Frozen assets

BULGARIA: The price – and the teaching – is right for cost-conscious skiiers in the affordable winter resort of Bansko. Dave Craven reports

THE opening gambit is swift and concise – “you are all good skiers but I am better.”

After a quick glance at our styles to assess standards, it is not bravado or smugness from our instructor Svet, just a simple fact.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

He ensures us if we listen to him we will all emerge in seven days time as improved skiers.

He is true to his word and, I am not surprised either as I quickly learn ski school here is twice a day, not just the customary morning session which is the norm throughout the rest of Europe.

None of that wildly descending off in the afternoon to cause chaos on your own or maybe sloping off for an extended lazy lunch; the only “extension” we are doing is out of our turns and we also require “more bend, more angulation”.

Such intensive teaching – four hours per day in total – is undoubtedly one of the major pulling points of skiing in Bulgaria.

I am in the picturesque resort of Bansko, rated the finest ski destination in Eastern Europe and it is clear why it is becoming an increasingly popular alternative to its more salubrious, fashionable and, ultimately, expensive French and Italian counterparts.

From just £115 – less than the price of a lift pass in Val d’Isere - skiers can attain not only their access up Pirin Mountain but a week’s worth of those excellent lessons and the hire of both their skis and boots.

In these difficult economic times, such value for money means the cherished skiing holiday does not always have to be the first luxury item automatically sidelined. Likewise, a glass of wine averages out at around just £1.50.

Bansko, which hosted the men’s alpine ski World Cup in February, boasts 75km of slopes with a significant variety of blue and red slopes as well as some black runs and excellent off-piste areas. For those adrenalin-fuelled who cannot get their fill during the day, there is also a 7km illuminated run for night skiing.

It is an ideal area for beginners and intermediates although advanced skiers, by the end of the week, may be left seeking more adventure.

However, that could be assuaged soon with plans for more piste investment and development while snow is guaranteed from December to May by a total of 230 snow cannons, covering more than half of the slopes.

It is possible to ski from the top north-exposed slope of the mountain at 2600m to the town itself, a total of 17km incorporating some wonderful scenery, while the most famous run is the eponymous Alberto Tomba.

Understandably, given the subject of its title – the legendary Italian slalom racer – it is a challenging black which looks a little daunting on the way up but something Svet has us all successfully negotiating by the end of the week.

Our instructor himself likes a challenge. He balances three different jobs throughout the year and has had some intriguing roles such as story editor on the Bulgarian version of Big Brother, effectively telling crew members what to do from the control room. No wonder he has such command over us.

As well as that the 32-year-old has acted as field producer for another reality programme - Survivor - on locations from the Philippines to Panama while he graduated as a cartoon maker and is currently working on some graphic design projects for Maxim magazine.

Skiing is his first love though and it is understandable given the delights he can witness on a daily basis amid the beauty of Bansko. The town itself is easily accessible with plenty of heritage like the gloriously ornate 200-year-old wooden St Trinity Church which remains its centrepiece as well as statues commemorating Neofit Rilski, a 19th century monk and teacher who was a leading figure in the Bulgarian National Revival, and Nikola Vaptsarov, a famous Bulgarian poet, communist and revolutionary, who were both born here.

There is a a rich variety of bars and traditional Bulgarian restaurants or “Mehana” for those keen on discovering the “après-ski”.

One stunning example is Sirleshtova, located amid the characterful old part of the town in a house which dates back 400 years and seeps an intriguing history.

It was here where the chiefs of the revolutionary organisation met to decide Bansko should take part in the Bulgarian uprising against the Ottoman Empire.

Try the ‘shashlik’ at Bardareva, a delicious skewered kebab of delicate meats or the ‘sach” which is a traditional dish where vegetables and meats are cooked directly on a circle pottery plate and served with a spectacular fire encircling the tasty morsels.

Hotel Bansko was an ideal base from which to an hourly mini-bus taking you to and from the slopes and a great spa and pool to wind down after a hard day’s endeavour with particularly good value massages to ease those aching muscles.

After all that extending, angulating and bending, it become a necessity.

Getting there

Balkan Holidays is the leading tour operator to Bulgaria and was established 46 years ago.

Bansko, 150 km south of the capital Sofia, is the principal ski resort. Balkan also features the Bulgarian winter ski resorts of Borovets and Pamporovo in its winter ski programme.

A seven night break to Bansko staying at the four star Hotel Bansko starts from £378, per person on a half board basis. Prices include flights from London and transfers to the hotel. There is an additional supplement of £29 per person for flights from Manchester.

Full ski packs and learn to ski packs, including lift pass, ski and boot pass and ski school, are available from £115. There is also:

Advance registration for Winter ski 2011/12 holidays available at Winter 2010/11 prices

There is a five per cent loyalty bonus (for customers who have travelled in the past two years)

A 7.5 per cent online discount applies to all web bookings as well as advanced registration bookings

All bookings secured for a flat deposit of just £70

Priority free child places at selected properties

Early booking biscounts

For bookings go to www.balkanholidays.co.uk or call Reservations Tel: 0845 520 1263 or contact your local travel agent.