Reasons to be Chilly in Bargain Bulgaria
Bansko, a ski resort two-and-a-half hours from Sofia, oozes modern class, according to British journalist Laura Wileman. Photo by Sofia Photo Agency
Ever been so cold your jacket zip freezes to your chin? Me neither. But it happened to my cousin when he went skiing in Bulgaria.
But wrapping up warm, drinking hot chocolate and eating dinner next to an open fire warm you up enough to make braving the Balkans in winter worth it.
As well as being cold, Bulgaria has a reputation for being cheap and cheerful, and some parts are. But other areas are luxurious with breathtaking beauty, and I planned to take in both sides during my trip.
During the two-hour journey from Sofia Airport to Bulgaria's oldest ski resort, Borovets, we drive through suburbs with icicled washing on lines in temp-eratures of minus 10, before winding through towering trees and mountains.
Borovets is the place to go if you're on a tight budget. The skiing is good and the scenery up the mountain is fantastic.
We stay at the Hotel Rila, at the bottom of one of the main slopes and, for convenience and a view from your bedroom, it can't be rivalled.
The rooms are basic, but when you step out on the balcony and see the mountain lit up at night, it's hard to care. Then the karaoke kicks in.
Our instructor tells us that 80 per cent of tourists are British, and that explains why Borovets reminds me of Malia on ice, especially when I hear Brian Adams' Summer Of '69 being massacred at the Black Tiger bar.
The buildings are all cabins that look like mini Santa's grottos, with exotic bars dotted between. All lit up, with music playing and warming drinks flowing, it has a cosy charm.
On to Bansko, a ski resort two-and-a-half hours from Sofia and oozing modern class. It has one of the most difficult race pistes in the world, the Alberto Tomba, and hosted the 2011 Men's Alpine Skiing World Cup.
I'm staying at the Lucky Bansko Aparthotel in an apartment which sleeps three, and has a balcony, wood fire, kitchen, living room and beautiful bathroom. The hotel has 12 varieties of hot chocolate and there's a piano bar for partygoers, although Ace Of Base songs seemed to be on loop.
As much as I enjoy '90s Europop, we decide to look for somewhere a bit more traditional to eat, and stumble upon Dedo Penne, a tiny restaurant with massive personality. Pans, animal heads and wooden skis hang from the walls, and the waiters wear braces, breeches and hats.
Next we head to Sandanski, far removed from the ski resorts. For one, it never snows there. It's known as the lungs of Bulgaria because of the fresh mountain air and it's the sunniest part of the country, close to the Med.
We stay at the Pirin Park spa hotel. The owners wanted to steer clear of skiing and the beach industry and get to the 'spirit of Bulgaria'.
People go to Sandanski for healing. Pirin Park's spa offers conventional massages, but also unusual treatments, using plankton, rice, pearls or caviar.
We're sharing the hotel with a local football team, there for rejuvenation. And Sandanski's where Spartacus was born. So if it's good enough for professional athletes and a warrior, it's good enough for me.
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