It’s always fun heading into a trip a little blind. Inevitably, even the best-laid plans always change, which is why my cohort Jess Oundjian and I ended up on a 5000km road trip through the Balkans, to the home of the gods, Mt Olympus in Greece.
Those gods would test us numerous times on our quest. Flexibility and a sense of humour would prove invaluable…
MIKE HANDFORD – VASILITSA / PHOTO BY THEMISTOCLES LAMBRIDIS
Our plans had formed a few months earlier. An exploratory trip into Morocco’s high Atlas range, with the potential bonus of tacking on a surf trip to some of those fabled points 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 whilst 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 and the inevitable excess baggage, we decided to drive. With his roof box bolted on, 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.
MIKE AND APOLLO / PHOTO BY JESS OUNDJIAN
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 our underwear, this is a story about the other side of the trip, maybe the funner side – the travel, the culture and the parties.
First stop 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 bar. There we devised a technique that we would continue to utilize 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 now strongly recommend.
After doing some recon at the bar the night before, we woke up somewhat dusty and remembered 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 information on the small resort of Popova Sapka which 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.
MIKE HANDFORD / PHOTO BY THEMISTOCLES LAMBRIDIS
We slept in the car the first night because our hangovers had prevented us from arriving an hour it seemed reasonable 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. But social media came 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 us as the freeride hub of the area.
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 fell, drifting snow and zero visibility led to numerous wrong turns, but we arrived.
JESS OUNDJIAN – VASILITSA / PHOTOS BY MIKE HANDFORD
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 the threshold.
We were immediately made welcome by Dimitri, an excitable, self-proclaimed, unqualified snowboard instructor. 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. Fortuitously, 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 terrible and you’re ready to embrace it, water and aspirin on the bedside, coffee ready in the kitchen, and plans to meet your fellow partiers 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.
MIKE HANDFORD – VASALITSA / PHOTO BY JESS OUNDJIAN
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 had to rely on road signs and common sense. This time 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 chase the FWQ dream so we again packed up and hit the road. It was a long drive via some dubious Kosovar 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? The road 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, a positive attitude and the goal of as much fun as possible, you can achieve it.
ZAGREB STREET POSTER / PHOTO BY MIKE HANDFORD