Taste the high life at a low cost
Lift the spirits with a ski treat in bargain Bulgaria
Ever been so cold your jacket zip freezes to your chin? Me neither. But it happened to my cousin when he went skiing in Bulgaria. So even though I was expecting the cold when I arrived there, it still hit me like a frosty hammer.
But wrapping up warm, drinking hot chocolate and eating dinner next to an open fire all warm you up enough to make braving the Balkans in winter well worth it.
As well as being cold, Bulgaria has a reputation for being cheap and cheerful, and some parts are. But other areas are luxurious with breathtaking beauty, and I planned to take in both sides during my trip.
During the two-hour journey from Sofia Airport to Bulgaria’s oldest ski resort, Borovets, we drive through suburbs with icicled washing hanging out on lines in temperatures of minus 10, before winding through towering trees and mountains.
We also trundle through the potato capital of Bulgaria, Samokov. Yes, this is a claim to fame. And, making our way up the narrow roads of the mountain, as my knowledge of potato growing grows so does the amount of snow.
Borovets is the place to go if you’re on a tight budget. The skiing is good and the scenery up the mountain is fantastic.
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We stay at the Hotel Rila, at the bottom of one of the main slopes and, for convenience and view from your bedroom, it can’t be rivalled. When it’s that cold at 2,560m it’s fantastic to ski straight in, land on a sofa and get hot chocolate delivered to you.
The rooms are basic, but when you step out on the balcony and see the mountain lit up at night, it’s hard to care. Then the karaoke kicks in.
Our instructor tells us that 80 to 90 per cent of tourists are British, and that explains why Borovets reminds me of Malia on ice, especially when I hear Brian Adams’ Summer Of ‘69 being massacred at the Black Tiger bar.
There are steak bars, Mexican restaurants, cosy pubs with log fires and guys beckoning you inside with two-for-one drinks offers. You can even watch Premier League matches with a beer.
The buildings are all cabins that look like mini Santa’s grottos, with exotic bars dotted between. All lit up, with music playing and warming drinks flowing, it has a cosy charm.
After our night in Zante, sorry, Borovets, we drive two hours to the Rila Monastery in the Rila Mountains.
There are 160 monasteries in Bulgaria, but this one’s the biggest in the Balkan Peninsula, with a museum full of relics, paintings and gifts from people healed there by founder Saint Ivan Rilski – the first Bulgarian hermit (another odd claim to fame).
If the fancy takes you, you can even join the monks living there, with renovated cells available for 25 Lev (�10) a night.
On to Bansko, a ski resort two-and-a-half hours from Sofia and oozing modern class. The Greek border is 50km away and the snow comes early and leaves late.
They claim you can ski from December 1 to the end of April, making the most of 75km of ski runs. It has one of the most difficult race pistes in the world, the Alberto Tomba, and hosted the 2011 Men’s Alpine Skiing World Cup.
Halfway up the mountain is a vast flat level where the ski school meets. Standing in awe, it’s like being at the bottom of a snowy bowl surrounded by towering peaks.
I’m staying at the Lucky Bansko Aparthotel in an apartment which sleeps three, and has a balcony, wood fire, kitchen, living room and beautiful bathroom.
The hotel has 12 varieties of hot chocolate and there’s a piano bar for partygoers, although we were the only ones in there and Ace Of Base songs seemed to be on loop.
As much as I enjoy Nineties Europop, we decide to look for somewhere a bit more traditional to eat, and stumbled upon Dedo Penne, a tiny restaurant with massive personality.
Pans, animal heads and wooden skis hang from the walls, and the waiters wear braces, breeches and little hats. There’s a traditional band, with serious-looking men playing jolly music with clarinets and accordions.
I eat a stew of turkey, pork, beef, rice and cabbage. This is followed by sausage for the table – cooked on an open fire in front of us – and cheese pastries. For dessert, we have what I think are the cheese pastries again, but with cream.
But if you think you get to sit and let your food digest, think again. We’re quickly surrounded by ladies in costume circling the table, clapping, whooping and singing. One by one, guests join until it’s a giant conga.
Next we head to Sandanski, far removed from the ski resorts I’ve been to so far. For one, it never snows there. It’s known as the lungs of Bulgaria because of the fresh mountain air and it’s the sunniest part of the country, close to the Med.
We stay at the Pirin Park spa hotel in the middle of Pirin Mountain. The owners wanted to steer clear of skiing and the popular beach industry and get to the “spirit of Bulgaria”. And a stay there is certainly good for your spirits.
People go to Sandanski for healing with local spring water. Pirin Park’s spa offers conventional massages, but also more extravagant treatments, using plankton, rice, pearls or caviar. There’s an on-site doctor and a hydrotherapy menu.
We’re sharing the hotel with a local football team, there for rejuvenation. And Sandanski’s where Spartacus was born. So if it’s good enough for professional athletes and a warrior, it’s good enough for me.
I have a waterfall massage, which uses cool stones and smells like the ocean, then move on to the sauna, indoor pool, Jacuzzi and VIP room which houses a cold pool with massaging rocks, followed by a bed submerged in bubbling water.
I brave the chilly air to use the 37C outdoor pool and, as the steam rises, any stress I have disappears. It’s not cheap but I’m certainly feeling cheerful.