Start the year as you mean to go on: with a rant.
The Bucharest Life New Year’s Eve destination of choice this year was Azuga, best known to most people as one of those places through which traffic crawls on the way to or from Brasov.
There has been skiing at Azuga since 2002, when a chair-lift was installed, replaced by a gondola in 2009. A couple of short poma lifts compliment the gondola. The skiing follows the well-worn Romanian pattern: one run either side of the gondola and a couple of nursery slopes served by poma lifts at the bottom. There is an easy but wide and rather fun piste at the very top (served by another poma lift), but it only appears to open when there is no snow lower down, if at all.
Prices for this rather modest ensemble are – as we have now come to expect of Romanian ski resorts – extortionate. A ticket for ten rides up in the gondola (good for about half a day’s skiing) costs a whopping 180 lei. A huge amount of money for which you get one gondola lift, a couple of pomas and three pistes (one closed). Compare that with what is often considered the world’s most expensive ski resort, Courchevel, where a day’s lift pass costs €36.70. In exchange you get more than 150kms of piste served by 58 lifts.
The two runs from the top of the gondola at Azuga are relatively long (by Romanian standards) and in decent weather and with good snow cover (as we enjoyed on New Year’s Day, when the slopes had the added bonus of being empty) you can have fun here: it’s not all bad.
Both runs are far from easy and not really accessible to beginners. This does not stop dickheads in jeans who have clearly never skied before from strapping on a pair of skis (or a snowboard) and having a go, often with a couple of fufe in tow.
Being a vaguely responsible parent however (and we do emphasise the word vaguely) we were keen to see how Son of Bucharest Life handled the lower part of one of the runs (accessible via a poma lift) before we let him loose from the top. Off we went then, with our newly purchased lift passes, to the poma.
And that’s when the problems started.
As we tried to insert our lift passes into the drag lift’s electronic turnstile, it became immediately apparent that they didn’t fit. An operative came over to see what was going on.
He politely explained to us that the lift pass we had bought at the gondola was not in fact valid on this particular lift. When we tried to explain that this was absurd, he shrugged and said ‘this isn’t Austria.’
Remarkably, this situation is not unique to Azuga – Sinaia, Paltinis, Straja and Vatra Dornei all have a similar problem – but it is, we think, unique to Romania. We have skied in more countries than we care to remember yet only in Romania have we had to buy two different lift-passes to ski in one resort. It’s ridiculous, and a perfect example of what’s wrong with Romanian tourism: a total lack of joined-up thinking.
As a group of seventeen, we chose Azuga because we were able to find a villa big enough to accommodate all of us. We shan’t be returning. A proper ski holiday awaits at the end of January (in Ischgl, where just one lift-pass is required).
Romania meantime needs to do a lot more to ensure it does not get left behind. We have written about all this before, many times. The country has mountains, snow and could be home to at least two or three half-decent ski resorts if the political will existed. Alas, Ministers of Tourism of all stripes have taken a piecemeal attitude to the development of Romania’s skiing infrastructure. A lift and a piste have been built here, another there. In some cases the location has been chosen on purely political criteria (the local mayor or county prefect usually being a loyal servant of the ruling party at the time) with little regard for details such as access or reliable supplies of snow. This graphic from Business Magazine plots most of them. Note the pattern: lots of tiny, one-lift resorts of little interest to anyone except locals.
The only real exception is Poiana Brasov, where government money was recently spent wisely, although even here you feel that a lot more could be done. If Romania is to ever have a mega ski resort, then Poiana is currently the likeliest candidate. We still think, however, that an entirely different location could be found. It would need to be easily accessible, snow-sure and offer a range of accommodation. We remain convinced that Sinaia has such potential (although the old cable car which closes in anything stronger than a stiff breeze would have to be the first lift replaced). Yet given Sinaia’s organisational problems (no fewer than three companies operate the lifts), we can’t see much progress here any time soon. That’s why finding an entirely new site is preferable. Voineasa/Transalpina/Vidra is not it, by the way: it is more than 30km from the nearest accommodation and in bad weather is accessible only by the most nimble of four-wheel drives. Another waste of money.
If per chance you do know of a possible location for Romania’s first proper ski resort, let the Ministry of Tourism know. Possibly on the back of a postcard from France, Switzerland or Austria.