''Discovering Bulgaria: Part One''
January 1, 1970
Bulgaria is one of those neighbor countries that somehow never ended up on my travel list. Just once in 2012. I passed it on the road to Istanbul. I remember it only vaguely, as a country which our driver passed in one hectic drive, not making a single stop. It looked back then, that he was scared of stopping as if someone will attack or rob us. Or maybe he was just eager to reach Turkey. Who knows? Anyway, its 2016 now and I decided to join my three friends in discovering skiing opportunities in this, until then, unknown country. As a place to do that we chose Bansko.
Bansko is a small town located in the southwest of Bulgaria, under the beautiful Pirin Mountain, counting about 8500 inhabitants.
In the first couple of days we had a bit of a hard time noticing the locals because the place was flooded by foreign skiers coming mostly from Russia and United Kingdom. Packed with hotels, apartments for tourists and souvenir shops, I was wondering where real Bulgarians are, and are there any during the skiing season. Eventually we started to discover them once we entered the old town of Bansko.
The old town is the real place where you can escape the skiing frenzy for a second and taste a different Bulgaria. As most of the small places in Balkan Peninsula this one is also calm and sleepy. There are many different shops and real mehanas (traditional restaurants often with live music) where you can get a sense of how people here live. The first feeling you might get is that communism is still nearby. Something about the place reminded me that this country was for a long time under the Soviet influence which makes it absolutely reasonable why the people here treat Russians as one their own. Even if you have some shallow knowledge of either Russian or even Serbian you will find yourself easily communicating with the locals. That being said, do not rely too heavily on speaking English once you try to talk with older people in Bulgaria.
One of the particular perks of spending time in old town Bansko are Mehanas. These are old taverns where you can find traditional cuisine, good wine and adorable sweets. ‘’Obescanova Mehana’’ (on the left) is one of the places I would gladly recommend. Feel free to try unusually interesting ice cream made of buffalo milk and green figs. Sounds weird, but tastes really good.
If you think of bringing with you a souvenir to remind you of your holiday and skiing (hopefully that should not be and injury of any kind) I would strongly advocate skipping the souvenir shops all together. The items there are the same you can get in any other place just with different inscriptions. But what would be a real difference are the special traditional art shops. You will be able to find very interesting pieces made of wood and different types of metal. Numerous toys, wooden pencils, cars and unique jewelry can help you to remember Bansko in a new way. The prices are also more than affordable so don’t get scared of entering one of the shops like this one on the photo on the right.
Going up, from the old town to the new one, you will find yourself in the foot of a beautiful and wild mountain Pirin. The mountains suddenly jumps up and leaves you amazed. Only 40 minute drive by the ski lift, you will find yourself at a meeting point at 1400 meters above sea level. The meeting point is a place where you can find a couple of coffee shops, restaurants and a ski school for beginners. This year, my skiing skills were not developed enough to climb beyond the 1400 m barrier so I have to withhold you from the information on the feeling you get once you are on the very top. Some people who made it to the top, sent amazing photos from the 2746 m height and motivated me to climb higher next year.
After a day spent on the snow, most people spend the night in one of the many pubs in Bansko. An interesting common feature of most of the pubs is that they are amerikanized/britainized to a great extent. One of the biggest and most popular pubs is “The Queens Pub” all glittery, shiny and British. At the same place you can listen to great punk music performed by some local band singing in perfect British English, you can smoke shisha, play pool, dance, eat, drink and have a great time all together. But personally, I liked more a place called “The Penguins Pub”, it’s smaller, cozier and had an amazing 3-members-band called “Charry Jam”. When it comes to finding places for going out I must not leave behind the place named Euphoria. It has the most amazing view on the snowy mountain peaks. I would strongly recommend going there during a sunny day
taking a cup of coffee of something to eat and just enjoy the sight.
Also one important thing when it comes to services in general. Be as concrete and patient as possible. People working in the service industries in Bulgaria like to take things at their own pace, so do not be surprised if the service is a bit slow or if you didn’t get what you wanted. Just be polite and smiled and everything will eventually come your way.
On the last day of our stay, we discovered one unexpected place. It is a small, family owned vine shop, the only one of the kind in the old town of Bansko. The owner of the shop knows no word of English but don’t let that scare you. You will easily communicate once you try his excellent red wine, made as a cocktail of two sorts of grapes (Cabernet and Merlot) as well as domestic apples that he will kindly force you to take with you. Don’t say no to him because it is a custom almost, and it shows that you respect him and his good mood. Also, don’t even think of paying him for the apples, he might be offended.