I have long fancied myself as a skier, after seeing many a glossy image of guys and gals enjoying an après-ski in glamourous ski wear, ‘I could be like one of the magazine people’ I thought to myself, with wine in hand, it can’t be that hard to ski right? Skiing is one of the pricier outdoor activities out there, with travellers and skiers alike often grumbling over sky high food and drink prices and expensive lift passes. This is not encouraging for those wishing to ‘have a go’ at skiing when it’s going to potentially set you back hundreds of your hard earned pounds. That’s why novice skiers apparently should head to Bulgaria’s Bansko, where prices are reported to be a lot more reasonable than the fancy pants resorts in France, Switzerland and Austria.
The pretty UNESCO-protected town has lovely cobbled street charm and distinctive architecture, with a beautiful mountain backdrop and the ski resort has also benefitted from extensive investment in recent years. ‘But is it actually a good place to go skiing?’ you might very well ask, I decided to begin my ski career in Bulgaria to find out, here’s my handy guide to beginner skiing in Bansko:
Getting to Bansko
Getting to Bansko can be a little trickier than getting to some of the more well-known resorts, as many low cost airlines provide good value flights to popular ski towns but not quite as many go to Bulgaria. I would recommend using Skyscanner to find the best deals on flights out there. I flew out of London Heathrow with Bulgaria Air to the capital Sofia. Of course, when I landed in an entirely snow free Sofia, I thought ‘I’ve been swindled here, there’s no bloody snow’, but there’s actually 3 hour transfer to get you to Bansko resort. I spent the entire 3 hours eating sweets and glued to the window ‘searching for snow’. Make sure you pre-book your transfer from Sofia airport, to save both money and time, or if you’ve booked a ski package make sure it’s included.
When to go
One of the criticisms of Bansko is that during peak season you can expect long queues for the gondola unless you are prepared to start queuing at the crack of dawn. By going slightly out of season, beginners can enjoy shorter queues, quieter slopes and cheaper hotels and ski lift passes. The biggest benefit of going off peak surely has to be be that there are less people to see you make an utter buffoon of yourself on the slopes. It certainly was in my case. The downside is that inevitably some of the restaurants and bars will be closed towards of the end of the season, so if you are alright with slightly less booze options for your après-ski, I’d say it’s a good time for a newbie to visit. I went the first week of April and it was great to have so few people on the runs, probably safer for them too, given my severe lack of co-ordination.
What to wear
Surely the most important part of skiing is too look absolutely boss on the slopes. Ski wear can be pricey, so do a little research first before you rush out and spend 300 quid on salopettes. Towards the end of the ski season you can pick up some bargains from places such as Go Outdoors, Sports Direct and Aldi, that’s right Aldi was selling off ski wear and I managed to pick up several base layers and a pair of salopettes for a tenner. My favourite though has to be my hot pink Dare2b ski jacket that I got for a bargainous £40, I thought it was important to be very bright and identifiable on the slopes should a ‘mountain rescue’ situation arise. Of course you can also borrow from ski friends, or in my case, my mother picked me up a load of ski gear from Freecycle. Upon opening the bag, it quickly became apparent that it was the sort of attire that looked like the previous owner had gone skiing in 1986 and had never been back. Still, if you want to look like you could have starred in 80’s ski film ‘Hot Dog’ then this could be option for you.
There are many affordable hotels, guesthouses and hostels in Bansko. If you are creating your own trip, you can find some great deals on sites such as Booking.com or TripAdvisor. Many of the hotels have added amenities such as swimming pool, sauna and steam rooms, spa facilities and free shuttle buses to the gondola. I stayed in Perun Lodge, which was a handy 5-minute walk from the gondola and had a pool, restaurant, spa, free internet in the lobby and ski rental to boot. The staff were really helpful, even when English was limited, indeed they seemed to derive great amusement from me trying to mime ‘bottle of red wine please’.
Ski rental and tuition
The price for ski rental and lessons will vary depending on if you have booked a package, if you are negotiating your own lessons and rental and what time of year you are going to Bansko. You can book your ski packages in advance through a wide variety of ski companies. The upside is that everything will be arranged for you and you can waltz up to the ski hire and be on your way to the slopes in no time. Those of you who are more ‘fly by the seat of your pants’, may wish to rock up and start engaging in a bit of wheeler-dealer chat about rental and ski tuition prices, though I would generally advise this is only a good option towards the end of the season, when you are in a better bargaining position.
I found myself all wide-eyed in the ski rental cheerfully exclaiming ‘I’ve never skied before’, in the vague hope they might at least attempt to fit me with the right size boots and skies, lest I ski face first off the mountain. Nothing will prepare you for the awkwardness and suffering of ski boots, accept now that you are going to stomp around with all the grace of a rhino that is learning to walk in these hideous contraptions. I changed boots 6 times to try and find ones that did not make my feet feel like they were in vices. The most pleasure I ever felt in life is removing those damn boots at the end of the day and having a healing wine.
Typical costs of rental and tuition when booked online seem to be roughly £90 for your lift pass, skis, poles and boot hire for six days. You can also buy packages that include your passes and ski rental and 4 hours daily group tuition for around €140 for 3 days. You can find discounted ski hire, lift passes and tuition packages on the brilliant Bansko blog. I would recommend shopping around online to get a clear idea of packages and prices before you go so that you can budget accordingly. The most valuable tip I can give on ski equipment is to try not to leave it on the gondola/in the bar/halfway down a mountain/anywhere really.
Many a beginner skier has been informed by well-meaning but ultimately idiotic friends ‘You don’t need lessons; you’ll pick it up’. You can normally spot these ill-advised newbies, they’ll be the ones getting skied over after going backwards down the mountain screeching like a dying seagull. Don’t be that person. Find a ski school, or pay for private tuition and they will teach you the basics of skiing before you attempt the slopes. I was taught by the Ulen ski school, which is the main ski school in Bansko. I felt it appropriate to pre-warn the ski school of my chronic clumsiness and they would be dealing with someone who once broke their own foot whilst drunkenly doing ‘interpretive ballet’ at a wedding. They seemed more bemused than concerned to be fair. I was instructed in the art of ski by Martin, a gruff, no nonsense Bulgarian. As a direct result I will spend the rest of my life reliving the phrase ‘Open the snow plough, open… open.. OPEN THE SNOW PLOUGH’.
Martin provided the stern direction I clearly need, as if left for a second to my own devices, I will start twirling around in the snow dreamily singing Frozen songs. My complete lack of focus was always interrupted by firm commands of ‘Parallel Ski, PARALLEL SKI’. Martin ensured that I knew the most important things in skiing, how to slow down, how to stop, how to turn and how to get myself up quickly when I fell down, which obviously happened approximately every 3 minutes. What surprised me the most is how quick you progress, from barely being able to stand up on day one, to flying down blue runs like a ski princess by day 4. This was clearly thanks to Martin’s expert guidance and him not humouring me for a second. ‘Did I do my turn’s right?’ Martin ‘NO’. Rightio then.
Bansko has over 75km slopes serviced by 13 lifts and range from green beginner slopes, to the more challenging black slopes. The is a good selection of blues and reds making Bansko a great place for beginner and intermediate skiers, there are also snow making facilities on many of the runs should there be a snow fail. I started on the nursery slopes barely being able to turn but by day 4 I was up on the blue slopes flying down the mountain. It was so quiet towards the end of the day that on several occasions I found myself skiing alone, light snow falling, as I made my way down a blue slope lined with pretty fir trees. ‘There’s a real sense of tranquillity in solitary skiing’ I thought, ‘a real feeling of…..’ thwack, I couldn’t finish my musings as ironically a snowboarder ploughed straight into me and disturbed my thoughts of sereneness.
One of the best features in Bansko is said to be the blue piste that runs all the way back to the town, it’s 14km and connects the mountain with the town and is a gentle floodlit run that everyone skies down at the end of the day. It was sadly closed during my time in Bansko as it was too late in the season, still it’s an excuse to come back right?
I personally found the blue runs great to practice my skiing on and in many ways I was more of an enthusiastic rather than a talented skier. This was most evident when I took a tumble on the slopes and one of my skies flew off and as I scrambled to retrieve it, I started to go sideways down the mountain on one ski. Perhaps not quite the ‘Khaleesi of the mountain’ that I thought?
Food and nightlife
As you can imagine, food on the mountain can be a bit pricey, with reports of prices creeping up a little more every year in Bansko. There’s a few eateries on the mountain but food selection is generally limited to meat, pasta and chips, so prepare to carb right up for your afternoon skiing. Off the mountain there are a variety of cheap places to eat including tacky pubs, traditional taverns, kebab joints and local cafes to enjoy an après-ski in. Many will also have live music, folk bands and/or large sports screens, so you should be suitable entertained. Make sure to try traditional Bulgarian kebapche, a long piece of grilled mincemeat best served with fries and grated cheese on top, delicious!
In conclusion dear readers I found Bansko a brilliant place to learn to ski. I appreciate that I went late in the season so I perhaps skipped the long lines I had been warned about. If you are debating whether to take up skiing I would recommend it as a great place to learn, it’s reasonably priced, there’s reliable snow, a good selection of hotels and you could even be lucky enough to be taught by handsome-yet-strict Martin. If you find yourself under his expert tuition, be warned, he does not care for Frozen songs during the lessons, ‘do you wanna build a snowman….?’ NO.