Sadly, ski season appears to be winding down here in Bulgaria. With each passing day the mountains above Sofia seem a bit less white.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t point out what an incredibly great season it has been, with plenty of snow and comfortable temperatures for the last month. Last weekend my daughter and I ventured up to Borovets in the Rila Mountains for what could be our final runs of 2012, though in truth we’re already scheming for a return in December.
In that spirit, I offer a few observations on how much better skiing in this corner of the Balkans has turned out to be than I ever expected. For a skier who was raised (okay, spoiled) on Rocky Mountain powder back in the day, it has been a revelation.
True, resorts like Borovets tend to groom the heck out of slopes, and they were very lucky with snowfalls that set records across the region. But still.
I should also mention that the snarky image one might conjure of Bulgarian ski lifts – old ropes hooked to a Soviet-era tractor up the mountain, etc. – turned out to be false. The lifts and gondolas we saw were modern and well maintained, with automated lift ticket scanners and even one of those rolling-plastic-carpet thingys.
The great prices (see below) have drawn UK and Irish package tourists by the planeload. After six months in Bulgaria it did feel a bit odd to hear accents from Belfast or Birmingham in the lift line, but this crowd seemed to bring their best manners – no soccer brawls outside the ubiquitous British pubs and kitschy eateries. Nor did I hear anyone bellyaching about poor service, a staple of press reports from five years ago, which suggests that Bulgarian hoteliers and restaurant owners have raised their game.
Drinking coffee at the foot of the beginner’s slope one morning in February while our daughter took a few warmup runs, a cafe owner brought my wife and me a big surprise: steaming cups of highly alcoholic rakia laced with honey. “Special recipe!” he told us with a wink. I am still not completely persuaded this is the best way to begin a long day on the slopes, but it did provide me with a useful reminder to watch for fast-moving skiers with too much rocket fuel in their bellies.
Compared to just about anywhere else in the skiing world, the prices in Bulgaria are obscenely low. Coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice in a cafe, together, will set you back about $2 US. Entrees at places like the funky Blue Restaurant in Borovets cost around $10. This past weekend we paid $70 US for a double room in the Rila Hotel, located at the foot of the slopes in Borovets — a price that included a decent buffet breakfast and two lift tickets. (On the downside, the walls were a bit thin, the better to hear our chatty British friends returning late from the aforementioned pubs. But it felt like a small sacrifice.) By way of comparison, I would have paid $99 this season for a single, one-day lift ticket in Aspen, Colorado.
Driving down the mountain on Sunday, it seemed like everyone from the neighboring down of Samokov was out by the highway selling potatoes. Perhaps there was an early potato harvest, though I would have thought the ground would still be frozen. More likely, it seemed, this was a way for locals to capture a bit of that Sofia-bound skiing money and send city dwellers back with a few sacks of the real spuds.
In any case, they managed to lure me off the road. I bought two small sacks – one red, one white – with no clear idea of why I had suddenly been gripped with a desire for potatoes. I paid $6 US and briefly worried that I was being charged foreigner prices. But the gent happily posed for a photo and we were both happy with the exchange.
Now all I need is a good recipe for potato salad.