We touched down in Bulgaria in a snow-storm. I’d skied before, but my boyfriend Jamie hadn’t and a fellow traveler we met in the airport had warned us: “Teaching your partner to ski can kill the relationship”. He knew this as he’d broken up with his girlfriend a few weeks earlier. Three hours later, we arrived in the ski resort of Bansko, popular with the Russians, Israelis, and Brits.
For the latter, the main attraction is its value for money, and many veteran skiers told us it was a quarter of the price they had paid in the Alps. And the affordable prices mean Bansko attracts a lot of adult learners.
We enjoyed our skiing from the start and our daily gondola commute lifted us above marbled forests to peaks burnished with the morning sun. The air sparkled. The lifts – notoriously slow during school holidays – were almost empty.
But it wasn’t all parallel turns. Our first morning disappeared into a scramble for equipment, and Jamie’s ski school required both sharp elbows and a thick skin. His teacher had no qualms about barking “No” at beginners who were upturned in the snow, and his class shrank by the day. Competent skiers, meanwhile, will find the number of black and red runs limited. But, luckily, the Bansko area isn’t just about the skiing.
Our base, the Kempinski Grand Arena hotel, had an award-winning sauna and steam room complex for relaxation (non-guests can visit for 40 lev, around £18). One night we caught a taxi to the nearby town of Banya, famous for its outdoor hot spring pools (entry 10 lev per person, about £4.50). Hours melted away as we watched the stars through billowing steam. We always ended the day’s skiing in the mehanas, or taverns. As vegetarians, we were braced for a week of picking ham out of salads. But, far from going hungry, we discovered Bulgarian cuisine is packed with vegetarian treats. My favourites included the grilled vegetables known as sache (we picked up a particularly tasty one at Bansko Mehana), stuffed breaded peppers, and the Greek-style salads we found offered on the menus everywhere.
The mehanas are cheap – a meal for two came to as little as 30 lev (£13.50) – but you can always try fine dining at the Kempinski. Friday’s huge, vegetarian-friendly buffet is accompanied by galloping folk musicians armed with bagpipes. Those whose enthusiasm for skiing has totally waned can lose themselves in the back streets of Bansko’s old town where you dodge the gauntlet of sleazy club promoters and wander the quiet squares.
The Holy Trinity Church is a treasure box of painted ceilings and candles and several restored 18th-century houses are now museums. Evening activities are available (at a price) and we zoomed up the deserted mountain on snowmobiles – a petrolhead’s perfect winter wonderland. On the last day, we descended together from the top of the mountain, with an off-piste detour through forests dappled with the fading late afternoon sun. “Can we ski it again?” my boyfriend wondered as we reached the final lift of the day. But as he spoke it stopped, so it was the cue for us to take the long road home.
Top tips for the Bansko slopes:
- Go in the quiet season – check when Bulgarian, Romanian, Russian and British school holidays are. If you can avoid at least some of these, you’ll have a much better chance of peace and quiet.
- Make an early start. There is only one gondola up to the slopes. By getting there between 8-8.30am you’ll beat the ski school rush – and also get more out of your day.
- Bring your lunch. Food on the slopes is overpriced, so it’s easier on the pocket to hit the supermarket and make sandwiches for a smidgen of the cost.
- Be pushy – the first day can be chaotic. Be proactive and don’t be afraid to ask for a different ski school teacher if you don’t like their manner.
Source: mirror.co.uk (