A “pumpkin”. This is what my good friend calls Zagreb’s pride and joy that is the Medvednica Nature Park, aka Sljeme – the home of the Snow Queen World Cup alpine race that’s been taking place on its splendid slopes since 2005, named in honour of a four-time Olympic gold medallist and a multiple (as in five gold medals) World Championship alpine skier, the brilliant Janica Kostelić. My friend is jealous of course, for it was her home country of Bosnia and its majestic snow-capped mountains that hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984 and in her mind Medvednica, with its relatively modest altitude of 1030 m, doesn’t quite measure up.
Well, boohoo, I say! For this is a truly special race and Medvednica makes a deserving venue. For start, it is one of only three World Cup events taking place so close to large metropolitan area and it has been known to attract up to 25,000 spectators – making it the largest and the most visited race on the World Cup calendar and one with the biggest prize fund. It heads the World Cup calendar, with the women’s and men’s slalom taking place on the 3rd and 6th of January next year. Those who plan ahead and book early can stay at one of the hotels and mountain lodges on Medvednica or otherwise take their pick from an array of hotels and hostels downtown that cater to everyone’s tastes and budgets. The foothills of Medvednica run almost to the centre of Zagreb and buses run all the way up from Mihaljevac tram stop, making it one of the most accessible events of this type.
If you’re not fond of last minute travel, Medvednica/Sljeme is well worth the visit at any time of year, especially if you make it part of your Croatian cycling experience. Its 240 m2 of pure biodiversity are a home to eight separate forest reserves, with over 1300 recorded plants and 70 nesting birds living it up among the beech, maple, ash, pine and sessile oak trees, watered and caressed by numerous springs and rivulets. Stop at Bliznec spring and fill up your water bottles with its delicious, cold, clean water, visit the 16th century mine and enter Vetrenica cave with its 7100 m tunnel before taking pictures of the Medvedgrad medieval castle ruins (note: it is even more spectacular in the night so check for any special events such as gigs or open air cinema screenings that take palace there throughout the year). Excellent hiking trails and cycling routes intersperse the forest and unmistakably run past homely mountaineer lodges serving comfort food and local beers, spirits, mulled wine and hot toddies. And all this at under 1030 m above sea level. So there!