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Bulgaria: Where Bargain-Seekers Ski
The New York Times, article by Brian Lavery, 13th Nov 2005

BULGARIA may be known for certain things - its ancient monasteries, for instance, or the local habit of nodding one's head to say no - but skiing probably isn't one of them. That's beginning to change as the Bulgarian slopes, the site of Alpine World Cup races in the early 1980's, are increasingly being explored by bargain-seekers from the West.

New chairlifts and hotels open nearly every year at the country's three main skiing destinations - Borovets, Bansko and Pamporovo - while Mount Vitosha, outside Sofia, remains an easy and popular getaway. But the resorts are small by American standards, with just one expert slope each.

The first substantial wave of foreigners has come from Britain, mostly via all-inclusive package tours that use inexpensive direct charter flights, since flying from London to Sofia on airlines like Alitalia or Czech Airlines typically costs at least £130, about $235 at $1.80 to the pound.
Visitors from the United States may want to take advantage of the variety of ski packages offered by British vacation providers. Balkan Holidays, for instance, sends trips weekly from Gatwick, about 30 miles from central London, and other airports; a week in one of Bansko's vacation rental apartments costs £400, including flights, lift pass, ski rental and lessons.

Given Bulgaria's popularity with the British, workers in the tourism industry usually speak English as well as German and Russian. But it's not all smooth sailing. In Sofia, many shops and restaurants don't accept credit cards; in the mountains, tourists should prepare to hand over wads of Bulgarian leva, even for accommodations, unless they're staying at one of the major hotels.


Paying with plastic is less of a problem in Borovets, Bulgaria's oldest ski resort, 45 miles from the capital.

Situated at the foot of the tallest peak on the Balkan Peninsula, the 9,600-foot Mount Musala, the town is 4,600 feet above sea level and has trails at 8,500 feet. Six-day lift passes for £79 can be purchased at mountain stations. That altitude guarantees plenty of snow, while its southern location (at the same latitude as Rome) means even higher trails are through forest.

Recent additions, like a snowboarding halfpipe with a 1,000-foot drop, have broadened its appeal, but last winter some skiers were still spending less than 20 leva ($12.50, at 1.67 leva to $1), for a taxi ride uphill to avoid the line for the gondola from town. Borovets has less than 30 miles of trails.
Off the slopes, Borovets caters to the tastes of its British guests - fish and chips is not native - and après-ski local flavor tends toward booming nightclubs. A sense of history can be found in the 10th-century Rila Monastery nearby. Pamporovo, 50 miles from the country's second city, Plovdiv, has less than 16 miles of trails.

In the historic village of Bansko, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Sofia, local people complain that hotels may soon outnumber their homes.

Bansko's remote site promises a more rustic experience, highlighted by smoky taverns, called "mehanas," which serve up shopska, the Greek-style tomato and cucumber salad, and banitsa, a cheese-stuffed pastry, for less than one lev each, often with live music and folk dances.

Buy a holiday home in one of Bulgaria's ski resorts!

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