Behind the scenes of ‘The Balkan Express’

In the heart of the breathtaking Balkans, amidst rugged terrains and snow-capped peaks, two German mountaineers, Max Kroneck and Jochen Mesle, embarked on an extraordinary odyssey that defied conventional travel norms. Armed with boundless passion for skiing and a thirst for exploration, they set out on a remarkable 2500-kilometer journey back home. Starting with a one-way train ticket from Munich to Thessaloniki, their adventure unfolded on bikes and skis, weaving through the mesmerising landscapes of the Balkans.

This unforgettable expedition was more than just a physical feat; it was a celebration of human connection, as they sought out the most beautiful ski runs and shared heartwarming moments with the locals they encountered along the way. Their awe-inspiring journey captured the hearts of audiences worldwide and earned them the prestigious title of ‘Best Film’ in the snow sports section of the 2023 Radical Reels film night at the Banff Centre Mountain Film Festival. Join us as we interview Max and get some behind the scenes action of this incredible feat.

Max Kroneck in 'Balkan Express'
Max Kroneck in ‘Balkan Express’

Where in Germany is home for you and Jochen?

Jochen resides in Munich, while I live with my family on the southern outskirts of Munich, right at the foothills of the Alps.

What do you both do in your day to day lives?

Jochen is employed as an engineer in a small company, dedicating his free time to outdoor pursuits. On the other hand, I primarily work in front of the camera as a professional ski athlete. In addition to this, I am actively involved as a mountain guide and photographer, contributing my skills to various projects.

You can obviously ski really well, what’s your background in the sport?

I appreciate the compliment. Our shared journey in skiing began in the realms of freestyle and, more significantly, freeride skiing. Back in the day, we both navigated terrain parks clad in oversized baggy pants. Surprisingly, our paths didn’t cross until we both competed in freeride contests a few years later. Since 2014, our collaboration on film projects has become an annual tradition, marking the juncture where we discovered our true passion within the sport.

How did you get the idea to ski the Mount Olympus? Is this a known ski area in Europe?

Mount Olympus, of course, is widely recognised due to Greek mythology. Although it wasn’t directly on our route, it was clear from the beginning that we wanted to do some skiing in the region. Additionally, with the sky and the sea so close, it was a dream to ski here with a view of the Mediterranean. It was purely coincidental that we found such excellent conditions here. In that year, the region experienced an exceptionally heavy snowfall.

Max Kroneck cycling mid- journey in the 'Balkan Express'
Max Kroneck cycling mid- journey in the ‘Balkan Express’

Despite the proximity to other European countries, the Balkan isn’t a typical tourist destination, have you been to any of these countries before or was the unknown exactly what sparked your curiosity?

That’s pretty much how it was. Both of us had been to Greece before, but the area stretching from Slovenia/Croatia down to Greece was uncharted territory for us. We had long wanted to embark on a mountain adventure in that region. Having cycled and skied through the Alps a few years ago, the Balkan region naturally became our next destination. It was precisely this sense of the unknown that we found so appealing during our journey. We cycled through the various countries with as few preconceived notions as possible, allowing us to be pleasantly surprised each time we explored a new place.

Which month did you do this trip in?

We commenced our journey by train at the end of February and, if memory serves me right, concluded around April 2nd.

Was most of your trip planned out when it comes to huts and guest houses, or was this often an on-the-day mission?

We had marked a few mountain ranges on the map beforehand, and we had also tried to identify some interesting characters in advance. However, we always made spontaneous decisions about where to go the next day or who we might meet along the way. Most of the time, we simply went with the flow from day to day. While we had initially entered the route on Komoot, we ended up deviating from it for the most part. We would have liked to take more detours, but Jochen had to return to work the day after our arrival, and I had to leave for a ski Trans Alp photography assignment three days later. So, in some cases, we had to take the most direct route.

We are wondering the same about the skiing, did you just go explore or did you know where to go exactly in some of the destinations at least?

In fact, skiing was very spontaneous throughout the journey. We rarely knew what conditions we would encounter, and often, we arrived at our destinations in the evening, making it impossible to see what awaited us the next day. In the Valbona Valley, for example, on the first morning, we stumbled out of our hut, looked around to assess the situation, and simply followed our instincts in a particular direction. Surprisingly, that day turned out to be one of our best skiing experiences ever. 

What was the biggest (unforeseen) challenge on this trip?

I would say that the stretch along the Croatian coast was by far the most challenging part of the journey. It was mentally challenging because, at times, we really questioned what we were doing with skis in that terrain. Additionally, the supposedly flat route ended up accumulating quite a bit of elevation gain. On top of that, it was exceptionally warm, and most restaurants and shops were closed due to being off-season.

‘Balkan Express’ Jochen Mesle

What was the locals’ reaction to two Germans riding through their towns on bikes with skis? Generally they seemed pretty friendly?

Certainly, because of our unique mode of transportation, we did attract sometimes some attention along the way. However, I believe that for most people, the combination of cycling and skiing was so unconventional that it didn’t stand out as much as it might have in, for example, Italy. There were times when we boldly set up our sleeping arrangements right in the middle of a village square. Surprisingly, we had consistently positive encounters with the local people throughout our journey.

It was great to see you catching up with Uta Ibrahimi in Kosova (who had a feature film in our previous film festival), what’s the connection there?

Actually that was one character we already contacted before our trip. She is such an inspirational person and we were super happy that she was doing a tranings lap close to the area where we were skiing in Kosovo. 

Did you have any other people filming you or was this really always done by you two only?

Certainly, Philipp from El-Flamingo Films joined us to capture key moments during the initial 10 days and the final 4 days of our journey. Having him on board ensured that we had essential visuals for our project. Moreover, he also managed all post-production tasks and organizational aspects, making the entire process seamless.

‘Balkan Express’ Jochen Mesle

You can now stream the ‘Balkan Express’ film online at AdventureReelsTV.com as well as the entire 2023 Radical Reels Program

Thanks to Max for this interview and providing the images used.

Recent articles