Think ski holiday in Europe, and most people imagine the Alps. But what about Bulgaria’s Pirin Mountains? The skiing is great, the scenery is spectacular and lift tickets are refreshingly affordable.
BANSKO -- There are some soccer fans who prefer the whole experience of going to a game to actually watching it. Rather than follow the action on the field, they'll spend their time taking photos of their friends, or standing in line to buy snacks. They might also buy a T-shit – just to prove they were there.
There are skiers who are like that too, "resort collectors' who care less about the actual skiing or the atmosphere of a place and more about just having been there. Instead of the Alps or Aspen, they prefer "exotic" destinations like New Zealand, Australia, the slopes of Etna in Sicily and…Bulgaria.
Home to the Rila range, which contains the sixth highest peak in Europe, as well as Bansko, a popular resort in the Pirin Mountains, Bulgaria also has beaches, amazing hiking trails and a long list of other alluring attributes that help it stand out against more traditional ski destinations.
But that's not to say the skiing is somehow second-rate. On the contrary, for downhill aficionados, the country is a veritable gold mine. Even the capital Sofia has its own "house" mountain: the Vitosha massif, which can be reached by scheduled bus in under an hour. A particularly spectacular time to go is the evening, when the slopes at 2,290 meters (7,514 feet) are lit and the city lights twinkle below.
Bussing it to Bansko
Vitosha is not a place to go if you want mountain quiet (pop music blares, it's a favorite of the young). But it is fun if it's just for an outing from the big city. And it's ideal for resort collectors. For those who are keen for a real mountain getaway, try Bansko. Located in the Pirin Mountains about 160 kilometers by highway from Sofia, the resort is easy to reach by bus or rental car. Twenty years ago this was a sleepy resort, favored by Bulgarians because of its beautiful slopes. In recent years – thanks to international investors – it has become a European-class ski resort.
Bansko also has a historical center that dates back to the Middle Ages, along with stores, churches, and restaurants. But the tone is set by the resort's contemporary apartment houses and chic wellness hotels.
Bansko is still growing, as the many construction sites attest, although the economic crisis has slowed things down. Unfortunately – as many a skier has discovered – the infrastructure has not kept pace with the increasing number of hotel beds. Lines and waiting times at the lifts are long, but the lifts themselves are rapid and enjoyable – it takes no time at all to rise to 2,600 meters over varied and gorgeous landscape below. Once you're up there, you have a choice of 75 km of slopes - not overly challenging, but varied and beautiful.
Hiking and world heritage
Visitors would do well also to spend time taking in the surrounding scenery. Most of Bansko is in the Pirin National Park, which is on UNESCO's list of world nature sites. There are centuries-old trees, small lakes, waterfalls and caves to be discovered. A highlight for top-fit skiers is the 16-km slope that links the Todorin peak with Bansko and takes you past many of the natural splendors.
Bansko is also a top destination for biathlon, but the less athletically driven will find it an ideal hiking spot. Cultural excursions to the world-renowned Rila Monastery also leave from here. The monastery is a national monument and a UNESCO world heritage site, and is one of the top tourist attractions in Bulgaria. The same goes for Melnik, population 275, known for its red wine and medieval architecture. Only 20 km from the Greek border, the whole site is protected, and 96 buildings are listed in the Bulgarian cultural heritage register.
Back to the slopes. Resort collectors may want to head for Pamporovo to the southeast, popular with skiers and snowboarders alike. The climate is particularly favorable, averaging 240 days of sunshine per year.
All of these places have one big advantage over their Alpine competitors: they're inexpensive! A day ski pass costs 25 euros at most. Rentals of top brand equipment cost 15 euros per day or 75 euros for a week. Compare that to the price of a one-week ski pass in Switzerland, which can cost more than 250 euros. Prices at hotels and restaurants are 30% lower than they are in Central European resorts. And the hectic atmosphere you often get there is utterly absent here – the pace is relaxed. And the food, by the way, is delicious.
Read the original story in German
Photo – Lenta Moebiusa