Travel: Budget skiing in Bulgaria
By Adam Lee
With the best male alpine skiers in the world preparing to descend on the Bulgarian town of Bansko for the Ski World Cup later this month, a less experienced skier could be forgiven for thinking that the resort is a less than ideal destination for someone looking to give snowsports a go.
But nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, a holiday in Bansko with Balkan Holidays could well be the perfect option for someone with little or no skiing or snowboarding experience, especially in these times of well-documented austerity.
With just two black runs and more than 70km of blue and red runs, as well as a small army of ski and snowboard instructors ready and willing to tend to your needs, Bansko is ideal for the beginner or intermediate powder hound looking for some budget fun on the slopes.
Pricewise, you really can’t argue.
The cost of staying in any one of Bansko’s many hotels will be more than a match for any western European ski destinations.
And although the days of 50p pints and £3 meals in Bulgaria are, unfortunately, over, you will find the restaurants and bars in the resort and Bansko’s old town very reasonable, and certainly cheaper than anything in the Reading area.
But it is with the ski schools where the Bulgarian all-seasons resort comes into its own.
For less than £150, an adult can purchase a six-day ‘ski pack’, including boot and ski hire, lift passes and, incredibly, group ski school lessons for the entire week’s stay. I challenge you to find a better deal anywhere in France, Italy, Austria or Switzerland.
My girlfriend and I were exceptionally lucky to be put in a class with ski instructor Bobby from the Ulen Ski and Snowboard School, a fun and friendly local, fluent in English who makes sure all the lessons are worthwhile.
Placed in an intermediate group with a handful of skiers of a similar level, at the end of the six-day’s tuition, it is safe to say that every one of us had improved dramatically. And, because the initial outlay for the school is so minimal, you really don’t feel guilty if you take a day off to do a bit of souvenir shopping, sightseeing, or just explore all the skiing that the mountains offer by yourself.
Of course, nothing is ever too good to be true and there is a bit of catch, because in some respects Bansko is becoming a victim of its own success. The picturesque Balkan town, nestled at the roots of the sprawling Pirin mountain range, feeds the skiing needs of all its neighbouring countries, meaning if you book your trip during a Greek, Romanian, Serbian, Russian or Turkish national holiday, there will be a bit more queuing as well as rather busy slopes.
But, if you time your trip right, and the snow gods smile upon you (although the resort’s 55 snow cannons keep the runs open all season), then the skiing in Bansko really can’t be faulted.
Our well-earned end-of-week ski party was just one of the many après-ski parties organised by Balkan Holidays throughout the week.
For a small extra cost, Balkan Holidays customers can enjoy a bar crawl, a Bulgarian themed night and a 10-pin bowling party.
Meanwhile its many reps, who visit all their hotels every day, also provide day excursions to nearby monasteries, ‘bum-boarding’ (or sledging to you and I) and skidoo rides up and down the mountain.
In terms of après ski, with lively bars like Happy End and Amigo’s, as well as a host of British and Irish themed pubs, there are more than enough watering holes following a hard day of snowsports.
And, if like me your appetite is insatiable after a few hours of skiing, then the local restaurants are all too willing to oblige.
Although there are a number of British and Italian restaurants in Bansko, while most hotels do provide half board accommodation, you simply have to try some Bulgarian cuisine.
The are countless Mexana restaurants which specialise in traditional Bulgarian food, usually casserole type meals or, my favourite, meat straight off the barbecue, particularly the famous, and enormous, shashlik.
Most of the best, and cheapest Mexana restaurants are found in Bansko’s old town, sitting in the shadow of the quaint old church and town square.
And, luckily, it was in this part of town where we stayed, in the lovely Hotel Pirin, one of the first large hotels built in Bansko and reputedly one of the finest.
With sizable ensuite rooms, a bar, restaurant, swimming pool, sauna and spa, Hotel Pirin makes it all the easier to prepare for the next day on the mountain, while regular shuttle buses (or a 15-minute walk) mean the bustle of the ‘new’ part of town is never too far away.
During the winter, Bansko provides the perfect balance between a traditional Eastern European mountain town and a modern, popular skiing resort.
And, with its pistes and ski schools perfect for the less experienced skiiers and snowboarders, and truly unbeatable prices, I can think of few places better suited to fall in love with the slopes.
A seven night break to Bansko staying at the four star Hotel Pirin starts from £388, per person on a half board basis. Prices include flights from London and transfers to the hotel.
Full ski packs and learn to ski packs, including lift pass, ski and boot pass and ski school, are available from £115.