When: January 2023
Why: Budget Ski Holiday
Who: Me and Kieran
I've skied since I was small, and having a boyfriend who couldn't ski is not an option for me. I know it's a sport for poshos, and hurtling yourself down a snowy hillside is certainly not for everyone, but it's always a holiday with a difference, and always provides a plethora of memorable experiences. Hell, I've made some of my best friends through skiing, be it while I was at uni or on the 20 odd ski holidays I've been on with family. Point is, I want to ski until I am no longer able to bend down to do up the boots, so it was decided - Kieran had to learn.
Fast forward to when we're 4 years into our relationship, have already gone through lessons and one family holiday, and it was time for us to get back to the slopes.
With a quick bit of research, we ran into some major problems. The first was dates - classic ski companies like Crystal and Inghams run their holidays from Saturday - Saturday, or do long weekend trips for those with fewer days to play with. We had the days to play with, and they weren't in UK term time so I was hoping that would save us some moola. Sadly, we didn't have the right days - our work rota determines that we can only be off Sunday to Saturday. It just wasn't going to work for us. That is until I found heidi.com - their main selling point is that they provide flexible ski holidays for any budget.
The second issue actually was budget. My grandma had read an article about Bulgaria, which claimed to host the cheapest ski holidays, to have top nightlife and to be full of people in their 20s - 30s looking for a great holiday without having to take out a mortgage. Buzzing, lets go. Heidi let us choose a reasonably priced hotel, flights, and they organised us a private transfer (because it's not a package holiday per-se and you're using a flexible, from the research I've done, you often given a private transfer as it's less likely that anyone else would be requiring transport at the same time as you) which was surprisingly... reasonable. Oh, and the lift pass was ridiculously cheap compared to Alps prices. Lift passes can often be those silent snipers that eat through your budget like cows through a field of grass.
We chose Bansko over Borovets, merely because from the piste map it looked as though Bansko had a little more to offer. Talking to friends who had been before, we were warned of grubby slapdash streets, long queues and unfriendly people, and honestly I won't lie here - the streets were a law suit waiting to happen, and the queue to get onto the gondola in a morning gave me serious inner rage (if you do go, honestly just pay the 10 Lev and get a taxi up to the top, so so worth it). But the people were nothing less than fab. I like the way the Bulgarians are very straight forward - no wishy washy flounces. For example, Kieran hired his equipment, and they let him keep his skis at the rental shop - this was perfect because there was no snow on the ground in the village for the first half of our stay, and it was right next to the gondola station which meant less carrying.
They'd seen me bring my skis and boots in for 2 days, and take them away each evening. I got a ski wax after the first day, and then when they saw me trying to take my skis away after Day 3, the rental staff just stopped me and said no, you can keep those here. Never have I been more grateful - carrying skis and boots up and down the hill every day was absolutely not the one. Not only did they let me keep my skis there, they also gave us both free ski waxes every day. Magical.
(Photo: The queue for the gondola in a morning. )
In terms of piste, you get what you pay for. If you're going for top quality slopes then you might not find what you're looking for in Bansko. We stuck to the blues, and the snow/ piste quality was not up to par with more expensive resorts, however the lifts were absolutely fine. The long queue at the village to get on the gondola was admittedly long - we're talking 20-30 minutes stood waiting, but this wasn't reflect at the top - there was plenty of choice.
Unfortunately, when we were there the ski roads weren't open due to total lack of snow, so we had to get the gondola back down to the village at the end of the day, which was very annoying - nothing better than ending the day on your skis rather than having to queue and get down in the gondola. The gondola itself was also really long - you can see in the photo above there's a midway station (which we couldn't get off at because there was no snow). All in all I think the gondola took about 15 minutes. All I could think was that is almost an hour every morning wasted before you actually get your skis on.
Another criticism I have for the slopes is how busy it was. According to one gentleman I met, ski companies are putting a lot of investment into bringing Israeli's to Bulgaria to ski, as it's the closest ski resort to Israel. Which is obviously amazing - more people learning to ski is great for the sport, except there's one problem. Every group that we spoke with from Israel had decided to skip ski school and just go straight on the slopes to give it a go. If you've ever skied, you will know how scary and dangerous it can be, especially when people get out of control. I picked up at least 4 people, one of which was a 50 year old man who turned to me and said "wow you seem good at this, how do you do it". Mate, I was put in ski school for each holiday until I was about 12 - that's a lot of tutored skiing. It's not a skill that you can just do. To not have any lessons at all is so dangerous - it really made me feel anxious and stopped me from wanting to ski... which was fine because that's what apres bars are for!
When booking this trip, I was looking for a good time. Nightlife and Apres were big factors in us choosing Bansko, and we weren't disappointed. On the mountain, the 180 bar was a great spot for a boozy hot chocolate and to watch people wipe out on the slops (see photo below). Near the gondola station there were lots of bars, and often a Jeep playing dance music to get you in the mood. Back in the village, the Happy End bar was the perfect place to grab a jagerbomb and dance for a few hours.Sometimes there was a host on for entertainment, and I've seen on Instagram that they often have caberet or dancers in there but we didn't see that (maybe it's just for the weekend?)
In the evenings, we went to most of the bars along the main street at the top of town. The Penguin bar was a bit of a cringy venue but they did a great espresso martini, and were always showing a variety of sports (good for Kieran) and had live singers (good for me!). I wasn't keen on The Bears - I just didn't like the vibe as much and I didn't like their espresso martini as much. Euphoria turned out to be a big of a hidden gem - from the outside it looks like nothing but the band on in there were fab. Amigo's was always a good way to end the night - in there it's whiskey time all the time, and the rock band in there were so talented, although there's only so many times in a week that you want to listen to Living on a Prayer. One night whilst exploring we found the Queens Pub which I can only describe as a Wetherspoon's with entertainment. We stumbled upon a couple setting up a mini stage, next minute they're rollerblading and the woman is hanging off the fella by a rope being spun around. Absolutely nuts, did not go back again just in case it was all a dream.
In every bar, you'd find someone to make friends with. You know how Northerners just gravitate towards each other? And because Bansko is quite a small place, you'd see the same people everywhere. It was a great place to find people our age - I often find in posher ski resorts, people don't want to make friends when they're our age, but in Bansko everyone made effort to be friends with everyone. There was also a bar crawl on Mondays (we didn't go, we heard about it too late, sad) where a lot of people mentioned making friends and getting to know the town - a great way to start your holiday if you're into that! Find out more on their website.
We're big foodies, so before we went to Bansko the food was one of the main areas that I researched. Bulgarian food was advertised as quite basic, lots of hearty meats and stews. We were half board at our hotel, so we only had to fend for ourselves at lunch time. We tried the Bla Bla restaurant on the mountain - they had a rotisserie chicken stand and they were delicious but you had to get there early in the day to get your hands on one. Sharing the plates was more than enough food for 2 - one each would've been far too much for us! We had a pizza one day up at the 180 bar - they were reasonably priced and delicious. On a particularly crap visibility day, we went down to the village early and had lunch at a Mehana - a traditional Bulgarian restaurant in the town. The man outside promised that we would be treated like we were at Grandma's house, and he wasn't wrong. Picture a roaring fire, sizzling tagine with delicious roasted vegetables and an array of sausages, tongue and other meats. Delicious.
Overall, Bansko basically brought exactly what we wanted it to bring: Skiing yes; Nice food yes; Memories yes. For what we paid for the holiday, I was still really impressed with the whole vibe of the place. Whilst I may not go again (I feel like I've done it now, the flight and transfer are long, and there's plenty of resorts closer to home I haven't even heard of or visited yet), I would recommend it to anyone!