The dense fog on top of the pass hung over the border crossing as night settled. A bright spotlight illuminated passengers in the small van as the border control agent matched passport photos with faces. “Whitcomb, Matt. Casey, Pat. Stephen, Liz, …”
Our passports disappeared with the agent into the small hut. A few minutes later, a stack of freshly stamped passports was returned. “Welcome to Slovenia.”
After driving all day from Oberstdorf, Germany, through Bavaria and across Austria, it felt like we were entering a different world as we dropped down the Wurzen Pass and into Slovenia’s Sava Valley. The fields had large, wooden fences at least 20 feet tall with small roofs over them used to dry hay. The signs leading us into the village of Podkoren were hand painted and cats roamed freely through the narrow streets.
Back in 2007, I had no idea that this tiny corner of Slovenia would keep bringing me back for at least the next 15 years.
On that first trip, I was traveling with the US Development Team to a Europa Cup race. The race was held in the Planica Valley. Pronounced “Plan – izza” – like pizza with a plan, Planica is a Nordic ski venue with a long history of ski jumping. The steep slopes and calm winds make it a perfect ski jumping venue. Ski jumping world records have been set there since 1934 when Norwegian Berger Ruud was the first to jump over 100 yards. Since then, over 40 ski jumping world records have been set in Planica.
As a cross country ski venue, however, Planica was nothing special. The race started and finished next to a parking lot with no trailhead or facilities. The most memorable event from that weekend was Tazlina Mannix from Alaska winning the women’s 15 km freestyle – the first time a US skier had won a Continental Cup race in recent memory.
Despite the fact that the race trails were unremarkable, the rest of my experience in Slovenia was captivating. The limestone peaks rising from the valley, the trail network that led over the border and into Italy, the friendly support we received from our hotel and the tasty meals of mediterranean seafood all helped shape positive impressions about my first visit to Slovenia.
After retiring from ski racing in 2011, I moved to Vermont to develop trips for VBT Bicycling Vacations. VBT’s owner Gregg Marston, whose kids were all Nordic skiers, was supportive when I suggested adding ski trips to VBT’s offerings. Coincidentally, VBT’s popular Slovenia bike tour stayed at the same hotel where I had stayed 5 years earlier with the US Ski Team, so Planica was an obvious choice for one of VBT’s first ski trips.
Traveling back to Planica in 2013 with the VBT groups, there was no longer a passport check at the border and they had fully converted to the Euro currency. It was also apparent how much the venue had developed in the past 5 years. A ski shop had been built close to the start of the trails and the Olympic training center at the trailhead had grown. More impressive though, was how many people were out on the ski trails. Not just lycra-clad racers, but families with kids and tourists all over the trail network that had expanded significantly.
One of the highlights of that trip was a talk by Jože Šlibar, the Yugoslavian ski jumper who set a World Record of 140 meters in 1961. Šlibar captivated our guests with stories about feeling the scaffolding sway in the wind as he prepared on top of the jump, followed by a thrill-of-victory moment when he landed in a perfect telemark and set the new world record.
Despite the popularity of the ski trips, VBT changed ownership shortly after ski trips launched. The new owners decided to focus exclusively on bike trips and dropped the ski vacations.
In 2016, my wife Catherine accepted a job in Innsbruck, Austria that brought us from Vermont to live in Europe full time. It was the perfect opportunity for me to launch Lumi Experiences cross country ski vacations and share some of my favorite ski venues and experiences with our travelers.
Slovenia continues to be one of Lumi’s most popular destinations, both in winter and summer. The empty parking lot where the 2007 Europa Cup races started is now the site of the 5-story Planica Nordic Center, including a ski tunnel, ski museum and wind tunnel.
In the spring, the Planica venue pushes snow into their three-story, underground parking garage. It’s one of the few ski tunnels in the world with uphills, downhills, twists and turns. We bring guests here on the Lumi Factory Tour trip every August.
Every March, Planica hosts the annual Ski Flying World Cup finale. 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: 252 m, just 1.5 m shy of the World Record. That’s further than two football fields, goal-post to goal-post.
Other Lumi group adventures on the Slovenia trip include sledding on wooden Rodels, visiting the mountain top village of Lussari and, of course, visiting the famous island church on Lake Bled.
This winter, Planica is set to host the 2023 Nordic World Championships. The World Championships only happen every two years and are a two-week long, three-ring circus of Nordic events: Cross Country Skiing, Ski Jumping and Nordic Combined. I am thrilled to travel back to Planica this winter on Lumi’s 2023 Nordic World Championships trips.
The last time we hosted a group at the World Championships was Seefeld in 2019, cheering on the US Team and having a getting into the spirit in the process.
I look forward to seeing how the Planica venue is transformed for the championships and cheering on the racers, as well as sharing many highlights of Slovenia and Italy with our travelers. Perhaps most exciting is that the 30 km and 50 km events are scheduled to start in Italy, then go point-to-point over the border and into Slovenia, where the racers will finish in Planica. I can only hope that they won’t be checking passports at this border crossing!
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About the author
Garrott Kuzzy is the founder of Lumi Experiences. After traveling the world as a member of the US Ski Team and competing in the Vancouver Olympics, Garrott has spent the past decade sharing his favorite destinations and experiences through active travel. Garrott and Lumi’s team of expert trip leaders would love to host you on your next ski vacation.