Bansko, Bulgaria: an underrated location for hurtling down a mountain on two sticks

Bansko, Bulgaria: an underrated location for hurtling down a mountain on two sticks

This will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me: I always have a lot of plans. I’m constantly dreaming up trips I want to take, goals I wanted to set and projects I want to start. Every week I come home bouncing, saying, “I’ve had an idea.”

My head is so busy with potential plans that I have to remember that there are other people whose visions I care about too and that their plans also have to be worked in to the big picture that is my – and their – lives. Jake is obviously the most pressing example. He tends to be pretty relaxed about me driving our travel plans, but as we’ve found our feet travelling as a couple and settled into our jobs (therefore having more means to use), he’s started throwing his own travel plans into the mix. Fortunately for both of us, we’ll go pretty much anywhere, especially if it’s together, so it’s rarely a hard sell from either side.

When Jake said he wanted to take a skiing trip, well over a year ago now, we knew that early 2019 was the closest possible option. It was a great suggestion from him – we love getting out into nature, being active and learning new things. The idea took shape over the course of 2018 and we started to discuss where we wanted to go.

We knew we wanted to ski but we didn’t want to have to mortgage a vital organ to do so, so we unanimously decided to look further afield than the Alps. I’d heard good things about skiing in Bulgaria, plus it was a country I’d never visited before, so I immediately latched on to the idea. It was only after a conversation with flight attendant last November, where he confirmed that the skiing in Bulgaria was great and, crucially, about a third of the price of skiing in the Alps, that we settled on it.

We booked the flights. We found an Airbnb. And then, in early 2019, as we’d put in the plan over a year ago, we arrived in Bansko.

I have been skiing intermittently since I was a child. Some families go stringently every year, but we love the sun too much, so I probably hopped on a pair of skis every four years or so. Jake’s skiing experience was similar, so we hoped that we’d be at a good level to ski together. We both love active trips and mountains (though the fact that there are gondolas and chair lifts to drag you up the mountains is a big plus for me!) and so winter sports are a slam-dunk for us.

We’ve just finished four days of skiing before learning to snowboard tomorrow (our short practise session today has made it clear that there are many falls in my future!) so I thought I’d tell you a little bit about Bansko, to show you that there are viable skiing options away from the Western European hotspots.

We have loved skiing in Bansko! One of my favourite things about the tracks here is how long they are. Many of my childhood skiing memories involve queueing for a very long time to get on a chairlift, before skiing for two minutes only to join the exact same queue. Maybe this is inaccurate, but in Bansko, you spent twenty minutes or so riding to the top and then you can have an interrupted run down the mountain, skiing for ages without needing to stop except to relieve the lactic acid building up in your quads. I love it! It has also been blissfully empty; I don’t know if we’re just lucky or if this is how it always is, but we have barely queued for a lift and the pistes are gloriously clear (make sure to get to the gondola at 7.45 – before the official opening time but when the lift has already been running every day this week – to avoid the hour long queue that has built up by 8.15!).

Jake and I are both good skiers, but not that experienced, so the Bansko runs have been perfect. There are only two black runs – we enjoyed them, though they are short – but lots of long red runs that were perfect for us getting to gather some real speed. There are also a lot of great off-piste options that we skied through numerous times. I had a great time careering through the trees until I crashed into a small tree at the same time as, unbeknownst to me then, Jake had headed off down a hill with no clear route back to the main piste. My phone then died because of the cold. Eventually we found each other again, me having wrestled my way out of the tree by contorting myself so I could pop off my ski with my pole and Jake having had to walk up a hill in deep powder. Oops.

Heading off-piste. A tree just like this, but bigger, managed to send me flying

If you are a really, really good skier, then the Bansko runs probably won’t challenge you that much, though the off-piste options are great. If you are good skier but haven’t skied in a while, then it’s likely a great fit. Four days of skiing was right for us; there aren’t that many runs so any longer might have felt repetitive.

I loved the long runs all the way down the mountain. It feels so good to get your heart pumping and quads burning. We had a couple of lessons at the start of the week and, shockingly, as I focused on the pointers from our excellent instructor I felt myself getting more confident, more in control and faster. Jake and I are also very competitive – and, as we’d hoped, well-matched! – so it was fun semi-racing each other down the slopes. Skiing is a great combination of physical and mental challenge: it takes real physicality to get down the mountain safely but with some speed, combined with the moment when you’re looking down a steep slope, steeling yourself for a potential fall and angling your skis downward anyway.

There were so many moments this week where I stopped and was so grateful for a healthy body that allowed me to do such an active, hard thing, to throw myself down mountains on two sticks and still be able to stand up straight afterwards. Not everyone is able to do things like this, and I may not always be able to, but for as long as I can I’m so happy to have the opportunity to use my body like this.

Bansko is set in the Pirin Mountains and the backdrop is beautiful. I was going to wax poetic about the mountains in this post but I have so many pictures I want to share that I think I’ll save that for another day. Rest assured that the mountains are breathtaking, and every time we got off the highest chairlift I just said “WOW” and whipped out my camera.

Bansko town is a well-equipped ski town, full of restaurants, gear hire places and supermarkets. We have self-catered most of this week so the supermarkets have been crucial. One day I will write a whole blog about the unreasonable love I have for wandering around supermarkets in foreign countries, about how much I think you can learn about somewhere by wandering through their frozen food aisle. It’s not all as to be expected: as we walked up into the main part of town, we passed a fast food shop that was also a bank and have enjoyed how the entrance to the main supermarket is actually inside a large pub.

For the meals we have eaten out, we have loved the grilled meat and amazing soups that we’ve found. I also ate what must be the best Nutella pancake I’ve ever had, bought from a street vendor near the gondola. There are an unreasonable number of shops only selling rose-scented body lotion and far more overt strip clubs than I’d expect to find in any place this size. But it is lively without being crowded, beautiful without being sinfully expensive and characterful without being confusing.

After hitting the runs hard the past few days, I can’t say I’d head back to Bansko to ski – not because it hasn’t been great but because I feel we’ve exhausted the pistes on offer – but for anyone looking for challenging but not impossible skiing, reasonable prices for a skiing trip and an overwhelming selection of grilled meat restaurants, then Bansko may well be the place for you. Happy skiing!

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