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Updated: 28th January 2020
PRODUCED IN PARTNERSHIP WITH SNOMADS.
Hello January, that month of grey weather which seemingly never ends. Where winter days roll on forever, and sunlight appears in fleeting moments. Well, this year, I had a plan to beat all that. I was heading to a new country, Bulgaria, to pick up a new hobby, skiing – and I was pretty pumped. Bansko is one of the most affordable Ski resorts in Europe, and it’s also ideal for all levels, including beginners.
I’ve always fancied the idea of skiing, but have been put off by the high-prices. Scuba Diving is already one of my greatest holiday hobbies, and although it isn’t exactly cheap either, I wasn’t keen to throw in another huge hobby expense to my winter in Europe travel list. Luckily, however, it does seem there are some relatively cheap places to learn to Ski, and Bansko had me convinced to give it a shot.
The great thing about Bansko is the resort caters for all levels. While there are plenty of easy slopes, and a big lesson area near the main restaurants, it also has a couple of blacks and this year played host to the AUDI FIS Woman’s World Cup, so even as a non-Skier I read that as a sign of quality. While there was some natural snowfall during my visit, I was there at the start of the season, and the powder guns were fired up to ensure the pistes were perfect daily.
So how affordable is Bansko? Well, to give you some ideas, Snomads, who I arranged my accommodation with following a kind offer, have private rooms from £200-£400, depending on the time of the season, and also offer their chalets for private hire, which is ideal if you have a group who want to get away together.
But that price doesn’t just include your room for a week, it amazingly also packages up your transfers to/from Sofia airport (though it’s pretty easy getting to Bansko anyway), breakfast daily, six three-course dinners, unlimited wine and beer with dinner, access to the sauna and hot-tub at the Chalet, and daily transfers to/from the first Gondola with your gear.
There are also a load of green initiatives at Snomads which I loved, and Bansko is classed as an ‘eco-Ski resort’ – I’ll go into a bit more detail on Snomads and the accommodation shortly. Still, I think we can all agree those prices are a far cry from the most famous Italian and French resorts and make for a less substantial initial investment for a first-timer like me. It turns out; I wasn’t the only one either. A fair few of my Instagram followers messaged to say they have learned to Ski at Bansko and loved it, and a couple had even stayed with Snomads too!
But what about the other costs, how do they add up? One thing I really appreciated about Bansko was how forgiving it is to first-timers. For example, the Ski lessons didn’t need to be booked in blocks, so you wouldn’t have to commit to say a package in advance. You could decide the night before if you wanted another lesson, thus managing more of your costs. While it did save you a little to book in batch, the price of a two-hour group lesson cost 60LV (about £28).
Snomads handily had gear rental available on-site, so you didn’t need to head out and could get fitted on arrival. Again, they don’t force you to rent for the whole week, and can rent just by the day should you wish, although gear for the full week is only around 150LV (£73) and clothing was also very very cheap if you didn’t want to buy all the gear for the first time like me.
Another thing as a solo traveller I really appreciated about Snomads was although there are single supplement rates listed, they said they very rarely charged them as they enjoy having solo travellers come and stay – always music to my ears.
Other bargains around the old-town and resort at the bottom of the slopes included massages from 50LV (£22) and two-drinks for 5LV at their cheapest, which works out to be about £1.20 for a G&T or mulled wine say. Food is also pretty affordable, especially at lunchtimes, we found an excellent place which did a set menu of three dishes and a glass of wine for 9LV (£4) so to summarise, Bansko is rather wallet-friendly.
But what about the slopes and skiing? I mean, that’s why we are here, right? Well, being a first-timer I don’t think it would take much to impress me, but I travelled to Bansko with my friend Vicky who has skied many times and in many places, and the resort got a huge thumbs up from her too.
To get up the mountain, where the Ski Resort is located, you’ll be dropped off at the Gondola in town by the Snomads crew, or you can walk if you are nearby. The Gondola was quick to get on when I was there, but I have heard at peak times, such as New Year, the queue can get reasonably long as to protect the heritage status of the Pirin National Park, there is only the one main Gondola. The ride up by Gondola takes around 30-minutes, also stopping at a mid-station, although there is also a road taking you up to the top too.
Note, you’ll still need a lift pass when you reach the top to get to the slopes, so if you take a taxi all the way up, it will double your costs. If you are having a day when you don’t fancy skiing, but want to head up, you can get a return ticket for the Gondola at a lower price.
What I appreciated as a newbie, is with my lift pass I could go up all the chairlifts, as to admire the views from the very top, and here in Bansko they let you also come down the chairlifts if you want, so you don’t have to decide between taking on a run you aren’t ready for or missing out altogether.
There are about 14 different pistes in Bansko, consisting of blues, reds and a couple of blacks, and none seemed overly crowded during my January visit. There is also a ski-road of about 7km that leads back into town, so you don’t need to take the Gondola down. At the top of the Gondola is a collection of restaurants and bars, often with entertainment, but be aware the costs are much higher here – a pizza, for example, is about 22LV (£10). On most of the slopes, there are also bars/snack places to stop off at for some mid-aprés Ski!
The Pirin National Park where the ski-resort sits is beautiful, and also a top-rated summer destination for hiking and hunting out magnificent lakes, but throughout the season, which is usually December to April, it’s a true winter wonderland of green pines, snow-covered peaks, and Ski, snowboarding and even snow-shoeing.
I took a couple of group lesson which were great, and you have a choice of early or mid-morning, or afternoon. For those wanting longer group sessions or private lessons, they are easily arranged. There are a few different operators for lessons in Bansko, but on Snomads recommendation I went with SkiMania which they booked for me.
The groups were relatively small, around four people, and split into very defined levels, from complete beginners to those wanting to improve their technical skills. We were all at various different levels in the lodge and while Vicky took a more advanced class to improve her skills, another fellow beginner staying with us doing runs and coming down the ski-road by day three.
I wasn’t as naturally good at skiing, and although I loved being up in the mountains and the snow, I only ended up Skiing for the first few days of the trip thanks to a leg injury, but that luckily isn’t a problem given there is plenty more to enjoy in and around Bansko.
Bansko old town is about a 20-minute walk from the Gondola, and even less from Snomads, and is a welcome contrast to the apes Ski bars and busy atmosphere of the newer resort part.
Cobbled streets and traditional restaurants line the little streets here, punctured by the occasional house museum and a beautiful Eastern Orthodox church, although photos inside most churches in Bulgaria are banned. You get some smashing views of the mountains here when the mist lifts by late morning, and can easily spend a half or full-day wandering around the small area and discovering each little corner.
Up towards the Gondola, where the newer part of the resort is there are plenty of restaurants, bars and rental shops, but also a bowling alley, ice-skating rink, and the odd karaoke bar and club – all of which I tried and tested on a particularly Rakia heavy night. Speaking of Rakia, they have a vast homemade vat of the stuff at Snomads which you can enjoy freely!
It was my first time staying in a Chalet, and I really enjoyed it. Chalet Diana Ross, where we called home, had little disco touches to it, and Snomads have a few other lodges in Bansko. Accommodating up to 24 guests if every bed is full, I was a bit worried it might be really hectic, but the week I stayed there were only five of us. I think it is rare it would ever be full, as that would mean every room and bed was taken, and between solo travellers etc., it’s likely not that often – though, to be fair, there is certainly enough space.
The bedrooms were spacious with en-suites, basic but comfy and private. There were a couple of different lounge areas, one at the reception and dining area where little homemade snacks would be waiting for us to get back from the slopes, or mulled wine on day one. Downstairs, next to the sauna was another lounge area, with loads of board games and a Nintendo 64, the hot tub sits outside next to the rental gear shop, and provides welcome relief after a day locked in Ski boots.
The staff at the Chalet were super friendly, and as it was one of the quietest weeks of the year we were spoilt with lots of attention from the whole Snomads team, not just those at Chalet Diana Ross. Being in the EU, there were a fair few native Brit staff here, but for visitors from outside Europe, note Bulgaria is not in Schengen, so for serious travellers that have burnt through their Schengen visa allowance, Bulgaria is a great alternative.
Local Tony, a Bulgarian master of serving great wines and making anything you could want arranging to happen, was nearly always on hand for questions and to help, and my only gripe with Snomads, is it would have been nice to have a couple more local staff perhaps. The hosts were so lovely and became more like friends by the end of the trip, but being in a Chalet with the meals served, it would have made for a chance to interact with a few more Bulgarian locals easier.
Two things Snomads really shine at though are their eco-credentials and their food.
With the aim of being carbon-neutral, including setting off all guests flights, the team get hands-on at the end of each season and personally plant in a designated area the number of trees they need to to set off the carbon footprint. They also have dedicated recycling bins around the property, not so common in Bulgaria I noted, and a ‘toothbrush amnesty’ to trade your plastic one in for bamboo.
The staff were always up to something with a green focus, whether it was making eco-bricks from the non-recyclable plastics, to picking up local beeswax to make kitchen wrap – there was a commitment here from all the staff, and certainly no greenwashing going on.
Drinks in the Chalet could be picked up from the Honesty Bar, where you grabbed what you wanted and noted it in a book. Craft beers were independent and locally sourced, and wine was organic and local too, while with meals, drinks were included. Breakfast always offered up a cooked and buffet options, while the evening meals provided a chance to catch up with everyone after a day on the slope, and indeed a feast.
Three-course meals came out of the kitchen every evening, and the team easily catered to Vegetarians and Vegans, another bonus as the Balkans aren’t famed for their plethora of plant-based dishes. There is a real focus on using only local and market produce, so fish, for example, was ordered in the morning and picked up, and the menu’s were a mix of local and international dishes. Tell these guys any dietary requirements before you arrive, and they will have you covered.
Currently, Snomads season is from December until April, and they are soon to be launching cultural and culinary tours in the summer too – which can be arranged by booking through the website. It’s also worth noting the internet in Bulgaria is seriously good, and thus Bansko has become quite the digital nomad hotspot.
What else to do in and around Bansko?
Situated in the snowy mountains of the central part of the country, Bansko is actually not in a bad place to take side-trips from to see more of Bulgaria, although you will need a car or to hire a driver to do so, especially if you plan to visit Plovdiv as the train is rather slow. Here are a few suggestions to add ons and side-trips to your Bansko visit.
Relax in the Hot Springs
One thing I had no clue about, Bulgaria is home to the second-largest number of hot springs in Europe after Iceland, and in the next village along of Banya, there are plenty. One afternoon we arranged with the Snomads crew a group trip there, where alongside the bar and hot-springs massages were also available. The cost of transport, entrance and drink was 40LV (£19) and the same again for a message.
Day trip to Rila Monastery
Perhaps the most popular attraction in Bulgaria is Rila Monastery – often a day trip from Sofia, but being in the snowy mountains, actually quicker to reach from Bansko. At its peak, over 200 monks would have lived in the 199 bedrooms here, although now only about ten reside.
Inscribed onto the UNESCO world heritage list, the monastery dates back to the 10th century, although it’s been attacked and destroyed over the years, most notably by the fire of the Ottomans, it’s always been rebuilt. Parts of it are off-limits to day-trippers, although there is a chance to spend the night staying in one of the basic and traditional rooms for the monks, which I reckon would have been pretty damn cool to do. Alternatively, you can ask Tony or someone at the lodge to arrange a tour or driver for you, if you don’t want to hire a car.
It’s also worth noting there are plenty of small wine towns you can visit in the mountains, with Melnik likely the most famous and visually stunning, but sadly I didn’t have the time.
Take the slow train to Plovdiv
Highly recommended is, if time allows, you add on a visit to Plovdiv after your trip, the second city of Bulgaria and one of Europe’s Capitals of Culture for 2019. This gorgeous old town is packed with history, architecture and good vibes, and I really enjoyed it, even more so than Bulgaria. A night or two will allow you to see the mains sights, and if you are feeling brave, you can forego the pricy transfer for the nearly five-hour slow train through the mountains.
Start or end in Sofia
Transfers from Sofia Airport were included with Snomads, but try to add a night on before or after your trip to soak up a sample of the countries Capital. I didn’t give myself much time here at all, as i’ve never heard glowing reviews, but Sofia is a pretty cool city, with a fair bit to see, and much more photogenic than some people had made out.
Luckily, all the main attractions are pretty close by, so if even if you just have an afternoon at the end of your trip, you can still see a few places.
However you decide to spend your time skiing in Bulgaria, you can rest assured that not only is it some of the most affordable skiing in Europe, you have plenty of options off the slopes to explore and keep you entertained too!