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Breaking Bansko | Can A Bulgarian Resort Save The Annual Ski Trip From Extinction?

With young people getting priced out of regular ski holidays, we went looking for a solution

I’m standing by a white door in Sofia Airport. I’ve been standing by this white door, in Sofia Airport, for so long now that I’m beginning to miss my old life; a life that didn’t revolve around me standing by a white door. I keep trying to remember a time before this door was my world and everything in it, but my mind repeatedly goes as blank as its snow-coloured paint.

“Maybe you should go and talk to them,” says Mike (aka Brindo), snapping me out of my staring contest with the white portal that refuses to give me what I want. I nod my head, and walk in the direction of the sullen Bulgarian man at his desk; a man with eyebrows so thick and dark that I’m convinced you could fall into them and never be seen again.

“Your bags… not here. They are at Heathrow”

“Err… hi I was just wonderi-”

“I tell you this already. Belt Four. By white door,” comes the reply before I can get my words out.

“But you said that before. And the time before that.”

The eyebrows with the mouth hesitates.

“Go there,” he says, pointing at a desk about six yards to his right, “Talk to her.”

After a few minutes of talking with ‘Her”, I hear the line I’d been dreading.

“Your bags… not here. They are at Heathrow.”

If you like stray dogs, you’ll love Bansko. Photo: Mike Brindley

Not sure if you’ve ever had your ski gear left behind by a plane before but I have. Twice. By exactly the same airline. You’re probably wondering who would dare let me down like this (twice) so I’ll call them Schmitish Schmairways, and say no more on the matter.

After filling out some forms in the desperate hope that our skis, snowboard, clothes, toiletries and camera equipment arrive before we leave again in just three days time, Brindo and I walk dejectedly underneath the ‘Nothing To Declare’ sign. The words on the sign mock us with their presence, silently laughing at us as we go by it without our possessions.

In Arrivals, the first thing we’re confronted by is what I can only assume is the oldest woman in Bulgaria. She’s smiling at us with a glint of recognition in her eyes, as if she’s been expecting us for her entire life. Ignoring the fact she’s old, small, and not wearing a Crystal rep jacket, I approach her tentatively and say “Hello.” She nods a bit, replies in Bulgarian, and carries on smiling; all without breaking eye contact. I don’t know who she is but it’s pretty clear that she’s not our driver. This is not going well.

The wind don’t half pick up in Bansko’s high places. Photo: Mike Brindley

We find a group of Crystal Reps, hovering about with clipboards, and discover that our transfer couldn’t wait any longer and had to go without us. Thanks for nothing eyebrow-man. Thanks for nothing. With the only option being to wait for the next transfer, we do what anyone else in their right mind would do in such a situation – we buy some dirt-cheap tinnies from the airport shop, and drink them.

There’s many reasons why Bansko is an enticing resort option for young people getting increasingly priced out of holidays in more traditional European ski destinations, and the price of beer (about £1.80 for a pint, and even cheaper if you shop around) is surely right at the top of that list of reasons.

“Start as you mean to go on,” I say, lifting my can in the air.

“Cheers to that,” says Brindo.

“Like somewhere a hitman might contract kill a wealthy Russian mob boss”

When you think about eastern European destinations, with their low, low, beer prices, your mind can’t help but drift towards lads and the laddishness that permeates off them like a smell you can hear. Ah, yes. The lads. Lads on tour. Stag do lads. Go big or go home, lads. “Got a meerkat tattooed on my left arse cheek,” lads. The Archbishop of Banterbury, the Bantersaurus Rex, the adult man who has inexplicably dubbed himself Dr Bantz-in-the-Pantz. You don’t need me to tell you that British lads are a distinct, and unique, sub-specie of lad.

As in summer, when the Brits flock en masse to the Balearic Islands to get shit faced and dance awkwardly with girls called Janine, over the winter months these same lads head to the Bulgarian mountains to ski/snowboard badly, drink alcohol, and ski/snowboard badly… while on a hangover. They’re drawn to the cheaper cost of lift passes, cheaper accommodation, cheaper equipment hire, cheaper food, cheaper drink, and, of course, the chance to dance awkwardly with girls called Janine.

They say it changes when the sun goes down… Photo: Mike Brindley

It’s fitting then, with this in mind, that on our two and half hour transfer from Sofia Airport to Bansko we find ourselves sharing a minibus with some of these ski lad stereotypes.

“Lads. We getting on it tonight?”

“Oh big time, son. Big time.”

“You know it, mate. You know it.”

“And you boys? What you saying?”

There’s a pause, before I realise he’s looking directly at us.

“Err… yeah. No. I mean, maybe. The airline’s lost our luggage,” I reply.

“They’ve lost your luggage?! You’re joking?”

I tell him that I’m not joking.

“What a bunch of slags,” he says, shaking his head as if it’s the worst thing he’s ever heard. The lad seems genuinely annoyed for us. It’s oddly touching.

The atmosphere in Amigo Pub needs to be seen to be believed. Photo: Mike Brindley

After a beer in the hotel bar, a bar that looks like somewhere a hitman might contract kill a wealthy Russian mob boss, we call it a night. We’re staying at the luxurious Premier Luxury Mountain Resort in a two-storey, two bedroom, two bathroom suite. The sofa bed in the spacious lounge area means you could comfortably sleep four to five adults in here no problem. I briefly think about my studio flat back in London and realise you could fit it in this suite three times over and still have a bit spare – thanks to the balcony.

The next morning, after enjoying the hotel’s all-you-can-eat breakfast in yesterday’s clothes, we check at reception on the off-chance that a miracle has happened and our bags have been delivered in the early hours of the morning by some powder-loving tooth fairy. But alas, no dice. Looks like we’ll be renting clothes as well as equipment today. We head into town.

All of Bansko’s mountain adventures start right here. Photo: Mike Brindley

“You want trousers? You leave your ID here,” says the clothes renter.

“Do I have to? It’s… my ID. I sort of need it,” I reply.

“No ID. No trousers,” he says.

I reluctantly hand over my ID and 20 Bulgarian Lev (just under £10). The man goes to the back of the shop, and brings back two pairs of trousers that I’m pretty sure my Dad turned down in the 1980s for being too dated. They’re incredibly thick, the pocket buttons are on the brink of falling off, and I’m not entirely convinced of how waterproof they are.

“Brits getting marched out of a strip club and taken to a cash machine at knife point”

The man nonchalantly puts my driving licence under his desk, and goes back to watching the weirdest YouTube video I’ve ever seen (two fighting boxers spinning 360, to some incessant Eastern European club tune). I’m fairly certain, at this point, that I will never see my driving licence again. Still, you take your wins where you can get them and at least now we’ve got some very musky ski trousers.

After picking up our equally retro skis and snowboard from the hire shop, and getting our lift passes off the ever-helpful Crystal Reps, we get into the main Bansko gondola. There’s one heck of a queue for it, but thanks to some first morning VIP treatment we’re rushed through and plonked straight on one.

“You will meet Bobby at the top,” says our queue-hopping guide.

“Wait. You’re not Bobby?,” I say, “I thought you were Bobby.”

“Bobby is up there. You will find him… or he will find you,” comes the incredibly vague reply.

Climbing out of Bansko in a retro gondola. Photo: Mike Brindley

The gondola door shuts, and we’re on our way. Bansko as a resort is renowned for its beginner-friendly slopes, and this is something that’s easy to see as the gondola passes over some very flat, borderline cross-country, ski terrain in the early stages of its ascent.

Families with young children are dotted about below us, the youngsters clearly still getting used to the noble yet silly art of sliding about on snow. In total, it’s about a 20 minute ride from the 936m-high Bansko to the gondolas final drop off around the 1700m mark on Todorka. Here you’ll find the main grouping of restaurants, lifts to take you higher (onwards and upwards to 2,600m), and a man called Bobby – if our contacts are to be believed.

Nice view of Bansko. Very nice indeed. Photo: Mike Brindley

We approach someone who looks like a ski instructor; a potential Bobby.

“Hi, we’re looking for Bobby. Do you -,” I ask.

“Bobby’s busy” comes the reply from the chain-smoking ski instructor next to him, a ski instructor literally wearing a bin-bag. Presumably, she’s doing this to protect herself from the light rain that’s just started falling but it’s difficult to say for certain.

“He’s meant to meet us. Do you know where he is?” I say.

“Bobby’s there,” she says, pointing at the nursery slope, “Bobby’s busy.”

“Thanks,” I say.

“We’re happy he’s taking us to a chairlift, and away from the angry bin-bag”

We walk over to the nursery slope to see if A) Bobby’s there, and B) To see if Bobby’s as busy as is being reported. I go up to one of the ski instructors.

“Hi. Is Bobby here?”

“Bobby? Bobby’s not here. Bobby’s over there,” says the ski instructor, gesturing back towards the crowd where the chain-smoking bin-bag is. The exact place we’ve just come from.

“Great. Cheers.”

Bobby? Is that you Bobby?! Photo: Mike Brindley

Back to square one. Back towards the big group of ski instructors we walked away from a minute ago.

“Hello,” I say to someone in an official looking jacket, someone who looks like they know what’s up, “You wouldn’t happen to know where Bobby is would you?”

“I TELL YOU ALREADY. BOBBY’S BUSY,” says the bin-bag, popping up out of nowhere and interrupting. She’s clearly annoyed we’ve had the temerity to continue asking after Bobby.

“You looking for Bobby?” says a man, turning around like some sort of Balkan Columbo.

“Yes. Do you -”

“I am Bobby,” he says. “I will show you round.”

If you’re all about the cheeky tree runs, you’ll love Bansko. Photo: Mike Brindley

Maybe he’s our Bobby. Maybe he’s not. All we know is that we’re happy he’s taking us to a chairlift, and away from the angry bin-bag. We’re grateful for his intervention.

Bobby, if that is his real name, takes us on a tour of some of his favourite pistes. Not the biggest resort in the world, Bansko boasts just the 18 runs – of which only one is black. The majority of slopes here are blues and greens, and are very much geared towards the rookies. That being said, the solitary black run ‘Tomba’ is a venue on the World Cup circuit and proves a challenge for me to navigate down with anything approaching steeze.

“If it’s your bag, there’s some great fun to be had in amongst the trees”

There’s something delightfully intimate, and throwback, about Bansko. It’s more polished than you might expect, yet rough around the edges in a way that’s very, very, charming. It’s skiing, sure. But not skiing as you’ve had it before in France, or Switzerland, or Austria. The piste bashers, which I’m told by Bobby are definitely in operation during our visit, don’t seem to do too much bashing leaving some of the runs choppier than the North Sea in February.

Due to its size, you’ll have done all the standard stuff here in a couple of days but, if it’s your bag, there’s some great fun to be had in amongst the trees. Weaving through the sizable pines, in such close proximity to the slopes, means you can have some off-piste thrills without worrying too much about where you are or how you’re going to get back to civilisation.

The best cover band in the history of sound? Yes. Yes times a million. Photo: Mike Brindley

That night, after returning the antique ski trousers and miraculously being reunited with my driving licence, me and Brindo hit the town (still in yesterday’s clothes) and end up watching the greatest cover band in the history of sound. They’re regular performers at a place called Amigo Pub, and they play so many wall-to-wall bangers that after a few hours in their company you’ll forget all of your worries – in our case, the fact the airline still hasn’t got our luggage to us.

“Whisky time?,” asks the lead singer so beautiful she looks photoshopped.

“ALL THE TIME,” shouts the crowd in unison, cheering as she downs it.

We drink along with her. We drink a lot.

“I wake up with a mouth drier than a Ryvita eating competition in Bill Murray’s shed”

I wake up the next morning with a mouth drier than a Ryvita eating competition in Bill Murray’s shed. Goodbye saliva. Peace be upon you. The unwelcome addition of a pretty severe headache is the morning’s bittersweet cake icing. I check in with Brindo. He’s alive.

Staggering down to breakfast, we pass the reception desk and discover that, yes… yes… yes…. our bags have been delivered. Instant mood-lifter. Headache go -… no it’s still there.

“SKEM EDS ON TOUR 2018.” Photo: Mike Brindley

Filling up on the buffet, we then head back upstairs to reacquaint ourselves with the gear. I like to think I’m not a materialistic person, like to think I’m a minimalist who doesn’t need his things to have a nice time. Moments like these prove that idea to be, quite frankly, a load of bollocks. I love my stuff. Love to be near it. Love to be wearing it.

Over the course of the next few days, we experience first-hand the overbearing peer pressure of a Bansko bar crawl, listen to a horror story about Brits getting marched out of a strip club and taken to a cash machine at knife point, return to Amigo Pub for more dance-the-night-away good times with our favourite cover band in the world, and generally make the most of the snow shredding opportunities.

It doesn’t have the biggest ski area on Earth, and its town isn’t the most beautiful ski town you’ll ever see, but if you’re looking to mix it up this winter and really take a break from the same-old same-old formula, this extremely affordable resort in the north-east corner of Bulgaria’s Pirin Mountains could be what you (and your wallet) are after. Just watch out for the angry bin-bag. She’ll get ya.

Do It Yourself

We flew to Sofia from London Heathrow, and got transferred by mini-bus to Bansko. The journey via road took just under three hours. We stayed at the Premier Luxury Mountain Resort.

For more information on organising a ski trip to Bansko, be sure to check in with the folks over at Crystal Ski Holidays. They offer a number of excellent, hot-to-the-touch, package deals.

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