Bansko: where luxury can be affordable

29th January 2020, by Nicky Holford

Bansko swathed in cloud, but the sun is shining on the upper slopes

Bansko swathed in cloud, but the sun is shining on the upper slopes

I first went skiing in Bulgaria around 20 years ago, before Bansko ski resort even existed.

My memories were of rickety second- or third-hand lifts from obscure resorts groaning up the mountain, fried eggs quivering in grease and skis that had seen better days.

When I heard that we would be staying in the five-star Kempinski ski-in ski-out hotel with its award-winning spa and shops that sported the latest Italian ski wear, I knew times had changed. And it was a total transformation.

A healthy injection of more than €130 million by the Sofia-based investment company, Ulen which holds the Bansko ski area concession for 30 years, has resulted in a new lift system and an entire alpine village filled with boutique hotels, most with gorgeous spas, traditional and international restaurants surrounded by throbbing après-ski bars.

Since 2001 new lifts, including two 6-seater express chairs have given skiers 75km of runs with mostly blue and red runs and a few challenging blacks.

The resort is suited to beginners and intermediate skiers and snowboarders with beginner slopes at the top of the gondola and a baby drag at the base. For more advanced skiers and snowboarders there’s a funpark off the Banderitza chairlift and an area of freeride that was closed when we were there for lack of snow.

We arrived in the late afternoon and with lightning speed got into our ski gear, secured lift passes and equipment and jumped on the 20-minute gondola to the real base of the ski area.

A further two chairlifts took us up to the top of the mountain at 2600m. where the snow-covered fir trees were already glowing from the late afternoon light. Top to base at 936 m. is 16km. Not bad for a first run.

Back at the Grand Arena Kempinski it was time for the spa. Lolling about outside with steam dissipating into the black night I chatted to a British couple skiing in Bansko for the fourth time. “It’s an affordable five-star hotel,” they told me. “Even room service is less than Pizza Express at home.”

The Grand Arena Kempinski has an award-winning spa

As we were to eat in a typical “mehana” the following night we opted for the hotel’s Sushi Bar and Teppanyaki Grill. As flames shot into the air from an open grill, a Japanese chef performed a captivating knife performance juggling a set of meat cleavers. The sushi and sashimi was exquisite and the calibre of Bulgarian wine another surprise. Best known for their red wines, many imported internationally, there are many varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc which were originally planted when Bulgaria was still a communist country. We ended the night with some rather excellent “Rakia” a fruit brandy, usually about 40%, the national drink of the Balkans.

Bright and early the next day we are up the mountain with a team of experts. We are days away from the women’s FIS World Cup which is being held on a run called Tomba. Alberto Tomba is a Bansko ambassador as well as legend. The preparation is intense with more than 100 people working the piste, spraying it with water and grooming with meticulous care so it’s icy and fast for the race. A bit of walkie talkie action secures us an unprecedented ski on part of the course. Fortunately the pristine corduroy is not too icy for our amateur turns.

The pristine piste prepared for the FIS women’s World Cup race

Good value aside, Bansko can easily compete on a number of levels with other European resorts. An agreement with Verbier allows all season pass holders three days’ skiing in the other resort. The resort is eco-friendly, meaning eco-friendly cleaning products and no plastic.

Set in the Pirin mountains with Vihren the highest peak at 2914m, its season runs from December to mid-April. Although when we were there in early January more snow was definitely needed.

A short walk from the ski village is the old town of Bansko, a Unesco World Heritage site, where colourful stone walled houses and cobbled streets house a selection of mehanas — traditional taverns, serving specialities such as banita (filo pastry with feta cheese) and typical local dishes. Nearby in the village of Banya are natural mineral hotsprings. Delicious after a day’s skiing.

Ski and lift equipment repurposed in the 180 degrees restaurant

Après ski takes place at numerous umbrella bars or the Happy End at the bottom. At the 180-degree restaurant off the Todorka chairlift, booths with chairs made from skis and other quirky touches have made it a favourite with a group of Brits who have all bought apartments and have breakfast there every day.

Lunchtime entertainment for us was a dancer on a pick-up truck at the top of the gondola singing Adele, and a Michelin-style lunch at the VIP Room with Italian chef Djovanni Porku. Potatoes play a large part on every menu (smoked potato and truffle ravioli). Entrepreneurs selling potatoes out of their trucks were a regular sight along the roads.

Fine dining: Nicky with Italian chef Djovanni Porku

This March Bansko hosts a Freeride World Qualifier, yet another accolade. I wonder if the Big Mountain skis will fit in the gondola, as when we were skiing there wasn’t a freeride ski in sight.

Nicky Holford went to Bansko with specialist Balkan Holidays who offer several hotels and packages. The five-star Kempinski Hotel Grand Arena costs from £675 per person for a March departure 2020, including return flights from Gatwick, transfers and 7 nights’ B&B with one complimentary meal. A six-day lift pass, skis and boot rental and tuition costs £202. Flights are available from nine other UK airports. Visit

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