Brezovica, Kosovo: Forget ethnic divisions and enjoy the fresh ski tracks
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.