For a while now, Bulgaria has been touted as the ‘new Andorra‘ of European skiing – that is, the destination of choice for budget-conscious European skiers. Bansko is Bulgaria’s leading resort, having experienced great investment since 2004 in terms of both its ski facilities and accommodations in the town (the other main internationally well-known Bulgarian resort is Borovets, which I haven’t yet been to). A bunch of us went there back in 2006 to check it out and ended up having a cracking week both on and off the pistes, despite losing a couple of days’ riding when the lifts were completely closed due to severe winds on the mountain. In fact, it was because of this that it ended up being such an interesting week, as we found the silver lining by renting cars and taking a couple of road trips – one to a spooky old church near the Greek border (but not into Greece as we didn’t have our passports and Bulgaria wasn’t yet in the EU), and then the next day to neighbouring Macedonia (taking our passports this time!)
Terrain, snow, off-piste, nightlife, access, etc for Bansko
As for the skiing, it’s a very decent mountain with a top lift station at 2600m and a respectable 1600m of vert (although the longest ‘real’ run has a vert of around 1,000 – I say this because the run back down to the base from the top gondola station isn’t much of a run). The ancient Iron Curtain-era ski infrastructure has been replaced with a modern lift system, and they’re adding to this and opening up more and more terrain as the resort grows in popularity. For example, during one off-piste adventure we rode from the main ski area right down to the gondola base station, but rather than doing so via the ‘Bansko ski road’ (which gets pretty flat and may require some skating/tramping) we took a short ride & hike down a cat track near the top gondola station and passed through an abandoned ski area replete with ancient Cyrillic-only signs and maps, the disused chairlifts standing there like sentinels and the old pistes still just about rideable despite the new forest growth sprouting up through the snow; that abandoned ski area is abandoned no more, and with new lifts having been installed it is now a fully-fledged part of the Bansko ski area (this is the ‘Chalin Valog’ area on the piste map). One obvious downside to all the development and increasing popularity is there are more people using the slopes, and the main gondola up from town is notorious for horrendous queues during busy periods e.g. British school holidays. We didn’t experience this as we went there outside of the peak season – might be wise to do the same!
The pistes are mostly intermediate and advanced riders will quickly exhaust them, but there’s plenty of tree skiing to be found instead and though we didn’t try them the resort is said to have some excellent out-of-bounds runs – which are also said to be very easy to get lost on if you don’t know exactly where you’re going or have a local or instructor to guide you.
The town itself, while being a bit rough around the edges in some parts and resembling a giant building site in others, has an Eastern European charm in the old town with plenty of mehanas (traditional Bulgarian taverns) and definitely gives you something a little different to the established resorts elsewhere in Europe; we had a couple of fairly messy nights in said taverns! Access is via Sofia, requiring a bus transfer of several hours from the airport – which itself is a 3-hour flight if you’re coming from the UK – so it is a bit of an effort to get there.
Although it doesn’t remotely compete with the more famous resorts of the Alps, in terms of the size of the ski area, the number and length of runs, or pretty much anything else for that matter, Bansko does offer good lift infrastructure, a range of freestyle offerings, and a decent enough variety of terrain to keep you interested for a one-week trip; and, despite having apparently become rather more expensive with the building boom, it’s still much cheaper than the Alps. So is it the new Andorra? Well, since Andorra’s ski areas were linked up, Bansko gives you much less terrain, and requires a longer flight with a similarly long bus transfer. But it’s cheaper than Andorra, and I think the terrain is more varied with tree-skiing available off-piste; more importantly, you have more chance of getting good snow in Bansko than you do in Andorra. And if the lifts close due to high winds, you can always go on a random road trip in the Balkans!
Resources and Useful Links for Riding at Bansko
Snow Forecast for Bansko (snow-forecast.com does exactly what it says on the tin, and is my usual go to for accurate snow forecasts)