For many people, skiing in Europe means the Alps. It’s where I learnt to ski and I’ve been back again and again. France, Switzerland, Austria and Italy are home to Europe’s best-known ski resorts, but they come with a premium price tag – which only seems to be getting higher. So it’s no surprise skiers are abandoning the usual resorts to their five-star clientele and €10 vin chauds and looking for better value in Eastern European destinations like Slovenia, Romania and Bulgaria. So this year I joined them for a week in Bansko in Bulgaria with eco-chalet company Snomads. Bulgaria might not have the polish of the famous Alpine resorts, but it’s got plenty of charm and some great slopes. But what’s it really like skiing there?
Where can you ski?
Bulgaria has three main ski resorts, plus a few smaller, less-developed ones. Closest to Sofia is Borovets, the country’s oldest ski resort. It’s best for intermediates with pine-forested pistes that could pass for the Alps. The modern town centre is only a 1.5-hour transfer from Sofia so you can easily combine a visit with a city break. An hour further away is Bansko, with a mix of a UNESCO World Heritage-listed historic old town and buzzing nightlife near the gondola. Set in the scenic Pirin National Park, it’s Bulgaria’s most modern resort with fast lifts, the best snow record and longest ski season. Then there’s Pamporovo in the east, a 1.5-hour transfer from Plovdiv. Being more southerly means it gets a lot of sunshine but the pistes are limited so it’s best for beginners. It’s a quieter, more family-friendly resort with some good ski schools.
How cheap is it really?
Skiing’s never going to be a budget holiday, but compared to my previous trips, Bulgaria was a bargain. You can book package holidays but it’s easy to choose your own flights and accommodation to build your own too. Even in the midst of the ski season in late February we picked up easyJet flights from London to Sofia for £33 one way (though you pay extra for bags). Budget airlines Wizz Air and Ryanair also fly into Sofia. Then once you get out there prices are around half to two-thirds of the Alps. Our Snomads chalet cost €334 per person for the week, including transfers, an en-suite room and half-board with local wine.
Take lift passes – a six-day Bankso lift pass costs 272 lev (€140) for adults and 132 lev (€68) for children. Compare that to Morzine in France (which has a similar-sized ski area) where it’s €191 for adults and €143 for children. And six days of ski, pole and boot hire is 150 lev (€77) in Bulgaria, versus €100 in France. As ever you pay a premium for food and drink on the slopes, but the prices in lev were similar to what I’ve paid in euros – so 7 lev (€3.60) instead of €7 for a mulled wine on the slopes, or 5 lev (€2.50) for a small beer. But prices are much lower in town at around 2 lev (€1) for a beer or 30 lev (€15) for a meal with wine.
Is is just for beginners?
It’s true that Bulgaria’s a good place for new skiers (or rusty ones like me). The resorts’ instructors speak good English and lessons are good value. Six half-day adult lessons costs you 209 lev (€107) in Bansko (versus €146 in France) or a two-hour private lesson costs 130 lev (€66) (versus €90). The lower prices mean it’s a good place to try out skiing or boarding – if you decide you don’t like it you haven’t lost much. It’s not all about the beginners though. The slopes are actually pretty diverse, and both Bansko and Borovets have a good mix of blues, reds and a few black runs. The extent of the slopes isn’t huge though so if you’re an advanced skier you might want to look at off-piste or guided ski touring keep you busy.
Are the facilities any good?
Apparently before 2003 you reached the slopes in Bansko in an army minibus. But things have changed a lot since then and the facilities in Bulgaria are as good as anywhere. Bansko especially has had a lot of investment over the last few years as it’s been hosting World Cup races. So there’s a modern eight-seater gondola up to the ski area then fast chairlifts. The other resorts have a few older, slower chairlifts and T-bars but they’re slowly being updated. There are also snowmaking facilities and some floodlit pistes.
Off the slopes there’s a lot of building work going on, some of the roads aren’t the best and resorts aren’t as chocolate-box pretty as some of the Alpine ones. But there’s a good choice of places to eat, drink and stay, from budget apartments (especially in Bansko where it only costs €10,000 to buy one!) to a growing range of affordable five-star hotels like the Kempinski in Bansko or Borovets’ Festa Winter Palace, where you can go luxe for less. But if you want to be looked after (even the idea of doing anything more energetic than sitting, eating and drinking after a day of skiing tires me out) but without spending too much then a chalet’s the way to go. We stayed in Chalet Diana-Ross which also came with a hot tub and sauna to relax in.
What’s the food and drink like?
One of the biggest surprises for me was how good Bulgarian food (and wine) was. It’s a bit like Turkish food with a twist, so think soups served in bread bowls, barbecue skewers and pots of slow-cooked meat and vegetables. There are also good salads, yogurt dips and filo pastries. Organic, seasonal food is a big thing in Bulgaria so the fruit and vegetables burst with flavour. In our chalet everything was organic, fair trade and homemade, from the fresh bread at breakfast to the jams and pickles, and the chai tea made from locally picked herbs. The chalet hosts work with small producers to get the best and freshest produce they can, including organic red, white and rosés wines from a nearby vineyard (which went down a bit too well). We even had fresh organic trout cooked straight out of the lake at a fish farm in the Rila Mountains.
How about the après-ski – is it all stag dos and shots?
I won’t lie, Bulgaria’s bargain beers make it a stag-do favourite (I passed men in tutus and even a full T-Rex costume on the slopes in Bansko). Both Bansko and Borovets are known for their nightlife so you’ll find plenty of bars and clubs. And if you need something to get you going, the local shot of choice is homemade rakia, a type of brandy that burns its way down nicely. If you’re not up for partying till dawn then there are a few quieter places to go out. There are some more relaxed bars and Bansko’s old town is full of mehanas, a kind of cosy traditional tavern where they serve food and sometimes have live music.
So, should I give it a try?
If you’re a first-timer wanting to give skiing a try or a mixed-ability group wanting to ski together, if you want to make the most of your money or are just looking to experience a different culture and try something new, then Bulgaria’s definitely worth a trip. I was pleasantly surprised by the facilities and you can’t beat the value. But if you’re an expert who wants to cover a huge amount of ground or a luxury-lover looking for designer shops and Michelin-starred restaurants, then you might be better off sticking to the Alps.
Have you ever been skiing in Bulgaria?
Many thanks to Snomads for hosting me in Bansko. All views and opinions are, as always, my own.