The Val d'Isere of the future?
Bansko: Eastern Europe's answer to Aspen. So runs the hyperbole about one of Europe's newest ski resorts. It's a buzz that the resort's developers are understandably keen to perpetuate. Millions of euros are being spent transforming this small Bulgarian town, which lies three long, lacklustre hours from the country's capital, Sofia, into something Brad and Angelina might head for when in Europe and desperate for powder.
Unsurprisingly, given the hype, Bansko's property market has been undergoing a boom. Brits are pouring their pension plans into buying up cheap ski apartments in anticipation that it will become another Val d'Isere once Bulgaria joins the EU in 2007. With prices from around £20,000 it's not hard to see why investors are joining the gold rush. 'I missed out on Croatia, but I won't make the same mistake with Bulgaria,' declare one British couple with almost evangelical zeal in a property brochure.
But are they right? At first the comparisons with Aspen are hard to fathom. There are the potholes for a start. Millions of them, making a drive around the town far more dangerous than anything that could befall you on the slopes. It sometimes seems that Bansko's streets are simply a collection of holes occasionally interrupted by tarmac along which stray dogs wander. Then there's the endless building sites that make Bansko seem like the set for Auf Wiedersehen Pet and make for depressing horizons.
And the hatchet-faced staff at the lift office who stare at you like they've caught you dog-napping their favourite pooch when you attempt to buy a day pass. I can't see Jack Nicholson giving up his seat at the Hotel Jerome for this.
And then there's the skiing. Bansko's got only 65km of runs - 17 in all: one black, four blues, the rest reds. If you skipped lunch you could do them all in a day. And I'm not even sure the reds are really reds. They're more blues - or somewhere in between: purples? Admittedly there are plans to open up more of the surrounding mountains, but this will be some years off. Bansko is definitely not a place for advanced skiers or even enthusiastic intermediates.
That said, I can't think of a better resort for those on a budget looking to start skiing. My hotel - the Orphey - was pretty good. Get rid of the harsh lighting and the pastel colours and it would have been really good. The four stars it had been awarded might seem a bit generous, but it was smart and clean with big rooms, many of which had balconies, a steam room and a blinged-up swimming pool in the basement that looked like it should double for a porn set. I kept expecting Ron Jeremy to walk in dressed as a pizza delivery man.
Breakfasts and dinners in the hotels are usually buffet style. There is a good variety of fish and meat and lots of fresh fruit, vegetables and salad. Around 60 per cent of those in the Orphey were Brits and most seemed happy with the food - a traditional gripe in many ski hotels. The staff buzzed around efficiently delivering drinks.
Once up the mountain the pistes are wide and excellently groomed. The lifts are modern: the gondola that takes you the seven odd kilometres from Bansko up into the mountain would be the envy of any resort in the world.
Better still, when I went, in mid-March, the slopes were roomy with no queues at the lifts. A six-day lift pass costs £128. Six days of ski school will set you back just £100. Package deals are even greater bargains. Several people I spoke to were enjoying a week's skiing, with equipment, lift pass and a bed in a hotel for under £500. Food up the mountain is cheap too: gluhwein is about 70p, a pizza under £4, local beer £1, and surprisingly delicious kebabs £3.
Boarders will enjoy the fun park and the half-pipe while the nursery slope is an easy introduction for children. And for those who make it to the top of the mountain, where they are rewarded with glorious, uninterrupted views across to the horizon, there is the added bonus of a 16km unbroken trip down into town.
And this is where Bansko comes into its own. The mountain above the town is one giant forest which has been cleared in places to create well thought out pistes. The effect is an enchanting descent, which on Saturday nights is lit by lamps allowing for a memorable night of skiing.
Apres-ski is not hard to find. Bansko has a population of 10,000, but 150 bars. Clearly, Bulgarians are thirsty people. Most of the bars are congregated around a central spine, the oldest part of the town which has some quaint, almost medieval-looking taverns that would not be out of place on the Lord of the Rings film set. Inside you are greeted by roaring fires and irritating power ballads that seem to follow you wherever you go. Memo to whoever wrote Foreigner's 'I want to Know What Love Is': head for Bansko, you will be worshipped as a god.
In the taverns a lavish three-course meal for two with very drinkable Bulgarian wine (honest) will come to under £20 and leave you so stuffed you will wonder how you are going to make it back to your hotel.
This is something you get used to in Bansko. Many of the hotels are a couple of kilometres from the slopes making it difficult to get around.
Fortunately all of them offer regular minibus shuttles to the gondola station (a second station is in the pipeline) but at night you'll probably want to flag a taxi - not always the easiest thing to find. There is none of the street-hawking that some people have experienced at other Bulgarian resorts, notably Borovets. Incidentally, when I was there, skiers were being bussed in from Borovets, the country's foremost ski resort, because Bansko had better snow. Those I spoke to favoured the upstart over its older rival.
In the evening there is a 'Brits abroad' atmosphere in many of the taverns. There's Sky Sports in some, quiz nights in others, while pub crawls and copious shot downing seem almost ubiquitous.
For those looking for something else from their ski holiday, there is target shooting, bowling or fishing in Bansko's many surrounding mountain lakes. You suspect these activities will play a greater part in Bansko's future as the property developers look to turn the resort into a year-round destination to attract the hiking and mountain biking crowd.
Indeed, in a few years' time given the money being thrown at it, Bansko is likely to be unrecognisable. Inevitably, this means prices will rise. Learners on a budget might want to get in before Bansko's transformation is complete.
Jamie Doward travelled with Inghams (020 8780 4433; www.inghams.co.uk) and stayed at the four-star Hotel Orphey in Bansko, from £329pp half-board, including flights from Heathrow to Sofia with BA and resort transfers.
Flights are also available from Bristol, Birmingham, and Manchester for a supplement. Pre-book your skis and boots for £76, ski school (four hours a day for six days) for £99 and six-day lift pass for £128.
Source: The Observer