Bansko, Bulgaria: Not the Trip We Bargained For

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 nor patch of ice could be found. The mountainside ski slopes fared a little better, but not much. Damn you, global warming!

Gondolas and melting snow
Receding snow at the bottom of the mountain

Throughout our nine weeks there we watched the weather freeze and thaw repeatedly which made the ski slopes very icy.

Woman walking through the snow in Bansko
Each snowfall raised my hopes, only to have them dashed when it melted.

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 to refresh our skills 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

We weren’t more than ten minutes into it when I hit a steep icy section and found myself sliding quickly down the mountain. 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 missed 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 hospital in the nearby town of Razlog. He ended up spending nine days there. You can read about that less than ideal experience in Hospitalized in Bulgaria!

Steve hospitalized in Bulgaria
The day Steve left the hospital. I was amazed by his positive attitude in spite of the pain and the less-than-ideal hospital experience.
A Great Place to Recuperate

Since Steve would need to be transferred to our apartment lying flat we had to leave our Airbnb and I had to find a place that would allow him to be brought in by paramedics.

That was no easy task because virtually every apartment and hotel had either stairs or an elevator that was too small for the stretcher. 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), but it has a spa, indoor pool and hot tub, and a fitness room. Oh darn!

Indoor pool and spa at Redenka Holiday Club
The indoor pool and spa at the Redenka Holiday Club; not a bad place to spend four weeks.

We were able to get the half board, so breakfast and dinner are included. Whoopee, no cooking or dishes!

Photo of a salad
This was just the first course of dinner.

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.

Unexpected Delights

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.

Man and woman statue in lake
A little greenery in the winter landscape

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.

People dancing in furry costumes
A Kukeri celebration

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.

Making Friends

We made several friends during this time including this four-legged sweetheart.

Dog bowing in play
Bansko loves to greet the folks who visit the Redenka Holiday Club

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 also incredibly helpful with advice while Steve was still bedridden. He also 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.

Steve, Linda, And Aleksandra at dinner.
Steve, Aleksandra, and me at dinner.

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.

Four people in a restaurant
Enjoying our last visit with Anna and Tommy
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.

Bulgarian girls dancing in Bnasko
A Sunday morning show for charity

A visit to the Neofit Rilski House Museum 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.

Room in an eighteenth century house
One of many comfortable looking rooms in the Neofit Rilski house
Kitchen in an eighteenth century home
The bread baking room

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.

Ski mountain in Bansko
Ski mountain teasing us with her inadequate snowfall

We had an amazing view of them from both the living room and the bedroom at our third apartment and frequently commented on how much we were going to miss them.

Clouds in the Pirin Mountains
The view from our balcony
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 beat 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 there. While the infrastructure is good with well-groomed runs and modern lifts, I found several negative things about it.

As a disclaimer, all my previous skiing 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 by that time. 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.

Moving On

Our trip to Bansko did not turn out as 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.

Trip Details

Dates: January 9 – Mach 12, 2020

Number of days: 63

Travel costs: $8,800

Travel cost per day: $140

Addition costs (medical): $1,600

Total spent: $10,400

Stay safe and healthy,
Linda

Featured image by Ben White on Unsplash

Hospitalized in Bulgaria!

In January of 2020, Steve broke his pelvis while skiing and had to be hospitalized in Bulgaria. It was a painful, frustrating, disappointing, and eye-opening experience.

Our Take On Bulgaria

Before I get into the details I must say this:

Bansko was the fifth city or town we have visited in Bulgaria. In 2018 we enjoyed the capital of Sofia, the second-largest city, Plovdiv, and the smaller towns of Byala and Varna.

All of our experiences in Bulgaria until Steve’s hospitalization have been positive. The people are warm and welcoming, the accommodations and restaurants are clean, and the food is delicious. Many people speak English which we never expect but always appreciate.

That is why our experience in the hospital was a shock.

Bansko ski chalet
The beautiful scene as we headed off to ski
The Doctor At The Base of The Mountain

As Steve and I were waiting in line to get on the gondola to go up the mountain I noticed a door at the end of a hall. The sign on it said Doctor.

Little did I know that just a few hours later I would be walking through that door to see if Steve was in there after we got separated while skiing and I couldn’t find him anywhere else.

He was lying on the examination table after having x-rays. We were told he had fractured his pelvis.

We were very happy with the care here. The doctor and staff spoke English and explained everything that was going on. They took three x-rays for a cost of $118 USD. Everything else up to this point was covered by the mountain insurance we had as part of our ski rental package.

Given the professionalism of this office, we didn’t balk when the doctor suggested Steve be transported to the hospital in the next town, which is Razlog.

Things Take a Downward Turn

Razlog is a town of 13,000 people about 4 miles (6.2 km) from Bansko. Bankso’s population is 8,600.

When Steve arrived at the hospital he was taken to the emergency department. The area was very run down with tiles missing from the ceiling, holes in the sheets, and what looked like a piece of linoleum laid across the foot of each bed.

It took quite a while for the doctor to be located and for Steve to be registered.

Sunset over mountains in Razlog
The view outside the hospital was much better than inside.

He had been put on a stretcher board to keep his hips immobilized while being transported. He had to lie on this board for several hours after he arrived at the hospital before he was put in a bed. All this time he did not receive any pain medication.

In addition, he was slipping to one side badly enough that I feared he would fall so I stood alongside the stretcher pressing into his side to keep him from falling. No one seemed to care that he was incredibly uncomfortable.

When it finally came time for Steve to be put in a bed there were only two men to do it. It ended up being quite painful for him as he was basically dropped onto the bed.

Things Aren’t Much Better Here

Luckily the floor Steve was transported to from the emergency department was in better shape, though far from what we expect in a hospital.

Even though many people we met in Bansko spoke English, most of the hospital staff did not. Fortunately, the doctor was training his son to be a general surgeon (the son was already a cardiologist) and the son spoke English so he became our translator.

The only time we were able to get information about Steve’s condition was the few minutes every morning when the doctors came in. The nursing staff was not the least bit helpful and seemed impatient when we stopped them and used Google Translate to ask questions.

This was particularly frustrating because they were not very busy. There were only a few patients on the floor and often when I went looking for help several nurses would be eating, chatting, and watching TV in the break room. Yet they never made any effort to do more than the basics.

I was shocked that patients in the hospital were kept in their own clothes. Unless they change their clothes themselves or have a family member help they are left in the same clothes day after day.

Patients and their families were also on their own for basic care like washing, brushing teeth, and tending to more personal needs.

I fear for anyone who should find himself in this hospital without someone to help him.

I realized that the only way to get the nurses on our side was to kill them with kindness. It worked with some of them but not all.

Lie Still and Carry a Big Stick

I walked into Steve’s room on his second day there and he proudly showed me his newest possession. A long piece of PVC pipe.

Unlike U.S. hospitals where the patient is tethered to multiple machines, the only thing Steve had was an I.V. He was lying in bed the first night watching the fluid in the I.V. bag getting too close to the end. He wanted to alert a nurse, but the call button was on the wall a few feet away from his bed. Fearing an air bubble entering his bloodstream he took the I.V. bag off the stand and hit the call button with it thereby summoning a nurse.

After this, he got a pole so he could reach the button. You can see it in the first photo. That pole came in handy for many things. I am still amazed that someone was able to get the pole for him.

Appalling Hygiene

Most shocking to us was the lack of hygiene. Steve was in a room with three beds, but until the last few days, he was the only patient. The room didn’t have its own bathroom, but it did have a sink. However, there wasn’t any soap or towels so I brought some from home.

There were three restrooms on the floor. The women’s room did not have toilet paper or soap. The second one was not marked male or female and surprisingly it had soap. But it was still BYOTP (bring your own toilet paper). I didn’t check the men’s room.

Then there was the food. Breakfast consisted of two slices of bread with a large blob of butter but nothing to spread the butter with. It sometimes came with a hard-boiled egg or some cheese.

Plate with bread, butter, and an egg
Breakfast time

Lunch was soup and bread, but no spoon to eat the soup with. And even if he had a spoon Steve would not have been able to eat it since he was lying flat and could not sit up.

Even worse than the lack of utensils or care about being able to eat was the fact that the bread that came with the soup was not on a plate, it was carried in by hand and set on the bedside table.

Dinner was, you guessed it, more bread, this time with cheese, both wrapped in a plastic bag.

At one point Steve watched a nurse drop a piece of his bread on the floor and return it to the table

Needless to say, he did not eat the food they provided. What little he ate during his stay was all brought from home.

There’s Always Something Positive

While dealing with the hospital situation was unpleasant, there were good things as a result.

Children performing a Kukeri ceremony in Razlog, Bulgaria
I just happened upon this Kukeri on my way back to the hospital

While in the hospital I met a lovely young woman named Aleksandra from Razlog who had recently had surgery. She is a university student who wishes to visit the U.S. someday. We will stay in touch through Facebook.

I also got to meet Anna and her family at Succuk Burger House and Cafe in Bansko where I enjoyed the cheeseburgers and fries way too much. They were so gracious in helping me with taxis and even arranging a ride to the hospital one day. If you are ever in Bansko make sure to visit Succuk Burger House and Cafe and meet these wonderful people.

Our luck with people continued once we settled into our new apartment. I struck up a conversation with Dimitar at breakfast one morning and it turns out he is a physiotherapist. He has already offered several helpful suggestions.

For the life of me, I don’t understand why the hospital personnel are lacking in the friendliness and hospitality the most everyone else around here has in abundance.

A Goodbye Argument

Release day finally arrived. We knew Steve would be transferred by ambulance to the apartment where he would be recuperating. We requested four people to help because he is a large man and we didn’t want a repeat of the fiasco that occurred when he was transferred into the bed.

Around lunchtime, two men arrived with a stretcher. We were surprised that they did not have the stretcher board to keep his hips immobilized while they lifted him. We really don’t know how they intended to move him from the bed to the stretcher without causing pain or aggravating his injury.

We used Google Translate to let the paramedics know that we were expecting four people and we wanted Steve on a stretcher board. This request led to a ten-minute discussion with four paramedics and two nurses all talking at once.

After getting everyone to quiet down we said Steve was not leaving unless he was on a board. They finally brought a board in and we were on our way.

Thankfully the ride was only about eight minutes long. Not only was Steve not strapped to the stretcher, but the stretcher was also not locked down in the ambulance.

You Get What You Pay For

You know the old saying “you get what you pay for” meaning if something is inexpensive you can’t expect much. This has not been true for anything we bought in Bulgaria except for the hospital care.

We had no frame of reference as to what a nine-day stay would cost. I was pleasantly surprised when I paid the bill. It included the ambulance ride to the hospital, nine days of “care” including X-rays, two ultrasounds, and medications and the ambulance ride home from the hospital. The cost for all of this was just under $2,000 USD!

We do not carry a medical travel policy because in most cases medical care outside of the U.S. is very affordable by our standards. We do however have evacuation insurance through Medjet to get us back to the U.S. in case of a serious accident or injury.

We didn’t expect much when we submitted a claim to our U.S. medical insurance company since our treatment was out-of-network. We were delighted to receive a check from them for $1,800 USD, leaving our out-of-pocket hospital and doctor costs at $300.

What Could We Have Done Differently?

I have read several accounts of U.S. citizens’ experiences with medical care while traveling abroad. They were all positive, but none of them had taken place in a small town in Bulgaria.

Once we saw the situation at the hospital I asked Steve if he wanted to be transported to Sofia on the assumption that the hospitals in the capital would be superior to this one. He was adamant that he did not want to be moved because he was in so much pain.

Looking back, I wish that I had asked the doctor what the different options were and where he would send one of his family members.

So the only other thing we could have done differently would have been to not ski in this area. I doubt that any warning about the lack of quality medical care would have deterred us. No one expects to get hurt.

Our travels have taken us to some off the beaten path places and will no doubt continue to do so. In order to keep exploring we have to believe that things will work out for the best.

All’s Well That Ends Well

It was a challenge to find a place to stay for four weeks while Steve recuperated. We needed somewhere that would allow him to be brought in on a stretcher and placed in bed. I spent several days looking online, sending emails, and visiting hotels before I found a suitable place two days before he was due to be released.

We ended up at the Redenka Holiday Club about 6 miles (or 10 km) from the center of Bansko.  Luckily they weren’t particularly busy and had some first-floor apartments available.

The staff is helpful and accommodating. Steve has become a minor celebrity without having ever left our apartment.

Our four-week stay includes not only the apartment but also breakfast and dinner every day for about $2,000 USD. There is also a gym, indoor pool with jacuzzi, and a spa. Hopefully, Steve will have a chance to enjoy them like I have been doing.

Indoor pool and spa at Redenka Holiday Club
The indoor pool and spa at the Redenka Holiday Club; not a bad place to be detained

As of this writing, Steve is recuperating well. He has been improving every day and has just been able to be upright with crutches for a short period of time. We are thankful that he left the hospital without becoming sick.

His spirits have remained high and he is looking forward to seeing something besides the ceiling.

Happy (and safe) traveling,
Linda