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Trip Report: The Serbian Secret – Kopaonik

 Poster: A snowHead
Poster: A snowHead
When I spoke to my Serbian friends about skiing, they all mentioned this mythical place, and before leaving they told me not to tell too many people about it, they didn’t want it to get too busy. Naturally we can all keep a secret, so here are some of the basics. A ski resort 4 hours from Belgrade (just under 3hrs from Nis) with tree lined skiing, a variety of pistes and as much food and drink as a person can get through in a week is worth exploring. So the planning began, and I couldn't find much info on Snowheads so here it is.

We flew with Wizzair, which is frankly a terrible idea, but it is only 2hrs and you don’t have to spend all of it in a seat which is too small for even a dwarf to sit comfortably. I managed to try and revel in the fact my return flight was £37. Yep, £37. You can be pretty uncomfortable for 2hrs with those prices, but BA and Air Serbia all fly to Belgrade if you are flush.

The transfers were sorted with http://geatours.rs/ who you are probably best to e-mail, every company I’ve encountered in Serbia has a fluent English speaker, indeed almost every person I’ve encountered in Serbia speaks fluent English. They pick up from pretty much anywhere in Belgrade, but be prepared for them turning up anywhere from the pickup time +/- 2hrs, and I wouldn’t plan on sleeping much on the transfer – to put it diplomatically they pride themselves on how quickly they can get you to and from resort Smile

Kopaonik (pronounced Cop-oh-nick) is a bigger place than perhaps I’d expected, I had visions of half a dozen pistes all of which were predictably green/blue and aging ski lifts that many friends had described from visits to Bulgaria and other resorts outside France, Austria and Italy. I was pleased to see almost brand new lifts across most of the resort, with lots of 4-6 man chairs installed in recent years, the highlight was the Ledenice area with 3-4 black runs and a heated 6 man chair, we lapped this area several times in the sunshine.
One big thing in Serbia in general is food, and this continues in Kopaonik, the cuisine is based on meat, with cheese and pastry thrown in just in case you aren’t so full it is hard to breathe at the end of a meal, but don’t miss Serbian Salad, tomato and cucumber with grated cheese similar to feta. Almost all meals are pretty huge, in most places you will find menu in English or staff who are able to translate for you, but while you are in Serbia you really need to eat gibanica, a pastry and cheese dish that is a national institution, and Serbians seem to eat an awful lot of it.

Kopaonik doesn’t really do mountain restaurants that many will be familiar with from France, Austria and Italy, Kopaonik has a resort centre at the bottom of the main lifts that are easy to access from most places and that is where the restaurants are, on the hill they tend to have bars that serve different food, each specialising in something a bit different and the reputation of some places built up over several years is deserved. Honestly you will not be hungry at any time in Serbia. Unhelpfully the piste map doesn’t have the traditional knife and fork logo, but see below for my places to eat and drink on the hill and their specialities.



Let’s face it, a lot of people will look at Serbia, Bulgaria and other smaller resorts in Italy and France as cheaper options with prices increasing due to exchange rates and ski passes, equipment rental and food and drink all on the increase across the megaresorts. Strangely that is one of the most noticeable differences between Kopaonik and almost every other ski resort I’ve ever been to, but there is a lot more to the place than just how cheap it is, with 55km of piste and lots of options for places to ski each day. I’ve skied in a lot of other places across Europe and it reminds me a lot of skiing in Courchevel (excluding the rest of the three valleys, obviously) with tree lined skiing, lots of cruisy runs and a few small places to stop in for a drink, but Kopaonik has got much more modern lifts and friendlier service than when I was last in Courchevel a couple of years ago Very Happy
For those who do want to save some money, some ballpark costs:

Luxury apartment (and I do mean luxury, similar to the Oxalys that many will be familiar with) for 2-3 people including little kitchen and bathroom, 6 nights, 240 euros, family apartment with space for up to 6 singles or a two couples less than 300 euros.

Ski pass 6 days about £60. Yep, £60, which includes insurance for injury and transport off the mountain if required (read the small print) they also have family ski passes which make it cheaper.

Beer £1, some places £1.50 if you go somewhere really posh.

Lunch £2-10, I can’t actually imagine a place you could spend £10, you’d have to eat more food than I think humanly possible, if you stop for gibanica and a coke or coffee you could easily have a decent light lunch for £3-4.

Ski and boot hire £10-£20 for a week, equipment is mostly 2-3 years old but if you are prepared to pay £20 you can have nearly new kit.

Downsides – as always, nowhere is perfect. Smoking is still pretty common in Serbia, and many of the bars and restaurants have smoking areas (and in some cases smaller places allow smoking throughout) and there isn’t huge amounts of apres partying. You will find some of the bars are more lively after skiing, and there are music festivals and other things organised at different times that will suit those looking for all night entertainment, but it isn’t a party town with quite a lot of families and relaxed attitude. I didn’t find any obvious offpiste, and while there were several places to explore between pistes, the trees are quite tight together and opportunity to get off the beaten track would require a local guide and I didn’t see any evidence of people going far from the pistes.

I loved the skiing, with a nice mix of cruisy blues ideal for beginners and carving down at the end of the day, lots of reds that were relatively straightforward, about half would be graded blue in most of the French megaresorts, and black runs to get the legs going. The best skiing was around Gobelja, an area further from the main three lifts out of town, about 45 mins skiing to get there and a little walk across the road is well worth it. For half a day there were about 10 people sharing the 6 pistes, ideal on weekends where the resort centre gets busier with a lot of people travelling for short breaks. Kopaonik is an ideal resort for beginners and intermediates, the easy runs are immediately accessible from the centre of town, and for those more advanced you can head to the areas with more black and red runs by taking a couple of lifts away from the resort centre without being a million miles from home.

Guide to food and drink:

Doughnuts – you simply have to stop at Rtanj for doughnuts. They are about the size of my head, freshly made, one is enough for lunch, two is enough not to eat again for a couple of days. Next to Mali Karaman 8 you will see a bar on the right hand side and then turn right 50m below to stop in.

Blueberry pie – note this is not just a little slice of blueberry pie. This is about 1,000 calories a slice, huge lumps of filo pastry and blueberries, just off Malo Jazero (2)

Best mulled wine (kuvano vino) – Bar 29 at the bottom of Marine Vode 9 (tiny place next to drag lift)

Best hot chocolate – the Japom, apparently pronounced Yaram, at the bottom of the Karaman piste 10.

While in Serbia you need to go and find Burek, Gibanica, Ayvar and Sarma to eat if you can. They use ingredients that are hard to find in the UK, so eat them while you are there and remember to bring home a jar of ayvar, I love the spicy version.

For restaurants there is loads of choice around town, Tripadvisor seems to have it covered, and a wander around town will give you a load of options. Personally I would avoid catered accommodation because meals are cheap and you can choose from a variety of places and get real Serbian food.

So, in summary, those looking for somewhere different next season would do well to explore Kopaonik, personally if I was planning a trip I’d fly into Belgrade on Fri or Sat and spend a day there, loads to see around the city including the fortress with a zoo inside it, lunch or dinner on the river Sava or Danube, boat trips and the old artists district with cobbled streets and café culture that is well worth exploring, transfer Sunday evening for 4-5 days skiing during the week to avoid busier times in resort, and back to Belgrade for a day or two before flying home, nice hotels can be found in the centre of town for £50 a night.
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Whoops, forgot another key recommendation, the prices for massage vary really quite a lot in resort. After some research I found the very nice Hotel Angella in the centre of town, 50 minute relaxing but effective massage in their spa/wellness facility was 3,500 dinars (£25) and well worth it before getting the bus home or if you have non-skiers looking for a nice way to spend some time.
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Fantastic review. When did you go? I suppose what I'm wondering is whether it's a good option for avoiding crowds during school holidays.
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@Penry, I was there last week, got home Saturday night.

Good question on the school holidays, the majority of people visiting are from Serbia, and their kids holidays tend to be first two weeks of February, also note their Xmas/New Year at the start of Jan, so a lot of people have holidays around then too. I'd aim for March as a quiet time and being relatively low altitude is likely to be snow sure throughout with all the runs open, the resort is open into April but planning further out all you need is a few weeks of high temperatures and the runs home would start to get very slushy.

Also because it is popular for weekends, and a lot of Serbians drive there, they often wait until last minute and watch the weather. We found for the first couple of days it was a bit foggy and snowing quite a lot, the pistes were almost empty, whereas a couple of days of sunshine and suddenly quite a few people arrived to ski - it was still very quiet but the lift queues did get up to about 10 minutes for the busiest lifts at the bottom of the beginner area.
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@Digger the dinosaur, fantastic report. thanks.
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@Digger the dinosaur, great report, thanks.
There's plenty of off piste in Kopaonik, if one knows where to look:


http://youtube.com/v/ratnvpHpQNg

snowHead
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I was there last week too, but just after the snowfall so it was very busy with the good weather. The goulash in Alo Alo (main square) is very, very good

Beautiful place after a dump, looked more Scandinavian than European
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We had some great pancakes at the Keops, an ideal place to head for late dessert if you've not eaten enough calories one day.
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Thats a very interesting report, thank you! How did you source accommodation? The local site does not seem to offer larger accomodations?
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Great review Digger, very interested in doing some skiing in the Balkans. How much was the transfer from the airport?
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@Digger the dinosaur, awesome TR. Passed on to the B-i-L who's about to move to Belgrade and was stoked with the good news!
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@yuppie, car hire is extremely cheap, I have a car for almost two weeks for £60
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Thanks. Interesting possibilities and somewhere to add to my list
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@CaravanSkier, found by my Serbian buddies, but booking.com seems to have various options and you can book online with a lot of the hotels directly. We were in Villa Kopaonik which can be booked direct but also has private owners in the block who rent out their apartments directly.

@yuppie, transfer was 20 euros each way, 16 seater very large minibus things, but if you have a family and are happy driving then car rental is cheap. Note that parking in resort is a chuffing nightmare, but you may well find accommodation has underground parking or private parking spaces, if not I personally wouldn't park a rental car on the road around the resort, loads of people wandering past with skis etc isn't a recipe for an easy rental return.

@BobinCH, if BIL needs any help with Belgrade let me know, I have a few friends there and quite a few friends in the UK who grew up there and might have advice on specifics if you need them. He, I expect, will love it, it is a really nice city with loads going on, in the summer especially it is lovely down by the river and next to the lake, and the centre of town has a really nice cafe culture going on to rival most European cities I've visited.
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@Digger the dinosaur, smashing TR. Thanks. Very Happy
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@Digger the dinosaur, Thanks! Sounds like a really good place to visit.
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This is not a new destination. Went there with friends in 1988 I think with Balkan Tours when it was still Yugoslavia. The resort was good but I think it was a 4 hour transfer then. Some of the roads weren't even made up I recall.
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@Old Man Of Lech, it was described as unrecognisable by one of our group who was there 7 years ago. It sounds like anyone who hasn't visited in the last 5 years would be surprised at the number of new lifts installed in that time, some replacing older infrastructure and some expanding the ski area, and there is a lot of construction happening at the moment, large building going up in the main centre this summer and several other projects clearly happening at the moment presumably ready for serious work to start in the summer. Might be worth another look next season for the 30 year anniversary of your last visit Smile
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We holidayed there in about 1987. I learnt some Serbo Croat before going - and used it. Life has obviously changed out of all recognition.
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Digger the dinosaur wrote:
@CaravanSkier, found by my Serbian buddies, but booking.com seems to have various options and you can book online with a lot of the hotels directly. We were in Villa Kopaonik which can be booked direct but also has private owners in the block who rent out their apartments directly.



Thank you
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@pam w, indeed a lot has changed. My eyes were opened a lot to what really happened in Yugoslavia in the 90s, especially places like Kopaonik, being on the Kosovan border it sounds like pretty much everything was shut down for a few years and reputations damaged by the troubles.

That said, I kind of went to Serbia expecting some bias against Brits, as part of nato who ultimately bombed both Belgrade and Kopaonik, and was met with almost incredulity that I could expect that, it seems the next generation of Serbs have already moved way beyond that and were quite surprised at me being anxious about it at all. Strange, really, but indeed the whole region has clearly changed a lot in that time and probably merits a revisit, my trip to Croatia a few years ago was brilliant and I can't understand why folk are flocking to Barcelona, Prague or even Paris without considering Belgrade.
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Well, another season and another trip to Kop, yet again eating my body weight in food every day and skiing on almost empty pistes.

There is a big business forum in town so accommodation was a bit harder to find, but also means all the rooms are taken by people in suits skiing an hour or two each day and lifts, pistes and mountain restaurants are quiet.

Also went crazy renting the best skis in the shop, now on some Atomic race skis that cost a quite outrageous £30 for a week. Shocking, but sometimes you have to throw money at a problem, not bad compared to Wizzair £60 for ski carriage Smile
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On the list. Thanks.
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Great review. Going to have to check this one out for sure!
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Very interesting. Amazing that somewhere so close was such a closed book for so long. Good to hear about the progress. Europe is full of new destinations! Slovenia (year round) is on my "to do" list too.
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I can't honestly believe how few Brits, Germans and other big skiing countries are skiing here. I heard my first English on a chair from a Canadian yesterday, in two weeks of skiing.

If the TOs ran trips here they could do flights, transfers, accommodation, more food than a human could eat and lift pass for £600 and make 50% margin. I'm quite tempted to do it myself, the only vaguely difficult bit is sorting transfers but a TO could have that sorted very easily.

In other news I discovered ustipci, which is basically a savoury or sweet dough ball, I could feel my arteries furring while I ate them. Proper ski food.
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@Digger the dinosaur, The TOs used to offer trips to Kopaonik but it sort of fell out of fashion. I used to work a lot in Belgrade and quite like the place and the people (it was the only time I have ever bet on a horse race - I lost 5p). When I went back after the war to the world student games I was suprised by how welcoming every one was though it was a bit odd being shown bomb damaged buildings and bridges and being told oh that's when the Americans bombed us.

I am glad the food has improved. When I went in the 90s every meal was basically a big mixed grill with chips - always greasy and often cold. It was terrible.
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Quote:

The TOs used to offer trips to Kopaonik

Yes, we went with a TO - can't remember which! It was about 1987
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Update from your man in Serbia, found a very good dinner at Alo Alo in centre of town. 6 adults and two kids inc beer, coffee and as much food as we could eat (I managed to give a Serbian indigestion!) for £50.

I've now worked out the game at meal times. Everybody is aiming for an empty plate, but not so soon that others take pity on you and share more food with you. The trick is to really pitch whatever you ordered to everybody else at the table and tell them they absolutely have to try some. Bonus points for offloading vast amounts of food without accepting any in return. Repeat three times a day or until someone dies of gluttony.
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@Digger the dinosaur, sounds like Lithuania, but with food instead of vodka Shocked
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Love the sound of the place, pity none of the tour operators go yet (or not, for those brave enough to DIY). Enjoy the food offloading!
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Hi Digger and everyone, you're damn right about food issues in Serbia !
I still got family in Belgrade and every meal seems to be a food contest...
And it doesn't matter if you visit at 9 in the morning or at midnight : you got to eat, the more the better !
It's nothing more than hospitality for them !

Back to ski issues, I'm grateful for your review and have some questions.

I consider going to Kopaonik 1 week or more next year.
I got 3 kids (2 good skiers and 1 beginner ) and a wife that wouldn't ski but never mind her !
Is the resort big enough for a week or two for good skiers ?
Are ski schools and ski teachers ok for the little one to progres ?
What part of the resort is best to be near pistes and restaurants, swimming pool (if any) ?..
What is your "best" piste ?

Thanks !
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@mika, depends how good, but unless they are happy skiing some runs a few times two weeks is going to be pushing it. I would estimate an expert skier could cover every run in the resort over 4 days.

Ski instructors and schools seem good and professional, depends on budget I guess but I'd consider private lessons. Like everywhere some of the group sizes look more like babysitting than real ski instruction, but the resort is good for beginners and intermediates, not many unexpected difficult sections and all the easiest runs are direct lifts from the centre of town.

Not sure on swimming pool, but check Booking.com and similar, ideal location if you are looking on Google is Hotel Angella and anywhere in that cluster of buildings. We stayed further out this year and it wasn't a big deal but made it more difficult for the non-skiers to come down and meet us at lunchtime or after skiing.
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Thanks for your answers, I'll check for Hotel Angella on Google.
As my wife doesn't ski, I'll look for a swimming pool too, but it is only bonus !

As for the resort, we don't mind doing the same runs again and again. Actually I noticed that once we find a good run in a resort, we tend to do it everyday, even in Les Arcs...

I will definitely try and convince my wife to go there next year. Bye.
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@mika, if your wife likes a spa treatment, Angella is a good place for massage and other treatments - I found the prices and professionalism very good, but can't remember if they have pool.
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Atually, it's more a swimming pool she looks for.
Angella doesn't seem to have any.
I had a look at the Grand Hotel's web site and they got 2 : inside and outside !
I asked them their prices for next winter but they don't seem to be in a hurry to answer...
Well, winter isn't already finished, so I can understand them.
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@mika, think the Grand is, as the name suggests, pretty grand. Expect they are busy with the business forum this week, I'd get a Serbian contact to put in a call if you don't hear back in a few days.

One thing that I only remembered as I arrived was the gouging from mobile networks, 50p per text and £2 per minute calls. Worth remembering for anyone that didn't realise Serbia is outside the EU.
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That would be great indeed, I'll let you know when they get back to me.
From my previous trips to Serbia, I learnt that time goes slowly there !
And you're right about phone fees, it can be very expensive for westerners.
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@Digger the dinosaur, Absolutely top quality trip report, I'd never heard of the place. Was wondering where you flew from with Wizair? Seems there's no 'cheap' UK to Belgrade flight options at the mo. Any pointers would be appreciated re Jan next year. Cheers, J.
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Kopa is a tiny resort for beginners and intermediates in the middle of nowhere with a so-so snow record.

It was good for "something different" a few years ago (Cold War in 1980s, genocide in 1990s, etc.), but is now largely the same as any other Western European resort.
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