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Head to Borovets in Bulgaria for a Cheap and Cheerful Skiing Trip
A bar crawl in the ski resort of Borovets is cheaper when compared with the usual big resorts.<< Back to list of articles
Brightly coloured bulbs hang over wooden cabins enticing skiers in from the fading light of Borovets' lower pistes. If this were the French Alps, it would be the time of the skiing day when you must exercise the most caution. Just a few après-ski drinks can swallow your wallet. But before I put hand in pocket, a complimentary glass of home-made rakia (local brandy), served from a cola bottle, appears before me, warming away the frosty nip from outside.
Although Bulgaria shook off communism years ago and joined the European Union in 2007, it still tops the best-buy list for package ski holidays. And it comes into its own beating the ever steaper mountain expenses.
I felt foolish back in Britain, changing just £100 into Bulgarian lev for lunches, hot chocolates, drinks and incidentals for a five-day trip. With glasses of local wine or bottled beer costing less than £2, I could afford to splash the cash.
Seasoned skiers tend to turn up their noses at Bulgaria. But while the country bordering Greece and Turkey has suffered from a lack of snow, this season is promising a repeat of 2012's bumper year.
Nor are its mountains only for beginners. Of its three most popular resorts, only Pamporovo caters solely for first and second-timers. For those not convinced, this season Balkan Holidays has launched short taster breaks to Bansko and Borovets, which cater for good intermediates.
In Bansko, I enjoy hours of fun off-piste, weaving in the untouched powder between bright green pines, their cones opening in the warm sunshine. Bansko has about 70km of nicely varied piste, much above the tree line, but which also leads through the woods and past sandy-coloured cliffs. Lunch on the mountain consisted of soup (£2), a local sausage dish (£4) and sweet baklava (£2).
However, the path to democratic capitalism rarely runs smooth. That morning I found a one-hour queue to the only lift up the mountain at the base of Bansko, while guests at the nearby Kempinski Hotel Grand Arena could line jump. Over après-ski drinks, locals explained that the hotel boss also owns the gondola.
Back to Borovets. Despite its 1980s functionality, older lifts and more limited snowmaking (from snow cannons), for me its 60km of piste had a discrete charm.
Skiers have a choice of three queueless lifts serving its trio of interconnected ski areas: Markudjik, where I skied fresh powder above the tree line; Yastrebets, where I sped through dense woods down the steepest runs, even being allowed to try a giant slalom course; and the gentler snaking trails of Sitnyakovo, which took me back into the village, nestled in the trees.
So, is that immense villa, near where I started our pub crawl, the former Bulgarian king's palace I have read about? No. Maria Undzhieva, area manager for Balkan Holidays – which morphed out of Bulgaria's state-owned tour operator – explains after a few drinks that it was built by the 'potato baron' Konstantin Dimitrov.
Shot dead in Amsterdam in 2003, Dimitrov first worked as a bodyguard at Borovets's landmark Rila Hotel before building a vast smuggling fortune that he claimed came from selling spuds.
Other signs of underworld activity can be found. If you are unwise enough to venture into one of the strip clubs or massage parlours, your wallet will make its own donations.
I had already indulged in two genuine massages at the hotel since despite my best efforts, I was not even halfway through my lev. But with only oligarchs and British holiday-makers like us able to afford such luxuries, it is no wonder some Bulgarians hark back to the 'good old days' of communism.
Maria introduces me to Drago, who runs candlelit walking tours of the forest. Instead, I join him for his lively cross-country skiing tour of the White Plateau the next day and see a new statue of Stalin nearby.
'Oh, does it look like Stalin to you?' he asks, innocently. 'Some youngsters carved that recently but it's meant to be a peasant woodsman.'
After the exertion of cross-country skiing I indulged in another massage, since my wad still feels quite ample. And after five days of living like a king, I leave this divided society with lev still in my wallet – I spent just £90.