Greece is a country known for sun, sand, sailing and salad, but few people realise it is also home to some spectacular mountains.
When the adventure bug bites only a fool dares deny it. I like to think that I am no fool. Luckily my snowboarding friend Mike is also wise to the dangers of this bug.
This winter we decided to go on an epic snowboarding road trip. It began simply, either Greece or Morocco, depending on snow conditions. But once we saw the storms heading towards Greece things escalated quickly.
While searching for flights, trains and rental cars, we joked that we might as well drive there. Out came Google Maps and all of a sudden, the joke became reality.
We could either drive the length of Italy and catch a ferry to Greece, or take a casual tour through Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia.
My knowledge of Yugoslavia was limited. There was a war, now there isn’t. I felt ignorant and wanted to change that…
Just one look at Italian tolls and ferry prices and the decision was made for us. So, we started on a 2,000km road trip through former Yugoslavia and into Greece.
My knowledge of the region stretched back to when I was six years old, hearing snippets of the news in the early 90s. There was war, now there isn’t. I felt ignorant and was keen to change that.
We got in touch with Themi, the mastermind behind a snowboarding documentary, The Thing About Greece. The plan was to assemble in a hut at the base of Mount Olympus for a week of exploring and ski touring.
Alas, from the outset, the gods seemed to be against us, sending storms and warm weather to curb our plans. Olympus would have to wait and we would meet up with Themi a few days later than planned. Thus began what became the great theme of our trip: winging it.
From a hostel in Zagreb, Croatia we researched other snowy places to visit. Google told us of a ski resort in northern Macedonia called Popova Sapka.
In an inspired move, Mike searched #popovasapka on Instagram and found a group of local splitboarders and backcountry skiers who offered to show us around.
Later the following evening we pulled into the sparse parking lot of Popova Sapka, flattened the seats of the car and settled into our sleeping bags. Woken by the sounds of coaches off-loading employees into the parking lot, we prepared for our first day on Balkan snow.
We soon learnt that no one accepted cards and there was no cash machine in the resort. However, we managed to buy a single chairlift ride and headed up the rickety two-man chair.
Finally up the mountain we checked the snowpack, put our skins on and set off to ride a face just out the back of the ski area.
Whilst discussing the best route back to resort, we were fortunate enough to bump right into our local Instagram hosts, Maja and Meto.
For the next two days, we discovered the joys of Macedonian hospitality, complete with an insider’s guide to the mountain, local food, local raki, and lots of local smiles and laughter.
It was with heavy hearts that we left the comfort of Meto’s mountain bolthole but the Greek mountains were calling. Once again we pointed our faithful steed, the aptly named Apollo, southwards, this time heading for a Greek resort in the north-west of the country called Vasilitsa.
Within minutes, we were presented with beer, jager shots and grilled meats so tasty Zeus might weep
As usual, our timing was a combination of useless and yet remarkably impeccable. Navigating our way up snowy, snaking roads in high winds, we finally approached a small low building with large windows along the front.
Peering in from the storm, we saw a party in full swing – costumes, table dancing and shots all included. We had been forewarned that it was Greek carnival, but this was a little more than we were expecting.
In we strode, inadvertently introducing ourselves to the owners. Within minutes, we were presented with beer, raki, jager shots and grilled meats so tasty Zeus might weep.
Little did it matter that they had no beds available for us. It was carnival and there were more important things to do. The following morning we awoke, hungover and a little sheepish, in none other than the owners’ beds.
After much bonding over alcohol and air guitar, they had insisted they slept on the sofa so that we could have a bed. And so began a week of battling warm temperatures, flat light and high winds.
We hiked across sparse whiteout ridge-lines and beneath giant black pine trees, shaped over the years by wind and lightning. One morning we set out in winds gusting 100km/h only to realise we could hardly stand, let alone ski.
As we returned to the lodge we were welcomed by the dramatic sight of my roof box, ripped open by the wind and flapping in shreds from the hinges. Poor old Apollo had lost his hat. Eventually the fickle weather got the better of us and we decided to move on.
We were changing our plans more often than we were changing our underwear, but this was, I guess, the plan. We had a name to chase up at Brezovica ski resort located, rather surprisingly, in Kosovo.
The road to Brezovica took us back through Macedonia and over their northern border. It turned out we were not only in the same mountain range as Popova Sapka, but were in fact skiing right next to the Macedonian border.
We were changing our plans more than we were changing our underwear, but I guess this was the plan…
One of the chairlifts hasn’t operated since 1991 due to its six-foot encroachment into Macedonian territory.
Arriving once more in a deserted ski resort late at night, like serendipitous cats, we again landed on all four paws. For twenty euros a day we slept in a hostel with a roaring fire, sipped local beer and gorged ourselves on steak and vegetables.
This was by far the best terrain we had encountered on the trip so far. We were desperate to get up high to ride the open faces and wide couloirs sitting above us.
But yet again patchy weather and low cloud plagued us, forcing us onto the lower pitches, which while frustrating, were still filled with playful hits and sporty lines.
As our departure date loomed ever nearer, we scoured the forecasts for that elusive sunny day.
Commitments back home meant we must soon abandon our spontaneous wandering and return to Switzerland, but the dilapidated, rustic charm of this mountain had enchanted us.
Reluctantly we watched the Kosovan peaks shrink into the sunset behind us, pledging to return. This departure was only one in a series of adventures yet to come.