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. It didn’t turn out anything like I had imagined.
Note: all money is in USD.
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!
Throughout our nine weeks there, we watched the snow repeatedly fall then melt, which made the ski slopes very icy.
Even so, we tried to make the best of it. We woke up to rain on our first day of skiing. 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.
Both of us 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 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 a 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!
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!
We were able to get the half board, so breakfast and dinner were 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. 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.
When 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.
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 was 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.
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 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 an amazing view of them from both the living room and the bedroom at our third apartment and frequently commented on how much we would miss them.
Why I Won’t Ski Bansko Again
When I was researching ski resorts, I was looking for an affordable place 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. Ski rental, including a helmet, is $30 per day. Lodging is also a bargain. We booked an Airbnb for three weeks for less than $900.
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.
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.
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 large 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. 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.
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.
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,
Featured image by Ben White on Unsplash.com
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