By now you will be more than aware of my penchant for Austria and Slovenia over the other Alpine countries. Is this by default or do both of the aforementioned have that little bit of special something that the others don’t? A little from column A, a little from column B.
I have always believed that Austria and Slovenia contain the greatest choice of resort and value but in the cases of Obergurgl and Lake Bohinj, these two resorts have contrasting bits of magic that have permanently got under my skin. I am not though here today to talk about the relative merits of the resorts I visit and have previously done, rather, this is a lament for the resorts and countries that have previously been included in Lakes and Mountains programmes but are no longer or even, resorts or countries who’ve never made the cut in the first place:
Auffach: At the opposite end of the Wildschoenau valley, this is an archetypal Tyrolean village with picture-perfect(on the outside at least) hotels, just a few shops and the benefit of a mountain-lift up the mighty Schatzberg, where from many day or longer hikes can commence. Walk down the other side of the Schatzberg and you even end up in Alpbach for lunch. Auffach spent many years in the wilderness when it came to the Lakes and Mountains brochures but recently made a welcome return, with Inghams; in fact, as recently as the Inghams 2014 Preview brochure where it was included in their programme but inexplicably in the final edition, it has again vanished.
Andorra: For many years a mainstay of Lakes and Mountains itineraries this country now seems to have completely fallen off the edge of the Earth. Whether the likes of Soldeu, Arinsal and Arcalis suffer from this drop-off in Summer trade I couldn’t say, especially with the country’s tourist-industry predominantly set up for the ski season. I feel though that popularity waned when travellers became tired of flying to Reus or Barcelona to access Andorra and subsequently took their custom elsewhere, to resorts in countries serviced by airports with shorter transfer times.
Lake Ohrid: On the border between Macedonia and Albania, this is perhaps a controversial choice. However, the potential here for tourism is vast although it should be mentioned that whilst the Macedonian and Albanian authorities aren’t as sympathetic towards the lake as they could be, then perhaps an increase in visitor numbers shouldn’t be encouraged. Though difficult when a lake straddles two countries, a bipartisan agreement should be brokered where the interests of this vast body of water are put first.
Lake Skadar: This reads very similar to my comments on Ohrid. Skadar borders two countries: again Albania but also Montenegro. A wetland classed as of International Importance, it has the distinction of being designated a National Park in Montenegro but ‘just’ a Managed Nature Reserve in Albania. This perhaps again highlights the crux of the problem of juxtaposing tourism with ecological protection of a sensitive and vulnerable natural asset, especially where more than one country is involved. The backdrop, history and scale of wildlife makes it ideal for eco-tourism but where does that stop and mass-tourism begin? For the sake of the local region, its people and most importantly Lake Skadar, I hope a finely-tuned balance can be found.
Kolasin: Again we find ourselves in Montenegro, demonstrating how overlooked the Balkans are in this area of tourism, despite bestowing upon the continent an abundance of riches which any of the ‘established’ Lakes and Mountains countries would be proud of. Montenegro is primarily known for its exclusive and therefore pricy coastal resorts of Budva, Petrovac and Sveti Stefan. Kolasin though is my idea of a holiday in this region. Located over 3000 feet above sea-level it offers an excellent base to explore the not inconsiderable peaks of Vucje, Bjelasica, Kljuc and Sinjajevina. The hiking possibilities are therefore endless. Now, I am unsure as to the extent of the tourist infrastructure but if there is a reasonable standard and depth of facilities to be had, why doesn’t one of the UK Lakes and Mountains big-hitters take the plunge?
Plitvice Lakes: This used to be included by one of the Lakes and Mountains operators but hasn’t been so for quite some time. To continue the Balkan lakeside theme, Plitvice Lakes National Park is to be found in Croatia. Where it though differs is that it is an archipelago of 16 lakes, all I am very pleased to say heavily protected by the National Park authority and by dint of its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ergo, there is an admission charge to the National Park, where I sincerely hope the funds remain for its upkeep, protection and betterment. Having recovered from much of its holiday accommodation being requisitioned and subsequently damaged by the JNA, this area was sadly abused by Slobodan Milosevic-backed troops; at the cessation of hostilities it became one of the first areas to be demined. In defence of the Lakes and Mountains tour industry I would imagine the fact that the area was so heavily-mined would weigh heavily upon the minds of the travel companies, although the one million annual visitors that Plitvice now receives is surely testament that it is definitely a case of business as usual. I am sure that this area, perhaps more than the others I’ve detailed, is on the radar for future inclusion in UK brochures.
Bulgaria: Until fairly recently the likes of Bansko and Borovets were routinely found in the programmes of UK L & M operators. This now though is very much not the case. Whilst some wonderful walking is be found the prices just seemed to be too cheap, indicating standards of accommodation and food that perhaps were short of the perhaps unrealistic expectations of the British traveller. One cannot compare Eastern European standards to the likes of Austria and Switzerland and whilst there is an argument that countries will only improve once tourist dollars arrive in it’s resorts, it is sadly a chicken-and-egg situation where investment in infrastructure and a harmonisation of standards is FIRST needed, to then attract visitors in significant numbers.
Whilst my overviews of the overlooked L & M alternatives have been cursory, I am sure you will agree of the unseen depth of choice in Eastern Europe and the potential it has to rival the more traditionally visited countries. I for one will be monitoring closely the progress made by these resorts and in time hope to see them become the backbone of future L & M programmes.