There’s more than meets the eye at Bansko
At the beginning of March 2015, three friends and I, very much out of practice and long overdue a ski holiday, decided to venture to Eastern Europe to explore Bansko, the largest resort in Bulgaria and host of the FIS World Cup Championships.
Without knowing much about skiing in Bulgaria before the trip we were shooting in the dark, however we were lucky in our timing. The snow record showed that this was the best time of year to go, and Bansko had been hit by huge amounts of snow just that very week, with another 115cm in the forecast. This seemed to good to be true.
As we were due to arrive in Sofia, the pilot informed us that due to snow on the runway we may have to be diverted to Bucharest – 350 kilometres further north, and in the opposite direction of Bansko! Luckily the plane had enough fuel to circle Sofia until the runway was cleared, and despite the most turbulent landing I have ever experienced, we managed to touch down 30 minutes later.
The eventful journey didn’t stop there. Due to the amount of snow, Bansko had been cut off from both Sofia and Plovdiv airport – we boarded our transfer unsure if we would arrive that night. After three hours, just as we were preparing to spend the night camped out in the bus on the side of a mountain, we finally arrived at our destination.
We awoke the next morning slightly disorientated and disheveled, but excited (and relieved!) to be there. We gathered our bearings and went out to conquer the Pirin wilderness. The mountain and surrounding town greeted us with a buzzing atmosphere, as Bansko was hosting Horizon festival.
A first winter festival for me – I’m more accustomed to soaking up the festival atmosphere while trekking through the Glastonbury mud in shorts and a straw hat rather than ski boots and a helmet. Submotion Orchestra, Craig Charles and Beardymann made it worthwhile though as they provided the soundtrack to our après amongst the secret festival stages hidden away in the mountainside forests.
Careful to avoid the tourist traps and with a heavy appetite for some traditional Bulgarian food and cheap beer, we ventured into town. After walking down the hill through the narrow cobbled lanes and past the slopeside areas, we found a completely different side to Bansko as we discovered the old town market square. In the center of which was the ghostly monument to the son of Bansko – 18th century national hero Paisius of Hilendar who was born in the area and played an important part of the Bulgarian renaissance.
Surrounding this were various mexanas (taverns) that offered great value for money, as well as friendly locals who were very fond of traditional Bulgarian line dancing! As some of these did not have English menus, it can be a case of ‘lucky dip’ as to what we would eat that night. The culinary delights on offer included traditional Bulgarian veal meze, tarator (a cold, creamy soup), Kavarma, and ‘mish mash’ (great for hangovers).
A lift pass in Bansko is $10 a day, whereas a nice bottle of beer from the local supermarket will set you back around 50 pence. When you also throw in bucket loads of snow to the equation, Bansko offers great value for money for a decadent ski holiday – I would definitely recommend it.
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Complete beginners should book a lesson, but those with a modicum of confidence can start with the runs on the skier’s right side of the resort. Here you’ll find wide-open blues accessed by quick chairs. The run down is fun, if flat at points.
Head to the summit and the entire resort opens out for you. There are long routes down to the right-hand side, and some interesting trees to explore on the left.
Bansko’s size means there is still plenty to occupy experts, although you’ll probably find yourself gravitating towards the Shiligarnik side and taking the right-hand chair, which leads to most of the steeper runs. And try the run from the summit all the way down to the base on the way home – fun, varied terrain and thigh-burningly long.
There are plenty of fun, obvious tree runs to explore if the snow is good, although to find the best stashes you’ll need to book a guide.