The dense fog at the top of the pass hung over the border crossing as night fell. A bright spotlight illuminated the passengers in the small van while the border guard matched passport photos with faces. “Whitcomb, Matt. Casey, Pat Stefan, Lisa, …”
Our passports disappeared with the agent in the little shack. A few minutes later a stack of freshly stamped passports came back. “Welcome to Slovenia.”
After a day of driving from Oberstdorf, Germany, through Bavaria and across Austria, it felt like entering another world as we drove down the Wurzen Pass and down into Slovenia’s Sava Valley. The fields had large wooden fences at least 20 feet high with small roofs over them used to dry hay. The signs that led us to the village of Podkoren were hand-painted and cats roamed the narrow streets freely.
Little did I know back in 2007 that this little corner of Slovenia would bring me back again and again for at least the next 15 years.
On that first trip, I traveled to a European Cup race with the US development team. The race took place in Planica Valley. Pronounced “Plan – izza” – like Pizza with a to plan, Planica is a Nordic ski resort with a long history of ski jumping. The steep slopes and calm winds make it a perfect ski jumping area. Ski jumping world records have been set there since 1934, when Norway’s Berger Ruud became the first to jump 100 yards. Since then, more than 40 ski jumping world records have been set in Planica.
As a cross-country ski resort, however, Planica was nothing special. The race started and finished next to a parking lot with no trailhead or facilities. The most memorable event of the weekend was Tazlina Mannix of Alaska’s victory in the women’s 15K freestyle – the first time a US skier has won a Continental Cup race in recent memory.
Despite the fact that the circuits were unremarkable, the rest of my experience in Slovenia was engaging. The limestone peaks jutting out of the valley, the network of hiking trails leading across the border into Italy, the friendly service from our hotel and the tasty Mediterranean seafood dishes all contributed to the positive impressions of my first visit to Slovenia.
After retiring from ski racing in 2011, I moved to Vermont to develop trips for VBT Bicycling Vacations. VBT owner Gregg Marston, whose children were all Nordic skiers, supported me when I suggested adding ski trips to VBT’s offering. Coincidentally, VBT’s popular Slovenia bike tour stayed at the same hotel I had stayed at with the US ski team 5 years earlier, so Planica was an obvious choice for one of VBT’s first ski trips.
When they traveled back to Planica with the VBT groups in 2013, there was no more passport control at the border and they had fully converted to the euro currency. It was also evident how much the venue had evolved over the past 5 years. A ski shop had been built near the start of the trail and the Olympic training center at the start of the trail had grown. What was more impressive, however, was how many people were out and about on the trails. Not only racers dressed in Lycra, but also families with children and tourists throughout the route network, which had expanded significantly.
One of the highlights of this trip was a lecture by Jože Šlibar, the Yugoslav ski jumper who set a world record of 140 meters in 1961. Šlibar captivated our guests with stories of how he felt the scaffolding sway in the wind as he prepared to jump, followed by a victory rush as he landed in a perfect telemark and set the new world record.
Despite the popularity of ski travel, VBT changed hands shortly after ski travel started. The new owners decided to focus solely on bike trips and drop ski holidays.
In 2016 my wife, Catherine, took a job in Innsbruck, Austria, which brought us from Vermont to live full-time in Europe. It was the perfect opportunity for me to launch Lumi Experiences cross country ski vacations and share some of my favorite ski spots and experiences with our travelers.
Slovenia remains one of Lumi’s most popular destinations, both in winter and summer. The empty parking lot where the 2007 European Cup races began is now the site of the 5-storey Planica Nordic Center, including a ski tunnel, ski museum and wind tunnel.
In the spring, the Planica venue pushes snow into its three-story underground car park. It is one of the few ski tunnels in the world with climbs, descents, twists and turns. We bring guests here on the Lumi Factory Tour every August.
Every March, Planica hosts the annual Ski Flying World Cup finals. Lumi helped Bill Demong and USA Nordic host a group for the Ski Flying World Cup, where we watched Ryoyu Kobayashi jump to a new hill record: 252m, just 1.5m from the world record. That’s further than two football fields from goal post to goal post.
Other Lumi group adventures on Slovenia trip include sledding on wood Rodel, Visit to the mountain village of Lussari and of course the famous island church on Lake Bled.
This winter, Planica will host the 2023 Nordic World Championships. Held only every two years, the World Championships is a two-week circus of three rings of Nordic events: cross-country skiing, ski jumping and Nordic combined. I am very excited to return to Planica this winter with Lumi’s travels for the 2023 Nordic World Championships.
Most recently, we hosted a group at the World Championships in Seefeld in 2019, cheered on the US team and got us in the mood.
I’m looking forward to seeing how the Planica venue transforms for the championships, cheering on the racers and sharing many highlights of Slovenia and Italy with our travellers. Perhaps most excitingly, the 30km and 50km events are set to start in Italy and then progress point-to-point across the border and into Slovenia, where the racers will finish in Planica. I can only hope that no passports are checked at this border crossing!
Garrott Kuzzy is the founder of Lumi Experiences. After traveling the world as a member of the US Ski Team and attending the Vancouver Olympics, Garrott has spent the last decade sharing his favorite destinations and experiences through active travel. Garrott and Lumi’s team of experienced guides would love to host you on your next ski vacation.