Monday, 21 August 2017

Skiing in Bulgaria: Bansko? Try again   
As you drive south of Sofia, first you see nothing. Wide fields, some hills, covered with trees and bushes, over a dozen of unremarkable villages that, seen from the road, even look ugly. Then, you turn east and in a moment you are already driving towards the Pirin Mountain’s dramatic peaks. Half an hour later the sternest amongst the Bulgarian mountains has engulfed you completely.

Snow shines on its peak tops in front of you, and the dark silhouettes of pine trees anxiously stretch out against the sky.

The road then winds up to the most modern of Bulgaria's ski resorts, Bansko.

At about 925 metres above sea level, this once sleepy settlement is slowly turning into a bustling town, in which dozens of new hotels spring up each summer, and nearly a hundred thousand skiers come every winter.

Today the skyline of the tourist development, especially when you enter Bansko from Sofia or exit it towards the skiing slopes, makes it hard to believe that this place was once a sleepy little town, where Bulgarians would come to drink heavy red wines, eat heavy meals and sing heavy songs, sinking into heavy romantic-nationalistic dreams.

But it was just so, and apart from the splendid beauty of the mountain, this is what makes many locals ignore the overdevelopment and keep coming – for a snowy, truly wintery weekend, or for a week closer to the sky, high up Pirin’s shiny peaks.

Perhaps after all the construction is finished once and for all, Bansko will be not any less attractive that many of the medium-sized Alpine ski-resorts. But for the time being, it takes a bit of an effort to see its charm. So don’t give up easily and you may find that making the effort is worth it, in many ways.

One of Europe's cheapest ski destinations

Bansko remains one of the cheapest ski resorts in Europe. Although the constant construction and crowds in the place make it not entirely enjoyable, the low prices partly compensate and attract tourist looking for more affordable ski destinations.

The price lists for lift passes, wardrobe, the ski and snowboard schools, parking and other services for the 2008/2009 winter season were recently published. Lift pass prices also include insurance. For a complete list of the prices and the time periods for which they are valid, visit Bansko’s official website.

Generally, lift passes (for adults) which allow unlimited times’ use of all the ski lifts cost between 40 and 55 leva (around 20 and 27 euro) for one day, 118 and 162 leva (around 60 and 83 euro) for three days, 227 and 311 leva (around 116 and 160 euro) for six days, 439 and 599 (225 and 307 euro) for 13 days. The price ranges depend on the period of the season, with the cheapest one being between April 1 and 30, followed by December 1 to 23 and January 5 to March 31, with the period around Christmas and New Year’s (December 24 to January 4) being the most expensive. A full season’s pass for the ski lifts costs 760 leva (around 390 euro).

Some discounts are available on those prices, such as 10 per cent for those who rent full ski equipment and15 per cent for renting ski equipment and using an instructor. Read more.

The Pirin Mountain

Inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983, the Pirin National Park is one of the largest and most important not only in Bulgaria but also in Europe. “The rugged mountains, with some 70 glacial lakes scattered throughout them, are home to hundreds of endemic and rare species, many of which are representative of the Balkan Pleistocene flora,” according to UNESCO’s official information, which adds that the “mountains also have diverse and unique landscapes of great aesthetic value.”

Pirin's highest peak, Vihren, stands at 2,914 metres above the sea level and is best accessible from Bansko.
You can reach its foot by car, driving up to the lodge of Vihren. To reach the top you will certainly need rock-climbing experience, equipment and a guide. Various tourism agencies offer organised winter climbs up the peak, complete with a guide and the provision of some of the equipment, such as Vertical World Climbing School.

An alternative way to get to know the mountain is to visit the special information center, dedicated to Pirin, in Bansko's center. It is new, modern and quite interesting to visit – it contains a small scale model of the mountain (in the picture above), some photographs, and plenty of information, and in some cases - samples of the local flora and fauna. It is also a valuable source of information on the mountain cabins. Read more.

Singing, wining and dining in Bansko

To understand Bansko and to enjoy it, you need to get used to some peculiarities of Balkan nations first. One of them is the people’s love to sit at the dinner table for long hours, in heavy smoke, drink persistently until they fall in a dizzy melancholy and then start singing to chase it away.

It doesn't always work, especially for those amongst the listeners – the songs tend to be utterly slow and sad and often the dinners end with everyone crying at the table without really knowing why.

But curiously enough, the next morning most of the diners would describe the previous night as a wonderful and pleasant one, and most likely so would you. Many foreigners find a certain charm in the heavy, somewhat obsessive emotionality of locals.

But apart from the sentimental, beautiful Balkan songs, another one of Bansko's charms is its regional cuisine. It includes dishes with puzzling names, such as starets (‘old man’), babek ('old woman’) – both rich variation of differently cooked intestines, as well as and a number of wonderful vegetable relishes and pickles, prepared in the back yards of the restaurants during the autumn months.

Read BalkanTravellers' short guide to Bansko's specialties


Undergoing spa procedures in Bansko may not always and at all places remind you of the fantastic, fully sweeping treatments you may find in places like Thailand or Bali. Yet many of the fancier and newer hotels do try to bring their spa procedures to the same level of beauty and pleasure as available in South East Asia. And, one of their main features will always be that they are medical.

Your feet may not be washed in a concoction of rose petals and dried slices of oranges. The massage bed may be a bit less fancy, without a whole for your face to look towards a basin with aromatic oils and a dozen of killed for you flowers. But there is great chance that the people who will massage you, have studied medicine and are highly professional in what they are doing.

Some hotels in the town that offer spa facilities and treatments include Kempinski Hotel Grand Arena, Narcis Spa Hotel, Bansko Spa and Holidays Hotel or Lucky Bansko Aparthotel.

Avoiding the crowds

is difficult in Bansko, but it is still possible. The peak season is in January and February, but the snow often lasts until the end of April, and sometimes even to May, and at all other times the town is significantly less populated by tourists.

For trekking around the mountain in solitude, you could try to access it via Dobrinishte towards the Bezbog Peak.

A quiet supper is not usually the standard in Bansko – not only because of the tourists, but also because of the traditions - the noisier a place is, the louder the music, the greater it is considered.

Some of the restaurants are smaller than others and ensure more of a family-type meal, albeit a noisy family (good pick is Baryakova kushta, 07443 44 82, 3 Velyan Ognev St.). You could try also the neighbouring town of Dobrinishte, which has an excellent restaurant – Makedonska kruchma (07447/ 22 74, 0888 792 299, 1 Georgi Temelkov St, Dobrinishte). Although it is also quite big and almost always fully booked during the high season, at least its location is in the middle of a sleepy village.

For hotels, also, Bansko is inevitably quite full and crowded in January and February. You could either try one of the more boutique hotels, which do not allow mass tourism, or look for a place to stay out of the town. One of the recently open and promising ones seems to be Katarino, 10 km away from Bansko on the way to Razlog.

To put it briefly, there are many ways to visit Bansko, and your experience will partially depend on the way you organize your trip, and also on what you want to see. Diverting one’s eyes from the overdevelopment is highly recommended, and if you manage to overcome this hard bit, you may discover a place you will truly enjoy.

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