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Ski Holidays: Bulgaria is Snow Cheap
By Victoria Ward<< Back to list of articles
The Daily Mirror
"You'll be up there by the end of the week," my instructor said as I squinted toward the mountain's highest peak, jutting through the top of the clouds.
Pfft. I sincerely doubted it. Having only ever been skiing once - on a school trip aged 14 - I was going to stay firmly on the beginners' slopes, and even they filled me with fear.
I had visions of air ambulances, helicopters and calling the office to say I had broken my leg.
As I shuffled into line with my fellow amateurs, I pulled my helmet down and gritted my teeth.
I have to confess I was a little unsure about skiing in Bulgaria. If it was that good, why did my skiing and snowboardin obsessed pals always go to France, Austria or the US? Now I can only assume it's because they simply don't know any better.
The resort of Bansko is a threehour drive from Sofia airport. Nestled at the foot of the Pirin Mountains, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is basically a huge winter sports playground.
It boasts a total ski run length of 40 miles, covering 14 pistes, and a five-month long season.
Huge sums of money have been pumped into the place, and the resort is now something of a hidden gem.
We arrived at the Strazhite Hotel late in the evening, tired and weighed down with a hefty load of sportswear.
With absolutely no idea what to expect, we were pleasantly surprised to walk into a spacious, modern hotel with a burning fire in one corner and a bar in the other.
We were shown to our room and told to be at the pub opposite the gondola at 8.30am. 8.30am? Definitely not my usual kind of holiday.
Still, we ventured outside and found a lovely little taverna selling great pizza. We easily managed to forget the early start the next day with a delicious bottle of Bulgarian red.
Feeling slightly hungover on getting up, we were relieved to find that the hotel was really close to the ski lift station.
We trudged up a hill for a few minutes, filled out some forms and were introduced to the team of instructors whose hands our lives would be in for the next week. After being fitted for skis, it was off to the lift.
A 20-minute journey over snow-capped fir trees later, we arrived at the top of the mountain, which comes complete with its own restaurants, a bar and a shop.
Tentatively skidding off the lift and on to the bright, white hills of Bansko, I took a deep breath.
How clean and fresh it was - a million miles away London's smoggy, trafficclogged streets.
We started with two hours of lessons in the morning and another two in the afternoon. My boyfriend, a fantastic snowboarder, agreed to try skiing so we could spend time together. Things didn't go as well as I'd hoped. Our valiant instructor Petar spent the first lesson watching me fall flat on my face over and over again - and I hadn't even reached the tiniest of hills yet, never mind a mountain.
By lunchtime we were ready for some soup or a slice of pizza - a bargain at £5, especially when compared to the extortionate prices at some of the more established ski resorts in Europe.
With some basic lessons in the bag, we headed for the drag lifts, soon following Petar in a gentle slalom.
Still spending as much time lying in the snow as standing on it, I was relieved to have shelled out on some quality kit.
On the second day we were told it was time to try the five-mile "ski road" that winds back into Bansko.
Goggles pulled firmly over my eyes, I finally started to feel like a real skier. But my new-found confidence disappeared when Bulgaria's junior ski team (with an average age of about 20) came racing down the slope in immaculate single file.
My inflated sense of my own ability took an even bigger hit when I led my group down what seemed like a vertical drop.
The only way to recover was with a spa session and some hot wine - so I was glad that Bansko has plenty of cheap little restaurants and pubs.
The food is by no means five-star but if you're happy with a beer and a plate of pasta, there is little to complain about.
There are plenty of mehanas (traditional bar or restaurant), serving local tapas, a couple of good Italian restaurants and plenty of tavernas with great value food and live music.
As was the case on most nights, we took our aching limbs to the hotel spa. And with a 7.30am start, we were asleep by 10pm.
I did much better the second day. Soon I was on one chairlift and then another.
It began to feel like the wide, open runs were all ours as we swished down the mountainside in single file, faster and faster.
"Lean into the hill! Up! Down! Twist! Bend your knees!" Petar yelled. "Why you fall?" And by the final day, as predicted, we were taking the chairlift to the mountain's 8,500ft peak.
Amazing as it felt standing there above the clouds, I was eager to set off. We sashayed down the slope together, swerving around moguls, practising our parallel turns, zipping in and out of trees.
Bansko might not make it into the world's top 10 ski resorts, but that's even more reason to get there - before the crowds descend as word gets out.
The snow quality was excellent - just as good as any top Alpine resort. The runs suit all levels, and there's plenty of off-piste action for thrill-seekers.
Bulgaria is not as glamorous as some skiing destinations but it's hard to complain when a pint costs little more than £1. The fact that no one is checking you out for the latest designer gear makes it relaxed and easy going. Plenty of lessons for kids means it's also family friendly. And its mix of Brits, Russians and Eastern Europeans means it has a real cosmopolitan feel.
We took it easy with saunas, and early nights, but there are plenty of pubs that stay open until 6am. Just remember you will probably have an early start the next morning.
Time zone: GMT +2hrs
Currency: Leva £1 = 2.29
Best time to go: Bargain all season Bargain all season
A seven-night break to Bansko, staying at the four star Hotel Strazhite on a half-board basis, costs from around £366 per person, based on two adults sharing a twin room. Price includes flights from Gatwick, accommodation and transfers as well as supplements. This includes an online booking discount. Other flight routes are available at an additional cost.