Is Bulgaria Really Skiing's Next Hot Spot?Source: By Matt Gross, The New York Times
Published Date: 22 Dec 2007
The morning sky outside my window was gray with rain - the last thing I wanted to see at Bansko, the biggest ski resort in Bulgaria. A dispiriting mist hid the half-built hotels and condos that lay beyond the ugly Glazne River, and the Pirin Mountains were all but invisible. The town had been warm and wet the past two days, and conditions up on the slopes below the roughly 9,000-foot Todorka peak hadn't been much better. I closed the curtains with a sigh and gave myself the day off.
Over breakfast, I planned an alternative schedule: first, I'd wander the cobblestone lanes of Bansko's picturesque old town, then head up Pirin Street to check out my shopping options. By early afternoon, I'd be back here at my hotel, the boutiquey Villa Roka, for a swim in the pool, a shvitz in the sauna and perhaps a hot-stone massage in the spa. I was trying to decide how to test the mixological skills of the bartenders in the sleek, minimalist lounge, when my cellphone buzzed with a text message:
"Get up here now."
It was from Luke, one of five Australians and New Zealanders I'd befriended the day before, and it launched me into action. I downed my espresso and raced upstairs to change into my snowboarding gear, and 15 minutes later I was climbing into a bright-blue gondola bubble. Over the next half-hour, as the gondola zipped me through thick pine forests, I fidgeted nervously - the trees had only a light dusting of white.
It was only when I reached base camp that I understood Luke's message: a few inches of powder had fallen overnight, just the sight to cheer this despairing snowboarder. I jogged to a lift, and soon was cruising the easy trails, slaloming around beginners and pulling tiny airs off tiny bumps. It was bliss, but only for a couple of hours.
Before long, every last flake of powder was tracked out, and the lifts to higher altitudes - and virgin snow - were mysteriously closed. I was, I realized, done for the day. There would still be time for that shvitz.
As my friends and I rode the eight-seat gondola back down, however, I was confused. Over the past few years, hundreds of millions of dollars in investment had flowed into Bansko, a little town bordering Pirin National Park, about 100 miles south of Bulgaria's capital, Sofia, itself a semifinalist for the 2014 Winter Olympics. The mountain boasted shiny new gondolas and detachable chairlifts built by Doppelmayr, an Austrian company, while in town dozens - if not hundreds - of vacation homes and hotels had gone up, including the five-star Kempinski Hotel Grand Arena, the surest sign that this formerly off-the-beaten-path destination had gone mainstream. The typical Bansko vista was now of construction cranes first, then the mountains.
Yet with all that cash and all those businessmen, no enterprising soul had devised a way to check snow conditions from town. Employees at the gondola base in Bansko would shrug their shoulders when asked, and there was no light-up trail map, not even a whiteboard with snow notes in Cyrillic, and certainly no local TV network broadcasting a morning snow report. (I later discovered a Webcam at banskoski.com, but who takes a laptop to Bulgaria?) Was this a lingering Communist reluctance to permit the free flow of information? The attitude seemed to be: You've bought your ski pass, go see for yourself.
At least those passes didn't cost much, just 50 Bulgarian leva per day, or about $37 at 1.36 leva to the dollar. And therein lies Bansko's true appeal. It's not the mountain, which is about as big and challenging as a midsize resort in Vermont. And it's not the snow, which is (most years) plentiful, powdery and present from December to April. It's that in Bansko you can ski all day, stuff yourself with steaks, drink more beer than anyone ought to and pass out in a fairly nice hotel room - all for about $60 a day.
When I visited last winter, I spent a bit more than that (76 euros a night, about $99 at exchange rates then) on the Villa Roka, a hotel that exemplified Bansko's ambitions - and the challenge of living up to those ambitions. On the surface, the Villa Roka was quite chic: everything was either black or gray, and instead of the warm, curving wood of a traditional ski chalet, the angles here were strictly perpendicular. My room was done up in the same color scheme, with a bathroom enclosed in frosted glass, and the spa, sauna and swimming pool were tiled black - a Bulgarian fantasy of SoHo.
Frequently, though, this cosmopolitanism would crack. The carpeting throughout the hotel was thin, gray and stained with melted ice. The tiny TV in my room sat atop a dorm-style mini-fridge placed haphazardly at the foot of the bed. And while my rate included dinner in what was billed as the hotel's "fusion restaurant," Villa Roka cuisine was nothing but an Eastern European hodgepodge of overcooked meats and ho-hum salads.
Instead, I found myself eating out whenever possible, usually on Pirin Street in the center of tourist Bansko, where touts draped in animal furs were trying to lure tourists into mexanas, or taverns, for poorly grilled meats in kitschily rustic environs. (Note: "traditional Bulgarian folk music" is a threat, not a sales pitch.) Only one mexana really pleased me: the tout-free Dedo Tace, where much of the delicious menu - garlic bread, rabbit stew and, of course, kebabs - was prepared in the wood-fired hearth at the center of the cozy room.
The primary alternatives to the mexanas were English-style pubs where tourists ate bangers and mash, guzzled pints for less than a dollar and cheered the satellite-TV victories of Arsenal and Manchester United. The popularity of bars like Amigos and the Lions Pub might have been surprising if I hadn't known that the British and Irish were the ones driving Bansko's newfound prosperity. For them, now that Bulgaria had joined the European Union, Bansko was another easy, cheap vacation destination, to be colonized just as they'd done with Spain's northern Mediterranean coast.
Which is not to say they'd transformed innocent Bansko into a hub of vulgarity. No, it seemed Bansko had done that on its own (or at least as much to satisfy the Bulgarians, Russians, Eastern Europeans and Greeks as the holidaymakers from Cornwall). On the edge of quaint plazas featuring statues of national heroes, I found gaudy strip clubs, and an adult toy store had opened smack in the middle of Pirin Street, just across from an antiques store selling World War II-era Leica cameras, complete with swastikas and Luftwaffe insignia.
None of this would matter, of course, if the mountain itself were stellar - but it wasn't. In part, this was due to the weather. While Bansko generally gets the best snow and the longest season in Bulgaria, early 2007 had been unusually dry, and so it was at first no shock that few lifts were open. After all, there was nothing to ski on.
What shocked (and later infuriated) was that soon after I arrived, the snow gods answered my prayers, and powder began to dump down. Yet much of the mountain remained closed, relegating everyone to the lower part of the mountain and the least challenging trails.
Determined to carve more powder, Michael - a curly-haired engineer from New Zealand whose snowboarding abilities matched my own - and I took a lift as high as we could (that is, not very) and began to hike up the slopes, away from two bemused mountain employees.
"There is no point!" one called out after us.
No point? We were plunging our boots into hip-deep powder, not mere dust, and this thick coat of snow went all the way up the mountain. It took at least an hour to reach a spot worth descending from, but that one joyous run, down a wide, winding, untracked trail, proved our efforts hadn't been pointless.
Or perhaps they had been. Even when more lifts gradually opened, the hassles refused to abate. First, there were the lines, or, rather, mobs struggling to reach the chairlift as if it were the last chopper out of Saigon. Typically, larger people would muscle through the crowd, fumble with their ski passes at the high-tech turnstiles, then casually strap on their snowboards and finally board the quads in ones and twos, with no protest from the lift operators. To patiently "queue up," as so many of the British neophytes did, was to abandon all hope of skiing.
Worse, the mountain's management seemed to hate powder. Each morning, grooming machines would cover virtually every square inch of terrain, smushing the beautiful snow into a deadly dull carpet of hardpack. Riding the chairlift over this wholesale destruction of the mountain's greatest feature, Michael and I would stare at each other in mute horror. To get a taste of what we'd come for, we had to come down the lift lines, through tree runs and along the untouched trail edges, hoping the powder was thick enough to hide the boulders and bushes underneath. (To be fair, those rough liminal zones were a lot more fun than any wide-open trail.)
In short, it felt as though no one was in charge. I hate to sound like a coddled American skier, too accustomed to line wranglers and Webcams to adapt to the Bulgarian wilderness, but the anarchy grated. Did I really want to fight my way to the head of the line just to ride a small fraction of a small mountain?
No, I didn't. On my penultimate afternoon, Michael and I decided to hike out to a couple of refuges marked on the edge of the trail map. With fresh powder still falling, we marched up hills and along a snowbound road that wound through forest, past small waterfalls and an unmanned ranger station. Finally, after following a pair of footprints off the road and through a rambling landscape of evergreen shrubs half buried in powder, we reached the Vihren refuge, a pair of enormous, decrepit buildings sitting at the edge of a ravine, 6,283 feet above sea level.
In we walked to find a simple ranger station with threadbare couches presided over by a dour portrait of Nikola Vaptsarov, a famous poet who was born in Bansko. Even better, we discovered Ivan, a ranger/caretaker, whose footprints had led us through the wilderness. He didn't speak much English, but he made us sweet herbal tea in the crustily quaint kitchen.
Outside a blizzard raged, and Michael and I realized we needed to return before dark. Out into the snow we tramped, and on the 90-minute hike home we happened on an unfamiliar sight: people. They were a group of physical education students from a university in Varna on Bulgaria's Black Sea coast, and were on their way up to Vihren with a quick stop at Baikushev's Pine, a gargantuan 1,300-year-old tree that apparently lay just off the trail. In typical Bansko fashion, there had, of course, been no sign.
The trek back was bittersweet, the endorphin rush of discovery tempered by the knowledge that, despite the powder falling all around us, much of the mountain would remain closed.
We were, however, wrong. The next day, every lift was open, and we could finally explore the peak. One trail led through choppy, trough-ridden snow that launched us into the air with every bump, and another curved steeply down through wide S-curves that seemed to shoot us faster as the day wore on. Of course, the grooming machines had flattened much of the good snow, but off to the side of a mellow trail served by a T-bar was a vast field of untouched powder, laid on several feet thick over bushes and flowing off into the distance, to uncharted valleys.
That one field occupied us for hours as we carved tracks around boulders and through stream beds. By the time the sky darkened, I'd forgotten all my petty complaints. As I re-emerged from the powder and steered toward one final bombing run down a lift line, I imagined the night ahead: cheap beer, charred beef and a sauna lined with chic black tiles. For the moment, life in Bulgaria was sweet indeed.