Technicolour gang glistening in supra-nebula sun. James Sainty (Vertiginous Viking), Freddie Haines (Clark Kent), Johnnie Kerr (Lounge Lizard), Robbie Parry (Hirsute Giant), Bart Miller (Eater of Trees), Mundy Miller (Minister of Chaos), Tom Miller (Big Pappy). Credit - the author.
Macedonia! Or more accurately (and indeed contentiously) The Republic of North Macedonia. Not home to Alexander the Great, not this iteration at least. Many would claim him for their own and who could blame them, but I'm afraid if one modern nation alone has the right to so do, it is Greece. Any further disputes we can leave to the academic fold, but this piece wants to tell you all of the majesty of North Macedonian skiing, the kindness and idiosyncrasies of its people, and the striking scrumptiousness of its culinary offerings.
You end up skiing in a place like this by unlinear means. Those for me consisted of an alluring photograph in a weekend magazine followed by one curious phone call hotly pursued by another. Good on the FT Weekend Mag for sending a crew to Bakhmaro, Georgia, in search of light, fluffy tracks in a skimesne of which few but the most adventurous of freeriders will have heard. Sufficient the shot was to sequester the courage to call the operator behind the powderous project, Powder Project itself. Georgia being all but fully booked for the season, passed on I was to an enterprising Austrian who arranges Cat Skiing ventures at comparatively-affordable prices in what might be termed 'exotic locations' and these extend beyond Macedonia to Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, Tajikistan, and Kyrgystan (which is an especially-lovely place to cross on horseback, for those so inclined). Our motley crew of semi-fit triathletes and Arctic walkers, accompanied by a singular lounge lizard (a moniker he is struggling to live down), mad-keen and reasonably-compotent skiers all, were greeted by a hirsute mountaineer by the name of Metodis, (nomenclaturally not of Slavic (as per the parent language in the Balkans) but rather Greek origin and from which English derives 'method' and 'skill') our guide for the week in this supra-nebula domain whose dominating adornment is named, with something approximating genuine affection, Tito's Peak, from which the summits of Montenegro, Kosovo, and Albania are all visible. As a slight herring, colouring optional, the dictator had as his right-hand man one of ours, an ex-special-forces commando cum 'black-ops' diplomat cum unhinged and remarkable individual, quite possibly Ian Fleming's inspiration for James Bond, by the name of Sir Fitzroy Hew Royle Maclean. To pickle a second herring, the author encountered an excerpt of a letter from Tito to Stalin in which the former informs the man of steel that he knows of all five Soviet agents sent to Belgrade to assasinate him. He asks kindly that the flow of sharpshooters be stemmed lest he be forced to send but one of his own.
The author taking a direct hit on the move. Credit - Pole-Cam.
A lot of the resort, Popova Shapka, doesn't just feel dilapidated, it is. Half sunken rooves and buildings abadoned mid-development both hallmarks of a region in decline since the fall of the Yugoslav superstructure. The name means 'the priest's hat' and the legend goes that this was all that remained of one such journeying individual whose fate, dinner time for wolves, quick-snow, or spiriting away, remains a mystery. Once this resort had been, to be so crude, the Klosters of the Balkans, an assuredly-glamorous destination. The church remains in tact and looks magnificent still, but the gondola has long since not run and the remaining chair lifts require the most clement of conditions to permit their passage. The best building to remain, church aside, is the Hotel Scardus (our hotel, thankfully) which comes with a spa of sorts, a well-stocked bar and terrific kitchen (I cannot emphasise that enough) serving a charming restaurant whose only fault is the Turkish soap opera (dubbed into Albanian) beemed each evening to the bemusement of the tables. The couples in the show seemed to be having a really dreadful time of it too. Something we couldn't quite fathom was the almost constant presence of a perma-puffing (you can still smoke inside here and everyone does) policeman in the hotel lobby until the charming owner told me in rather cryptic German (to be explained shortly) that 'better to stay on their good side'.
Early-morning homage to the splendid church at Popova Shapka, out-of-service gondola bubble front left. Credit - the author.
To explain the conversing in a mutually non-maternal tongue, German is the prevailing second language of the elder generation, many of whom worked, studied, and indeed settled there. Essat, one of the waiters in Scardus, explained that he had worked a variety of hospitality jobs in Berlin in his late teens and early twenties, but had not come by citizenship owing to moving as an 'adult' (he missed the 'child' threshold by a single year) and not marrying a German. Another man, a professor of Ecology called Memehti, with whom I happened to feed a stray pup (the place is replete with abandoned dogs, most of whom very friendly and not too smelly) had completed his PHD in West Germany before returning home to teach.
Charming stray pup getting some well-earned nibbles outside the Ecology Institute of Popova Shapka. Credit - the author.
Cat skiing.. what is it? Take a piste basher (effectively an articulated snow tank) and slap a tireless minibus on the back. Its bladed tracks (each blade costs a cool 200 Euros) blast a path up mountain ridges on not too vertiginous a gradient (for anything steeper, skins on skis or skis on shoulders) which lead to bowls, glades, and couloirs galore, barely a soul to be seen.
The bladed beast itself. Credit - the author.
Could you expect anything out of the ordinary from the skies? Not really, but as with everywhere else these days temperature fluctuations prevail and for skiers and mountaineers, this means ever-more unpredictable and indeed dangerous conditions, namely heavier and thus shifting snows. The internet is awash with videos of this season's avalanches, in which not a small number have tragically perished, and irresponsible choice of skiing lines aside it is these volatile temperatures that make it that bit easier for snow banks to slide and ledges to fall. What did this mean for us? One day we could practically have skied in nothing but a t-shirt, skis sinking in sticky snow, and the very next, skis clattering over sheet-ice ruts and rivets, faces bitten by a blizzard so strong it blew wraparound sunglasses off my face (alas never to be seen again) which had even been reinforced about the nose with blu-tac. The heavy snow did have its benefits however... Having but moments previously lectured one of my companions on the danger of leaning too far forward in such dense, sticky snow, I managed to clatter into a snow drift and double somersault clean out of my skis which were lost somewhere in the drift for a good quarter hour, to the rapturous amusement of the companion in question. Revenge is a dish best served a certain temperature and at the climax of the day's final run, with a deft sleight and delicate misdirection, I was able to deliver said friend to the exact same fate, though I did get a telling-off from his wife.
Revenge shot - and moments later, struck in the nethers with a snowball he was. Credit - the author.
Powder rolls... for anyone as yet unaquainted: find a slope with some nice fluffy snow, ski downwards (if that needs saying), and perform a tumble roll, ideally without losing a ski (unlike one of our gang who was obliged to navigate a good 400 metres worth of moguled slope on just the one peg) and confirm place within group as jester-in-chief. This artform translates to any alpine abode, or even the hillock in the local park, but in a place such as this with powder, thanks to the range's proximity to the Adriatic, so dry (salt content), light, and whippy, no cushion for any and all pushin' there be. The snow with which readers of this piece will likely be more familiar: that of the Alps; tends to be a good deal heavier and you need a PHD in neither geography nor chemistry to work that one out.
The author with a magnificent bear-cum-wolf named Gerome (albeit by us). Credit - James Sainty.
How to get there:
Bone-cheap flights from Luton (yes... Luton (cf. my piece on Southwest Ireland), and be sure to arrive early) to Skopje (home to a pretty river, some nice statues, and a street with boatloads of delightfully-affordable, delicious if somewhat artery-cloggin grub: Bohemian Street) on Wizz Air.
Whether travelling to Popova Shapka for skiing or the beautiful Lake Ohrid for estival, waterborne antics, get the company in question to pick you up (it won't cost you very much and local drivers, local roads etc... trust me on this). SharOutdoors are your go-to guys.
Hammer time - dry, Adriatic powder with due whipping. Credit - James Sainty.