Off and On the Beaten Track in Bansko
It’s not the mountain. It is not the snow. It’s that in Bansko you can ski, stuff yourself with steaks, drink more beer than anyone ought to and pass out in a fairly nice hotel room – all for about EUR 70 a day. This is where the true appeal of Bansko, Bulgaria’s biggest ski resort, lies.
This is what all foreign publications have been telling me throughout the last couple of years, when I had no chance to visit Bansko, instilling the feeling that if you go there you completely disappear from the face of the earth.
Since everyone needs a little reassurance from time to time and since perception is reality, this year I decided to view it through my own eyes instead of theirs.
What I found in the little town bordering Pirin National Park, about 160 kilometers south of Bulgaria’s capital Sofia, was a stark but nice contrast between the cobbled streets and churches of the old town and hundreds of millions of euros poured into hotels, ski runs and bright blue gondola bubbles in its modern part. Supervising all this was the roughly 2,800-meter Todorka peak.
The formerly off-the-beaten-path destination had gone mainstream, but I saw none of the vistas the doom-sayers had warned me of – construction cranes and gaudy mutrobaroque hotels, favored by the nouveau riche and organized crime mobsters, known as mutri, with which they try to prove their wealth.
In short a healthy mix of adventure and structure that help you achieve the elusive state of balance. Lots of places to spend the time when you are active and alert. And if you have a desire to hole up for some end-of-winter hibernating, you can go for a shvitz in the sauna or hot-stone massage in the spa. To top it all off, the package came at prices that even I found quite modest.
I spent a bit more than that 25 euros a night on the Mountain Romance, a hotel that exemplified Bansko’s ambitions – quite chic, but without the ridiculous attempts to be consmopolitan that you often find at Bulgarian resorts.
While my rate included breakfast in what was billed as the hotel’s "mehana”, I found myself eating out whenever possible. The old town, where the prices are lower even than the capital Sofia, is a collection of ski and souvenir shops with cozy, dimly lit taverns and restaurants. It is not unusual to see an entire lamb or pig roasting on a spit in front of one of the eateries.
True, the touts and what is being described as “traditional Bulgarian music” can be quite frustrating, but that does not mean you can not find a good offer, such as those mehanas where much of the delicious menu is prepared in the wood-fired hearth at the center of the room. The alternatives are the pubs, frequented by British, Irish and Greek tourists, who, together with the Russians, have until recently been the driving force of Bansko’s prosperity.
And this is where the problem lies. Bansko was built to meet the standards of not that wealthy tourists, who do not bring lots of money to the country. As the global crisis bit, however, the number of these tourists, who out of fears for their jobs, decided to skip the holidays altogether, drastically decreased. The empty hotels, streets and ski runs speak for themselves.
The oracles have been right in one thing – Bansko’s long-term attraction will be limited, unless what is on offer complies with the highest standards.