Karts and Cabbages
A Week in Slovakia
Words:Ed Blomfield Photography:Florent Ducasse
It's funny that in an age when Polish builders and Slovakian waitresses are the norm here in the UK, most of us still know very little about the countries they've come from. Our snowboarding knowledge is equally limited, with few of us choosing Eastern Europe over the super resorts of France, Switzerland and Austria. If anything, places like Bulgaria are seen as the black sheep of the family - that slim section of the holiday brochure aimed at the cheapskates, famous for cheap booze and strip joints and chosen by riders who are more bothered about saving money than shredding the best mountains.
Is this a fair assessment? With snowboarding as expensive as ever and France still… well, full of French people, we wanted to look at the Eastern alternative for ourselves. So, long before Michael Palin went on his latest dull tour for the Beeb, we found a British snowboard chalet offering packages out East and booked a dirt cheap trip. Our destination: Slovakia.
To get to Slovakia you can fly into either Poprad (which is nearer the mountains) or the capital, Bratislava. Both destinations are served by budget airlines, but we were doing this properly so plumped for the absolute cheapest fare we could get at the time. This so happened to be Bratislava, which meant getting a train out to the hills. "No problem," said Paul from the Propaganda chalet, "You can get a first class train ticket for about a tenner." It sounded like just the kind of bargain we were hoping to find.
We were met at the airport by Conrad, mysteriously described by Paul as "our man in Bratislava." We were half expecting a shifty-looking chap in a trilby from MI6, but Conrad turned out to be a slightly mad local with a private taxi. He gunned it to the train station and talked non-stop about his homeland, about his wife, about his brother working in a London restaurant and his various money-making schemes. Taxi-driving, it seemed, was the tip of the iceberg. At the grim communist-era station he leapt out and helped us with the board bags, then organized tickets and saw us to the right platform. I wondered where the hell Paul had found this guy? He certainly made things easy though, and we'd be seeing him again in a week's time.
First class wasn't quite the spectacular orient express we'd dreamed of, more your average carriage to Leeds. The train trundled slowly on for about three hours, past the industrial outskirts of Bratislava and into the forested hills. Here the landscape was both familiar and alien, with pine trees and Alpine-style buildings set amongst rolling mountains and spooky mist. “Dracula country," I thought.
Propaganda Snowboarding was set up by a former Rover-employee called Paul Wilson. While everyone in London was buying tiny flats for hundreds of grand, Paul picked up a huge house near the main resort of Jasná for peanuts, then decked it out with the usual snowboard amenities (workshop, flat screen TV, games consoles, DVDs) and began selling absurdly cheap holiday packages. His initial deal was £250 for a week – which included transfers, lift pass, meals, insurance and a crate of beer - and following its appearance in our Holiday Shop section it sold out for the season. Propaganda is now in its third season and well-established as a cheap, independent option for British snowboarders.
Paul arranged for another of his local gophers, a Slovakian known cryptically as "Jonny English" to pick us up from the nearest train station at Liptovsky Mikulas. Soon we were chilling in the spacious lounge playing Mario Kart, amazed at how smart the place was. We'd been expecting a pokey old Slovakian lodge (whatever that might look like!), but this is a sweet modern pad sleeping up to 18 guests. To buy somewhere like this in France would cost millions. Best of all Paul and his crew don't have to worry about cooking, beyond boiling a few eggs for breakfast and putting the cereals out; food and drink is so cheap in Slovakia that he takes the entire chalet out to a different restaurant each night, and the cost is factored into the holiday deal. No veggie prep or washing up - it's the seasonaire's dream!
One downside to Slovakia, or at least this place, is that there's no doorstep riding. The lifts at Jasná are about 20 minutes drive up the road, but Paul stuffs everyone in his van each morning and drops them off so it's not exactly hard.
Jasná itself is split over the north and south facing slopes of Mount Chopok. The lifts are a funny old mish mash of old and new: there's a red bubble straight out of the 70s, a few tired old drags and a couple of state-of-the-art express chairlifts. Riding wise, the Tatras Mountain Range isn’t blessed with the elevation of the High Alps, and the slopes are less steep and dramatic. On the other hand Jasná boasts a small park sponsored by Burton (with a couple of small kickers and some decent rails), plenty of natural hits dotted around and tons of lines through the trees. Overall it's a fun, mellow place to shred that easily kept us occupied for the week. If you’re prepared to hike there are even some tasty powder lines that most of the locals seemed to overlook. If Scotland ever got hit by another ice age, I thought, it would probably look a lot like this.
Perhaps the oddest thing about riding in Slovakia though is the other skiers. There are very few Brits around and just a handful of French – but bloody hundreds of Russians. My best guess is that while the super rich Abromovich’s of this world flash their cash in Courcheval, the more modestly wealthy Russians who still have one eye on a bargain head to Slovakia. Although the slopes were quiet the queues were surprisingly big because of the small number of lifts.
In a word: garlicky. Oh, and stodgy. Not a bad combo for the average Brit. Slovakia’s cuisine isn’t something to write home about but is harmless enough – and best of all costs about two quid for three courses! Typical dishes include smokey sausages, potatoes, fries, cabbage and various meat-and-two-veg options. Another classic is soup, often served in a hollowed out loaf of bread with (yep) lashings of garlic. One restaurant at the base of resort even had their waitresses gliding around in traditional costume, which in Slovakia’s case means red and blue frilly dresses (they look a bit like medieval wenches). It’s all a refreshingly cheap novelty after the bog-standard spaghetti bolognaise at a mountain restaurant in the Alps.
Off the Hill
Between endless rounds of Mario Kart back at the chalet and trips to local eateries to stock up on stodge, Paul took us out for a couple of extra-curricular activities. The first was go-karting, at a quiet track on the outskirts of Liptovsky Mikulas. The chalet booked the whole place for an hour, which cost under a fiver each, and apart from the bargain price the experience was like any track in Britain. Paul goes every week and knows every turn inside out, so he predictably whooped everyone’s ass.
The second trip out was more surreal: a visit to the local Aquapark. This place is like an old fairground that has somehow avoided closure, with a set of ancient waterslides and a sketchy climbing wall over the pool. There are waterpolo nets outside with a thrashing, free-for-all mentality (basically anyone can get involved) and a food area with tables sitting shin deep in water. And everywhere there were hulking Russian blokes – relaxing in scorching spas, hammering waterpolo balls across the sky or emerging out of the steam in their speedos. I spent the evening expecting some Borat-style naked wrestling to erupt at any moment.
Don’t go to Slovakia expecting the après-ski vibe you get in places like Val d’Isère. Most of the bars and clubs are located down town and are basically ordinary boozers rather than mountain hang-outs full of loose scandis. On the other hand, you really can get smashed for nowt. Pints of beer are generally between 40 and 60p – and we’re talking proper Czech pilsner, not crappy Amstel. Route 66 is a good bet for tacky Americana, cocktails and steaks (including the notorious 40 ouncer!!) but for sheer local weirdness a trip to Western City is a must. Pop down at night, grab a slap-up meal and sit back for Slovakia’s surreal Wild West cabaret, complete with dubious can-can dancers, mock shoot-outs and a guy with whips who is downright useless at whipping stuff. They even drag a bemused llama onstage and make it jump around. Brilliant.
If your sole aim in life is to ride the planet’s highest terrain, to tick off zillions of runs and shred world-class snowboard parks, then Slovakia might not be for you. What we proved on this trip, however, is that you can have a wicked snowboard holiday without those things. Jasná’s beautiful, low mountains are a refreshing change – both to look at and ride around - and the whole vibe of the place is unusual and funny. Where else can you encounter fresh powder, hairy-chested Russians and llamas all in one day?!
In short, don’t dismiss Slovakia as simply the cheapskate option; anyone searching for a new experience would do well to consider it. The fact that it’s a fraction of the price of a trip to Zermatt or Vail is just a bonus.