Photo Credits: Jess Oundjian
It’s always fun heading into a trip a little blind. Inevitably, best-laid plans always change, which is why my cohort Jess Oundjian and I ended up deciding to set out upon a 5000km road trip through the Balkans to get to our planned destination, the home of the gods, Mt Olympus in Greece.
The gods would test us numerous times on our quest. Flexibility and a sense of humor would prove invaluable…
Our plans had formed a few months earlier. An exploratory trip into Morocco’s high Atlas range, with the added bonus of tacking on a surf trip was the original aim. Worried about the possible lack of snow, we started to look at other options. To the East, Georgia was getting hammered and Greece was lining up its best season since the fabled Winter of 2011. Weighing up the relative pros and cons, we decided on Greece and after pricing up flights including the inevitable excess baggage, we decided to drive. Roof box bolted on and Apollo the Subaru was ready to roll.
Travelling by road meant we could plan a route that took in a number of other likely looking locations across the Balkans.
In my mind this trip was to be about splitboarding untracked lines in exotic locations, but as the weather shut us down over and over and our plans changed more times than underwear, the story became about the other side of the trip, maybe the funnier side – the travel, the culture and the parties.
First off was Zagreb, famed for its medieval old city and its architecture. After a morning wandering around the city’s streets we did what comes naturally and decided to find a good pub. Luckily, Jess and I share a love of hearty food and craft beer, it’s the only thing that comes close to the bond we’ve built being in the mountains. That night we devised a technique that we utilized to good effect during our short city stops – We’d find the local skate shop and ask their advice on places to see, eat, drink and party. It never failed and is a travel tip I strongly recommend.
After doing some recon at the bar the night before, we woke up a bit worn out and reconsidered our drunken decision to break up the next leg of the journey to northern Greece with a stop in Macedonia. In the sober light of day, the plan still sounded good, so we packed up and headed on our way.
We had little to no info on the small resort of Popova Sapka we’d decided to make our target, but en-route, a light bulb moment occurred. Searching the hashtag #Popovasapka on Instagram instantly connected us with Maya and Meto, an amazing couple who are pioneering a freeride scene at their local mountain.
We slept in the car the first night because our hangovers had prevented us from arriving at a reasonable hour to contact them, but the following day we were able to link up. Maya and Meto showed us around their home mountain, put a roof over our heads, and fed us handsomely, even if they were a little confused why we would leave the freeride mecca of Verbier to come hang out with them.
With Greece still stuck in a storm cycle, we had to put Olympus on the back burner. Social media had come up aces once again and connected us with Themi, a Californian with Greek roots who had also lived in Queenstown for 5 years. He was filming a documentary on snowboarding in Greece and suggested meeting us in Vasalitsa, which he described to me as the freeride hub of the area.
All I had been told was that there was a peaceful mountain refuge sitting at 1850 meters that would welcome us with open arms
We got back on the road and headed into the snowstorm, again with little info on our destination. All I had been told was that there was a peaceful mountain refuge sitting at 1850 meters that would welcome us with open arms. Darkness was falling, drifting snow and zero visibility led to numerous wrong turns, but eventually, we arrived.
Like a scene from a horror movie, it was pitch black outside the refuge, yet music thumped from within. Cautiously, we approached to find the place completely packed. We had unwittingly stumbled upon the last Saturday of carnival, which was clearly when shit gets loose. Luckily, being well trained in the art of stumbling into parties mid-flow, Jess and I had beers in hand within five steps of passing through the doorway.
We were immediately made welcome by Dimitri, the excitable, self-proclaimed, unqualified snowboard instructor of the mountain. To round out his resume, he proclaimed himself our drinking coach, too; Greek schnapps, Jager and umpteen beers later, Dimitri had ensured we played a good game of catch-up. At some point during the evening one of us remembered that we actually needed a place to sleep. We found that the owner of the refuge was the person who’d just become my new best friend. After more beers, dancing on the tables, and some air guitar, he informed us the refuge was full, but since we were such tight homies who go way back, he offered us his bed and he crashed on the sofa.
Hangovers are worse when you haven’t mentally prepared for them. Sometimes you go out fully aware that the next day you’re going to feel, look, and smell like a badger’s anus and you’re ready to embrace it, water and aspirin on the bedside, coffee ready in the kitchen, and drunkenly made plans with your fellow partiers to meet for brunch.
This was not one of those times. After dusting ourselves down, wrapping ourselves in merino and sinking three cups of coffee in different forms, we were out and up the hill. Luckily it had been a big night for the rest of the local crew and combined with their apparent general lack of urgency to do anything and we actually looked quite respectable. No need to be first on the chair, first on the bootpack here.
5 days, a road gap, a roof box ripped apart by high winds, night riding under portable LEDs, lots of flat light in minus twenty conditions and not a bluebird day later, we were out of there.
With just a week left until Jess had to be back in Switzerland to compete in a FWQ event, we had to make some decisions. Mount Olympus didn’t have a weather window and was looking less and less likely. The south of Greece where we had other aims was hitting nineteen degrees Celsius and photos were showing locals enjoying the beach. Our best lead was a call I’d received to let us know that there was a crew filming in Kosovo, so after again utilizing social media and the international couch surfing network to get in touch and check conditions, we were on our way to Brezovica, Kosovo.
We rode into Kosovo with Google maps failing us and we actually had to rely on road signs and common sense. We arrived on time and without a wrong turn, obviously.
High clouds, flat light and strong wind once again dominated our time in Brezovica but we were left amazed by the terrain available and made a promise to ourselves that we would return in the near future for a longer spell and some extended time at a basecamp in one of many accessible yet untouched back bowls. Locals informed us that the resort had recently been purchased by the same company that owns Val D’Isere with the intent to privatize everything and make another mega resort. It seems we aren’t the only ones to see the potential of Brezovica.
Leaving Kosovo seemed to go against all my instincts. The storm looked to be clearing for a few days followed by another huge storm, which did incidentally drop over a metre of fresh in 24 hours just days after we left to head back to Switzerland.
But, Jess had to get back to kick ass in Switzerland on the FWQ so we again packed up and hit the road. It was a long drive via some dubious Kosovan back roads in order to avoid motorway roadwork before we hit Ljubljana, Slovenia. We took a day here to reflect on the trip and used the skate shop technique to find good beer. With so many decisions to make each day – stay where you are? Head to the place that’s forecast new snow but could end up being rain? South? North? – it can get a little draining. But each decision reminds you to make the most of wherever you are on any given day.
Living your life in the mountains provides you with a million opportunities in every direction, but this trip was proof that as long as you proceed with good friends and a positive attitude with the goal of as much fun as possible, you can achieve it.
– Mike Handford