A Balkan holiday proves an ideal opportunity to learn to ski the bargain basement way, as Richard Doughty reports.

I MUST confess now: when it comes to skiing, I’m no Bode Miller. Being a late starter to the sport didn’t help and it was only after my children had been on a school ski trip, that I was persuaded by the rest of the family to give it a go.

That was about six years ago in the Austrian Alps and although I did enjoy it, there was part of me that was terrified. I hated not being in control. Since then, I haven’t been back, mainly because of the fear factor, but also because of the huge expense of a ski holiday, especially in the Alps.

So it was great to discover a ski resort which is ideally suited for the beginner, with excellent ski schools with English tuition and gentle slopes to start on – and all for a price which wasn’t going to break the bank. It was called Bansko, and it was in Bulgaria.

The downside is that the resort is a three-hour transfer from the capital, Sofia, although it is known for having the best and most modern facilities of all the country’s ski resorts.

Our hotel was the Strazhite, which was comfortable and conveniently located about 400m from the main gondola lift, which takes you on a 25- minute journey to the northern slopes of the Pirin Mountain where the pistes are located. The hotel had excellent facilities, including ten-pin bowling, swimming pool, sauna and massage treatments to ease all those aching limbs after a day on the slopes.

It took about ten minutes to walk the short distance to the gondola. Or you could take the free bus shuttle.

We didn’t experience any problems with queues at the lift, but at certain times of the year – Russian holidays and school holidays – you may have to wait a very long time and it is advisable to get there early.

We had booked a six-day ski school package, which included hire of equipment and ski passes and found ourselves in a group of ten, non-skiing Brits in the beginners’ class. Our instructor was Bansko-born Mariana Kotirkova, who guided us as we tentatively took to the slopes for the first time. She had the patience of a saint, but despite her 14 years’ experience couldn’t help one woman in the group who was convinced that she had been given “slippy skis” and promptly gave up. The rest of us slowly, but surely, improved our skills.

For the first time, I found myself a bit more in control and was soon to be found skiing some of the magnificent blue runs. There are more than 43 miles of marked ski runs at Bansko and the resort has plenty of red and some black runs for more ex perienced skiers. The ski school also caters for intermediate and advanced skiers and it’s great way to meet new friends.

There are many bars and restaurants in Bansko, offering really cheap wining and dining. Our group would meet for apresski drinks at the Happy End Bar, where a pint of beer cost a very reasonable £2.60. Another favourite was the Lions Pub, opposite our hotel, which was always busy.

Bulgarian food seems to consist of pork and chicken dishes with plenty of vegetables and salads. If you fancy a change, there are fast food outlets on the main street or you could walk into the old town, where you can enjoy Bulgarian song and dance and a three-course meal for less than £17.

Drinks here are generally cheaper, with a glass of beer from £1.20. On the mountain, the best meal we had was at the VIP Room Restaurant at the top of the gondola lift.

Other activities which could be booked through the holiday rep included ice skating, bum-boarding or snowboarding taster sessions. We booked a half-hour session on a skidoo, which took you on an exhilarating ride from the gondola station up the floodlit blue ski run and back. It is very cold at night though, especially with the wind in your face as you approach speeds of up to 50mph.

If, like me, you have always fancied skiing, but thought it was too late to try, I’d recommend a trip to the Balkans.

You will probably get away with paying about half what you would on a ski trip to France or Austria.

Now I’ve faced and beaten the fear, I’m very tempted to slope off to Bansko again. Bode Miller, watch out...

Did you know...

• Bulgaria has established itself as a popular tourist destination, with five million tourists visiting its resorts and archaeological sites annually.

• The Bulgarians were the first people to put the Cyrillic alphabet to use after its inception in the 9th Century.

• Bulgaria and Denmark were the only two countries to save their jews during the holocaust.

• The world’s first digital watch was invented by Bulgarian Peter Petrov.

• The oldest gold treasure in the world was found in graves in Bulgaria – 3,000 gold objects dating back more than 6,000 years.

• The only nations that use the bagpipe as an instrument are Scotland, Ireland, England and Bulgaria.


BALKAN Holidays is the leading tour operator to Bulgaria and was established 46 years ago. Bansko, 150km south of the capital Sofia, is the principal ski resort.

A seven-night break at the four- star Hotel Strazhite starts from £423, per person, half board. (March 11 and 17 departures). Prices include flights from Newcastle and transfers.

Full ski packs are available from £120 per person and there is a five per cent discount for customers who have travelled in the past two years. Bookings can be secured for a deposit of £70 per person and there are free child places at selected properties.

• Book at balkanholidays.co.uk or call reservations on 0845-130-1114.