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I remember when... I was in Bansko
Updated: 2005-09-29

Travel notes by Eric Jackson, www.manchesteronline.co.uk, October 2004

We've all come across them - those smug people who boast about how they enjoyed holidays in wonderful places before they were spoilt by mass tourism. "Oh yes, Doris and I loved the quaint charms of Benidorm when it was nothing more than a fishing village" or "When we discovered Faliraki, there were just two tavernas, a dozen donkeys and the only entertainment was a single bar playing bouzouki music" are familiar mantras. Sickening, isn't it? But now it's my turn. Bansko, a ski resort in Bulgaria, is quaint, unspoilt, charming, haunting and more.
But you can bet your bottom euro that it won't stay that way for long. Because Bansko has got such scope for development that, 10 years down the line, it could be just like any other homogenised ski resort.



So take this tip: get there as soon as you can. Bansko is barely known even to those people who have skied in Bulgaria. Most of the country's ski tourism is concentrated in the resorts of Pamporovo and Borovets, which are cheap, cheerful and very brash, with the architecture reflecting the old Communist era, but the commercialism embracing the new capitalist ethos.

Secluded
None of that applies to undiscovered Bansko, secluded in its own natural bowl surrounded by high, snow-capped peaks on three sides. When we first arrived on the transfer coach, we thought we were in the largest goods yard in Europe, with railway lines, warehouses, factories and apartment blocks littering the landscape. This, it seemed, was a working town similar to hundreds of others in eastern Europe.

But then you come to the centre, which is like something from a medieval fairytale. It looks like the set from Disney's Beauty And The Beast, with ancient timber properties and windy streets, and the aroma from wood-burning fires filling the air. But, most amazingly, it's just so quiet, with no apres-ski yobs, loud discos or blatant signs of commercialism. All of which would be as relevant as a snowflake on a barbecue if the actual skiing wasn't any good. Luckily, the skiing is fabulous, with great pistes set in the Pirin Mountain national park. There's just one hitch - at the moment - the pistes don't always effectively link up. Come a high wind or ski lift breakdown, and it can be hellish getting from one slope to another. And, in truth, there aren't hundreds of pistes - yet.

On several occasions our ski school, which allowed parents to be in the same class as their children, had to be transported across the mountain by a 30-year-old Russian army truck. But, we were assured, that will be a thing of the past this season, with new lifts making the resort fully integrated. It will have to be, with visitors expected to increase by 50 per cent. They will be accommodated by newer hotels and apartments springing up near the recently-built gondola, but my recommendation would be to stay in the Hotel Pirin. It's bang in the centre of town, next to the main square, and it's a bus-ride away from the gondola, but its proximity to the restaurants and shops outweighs the inconvenient distance from the slopes.

Our room, with the largest double bed I've ever slept in, was better than anything I'd had in an Alpine ski resort, and the spa and pool were clean, luxurious and - most importantly after a day up a cold mountain - very warm. The bar and lounge were equally welcoming. But, as is the case with most Bulgarian hotels, the food is at best OK - decent enough for breakfast, but highly avoidable the rest of the time.

Excellent restaurants

In Bansko, though, there are plenty of excellent restaurants, or mehanas, within easy walking distance, although at first it's tricky to spot them, as they often look like someone's front room, with just a couple of subtle lights in the windows. We visited a different one every night, ranging from good to amazing. The best, tucked down a side street, which you'll never find unless you get good directions from your rep or hotel receptionist, is called Chardaka Lialeu. It served up course after course of specialist Macedonian food, along with a litre of Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon and soft drinks for four of us, and the bill was just £15. In parts of Switzerland that wouldn't even cover the tip.



That value applied to all the mehanas we visited, and often we'd be treated to a Macedonian folk band playing frantically within eardrum-shattering distance. And the waiters still found the presence of British people a novelty.

When one discovered I was a Manchester City fan, he couldn't stop eulogising about Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman, because he supported Liverpool. If only he knew what they were like now.

Unlike Borovets and Pamporovo, Bansko has little in the way of fast food, so no Pizza Hut or McDonald's dumped incongruously amid the medieval beauty. That absence of western ``culture'' was what made this holiday extra special.

However, there was one hideous blot on the idyll. Every day, before ascending the mountain, we'd have a coffee in the otherwise decent modern cafe near the gondola. And every day we'd hear a tape with Roy Chubby Brown and old Yorkshire rockers Smokey singing ``where the **** is Alice?'' As the locals aren't that well up on the English language, we'll give them the benefit of the doubt, but{hellip}

One person who was well acquainted with the language, though, was our ski instructor, Chavdar, who spent his summers working on golf courses in America. He knew how to tell us we were rubbish in many different ways.

Not that he really put us to the test - most of the time he had us tootling down the ultra-easy blue runs or snow roads. That seems to be a pattern in Bulgaria - ski instructors sticking to the mild stuff, especially in beginner or intermediate classes, to avoid injuries to their clients which, we were told, they get penalised for financially.

As it happened, my daughter, Florence, slightly hurt her thumb on the second day, and Chavdar insisted we visited the ski clinic, where the X-ray revealed it was just swelling. The doctor must have wondered why we were smiling so much, considering our daughter's plight, but we couldn't get over the fact that in between reassuring us and taking insurance details, he kept taking drags on his fag.

But that's Bulgaria, and especially Bansko, for you. Unlike any place I've ever been before. Strange but magical.

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