And so it was that we left our idyllic valley of Valbona, briefly visiting the nearby town of Bajram Curry for a bit more culture before crossing the border into Kosovo to the ski town of Brezovica. Kosovo, comprised of 90% ethnic Albanians, had been a province of Serbia within the Republic of Yugoslavia, but with the help of the 1999 NATO bombings, gained independence from the Serbian government which had undertaken a campaign of ethnic cleansing to eradicate the Albanian identity. Today, Kosovo is bordered by Serbia, Albania, Montenegro, and Macedonia and its recent history of violence and nation-building accounts for the strong United Nations and European Union presence throughout the country. With Pristina, Kosovo being the best airport access to Valbona, we had actually spent the first night of our trip in Brezovica, incidentally arriving on their 3rd anniversary of independence. We joined the somewhat surreal celebration in an Albanian bar, enjoying the night with people who had actually been a part of their nation’s fight for independence. With entertainment provided by a gypsy band, the excitement/enthusiasm was tangible despite the quaintness in the ski town bar and the relatively small Albanian representation in town.
The ski resort in Brezovica was built as a backup for the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, the Yugoslav government desiring to assure the games could go on if Bosnia had a low snow year. Although 3 lifts were constructed and remain in place, only one has ever operated. Communist Yugoslavia under Tito, as described by the locals in Brezovica, was much “looser” than the austere and severely restricted image most in the west have. As such, Brezovica thrived as an international ski destination for the region, welcoming many from throughout Yugoslavia and foreign nations. Since the eruption of violence in the region, culminating in war in Kosovo, the ski area has suffered substantially, including multiple years of being closed, as well as one year without power when the locals continued to hike for their turns. Brezovica itself, as well as the town which supports it at the base of the mountain, have traditionally been Serbian villages, with Albanian influx only in recent years, due in large part to the fact that Albanians in Kosovo can’t get a passport since they are not formally recognized by the UN Security council as an independent nation. As such, the only ski options are obtaining a passport on the black market, or skiing within the country. As a result, Brezovica today consists of a mix of Albanians and Serbians who interact constructively, due in large part to their shared mountain passion as well as economic interdependence. I had the chance to talk to a local Serbian restaurant owner and snowboarder who confirmed his friendships with the Albanians in town, but who expressed frustration at the treatment of Serbs in Kosovo and his strong feelings against Kosovo’s independence. While once an international destination, travelers to Brezovica from outside Kosovo are rare today, with many Serbs being nervous of the treatment they may receive travelling across Kosovo to get there, and other international travelers still considering the region war torn and unfit for holiday. With that said, however, growth is returning to the region with multi-ethnic youth camps being held to build relationships amongst Serbian and Albanian children, and growth of a freestyle scene complete with competitions and construction of terrain parks.
Our first morning skiing in Brezovica, it was actually unclear whether the lifts would operate. It was a Monday and skiers were pretty sparse, so we spent about an hour having coffees on the deck until about 11am when someone showed up and the lift started turning. After a week of earning our access out of the lowlands in Valbona, we were thrilled to be carried 2000’ up to the alpine on a chairlift. Most of the group investigated the sidecountry and terrain under the mothballed lifts, while Lea, Lorenzo, and I took off to explore outside the ski area. Venturing along the most obvious ridgeline to the top of a line we could see from the valley, we were pleasantly surprised to find an alpine playground unfold before us on the other side. Lea and I, who have explored extensively in the Andes, couldn’t help but feel like we were in a mini-Las Lenas Argentina. With a lovely face covered in sparkly snow below us, we all chose wonderfully aesthetic technical lines to descend and were all smiles at the bottom as we set the skin track to do a few more laps, increasing the creativity of our lines as we better learned the terrain and snowpack. Eventually, we skied the original line we’d scoped as a means to return to the hotel, skiing the creek bed all the way to the road which accesses the town. The terrain we discovered was so unexpectedly wonderful, we headed back out the next day to explore further along the ridge and ski a more distant peak we’d seen the first day. Yet again, we were overwhelmed by the aesthetic and efficient ridge travel, the steep and interesting lines, and the limitless options for future ski exploration. Alas, the weather rolled back in and our trip came to an end before we could explore further, but skiing the sidecountry of Brezovica was a perfect end to an overwhelmingly unique trip.