Broken in Bansko (Bulgaria 2017)

What is this post/article? – a recounting of my snowboard trip to Bansko, Bulgaria; including details of flights, transfers, what it’s like, a review of the MPM Hotel Sport and other practical info (see bottom of page).

What you’ll need to know to begin with – I’ve been snowboarding since 2003 and have spent 8 full length winter seasons working in various resorts around the world; hopefully that gives me some frame of reference.

What you’ll know at the end – hopefully you’ll know whether you want to stay at the MPM Hotel Sport, if you want to use suntransfers.com and if you want to ski/snowboard in Bansko.

Why it’s relevant to you – if you’re off to visit Bansko and you need some useful info, take a gander!

8 lads, 6 skiers, 2 snowboarders, and 3 days on the slopes in Bulgaria to celebrate various life milestones; what could possibly go wrong…right?  Well, my left collarbone might have some choice words to say there, but we’ll get to that in due course.

It all started with a random message from my mate Theo in December 2016, along the lines of; “Oi Jon, you should join me, Aaron and some mates on a mini shred mission to Bulgaria before you head off”, to which my immediate response was, “nah can’t afford that, gotta save for the big trip to Central America”.  However…give it 10 mins and a little bit of day-dreaming, wistfully remembering previous shred days from our Park City seasons in Utah, and in my head I’m already rationalising reasons why going on this trip is a must.  Screw it right? Making split-second decisions about spending time snowboarding with old friends and visiting random countries is what life is all about!

Fast forward to Thursday January 12th and I’m boarding my BA flight from Heathrow to Sofia (£177 GBP, but adding a snowboard bag as luggage both ways brings it to £226).  Since the rest of the gang are living and working in London, they’re getting a later flight, so I’m travelling on my own.  Having landed safely in Sofia and waited 20 mins to collect my snowboard bag, my first little challenge is locating the transfer driver from suntransfers.com.  I’m about 5-10 mins late for the scheduled meeting time and I can’t see my name scrawled on any of the signs.  I soon discover that Sofia airport is pretty small so he can’t be that far away; a couple of phone calls later and I’m on my way.  I’m slightly dubious about the bunch of 6 rowdy young Dublin lads in front of me on the minibus, but after a very loud and excited 20 mins of top quality banter they seem to settle down for the 3-hour transfer to Bansko.

The main thing I’m struck by is how many stray dogs we see wandering the streets on the way out of Sofia, and since the majority of the houses look like they haven’t quite finished being built yet, it’s all feels a bit, you know, soviet?  It’s the first time I really appreciate that Bulgaria is a relatively new addition to the EU, and hasn’t had the same investment in infrastructure that other, richer EU nations have enjoyed.   The lion’s share of the journey is mostly motorway so it’s not much to write home about.  On the plus side though, recent heavy snowfall down to low altitudes has blanketed the surrounding countryside in a thick layer of white; combine that with a low winter sun skipping in and out of light clouds, and the resulting sparkle effect is a fairly mesmerising little treat.

I arrive at the rather strangely titled ‘MPM Hotel Sport’ around 5:30pm.  It’s a 4-star ‘ski in/ski out’ hotel with spa and in general I was quite impressed with the facilities and the customer service throughout our stay.  Arriving at the hotel I was greeted by a friendly, Napoleon-sized Bulgarian bellhop and ushered into the main reception, a fair-sized area with adequate comfy seating and a large check-in desk.  Check-in completed with ease and I’m being shown to my room by said bellhop, turns out he visited London last year and picked up a smattering of English, he’s a big football fan and for some reason he’s a Chelsea supporter (shame, I was just beginning to think he seemed like a nice bloke).  The room itself was spacious enough, with a super king size bed in the middle and another single bed against the far wall.  Quick sunset picture of the ski slope and scenic mountainous background from the balcony window (for social media purposes) and I’m good to go.

View from MPM Hotel Sport

The WhatsApp group we’ve used to organize this mission is going crazy as I tap into the hotel’s free Wifi, it seems I’ve missed out on all manner of amusing banter and pictures of the ‘Bansko ski lads’ enjoying alcoholic refreshments in various locations across London on their various journeys to the airport.  I’ve had my fill of airports and transfers for the day so I head off to explore what’s on the Bansko dinner menu.  Passing through reception on my way out I remember to pick up a ski pass for the next couple of days; being able to buy your pass from the hotel is a great little bonus and means less time queueing and more time riding.  At just under £50 GBP for 2 days’ access to the whole Bansko ski area, it’s good value for money compared to France and Austria.  I try to test out the Bulgarian for ‘thank you’ (blagodarya) only to be reliably informed that Bulgarians also use their own version of the French word ‘merci’.  As I enquire further, using my linguistic nowse to predict that the short version of ‘blagodarya’ might be ‘blag’, I end up in a very confusing three-way conversation involving the concierge and my mate the bellhop, only for the penny to suddenly drop as I read his name badge…his name is ‘Blag’.  Wondering whether that means his name in English would be ‘Thanks’, I head out into the night.

Ski Pass

There had been fresh snow 3 days earlier but I was still navigating through a foot of crusty slush whilst walking down the main streets.  After a quick wander I happened upon a place called ‘BBQ Pizza’ (which actually offered a varied menu despite the name) and a hefty pint of the local tipple (Kamenitza beer); and at roughly £1.50 GBP a pint, I wasn’t complaining, dinner done and back to the hotel.

Going for a swim in the spa section of the hotel I was a bit surprised about how cool the water was, but also on offer was a ‘Roman Bath’ room with two fully tiled, jacuzzi like features and a steam room.  Standard stuff really, but watch out for the copper steam valve right at ankle level, I’m sure that one’s caused a nasty burn or two in its time.  Back upstairs and from the looks of the Whatsapp group it appeared the boys were hitting some weather trouble.  True to form, as soon as I leave the UK it bloody-well snows! The irony being that the rest of the group are almost denied their annual trip to play in the snow, because of…snow.

Finally getting out on the slopes the next day is a blast, the initiated amongst us are all a bit shaky for the first hour or so whilst we get our ‘snow sense’ back, but after that it’s all gravy as the clouds break and the sun hits its zenith.  The Bansko ski area is small compared to most of the better-known European resorts, but there’s plenty to keep everyone entertained, no matter the skill level.  The only subtle difference to other ski resorts I notice is that most of the lifties (lifty = people running/supervising the running of the ski lifts) seem completely uninterested as to who is getting on and off the ski lifts, and whether they know how to get on and off a ski lift!

Lads Lads Lads

The rest of the day passes in high spirits and we decide it’s time to head back down the mountain as leg muscles start to creak in protest.  It’s a fair old journey to get back to the base area and since it’s the end of the day, there’s a large amount of human traffic on the main green run which funnels everyone back down to the town.  Our group gets split up as the more experienced of us weave in and out of myriad obstacles to keep speed on the flat sections, but thankfully muscle-memory has a chance to kick in at these lower speeds as Aaron and I remember some of our old skills; riding switch (backwards) for certain sections and generally jibbing around the piste (jibbing = imaginative use of any available terrain, riding up the sides of the piste, hopping over tree branches etc) great fun!

All seems to be going smoothly until ‘the beginner snowboarder of carnage’ appears (always happens on the last run back home…and no; no one called out ‘last run’).  Somehow he just can’t fall over properly, and manages to execute an almost perfect high speed carve right across the entire width of the run into my path.  Although I’m certain that our paths won’t actually meet (I mean, how unlucky would that be right?…did I mention this happened on Friday 13th though? True story).  I make a last-ditch effort to ollie over him but it’s to no avail, I catch the nose of my board on his outstretched binding and go down hard on me left shoulder.  My left collar bone decides this isn’t acceptable, and duly snaps into 3 pieces.

For a detailed description of how I dealt with this ‘small matter’ (ahem), including practical advice, the usual procedure to follow in these situations, and what to expect from your travel insurance provider, please read this separate detailed review.

The staff at the MPM Sport Hotel were very accommodating as I got to grips with a new one-armed approach to life; providing me with extra pillows and making the appropriate sad faces whenever I wandered through the reception area.  I have to say that the rest of the lads also deserve a round of applause for rallying around and providing support during the remaining 36 hours I had left in Bulgaria.  Overall I think I acted with a degree of stoicism that John Wayne would have found passable; I went out for a meal and some beers with the rest of the group that night at least…I was reliably informed that alcohol makes Tramadol more effective…

Steak dinner + Beer + Schnapps…guess who broke themselves…

So what’s the reality then?

Flights: All London airports to Sofia (anywhere from £150 to £300 but watch out for the ski/snowboard bag charges)

Transfers: I recommend suntransfers.com – for both transfers to and from Bansko, total cost c. £30 GBP

Hotel: MPM Hotel Sport is highly recommended, good spa facilities, plentiful buffet breakfast and friendly staff, right next to the piste, a very short walk into the centre of Bansko, sells lift passes at reception.

Ski Pass: Good value, c. £50 GBP for 2 days, full price list here.

On the slopes:  A healthy mix of terrain for all abilities, there is a snowpark on the piste map but it’s seldom open, watch out for ‘Jerries’, beginners and people who have no idea what they are doing!

Restaurants: Plentiful and offering everything from local specialties, gourmet dining and kebabs with everything else in-between.

Bars: Great nightlife, it’s everywhere, although there are way too many touts for my liking, some evenings it verged on harassment as they offer ‘free drinks all night’ to get you into their bar (but maybe I’m just being overly skeptical).

Insurance/Medical: Bulgaria is a lot less safety conscious than we’re used to in the UK and some other EU countries, travel insurance is a must, not for any legal reason but just for your own peace of mind.  I had to use mine for the first time in 15 years of snowboarding!  The medical centre at the bottom of the mountain is pretty basic but well run, having more complex treatment or surgery in Bulgaria is not recommended, medical care in general is poor compared to the NHS.