifts haven't turned in a year. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)
A snowcat running last season offered rides halfway up the mountain at Brezovica, Kosovo, for 5 euros a trip. If you want to reach the top, though, you've got some climbing to do, as the lifts haven't been running for a year.
A snowcat running last season offered rides halfway up the mountain at Brezovica, Kosovo, for 5 euros a trip. If you want to reach the top, though, you've got some climbing to do, as the lifts haven't been running for a year. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)
Wide-open bowls greet those willing to make the climb to the top at Brezovica resort in Kosovo.
Wide-open bowls greet those willing to make the climb to the top at Brezovica resort in Kosovo. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)
A lone skier begins his descent from Brezovica, Kosovo, where the lifts are dormant.
A lone skier begins his descent from Brezovica, Kosovo, where the lifts are dormant. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)
Pristina, the capital of Europe's newest country, Kosovo, is a logical starting point for ski trips to the nearly untouched mountains of the region.
Pristina, the capital of Europe's newest country, Kosovo, is a logical starting point for ski trips to the nearly untouched mountains of the region. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)
Pristina, the capital of Europe's newest country, Kosovo, is a logical starting point for ski trips to the nearly untouched mountains of the region.
Pristina, the capital of Europe's newest country, Kosovo, is a logical starting point for ski trips to the nearly untouched mountains of the region. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)
Flowers for sale at a market in Pristina, Kosovo, where skiers looking to explore the country's rugged mountains are likely to start their trip.
Flowers for sale at a market in Pristina, Kosovo, where skiers looking to explore the country's rugged mountains are likely to start their trip. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)
A statue of Bill Clinton in Pristina, Kosovo, where the former U.S. president is a hero for his role in a NATO military campaign that led to Kosovo's independence.
A statue of Bill Clinton in Pristina, Kosovo, where the former U.S. president is a hero for his role in a NATO military campaign that led to Kosovo's independence. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

The steaming tea cup smelled of honey and something stronger. It was 7 a.m., the lifts hadn’t run in months, and the proprietor of the nearly empty cafe thought it was high time for a pre-ski pick-me-up at the ghost resort of the Shar Planina.

My trip to Brezovica, Kosovo, had started with little information, though how little I didn’t realize. I had read scant accounts about a massive mountain with reliable snow in a disputed country with few visitors. The resort was located perfectly in the middle of a Balkan ski and snowboard journey I had planned to begin in Sarajevo and end in Albania.

In the capital, Pristina, everyone I asked encouraged me to visit Brezovica. As our taxi lumbered up the twisting route to the resort, though — right before our inexperienced driver became hopelessly stuck on the unplowed, snowy road — my ski partner, Guilhem Gineste, made an alarming observation: “The lifts aren’t moving.”

No one had mentioned that Brezovica’s lifts had been dormant the entire season.

Even though our driver broke a pair of tire chains, we made it to the resort. We took in the impressive scene: broad swaths of untracked snow winding up 2,600 vertical feet under empty chairs swaying in the breeze. A small hatchback was buried in the snow across from a peeling, faded lift map painted on a wooden sign.

Local accounts differed on the exact reason for the fate of the resort, but most on the mountain agreed it was some combination of ethnic dispute and non-payment of electric bills.

Brezovica lies in a Serbian enclave of majority-Albanian Kosovo, whose independence was fiercely resisted by Serbia, which still considers Kosovo a province of the country. It all stems from the complex, bloody fighting that tore apart the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s and didn’t end in Kosovo until 1999 with a NATO bombing campaign that is still very much a sore point among Serbs. Tension remains high between the Orthodox Christian Serbs and Muslim Albanians (though both groups are overwhelmingly secular), and about 5,000 NATO peacekeepers — including 670 Americans — remain in the country.

While the Kosovar-Serbian rivalry might have played a role in the shutdown at Brezovica, some claim the managers simply failed to pay their bills and had the power shut off.

Whatever the reason, the lifts hadn’t turned all winter. Normally, this would be a problem.

After a long journey, though, we were determined to ride, so I strapped my board to my backpack and we started hiking up. Five minutes in, we heard a faint rumble and as it got louder we saw a snowcat approaching full of skiers and snowboarders. We hopped on and got the lowdown from the local riders: Yes, the lifts were closed, but the die-hards had arranged for a snowcat to take them up for about 5 euros a ride, depending on how full it was.

Despite the tough season, it was a party atmosphere on the cat. Amid the diesel fumes and marijuana smoke, one Kosovar skier looked at the bright side, surveying the wide-open, barely touched runs and the 10 people who had full run of the slopes.

“It’s good, because now we own the mountain,” he said.

If you are fit and enterprising, you could have the entire resort’s 2,600 vertical feet to yourself with a steep hike after the cat drops you off about halfway up the mountain. My friend and I trudged up to the top and found steep, wide-open bowls with no tracks and no people. The terrain is almost limitless and the resort’s 8,300-foot summit means deep snow most years.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was the après-ski scene. The lack of lifts didn’t stop the handful of local bars and restaurants at the base of the mountain from staying open, though the owners did say the shutdown was killing business. The hardcore group of riders who refused to give up on the mountain did their best to make up for lost bar patrons, drinking, talking shop, and dancing late into the night.

On another night, a few dozen of the Balkans’ best skiers and snowboarders — Serb, Kosovar, Bosnian, Slovenian, Croatian and Macedonian — gathered at the Fox Bar ahead of a race the next day. They drank, talked, danced to rock and techno, and without hesitation welcomed and bought beers for the two wayward foreigners who had stumbled upon their secret spot.

“Where are you from?” one asked.

“America,” I said.

“Cool, want to race tomorrow?” (Guilhem and I took him up on his offer and swept last place in our respective categories.)

Given the tumultuous recent history of the region and the sharp divisions along ethnic and religious lines that still exist, it was an impressive gathering at the bar. Just down the road, in a Serb-dominated town, the Albanian translations on the road had been blacked out with spray paint and in many ethnic Albanian areas, the same was done to the Serbian translations.

But at my table that night, skiers and boarders from almost every nation of the former Yugoslavia talked skiing, talked girls, talked about anything but politics. There were no divisions on the mountain.

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