Skiing without clutter: on the eco-friendly slopes of Slovenia’s Julian Alps | Skiing holidays

Winding through Slovenia’s Julian Alps, it’s easy to miss the signs to the Vogel ski centre and carry on driving. The cable car and car park are concealed deep in woods above beautiful Lake Bohinj – a deliberate policy to keep the landscape free from tourist clutter and visible ski infrastructure. The result is one of the most natural skiing areas in Europe.

Slovenia map Bohinj-Vogel

From its hidden entrance in the woods, the cable car ascends to Vogel and the views open up: mountains soaring above, snowy churches below, and the deep blue lake dropping away beneath until it’s the size of a puddle.

It took only a few minutes to grab skis from the hire centre at the summit, then I was off, following the curve of the piste, my legs adjusting to their first passage over the face of winter. Vogel is small and its runs are mainly reds and blues – the kind you bomb down through the woods, admiring the untarnished nature on either side. The piste signs are all wooden, no billboards or snow cannon are visible: Bohinj’s Triglav national park won’t allow them for environmental reasons. Artificial snow delays the first buds of spring, so can mess with the mountain’s natural cycle.

The Vogel ski lift. Photograph: Panther Media/Alamy

The Slovenes are known by their Balkan neighbours as “the skiers” – a reputation earned during the second world war when Slovenian partisans fought the Nazis in the Alps bordering Italy and Austria on skis. They have also produced a fair number of the region’s medal winners in snow sports: former Slovenian-Yugoslavian alpine skier Jure Franko regularly won golds for the Yugoslavia Olympic team. During the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, locals celebrated by chanting: “Jure Franko, we love you more than burek!” (Burek are much-revered filled filo pastry rolls; to admit to loving something more is blasphemy.)

It seems the Slovenian mountains haven’t changed much in appearance since partisan and Yugoslav days, thanks to the eco-conscious planning policies of the park authorities, which forbid the construction of large hotels. They even forbade the building of another chairlift in nearby Soriška Planina, because it would disrupt the nesting ground of the endangered wild Styrian hen.

The landscape is also a result of Slovenes’ closeness to their mountains. Soriška Planina and Pokljuka are only an hour’s drive from the capital, Ljubljana, so not everyone needs a hotel near the slopes – they just jump in their cars and go skiing for the day. Mountains are in the national consciousness. “People take care of the mountains because it’s just what we all do,” said Blaz Kavcic, an outdoorsy Ljubljanian friend who has skied since he could walk.

The resort is much less costly than similar skiing areas in nearby Italy and Austria. Photograph: ZGPhotography/Alamy

As it was only my second day back on skis in years, I booked a lesson to improve my carving technique with Kavcic from Activity Break, who teaches tourists and local children. He told me that most Slovenians ski from childhood because “it’s a people’s sport, not something elite”. Most of the children on the slopes that day whizzed past me in far superior style, much to my embarrassment.

Though skiing has become more expensive since the Yugoslav era, it’s still far less pricey than across the border in Austria and Italy. I paid €42 for my pass at Vogel – a one-week pass is €197. Visitors can stay in affordable guesthouses in the villages around Lake Bohinj, such as Stara Fužina, 20 minutes’ drive from Vogel ski centre, or in eco-conscious hotels such as Hotel Bohinj and Triglav, which offer seasonal menus and use only natural or recycled products. I stayed with a friend in Ljubljana, but took an evening to enjoy Hotel Bohinj’s outdoor pool and sauna, perfect for post-ski relaxation.

The Bohinj valley is one of Slovenia’s most scenic areas. Photograph: Fesus Robert/Alamy

Thankfully, the snow was excellent during my trip and the sun brilliant, but if conditions are bad, there’s still plenty to do nearby. Conscious that the climate crisis is making the ski season more unpredictable, local guides from companies like Activity Break also offer hiking, biking and wild swimming in lakes.

One of their offerings is cross-country ski training. After a few days’ skiing in Vogel, I tried out the cross-country trails in Pokljuka, a high plateau 20 minutes’ drive from lakes Bled and Bohinj. It’s home to Slovenia’s biathlon training centre, a sport that combines cross-country skiing with shooting. Originally from Scandinavia, the sport became popular in Slovenia in part because hunting on skis for game and the occasional bear was already a tradition. The Slovenian army still uses the centre to train its specialist mountain fighters.

After another lesson with Kavcic, I swoosh through the woods, covering part of the 25-mile (40km) cross-country loop around the national park. The close canopy of trees and recent snowfall muffled all sound, until the track opened out into meadows and a perfect picnic spot.

Inside Hotel Bohinj. Photograph: Camilla Bell-Davies

Wood smoke drifted from the chimneys of houses further down the valley, from villages where hay is still hand-dried in rickety barns. This is Heidi landscape: slightly Austrian but somehow older, quieter, more magical.

While other ski resorts are investing in more artificial methods to deal with the drop in snowfall, ecologists in Bohinj are thinking differently about their winter season. “We understand the sign of the times,” said Klemen Langus, head of Bohinj’s tourism board and a policymaker in the national park. “Before, Slovenia felt it couldn’t compete with Austria or Italy for snow sports; we simply didn’t have the money. But now we realise that not being burdened with big resorts, and having a landscape that’s beautiful to look at, where the ski infrastructure is hidden from view, is a big advantage. If skiing dies, we still have pure nature.”

Lake Bohinj. Photograph: Camilla Bell-Davies

Still, Langus is hopeful that skiing will continue. Bohinj is putting on a cross-country skiing festival, 22-25 March, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the national park. At Pokljuka, they are busy conserving piles of snow under foil and woodchips for next year. Global heating may be making ski seasons unpredictable, but in Slovenia they are ready.

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