The week-long debauch of the Horizon Festival is a fresh reason to come to Bansko in winter. A relative newcomer on the European electronic music scene, Horizon takes full advantage of Bansko’s terrain (both alpine and urban) with parties in secluded mountain hotels, disused factories, town bars, forest stages and even medieval banqueting halls. And 2015 sees the line-up peaking at more than 80 DJs and producers (skewed more to emerging or underground than established acts) performing over seven days and six nights. Extremely reasonable ski-and-festival packages are available, and Horizon even arranges transfers from Sofia, Plovdiv and Thessaloniki.
There’s no need to restrict your visit to winter, of course – billing itself as an ‘all-season resort’, Bansko also offers fantastic warm-weather pursuits including hiking, mountain biking, climbing, horse riding and rafting.
Terrain and network
Intermediate and beginner skiers and boarders will find an excellent piste network on the mountain, served by a mixture of uncovered chairs and draglifts. When the snow is plentiful (as it generally is between January and March) there are some good off-piste options for the more advanced; and even when it’s not, more than 90% of the runs are equipped with snow-making facilities.
Overall, advanced terrain is a little scarce, but beginners and intermediates can explore a variety of blue and red runs, from the narrow and challenging to the broad and forgiving. The 14km ‘ski road’ from the summit to the town is great for those finding their legs, although it gets choked with homebound skiers after 4.30pm, when last rides are called on the lifts.
When not swaddled in cloud, the arresting beauty of the 400-sq-km Pirin National Park – which is home to between one quarter and one third of the country’s plant and bird species, includes dramatic peaks such as Mt Vihren (2915m), and even reputedly shelters wolves and bears – is a real highlight. On clear days with good snow underfoot it’s hard to beat the combination of Bansko’s long, broad and varied runs, banks of stately fir trees, and views of the surrounding peaks and town below.
A word to the wise
While Borovets was once the largest resort in Bulgaria, Bansko now claims that honour. Accordingly, it can attract large crowds from Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Russia, Turkey and the UK, putting infrastructure under significant pressure at peak times (such as the first week of February, when peak snowfall coincides with several national and school holidays in the region).
The resort’s major drawback – a significant bottleneck at the sole gondola leading from the town to the higher lift network – becomes apparent in these peak periods. A campaign to open a second gondola is underway, but may not overcome restrictions placed on further development in the national park. Canny skiers trying to avoid delays of up to an hour have tended to join the gondola queue on opening (8.15am), but word has spread and now the early morning queues can be the worst of the day. An alternative, in the form of free buses for those with lift passes, relieves only some of the pressure.
The uncovered chairs can also be problematic when winds are high, as the closure of the most exposed lifts (towards the summit) reproduces the crush experienced at the gondola. Basically, when the resort is full and the wind is up, expect to wait. And the sooner you adjust to Bulgarian queuing etiquette (if there’s a bare patch of snow in front of you, surge forward and devil take the hindmost), the sooner you’ll be on your run.
Eating and après-ski
As can be expected, food and après-ski entertainment on the mountain comes at a premium; in fact, the discrepancy between what you’ll pay on the slopes and what you’ll pay in the town is greater in Bansko than in many other European resorts. But given that prices are so much lower across the board than those found in Austria, France or Switzerland, this isn’t necessarily such a drain.
And once off the mountain, there’s a wonderful array of cheap eating and drinking options on offer: from tacky UK-themed ‘pubs’ serving the lager-and-Sky-football crowd, to snug, atmospheric mehanas (traditional taverns) knocking out hearty local specialties in the tangled streets of the old town. Sex shops, outlets for Bulgarian crafts, half-built hotels, traditional timbered houses and grey-stone monasteries complete an atmosphere unique among European ski resorts.
Make it happen
Getting there Hotels and chalets can arrange transfers from Sofia, Plovdiv and Thessaloniki. Alternatively, you can organise your own transfer (try banskoexpress.com or sofiaairporttaxis.com) or brave the Bulgarian bus or rail system.
Where to stay Bansko is teeming with hotels (try Kempinski Hotel Grand Arena for luxe accommodation, or Hotel Avalon if you’re on a budget) and chalets (skichaletbansko.co.uk is an excellent option for English-speakers).
Lifts and equipment The higher reaches of the town literally teem with rental outlets; prices are mostly comparable (and service relaxed and efficient) across the board. Lift passes (360 lv/€185 for six days; student discount available) can be arranged in advance through your chalet, but are easily bought from the gondola at the foot of the mountain.
Other Bulgarian resorts
Pamporovo Located in the Rodopi Mountains (240km from Sofia), Pamporovo is lower than Bansko, and offers a similar blend of beginner, intermediate and advanced terrain. Prices are also similar, while the network is slightly smaller and milder conditions are more common.
Chepelare Just 10km from Pamporovo, Chepelare is a smaller resort best suited to family ski holidays. With only 20km of piste and a small lift network, the low prices may not be enough to satisfy more advanced thrill-seekers.
Borovets Located in the Rila Mountains (72km from Sofia), Borovets is Bulgaria’s oldest ski resort, and was the largest before Bansko muscled in. Its 58km of piste range similar altitudes and difficulty levels to Bansko, and prices are comparable.
Vitosha Basic facilities and accommodation are compensated for by Vitosha’s lower prices and its accessibility (it’s a mere 10km from Sofia).