Off the beaten piste
Ever felt like an ugly sister? Marko the ski instructor (dark-eyed and handsome as per international regulations) and the ski rental man (not handsome at all) are trying to jam my (non-regulation, strangely shaped) foot into a plastic vice otherwise known as a ski boot. It's no go, despite the shop having a vast, shiny selection of the latest equipment, so I give up and watch skiers and boarders of all ages flying down the nursery slopes, which come right up to the coffee shops of the attractive village of Kranjska Gora in Slovenia.
In a similarly handy fashion, the Alps come right into the ski resorts of Slovenia, and Kranjska Gora's variety of terrain has made it a skiing World Cup venue and a favourite with ski jumpers. This is the countrythat produced the first person to ski down Everest. Children start skiing at two. Those too young to walk are put on a toboggan as soon as they can sit up.
The mountains are far from the only attraction of this land of winter sports fanatics. Slovenia snuggles behind the knee of Italy's boot, so its coffee shops serve excellent espresso. My struggle with boots turns out to be the only disappointment of a short ski break dipping into a few of Slovenia's winter resorts, prompted by the availability of cheap flights to the capital, Ljubljana, and other airports.
Most weekend skiers have their own equipment, with beginners usually hiring equipment for the whole holiday in advance. The day before at Mount Vogel the boots had fitted and I'd joined long, confidence-building blue runs, while the sole boarder in our party had disappeared with a piste map and returned to pronounce the resort, "good, with lots of opportunities to try small jumps".
Lunch at a chalet restaurant on a quiet skating lake in the woods near Kranjska Gora restores my equilibrium. We've been staying at the larger Lake Bled, which has been celebrating 1,000 years of recorded history this year. It has long been a favourite with British tourists, who discovered its beauty when Slovenia was part of Yugoslavia, and have been coming back for winter sports, summer hiking and relaxing ever since.
Slovenia's transition to independence in 1991 was relatively calm, but that seems typical of the rest of its history. In Ljubljana, a splendid medieval city punctuated with baroque and art deco buildings, a statue to Napoleon reminds us how rarely cities commemorate their invaders. Napoleon's short rule was the first time the Slovenian language had been officially recognised. Unlike Prague, to which it is often compared, Ljubljana has not yet been discovered by the rowdier weekenders and it's a restorative place to wander around, shop for crafts or clothes by local designers, watch the skaters in the square near the opera house, discover a cosy cafe or bar or treat yourself to a fine dinner in one of the gourmet restaurants such as Pri Vitezu.
Moving to Krvavec, renowned as Slovenia's sunniest ski resort, we take the lift up to 1,300m to our simple mountain-top hotel, while our bags are brought up by snowmobile. The base station is barely half an hour from Ljubljana's Brnik airport, yet the AS Hotel seems far from the hassles of modern life. The chef fires up the wood-burning stove for huge pizzas, which we wash down with Slovenian red wine, (good, but difficult to find outside the country).
Next morning, the slopes are teeming with confident tots, skiing happily through a multicoloured slalom course, and I meet the man who has probably taught most of them. Steleajko Raiko has completed 40 years as an instructor and reckons he has taught 11,000 children how to ski. He yodels with joy as he swoops away down the slope, dipping down to grab a handful of snow to wipe over his acorn-brown face. "It's my only sun cream," he says. The swooping and the yodelling are still beyond me, but my snowplough is much improved by the time I have to go down the mountain for my afternoon flight home.
Information: UK Slovenian Tourist Office: 0870 2255305; email@example.com; www.slovenia-tourism.siFlights: Slovenia's national airline, Adria Airways, operates daily flights from Gatwick to Ljubljana (Brnik) airport (020 7734 4630; www.adria-airways.com). EasyJet flies into Ljubljana from Stansted from pound;45.98 return.
(www.easyjet.co.uk). Ryan Air flies into Trieste, Klagenfurt and Graz, all very near the borders of Slovenia (www.ryanair.com). Pri Vitezu: 00 386 1 42 66 058.Just Slovenia offers a weekend's skiing in Krvavec from pound;399 per person, based on two sharing a room at the AS Hotel, half-board and including return gondola lift to the resort, lift passes and scheduled flights with Adria Airways from Gatwick to Ljubljana and private transfers.
Ski and boot hire costs about pound;20. (01373 814230; www.justslovenia.co.uk).Crystal Ski has a week half-board at the Hotel Park in Bled for pound;380 per person, based on two sharing and including return flights from Gatwick to Ljubljana and transfers. (0870 160 6040; www.crystalski.co.uk).Crystal's Learn to Ski or Snowboard pack includes a six-day lift pass, six days' tuition (two hours a day) and hire of skis and boots, from pound;119 per person (0870 160 6040)