Oh, The Dreams
I could picture it so well. The crisp air, the snow-covered pines, the stillness of a landscape blanketed in white. Days spent swooshing down the mountain until exhaustion set in. Nights snuggled up in a cozy apartment watching the snow gently falling outside.
After living in Florida for thirty years I couldn’t wait to spend some time in a winter wonderland. After some research, I found the ski town of Bansko, Bulgaria. Three weeks of skiing there would cost about the same as five days at a U.S. or Canadian ski resort.
We made plans to head there in early January 2020 as the first stop in our third year of full-time travel.
Reality Rears Its Ugly Head
When we arrived in Bansko the winter wonderland was woefully absent. The daily highs in town were in the forties and not a flake of snow or ice could be found. The mountainside ski slopes fared a little better, but not much. Damn you, global warming!
Throughout our nine weeks there we watched the weather freeze and thaw repeatedly which made the ski slopes very icy.
Even so, we tried to make the best of it. On our first day of skiing, we woke up to rain. The folks at the ski shop assured us that it was not raining on the mountain and they were right. There was a very welcome light snow all day.
Over the first several days we each had a lesson and a chance to ski on our own. Then we made plans to put our rejuvenated skills to the test by taking a long but easy run together.
A Turn For the Worst
After Steve and I each had a separate lesson we decided to head down a long, easy run. We weren’t more than ten minutes into it when I started down a steeper part only to be sliding on ice.
With repeated reminders to myself to snowplow, lean forward, and remain calm I made it down that part. I stopped to wait for Steve but did not see him.
After a little while, I figured he either passed me and I didn’t see him or he was taking his time and would catch up.
When I reached the town at the bottom of the run he was nowhere to be seen. After some hunting, I found him in the doctor’s office with a fractured pelvis!
This diagnosis meant he would be hospitalized for about a week then require complete bed rest for two more weeks.
After being checked out by the doctor at the ski resort Steve was transported by ambulance to the nearby town of Razlog where he ended up spending nine days. You can read about that less than ideal experience in Hospitalized in Bulgaria!
He still needed to be flat for two more weeks then slowly become mobile over two more weeks. We had to leave our Airbnb and I had to find a place that would allow him to be brought in by paramedics.
A Great Place to Recuperate
That was no easy task because virtually every apartment and hotel has stairs or elevators that were too small to bring him in. It took three days but I finally found a place about 10 miles from Bansko at the Redenka Holiday Club. They had the perfect first-floor one-bedroom apartment.
We stayed there for four weeks. It is in the country (my taxi was held up by a herd of cattle crossing the road one night). I chose it for the accessibility, but it has a spa, indoor pool and hot tub, and a fitness room. Oh darn!
We were able to get the half board, so breakfast and dinner are included. Whoopee, no cooking or dishes!
The staff was friendly and helpful and always asked about Steve. I joked that he was a celebrity even before anyone had met him.
We appreciate all the help the staff gave us and are honored to have left there with several new friends.
Even when things don’t go as planned, there is always something interesting or beautiful to see.
I left the hospital to go to the Telenor store to top up Steve’s SIM card. It was a short walk, and up until then I had only seen the seamier side of Razlog.
On my way back I came across this charming scene in a small park.
As I returned to the hospital the road was filled with people in native dress and furry costumes. They were having a grand old time dancing and banging their drums.
A little research told me this is a Kukeri festival. It occurs between New Year’s Day and Lent. Its purpose is to drive away evil spirits and provide a good harvest, health, and happiness during the coming year.
Why anyone thought it was a good idea to hold it in front of a hospital is beyond me.
By the way, I didn’t get the SIM card. The store was closed even though Google said it would be open.
We made several friends during this time including this four-legged sweetheart.
Bansko is a dog that hangs out at Redenka but knows better than to enter the buildings. I thought Bansko was a girl. One morning I was telling her what a good girl she is when a guy came by and said: “it’s a boy and he doesn’t understand English”. What ?!?!
No matter what language he understands he is well-loved and well-fed by the staff and guests at Redenka.
In a case of serendipity, I met a physiotherapist one morning at breakfast when I uncharacteristically struck up a conversation with him by asking if he spoke English. It turned out the Dimitar not only spoke English very well but was incredibly helpful with hints while Steve was still bedridden and worked with Steve once he was up and about.
While Steve was in the hospital a young woman who was also a patient struck up a conversation with me. Aleksandra is a student in Bulgaria and a thoughtful and delightful young lady. After Steve became mobile we enjoyed a delicious dinner with her.
And last, but certainly not least, we were privileged to get to know Anna and Tommy Orhan at Succuk Burger House and Cafe. The food is excellent, but the service is what kept us coming back. These two, along with the rest of their family, really care about their customers.
Seeing the Sights
Bansko is a small town ski town (pop. 8,600) so attractions are somewhat limited. However, beauty is everywhere as I discovered on a Sunday morning outing.
A visit to the Neofit Rilski House Museum not only taught me about this Bulgarian renaissance man. He was a monk, an artist, a translator, and a teacher. He was also the founder of Bulgarian secular education.
The best sight by far in Bansko is the Pirin mountains that surround the town. It seems that wherever you go you can see them.
We had a great view of them in from our third apartment and frequently commented on how much we were going to miss them.
Why I Won’t Ski Bansko Again
When I researching a place to ski for several weeks in January I wanted a place that was affordable and where you don’t need a car. Bansko was one of those places.
The town is compact. You can walk practically anywhere, and taxis are readily available. You also can’t bet the cost. A daily lift ticket is $38 USD and ski rental including a helmet is $30 USD per day. Lodging is also a bargain. We booked an Airbnb for three weeks for less than $900 USD.
Unfortunately, there was so much I didn’t know about skiing here. While the infrastructure is good with well-groomed runs and modern lifts, I found several negative things about it.
As a disclaimer, all my skiing previously had been on the east coast of the U.S. on very small mountains. It may be that what I found in Bansko is common in Europe. Either way these are the things that made the experience less than ideal:
You have to take a twenty-minute gondola ride up the mountain to get to the ski resort. The gondola itself is not bad, but getting to it is a hassle. Not only are the lines often very long, but you have to go up a long set of stairs to get to the loading area. Not easy to do in ski boots.
The line works well until you get towards the top of the stairs and try to get into a gondola car. At this point it becomes a contact sport, everyone for himself.
The rudeness continues at the entrances to the lifts. There are no lines, only surging crowds.
The other thing I found odd was that the entrances to the lifts were raised up so everyone was trying to move up and into a slot while being pushed and crowded.
I also did not see any information on ski conditions. The only way to see the conditions is to go up the mountain. One day I went up and between the ice and the huge number of inexperienced skiers on the slopes, I felt unsafe and cut it short.
Bansko is very popular with new skiers from Europe and the U.K. partly because of the low cost. That also means that the slopes get very crowded.
As Steve’s accident showed, there was no warning of dangerous conditions and runs were kept open even when they had significant icy patches.
The last thing that was frustrating was how lift passes were handled. The company I rented from only sold you a pass if you booked two or more consecutive days with them. I was told to buy one at the bottom of the gondola station.
The gondola starts running at 8:30 a.m. and on a busy day the line is already quite long. But the ticket booth doesn’t open until 8:30, so you stand there watching the line to the gondola getting longer by the minute while waiting to get a lift ticket.
But that isn’t inefficient enough. A sign clearly says they accept VISA so I chose to pay that way. The clerk rang up my purchase and I paid. Then she asked if I had 5 leva in cash for the deposit on the lift card. I did, but it was tucked away in my money belt so she rang up a separate charge. All while the line to get the lift ticket was growing and growing. Why they don’t charge it all at once is totally beyond me.
Our trip to Bansko did not turn out anything like we anticipated but even so, we left with many warm memories. As we often find, it is the people we meet as we travel that have the greatest impact on us. Hopefully, the feeling is mutual.
Steve has skied his last slope. I, however, intend to try again next winter. I welcome any suggestions about great ski resorts that don’t require you to have a car.
Our next stop is Budapest, Hungary. The coronavirus is already wreaking havoc in parts of the world and we expect some stumbling blocks because of it.
Stay safe and healthy,
Featured image by Ben White on Unsplash