As soon as I heard the price of a beer in Bansko I was sold. When you’re used to paying nigh on 5 euros for a demi in the Alps, 4 lev (less than £2) for a 500ml bottle on the mountain seems too good to be true. But it wasn’t, and actually turned out to be just the icing on the cake for what was to be one of the most unique and memorable snowboarding holidays I’ve ever been on.
Like the majority of Brits who ski or snowboard, my trips to the mountains are invariably synonymous with wooden buildings, red and white checked tablecloths and seemingly endless ways to consume melted cheese. The plethora of “low cost” flights and “cheap” ski packages makes it incredibly easy for Brits to get to the Alps from the UK, but what the small print of your cheap ski deal doesn’t tell you is that prices in resort will massively increase the cost of your holiday. This is not the case in Bulgaria.
I was unsure what to expect from Bulgaria but as soon as we landed in Sofia and were greeted by one of our friendly hosts bearing homemade cake, I knew we were in good hands. We were there as guests of Snomads: a group of four British guys who run Chalet Levente in the village of Banya, just 10 minutes drive from the ski resort of Bansko.
Other than the financial incentive, a massive part of the appeal of a snowboarding holiday in Bulgaria was the opportunity to visit somewhere completely different, and as we embarked on the two hour drive from Sofia to Bansko it quickly became apparent that my desire for new experiences was going to be satisfied. The landscape is peppered with reminders of the country’s communist past and statues of Stalin still stand in some of the villages. In urban areas, derelict old buildings sit juxtaposed beside modern concrete blocks, and cars cruise past horse and carts on the motorways. Outside the city the scenery is stunning and the rural villages exude a rustic Balkan charm, with none more so than our destination of Banya, named after its natural hot springs.
Chalet Levente sleeps up to 10 people and is run as an eco chalet, which means that they make every effort to minimise their impact on the local environment. A wood burning fire in the living area provides much of the chalet’s heating, as well as the hot water; the company van has been converted to LPG fuel; waste is kept to a minimum with any food wastage being fed to the local chickens, and any necessary packaging recycled. They also use the freshest locally and responsibly sourced produce to create the most incredible meals, right down to the herbs, which were gathered by the team themselves in the summer. All bread is handmade in the chalet and even the impressive array of jams and chutneys on offer have been produced by the guys.
With over 15 winter seasons’ experience between them, the Snomads crew certainly know how to run a chalet, and manage to strike the perfect balance between providing a relaxed and homely environment and outstanding service.
The resort of Bansko is a 10 minute drive from Banya but the guys are on hand 24 hours a day to take you there and pick you up again. The town itself is huge and much more commercial than anywhere else we’d encountered on our journey from Sofia. The main street that leads up to the gondola station is full of ski and snowboard shops and there’s a multitude of bars to hit when you come off the mountain. Bansko is the most popular ski resort in Bulgaria and during busy periods there can be queues for the gondola in the morning. However, the resort also runs buses up to the main ski area, which are often the best option. There are also plans to build a second gondola, which will help to alleviate queues further still.
Once up the mountain, any crowds dissipate pretty quickly leaving many of the slopes surprising quiet. The standard of local riding is generally not particularly high, which provides great entertainment when riding up the lifts and means that the more advanced terrain is left virtually untouched. Like the rest of Europe, Bansko suffered from unusually low snowfall early season but extensive snow making and a big dump of snow the week before we arrived meant that the slopes were in great shape, with plenty of soft stuff still to be found. There are some amazing tree runs between the pistes and loads of fun features to hit at the sides. When conditions are right the off piste is also fantastic and plentiful, with huge open bowls and even more trees. There’s also a park with boxes, rails and a decent-sized kicker to keep freestylers entertained.
Other than some unusual mountain etiquette, such as removing snowboards to ride the chairlift and descending the slopes with skis in hand, the overall mountain experience really isn’t too dissimilar to the Alps. That is until you stop for a drink or lunch and realise that you can pay for it with the change in your pocket rather than having to sell a kidney to settle the bill.
Once you’re done on the slopes you can either take the ski road or gondola back down to the town. The ski road can be carnage when it’s busy – think lots of poor skiers and boarders weaving around unpredictably – but successful negotiation will be rewarded by a stop-off at a great little rustic bar in the woods which serves up even cheaper beer, great food and an authentic Bulgarian atmosphere.
Après ski is pretty similar to the rest of Europe and generally involves beer, live music, and in certain establishments, a spot of cage dancing. After a couple of après drinks we’d generally give our hosts a call on the mobile phone they provided us with at the beginning of the week and within minutes we were headed back to our peaceful retreat just down the road, to chill before dinner.
Dinners at the chalet are largely inspired by the local cuisine and are nothing short of superb. They are accompanied by unlimited beer and wine, and there’s also the opportunity to sample the local tipples of rakia and mastika. The option to head back into town after dinner is always there, but it’s also very tempting to curl up in front of the fire.
The team’s day off mid-week provides the perfect opportunity to head into Bansko to sample the evening entertainment. The guys booked us a table at a restaurant in the old town, promising great food and a lively atmosphere, and it certainly didn’t disappoint on either count. Being serenaded by a five piece band, and massive skewers loaded with barbequed meat all seemed to be part of the local dining experience and definitely made for an evening to remember.
Another highlight was a trip to the local hot springs. One of the many advantages of having such attentive hosts with a wealth of local knowledge was the opportunity to experience elements of the ‘real’ Bulgaria that most tourists visiting Bansko don’t get to see. The hot springs were a prime example of this. It was a truly magical spot and we only had to share with a couple of friendly locals who were desperate to tell us all about the local history. The temperature of the water was unbelievable and just the thing to soothe our weary limbs. Lying there in the serene setting beneath the stars, cold beer in hand, was just heaven.
A ski/snowboarding holiday to Bansko with Snomads is so much more than just a cheap alternative to the Alps, although it’s undoubtedly true that you will get a lot more for your money. If you want great riding, superb hospitality and a truly unique experience for a fraction of the price you’d pay to stay in a box in the Alps eating tinned ravioli, then it’s definitely the place to go. And beer tastes so much better when it only costs £1!
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