Slovenia’s Kranjska Gora: You don’t need to ski to love it
KRANJSKA GORA, Slovenia – I lived in Colorado for 23 years and I ski with the same ability as I play the oboe. I suck. I always have. I likely always will as I’m more likely to skydive before I ski again. At least in skydiving you only fall once.
However, ski towns are among my favorite destinations. Colorado is dotted with some of the prettiest in the world. Breckenridge was my favorite. It was only 80 miles (130 kilometers) from my Denver condo right on Interstate 70. I also hit Steamboat Springs, Vail, Telluride, Winter Park. I learned to ski in Aspen.
Apres skiing is where I earned gold medals. I’d ski half a day then find an outdoor bar on the slope and drink beer in the snow. I’d have a nice dinner in a warm, A-frame restaurant then hit the bars. Again, I fell less than I did skiing.
I recently got a taste of two European ski towns. The vibe is very similar to Colorado. Beautiful vistas. Quaint villages. Cozy restaurants. Rollicking bars if much fewer. Colorado Public Radio sent me on a choice assignment to chase Colorado’s Mikaela Shiffrin and her quest to break Lindsay Vonn’s women’s record of 82 World Cup skiing wins. I got to work for a week in European ski resorts in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia, and Flachau, Austria.
I’ve had worse road trips. Take Manhattan, Kan., and Stillwater, Okla.
My first stop, Slovenia’s Kranjska Gora, is harder to spell than it is to enjoy. It’s tucked in the northwest corner where Slovenia meets Italy and Austria. One of the best parts of the assignment was I had a one-night layover in Ljubljana, my favorite capital in the old Eastern Bloc.
Slovenia is where?
One tip I’ve learned in numerous trips to former communist countries in this region is do not ever refer to these countries as East European, especially not to a Slovenian, Czech, Slovak or Pole. They consider themselves Central European.
But I always refer to them as ex-communist Eastern Bloc countries. It’s part of their intrigue, their lure, their charm. Speaking of charm, few capitals in Europe have the charm of Ljubljana.
This city of 275,000 is small enough to be manageable and big enough to have a good time. The narrow, pretty Ljubljanica River runs through the Old Town and is spanned by bridges anchored with statues. Lining the river on both sides are bars, restaurants, public markets, boutique shops and trees providing shade in the summer. Hovering over it all is the 16th century Ljubljana Castle, on a tree-covered hill with the white, blue and red Slovenian flag flying above the high watchtower.
My AirBnB was a few steps from the famed Dragon Bridge. The dragon is the city symbol as, according to ancient legend, one once watched over the city. Two bronze dragon statues stand guard on the bridge and according to modern legend, they wag their tails whenever a virgin passes.
Locals joke they’ve never wagged once.
I had a lovely meal at the 93-year-old restaurant, Hisa Pod Gradom (Under the Castle), where I ordered something called Kranjska Klobasa s Teranovo Omako (Kranjska sausage in Teran wine sauce with bread dumplings and apple horseradish). With a glass of Rebula, one of Slovenia’s many underrated red wines, it was the perfect start of a magical road trip.
The 50-mile (85 kilometers) bus ride northwest to Kranjska Gora isn’t like other ventures I’ve taken through rural former Iron Curtain countries. Slovenia villages don’t have many shuttered factories and crumbling blockish apartment houses left over from the fall of communism in 1990-91. I passed open fields of tilled farmland and A-framed farmhouses over good roads.
Within an hour the Julian Alps came into view. Tall, craggy and snow capped, they stuck up high as a majestic backdrop to church steeples in the city of Kranj. When we pulled into Kranjska Gora (KRAN-ska gora), snow covered the entire town.
My AirBnB, an entire apartment, was a five-minute walk up a mountain road from the main ski area. By Colorado standards, Kranjska Gora is a small ski operation. It has only 18 ski runs with one very long black run reserved for the World Cup’s giant slalom race. Breckenridge has 187.
Skiing here opened in 1948 and the town added lifts in the 1960s. Kranjska Gora was one of the top places to go during winter in communist Yugoslavia. This month, I didn’t see a hint left from Josip Broz Tito’s reign. However, I traveled through Yugoslavia in 1978 and it remains the only communist country I’ve ever visited where people I met enjoyed communist rule.
No wonder. Crossing from Hungary to Yugoslavia that year felt the same as crossing from Tijuana to San Diego. The economic differences were that stark.
In Yugoslavia, Slovenia was the wealthiest of its republics and Tito loved coming here. Locals say it’s because it was the farthest place from the Soviet Union for Tito, a man who stood up to Josef Stalin in 1948 and pursued non-alignment over conformity.
When Tito died in 1980, Yugoslavia slowly fell apart, leading to the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. Due to a lack of ethnic conflict with a tiny Serbian minority, Slovenia managed to escape most of the bloodbath. The lone fighting consisted of 10 days in the summer of 1991 when Slovenia bolted Yugoslavia and fought national troops, leaving 66 dead.
Today Slovenia and Croatia are the lone former Yugoslav republics in the European Union. Slovenia, always the most culturally and industrialized advanced former Yugoslav republic, remains the richest.
It’s my favorite country in the old Eastern Bloc and it’s not just because seemingly everyone speaks English. Their problems are minimal. I asked one Slovenian in Kranjska Gora what Slovenia’s biggest problem is.
He had to reach.
“Slovenia is a beautiful country,” he said. “You’ve got the seaside. You’ve got the mountains. You’ve got excellent cuisine. You’ve got excellent wine. The problem is people don’t cooperate as much as we could to make things go faster and easier and even better than it is now.
“Slovenia is still quite centralized. Most of the big businesses are in Ljubljana. Almost the whole political sphere is in Ljubljana. Many other regions have the feeling that we’re getting left out. We had a good start. We just hope we don’t lose it.”
What to do
Kranjska Gora shouldn’t worry. It’s a year-round destination. Besides skiing, it features:
- Juliana Trail, a 160-mile (270 kilometer) hiking trail through the Julian Alps, including valleys, mountain passes and forests along the Soca and Sava rivers.
- The Juliana Mountain Bike Loop, connecting villages, valleys, passes and mountain plateaus covering roads, bike paths, forests and agricultural paths.
- Rock climbing on the newly opened Via Ferrata Jerm’n, a difficult climb but with fabulous views.
- Ski touring where adventurers can descend from rounded and steep peaks in unspoiled snow.
- Ziplining and paragliding over the Upper Sava Valley with ziplines descending from 1,600 meters to 800 and paragliding as far as 566 meters.
Me? I did no such things. I was on assignment. I dusted off my old sportswriter’s hat and reverted back to the life I led in the U.S. for 40 years: I wrote, ate, drank and slept.
But first I explored. Kranjska Gora has only 1,450 people and is as cute as a snowman. A pedestrian path cuts through the village five minutes from the chairlift and the town still had its Christmas lights. I passed too many Christmas trees to count.
A Christmas village went full bore. In temperatures in the mid-30s, a man sold roasted chestnuts. Another stall sold mulled wine. I perused the selection of stocking caps and woodcrafts. A line formed at the stand selling something called kazza kajza, which looked like small, puffy pancakes with sweet toppings.
Like its wine, Slovenian cuisine is highly underrated. It’s very diverse. The country boasts about two different regional styles of cooking. Restaurants are now featuring different regional dishes on menus, plus the national trademarks such as zlikrofi (stuffed pasta) and jota (bean soup).
After getting my press pass, a young volunteer shuttle driver suggested I eat at Lacni Kekec. It’s a restaurant at the base of the mountain where I fell into a line of skiers fueling up for the afternoon. The place was packed and buzzing. Frantic waiters in shirtsleeves sweated despite the 35-degree weather carrying massive trays of mixed grills that could feed Bosnia.
I ordered the domaci cevapcici, a giant pocket sandwich stuffed with about a dozen sausages. Eating outside, even with an ice-cold Lasko beer, I felt warm. And stuffed. I didn’t eat much again until the next night at Bor, a modern restaurant across the street from the chairlift. Goulash is a diet staple all through this part of Europe, left over from the Austro-Hungarian empire. It’s a must when I visit Hungary.
But this is the first time I’ve had deer goulash. Dark, thick and meaty, it made me learn the Slovenian phrase zelo dobro (Very good). I upgraded my final night to Pino Alpino, a fine-dining establishment that still has reasonable prices common in the old Eastern Bloc. I had steamed trout in pumpkin cream for €19.
Unlike in Colorado mountain towns where there’s a bar on nearly every corner, drinking options in Kranjska Gora are limited. The entire drinking community congregated at Vopa Pub, a two-story beer bar where half-liter bottles of Lasko for €3.30 flew around like shrapnel.
A pretty blonde singer and guitarist in a beret sang American pop hits like “Sultan of Swing” and “You Shook Me All Night Long.” The place was cheek to cheek in more ways than one. It was 90 percent men. I chatted with two Croatians in their late 30s. I told them I was American and the first question was, “How’d you elect Trump and Biden for president? Why can’t you get another JFK or Clinton?”
Valid question. It’s one I get occasionally. I gave them the same answer I always give: “The good politicians in America are smart enough not to be president.”
Seeking Slovenians, I went outside to the patio, still packed in sub-freezing weather. I met Janez and Gregor, two 20ish Slovenians in for a skiing holiday. I would be the dutiful reporter and dispatch all that we discussed about life in Slovenia. However, Gregor bought us all shots of Viljamovka, a vile, sickeningly sweet swill passing itself off as peach Schnapps. I frankly don’t remember our conversation after that.
But I will never forget Slovenia, once Yugoslavia’s happy place and now one of the lightly trodden jewels of Central Europe. Or old Eastern Europe. It doesn’t matter. Slovenia always makes you feel at home.
If you’re thinking of going …
How to get there: Numerous buses daily run from Ljubljana. My two-hour trip cost €8.70.
Where to stay: Mountain Girl AirBnB, Borovska cesta 104a, https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/583232340842931147?source_impression_id=p3_1673945961_daJyuc67GvhZTrZp. An entire apartment a five-minute walk from main chairlift. Big, comfy bed with beautiful views and patio. I paid €431.50 for three nights.
Where to eat: Bor Gostilna & Pizzerija, Borovska cesta 98, 386-4-589-2088, https://gostilna-bor.si/, noon-10 p.m. Besides pizza, it has terrific Slovenian dishes with mains from €13-€26.
Okrepčevalnica Lacur Kekec, Smerinje 11, 386-69-725-296, https://www.lacni-kekec.si/en/, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Ski restaurant at base of mountain serving Slovenian bar food featuring mixed grills, sausage and wienerschnitzel.
When to go: Ski season is generally early December-early April. Ski lift is open from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. July temperatures range from 51-75.
For more information: Kranjska Gora Tourist Information Center, Ticarjeva cesta 2, 386-580-9440, www.kranjska-gora.sl, 8 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday, June-September and mid December-March; 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Saturday April, May, October-mid December.