Winter Holiday in Neighboring Bulgaria

The Bulgarian capital Sofia is only an hour from İstanbul by air. And the road from there to bansko, the rising star of European ski resorts, promises an unforgettable winter journey.

Sofia Airport is about 10 kilometers from the city center, and taxis bearing a blue OK sign make the trip for only six or seven euros. One of Europe’s oldest capitals, Sofia is the biggest city in this country of 8 million. With a population of a million and a half, it is approached by long, tree-lined boulevards. The gloom of the Iron Curtain years are far behind now and you feel you’ve arrived in a European city. Smack dab in the heart of the city, the square where Alexander Nevski Cathedral rises is clean as a whistle. To hear the natives tell it, the square and surrounding area are scrubbed down frequently with detergent and water. All the major landmarks, such as the old Turkish Embassy, the Parliament, the Opera House, the University of Sofia, the Academy of Sciences and the Russian Church, are within walking distance of each other. Banyabaşı Mosque is also open for worship in this city that was ruled by the Ottomans for more than four centuries.

Running straight through the city center from one end to the other, Vitosha Avenue is known as one of Europe’s most prestigious shopping districts. And the fashion passion of Sofia’s women, known locally as Sofianka, is reflected in the streets as well. It’s not hard to come across Turkish speakers in this city famous for its parks, monuments and cafes. Bulgaria’s popular young writer, Ludmilla Filipova, writes in her Anatomy of Illusions that there were more than 700,000 Turks living in the country in the 1980’s. Meanwhile Duygu Nergiz, who has lived in the city for ten years, says there is a very vibrant youth life in the city. This youthful energy is reflected as well in the city’s motto: “It grows but does not age.”

Following a panoramic Sofia tour, we’re on the two and a half hour road to Bansko. Within minutes the city’s elegant art nouveau structures give way to magnificent rural landscapes. Rivers winding through forested hills, farming villages with tiled, pitched roofs, and endless white as far as the eye can see… We are heading straight toward the border with Greece along the southeast Balkan peninsula. Immediately in front of us the splendid contours of the Pirin Mountains. But it’s not just the faces and landscapes, the place names are familiar too. After Simitli, our poetic journey ends at Bansko, Bulgaria’s biggest, and Europe’s most up-and-coming, ski resort. There is a total of 13 pistes, suitable for skiers at every level, in this region which will host the World Ski Championship February 18 to 26. The length of the pistes at Bansko, a favorite with ski champions, approaches 70 kilometers. Those on the north face of the mountain are not affected by the harsh winds. And the grainy, non-sticky snow makes an ideal surface for winter sports. A professional ski instructor at Bansko for eight years, Ahmet Vatansever says lessons start at 20 euros an hour.  We learn from him that there are seven ski schools and around 250 instructors in the area. The most famous of the pistes, which vary between 990 and 2600 meters in altitude, is named for legendary ski champion Alberto Tomba. The 12 lifts have a carrying capacity of more than 14,000 persons per hour.

The trail known as Funpark caters to snowboard enthusiasts. A special play and ski instruction park has also been created for four to seven-year-olds. Thanks to snow machines, skiing is possible to the end of April at the center. Surrounded by lakes large and small, the region also impresses hiking and photography buffs with its lush natural greenery. An experienced regional tourism manager, Burgan Nemutlu says that Bansko attracted close to than 300,000 tourists last year and expectations for this year are even higher. There are two lovely squares in the historic center of Bansko, which is surrounded by green parks. And the nearby area is bursting with historic monuments: a 30-meter historic clock tower, the town library, historic churches, and a literary and an ethnographic museum. Offering a rich array of food and entertainment as well, Bansko is the perfect choice for a different winter holiday. What’s more, it’s within easy reach both geographically and financially.

A popular Balkan ski resort, Bansko is counting down the days to the World Ski Championship, February 18 to 26. The event, to be held with the participation of world-famous athletes, will be festive with a host of entertaining activities. And the skiers gliding down the north slopes of the Pirin Mountains will have a chance to view Bansko through the trees. Meanwhile the town’s historic center will come alive with street musicians, painters and souvenir stands.

You can turn the road from Sofia to Bansko into an economical gourmet tour. Shepherd’s salad with cheese (shopska), cachecaval cheese baked in the oven with honey and walnuts, grilled game meats, a puree of eggplant and hot red peppers, and pickled cabbage are just a few of the local specialties.

Offering a wide choice of accommodations, Bansko also has Turkish- invested hotels in the four plus category where everything from Turkish baths and jacuzzis to game rooms and indoor skiing has been thought of for guests’ comfort.

Bansko’s four and five-star hotels are proud of their spas. You can renew yourself body and soul with steam baths, traditional massages, and aromatherapy sessions.

Turkish Airlines has Istanbul-Sofia-Istanbul flights daily. Departure times are 8:30 a.m. and 5:10 p.m. from Istanbul, and 10:45 a.m. and 7:25 p.m. from Sofia.

Transportation to Bansko from Sofia Bus Station is available at frequent intervals between the hours of 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. The price of a ticket is 16 levas. Car rentals start at 25 euros per day.

The mechanical facilities going up to the ski runs at Bansko require you to buy a ticket. A Keycard giving access to all the slopes runs 25 leva a day, going as high as 40 leva in the high season

There is always a cafe or restaurant at the end point of the main ski runs at Bansko. Soup and sandwiches are also available at these venues that serve tea and coffee with honey.

Cultural heritage of the Balkans
Encircling the historic town of Bansko, the Pirin Mountains have national park status as well as being on Unesco’s World Cultural Heritage List. The highest peak in this range, which is home to grizzly bear, mountain goat, marten and hundreds of rare species of birds, is 2,914 meters. The region, which harbors several endemic plant species, also attracts interest for its mountain lakes, waterfalls, caves and interesting earth forms.

Selections of the local cuisine are served to the strains of Bulgarian folk music at the traditional restaurants. Live dance shows are also common at these restaurants, which tend to be housed in historic venues.

Ten thousand people can ski simultaneously on the pistes at Bansko. The choice of ski champions like Marc Girardelli, the region is also a candidate for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Rising in the heart of historic Bansko, Sveta Trioca Church boasts an interesting feature. The crescent moon, star and cross motifs that adorn the door of this 19th century place of worship are a reminder of multiculturalism in the Ottoman period.

A colorful open air market is set up in Bansko on Sundays. Woolen socks, antiques, flat weave kilims, local costumes and a variety of candy are sold at this market, open from 8:30 to 2:30.

Ufuk Öztürk / Businessman
“Bansko is Bulgaria’s finest ski resort. A four billion euro investment was made in the area in the last ten years. This place is at least fifty percent more economical than a winter holiday in the European Alps. Among the around 150 hotels in the region there are also some Turkish enterprises. The region has a potential for tourism 12 months out of the year. It is ideal for health tourism, golf, horseback safaris and nature sports as well.”