Everytime I’m asked, I get the same response. “Wow, I didn’t even realise there were mountains, why did you go there?” My response; “Because it was cheap and easy.” And truthfully, I liked the idea of doing something different – by Harri Bennett
Yep, way back in the dark ages of 2010 when I embarked on my first season I jetted off to the little known resort of Jasna, Slovakia. I swapped the grimy streets of London for the picturesque views of the Tatra mountains mainly because it was the easy option. I’d been there a few times on shred trips and had gotten to know the guys who ran the chalet (the only English run/owned Chalet at the time) pretty well and it turned out they were in need of an extra chalet hand. It wasn’t a paid position but I did get food, accommodation and my lift pass paid for and so, with a grand in my pocket I headed off to the mountains for five months. (Yep, £1000 to last five months).
Now, I didn’t realise at the time but there are quite a few differences to doing a season at a well-known French / Austrian ski resort compared to doing one in the middle of Eastern Europe. Some good, some bad but an experience it definitely was.
For it being only a 2-hour flight, it sure feels like a lot further, as if you’d even jumped back through time itself. If flying into Bratislava there’s then a four-hour journey on trains which look like they’ve been running since the 1940’s. Leaving the city behind you travel though some truly beautiful landscape until you reach Liptovsky Mikulas, the town that serves Jasna resort, a small town nestled in the valley of the Tatra Mountains. The view from town is pretty unique; white-capped mountains line the horizon and the shimmer of Lake Mara glistens in the distance. Partially blocking this serene view however are bleak, towering concrete buildings and the hillside gypsy village; a cluster of tiny, one roomed, shed like shacks in which Roma gypsy families live amongst each other.The first thing that quickly became obvious is that there were VERY few Brits around and hardly anyone over the age of 20 spoke any English. The language barrier isn’t usually a massive deal, you can work around it with the classic universal language of pointing and talking loudly but the fact that literally the only Brits in resort are the same people that you’re living with can sometimes make your social life a bit dull. The constant renewal of the Brit chalet guests does give some respite but you can’t always count on guests for a good time. It’s not like you can just call up your mate from the chalet down the road and meet up for beers.
Talking of beers, it turned out Slovakian’s love to drink and maybe because of this, alcohol was and still is dangerously cheap. I’m talking €1 beers in town and €1.50 on the hill, vodka shots for 40 cents… Now you see how I made £1000 last five months (and also managed not to kill any of my housemates). Legend has it, that few seasons before, before the Euro hit Slovakia, when drinks were even cheaper, the favourite drinking game was to see who could actually spend the equivalent of £5 and make it home alive. Apparently it was impossible, drinks were that cheap. What a time to be a seasonaire. When ordering alcohol the language barrier is never a problem, forget the fact that you can’t pronounce the name of the beer, they understand exactly what you want. Ask for a ‘Slutty Badger’ and you’re promptly served a Zlatý Bažant no problem. Apparently ‘drunk’ is a universal language.
Local nightlife is always pretty intense – again, I repeat, the Slovaks love to drink. There are plenty of bars in the town centre of Liptovsky Mikulas but Jasna is a weird set up. The town centre is in the valley and you’re faced with a 20-30 minute drive up the mountain each morning to reach the lifts. The chalet I was working in was on the road up, about a five-minute drive from town and taxis are needed when it was a late night. Luckily, what might have been the only English speaking man over the age of 30 had spent a few years in England taxiing and could respond to our drunken ‘take me home’ calls no problem. The two night clubs were equally awful but being drunk on cheap beer they instantly became the best places on Earth for a good night. Now, things could get weird very quickly in these types of places and I mean fucked up weird. One night, the local ‘gangsters’ decided to turn up the heat by shooting rounds into the ceiling of the club. Yep, firing guns into the ceiling. No one paid much attention; apparently that kind of thing was pretty casual for a Saturday night.
No need to set an alarm in the mornings, it’s either the neighbours cockerel or the old tannoy systems which will wake you up promptly. I never really worked out what the tannoys were for; whether they were left over from the old communist days or they were there for mountain safety warnings. But every few days they would blare out some awful, traditional style music and follow up with some public announcements about the farmer selling half price onions or some other crap. That was what I was told was said anyway.
Once you’d consumed enough ‘Parky’, or hot dog sausages to you mere English speakers, to rid your life-threatening hangover, it was time to brave the long drive up to the mountain. Jasna is no ski in, ski out resort, unless you’re up for staying in one of the few weird, expensive Russian orientated hotels on the hill. From the chalet it was a twenty minute steep drive on what were often treacherous roads, we’d usually have to stop and put snow chains on half way up after the ski bus casually stopped for no reason. The last obstacle was braving the old, rickety chair lifts, which look like they’ve been in place since the resort opened in the 1950’s. Although at this time the resort had just started its long-term development plan and two new lifts had just been installed and there have been more upgrades since.
From speaking to local riders we learnt that snow sports weren’t that accessible for your average local family. Pay rates can be pretty low which makes equipment and passes extremely expensive for low-income families. For us though a season pass was a steal – £180! The majority of riders on the mountain were made up from wealthier locals at weekends and tourists from across the county and neighbouring countries such as Poland, Hungary and even Russia during the week. This and the fact that there are very few seasonaire’s means most weekdays the resort is pretty calm. No lift cues or congestion on piste, it’s not even that difficult to get first lines on a powder day, even when you’re waiting around for guests.
With this said, the resort’s not massive, it’s no Portes du Soleil. At the time there were around 36km of piste and when the snow is sparse you are left with pretty limited terrain. When it dumps though, things change. It’s a super fun place to ride pow; tree runs, tree runs, tree runs, coulee’s, cliff drops and back country are all within easy reach and when you’ve got a good crew, things can get pretty radical. The park was pretty decent considering the size of the resort. With a few varyingly sized kickers and a selection of rails, boxes, pipes, stalls and wall rides.
Lunch on the hill was always an experience. Forget having to skip lunch or eat squashed sandwiches that have been sweating in your pocket all morning to escape bankruptcy. In 2010 Jasna offered first class dining for just £3. A £3 season worker Menu included a hearty soup to start (usually noodles or dumpling), plus a main course, always local specialities, usually goulash or gnocchi style dishes and a drink, which was usually Kofola (a weird, herby tasting cola). As you can imagine, that was a lot of food and being poor seasonaire’s we usually shared lunch. To be honest, I was never completely sure what meat I was eating and maybe that was for the best.
I don’t remember much going on in terms of comps or parties in resort. The newly built on piste, après ski venue ‘Happy Ending’ (I kid you not, you can’t make this stuff up) hosted a few après events but with a van load of guests to drive back down the mountain and the DJ serving up the finest European trance and hard house we usually skipped out on those. Plus the fact that this place seemed to find it perfectly ok to charge over €2 for a beer meant we were definitely not sticking around. We preferred the cheaper joints down in town, never mind the guns and violence. Did I mention the locals only pub 2 minutes from the chalet we aptly named ‘Club Tropicana’ where they sold beers for 89 cent? Yeah, that.
There’s a lot of weird stuff that I’m only just remembering now as I reminisce. On Easter Monday for example, girls need to stay vigilant as there’s a long old tradition for men to throw water over girls and then proceed to whip them. Apparently it evokes youth. These days, guys seem happy enough with just throwing buckets of ice-cold water at poor, young, unsuspecting girls. Yes, even on the mountain. Or our vans getting pulled over by police all the time simply because they knew we were British and we wouldn’t understand a word they were saying and could con us into paying a fine… That they love eating carp, even on Christmas day… That there’s booze in literally everything sweet; cakes, chocolate, hot drinks, pies… That there’s no McDonalds in town, or curry house, or Chinese takeaway… That EVERYONE goes to Church on Sunday… The fact that in the ladies toilets the toilet roll dispenser has a ‘Big Willy’ logo and then right next to it is a metal box with ‘Lady Killer’ on it and I could never figure out what it was for… That you could order a whole pork knee in a restaurant for less that 10 Euros… The naked sauna area at Tatralandia where male guests pay the extra to get in expecting to see a load of hot naked babes as advertised on the posters but all they ever saw was lots of wrinkly old todge… The suspicious looking military base which some swore that they gained access to whilst drunk and spent the night in a metal framed bed… The brothel outside the train station, which also served as nice place to have a pint… The amazing one pieces which were not worn for jokes… The home brewed sprits that locals always seemed to carry around… Club Tropicana where drinks are near enough free…
I’m sure since the season of 2010/11 things have changed massively, I don’t know, I haven’t been back. Mostly because I don’t want to ruin the memories I have of the place. I want to always look back and remember it as this quirky little random resort which no one has ever heard of with its weird customs and truly foreign feel. A place where you can eat and drink like a king with the bank balance of a peasant. With it’s sketchy lifts, quiet pistes and untouched powder. A true hidden gem in the heart of Europe.