When you talk to a skier or snowboarder about their sport, you’ll notice the poetry and passion in their words. The natural majesty of towering white peaks, pine-scent air and virgin snow does not go unadmired as skiers and boarders seek the best slopes to swish down. Like pilgrims, they return season after season to feel the icy breeze on their cheeks and hear the crush and scrape of the organza-white snow beneath them.
Before my first skiing holiday last week in Bankso, Bulgaria, this world was unknown to me. I had never felt crisp air sting my collar while gliding down a gleaming hill. I had never felt the awkward clunk that comes with every step in a ski boot. The mania of coordinating poles and skis and feet and arms while entering a moving gondola was completely foreign to me, as was the adrenaline-joy of turning down a slope at speed.
Here are some of the lessons that served me well…
1. Be organised before you arrive. Bansko is a busy ski village with plenty of accommodation and tourism services, but the later you organise things, the more costly it becomes. Pre-book your transfer from Sofia airport; have your accommodation confirmed; and bring your own ski-clothes (unless you’re prepared to spend time and money shopping in Bansko). Once you arrive, you can exchange currency near the baggage collection at Sofia airport or use the cash point inside the terminal foyer to withdraw Lev (BGN). The only thing that may not be cheaper to pre-book is ski hire… see tip number 3.
2. Get to the gondola by 8.15am to avoid the lines… or don’t got until 11-12. I’m talking about pushy, slushy, pole-in-your-face waits of up to an hour if you arrive in the peak period of 8.30-10.30am. This was the main downside of Bansko for me. It will help if your ski hire shop is close to the gondola line so that you don’t have to lug your gear as far in the mad morning rush. Also, there are two places to line up – the main entrance and the side entrance. After six days of debating line theory, I’ve concluded that, despite first appearances, both lines will get you into the gondola in the same amount of time.
3. Bargain, negotiate, barter. Bulgarians are open to a healthy session of price negotiations. Although Bulgaria is amazingly cheap to ski compared to almost everywhere else in the world, don’t pay the advertised rates just because they are printed on a board. If you have a group, you have bargaining power. If you want lessons with your gear hire, ask for free hire on the day of your lessons. If you have student cards, you should be able to get a deal on your gear hire and your lift pass. After seeking about five or six quotes, our group negotiated a great deal with InterSport (no.2), who were friendly, had newer gear, had instructors ready to teach at a moment notice and could store your boots etc. at night so it was dry for the next morning. Based on my spendings, I would recommend a generous budget of about 300 Lev for a six day lift pass and about 300 Lev for six days of ski and boot hire (including two lessons if you can negotiate), which comes to about AUS$380 for the week.
4. Drink hot chocolate with rum at the tipi on the ski road home. This tip was given to me by a very jolly 50-something man in a rainbow Mohawk beanie… so obviously it’s got to be good. For just 7Lev you can get a steaming cup of hot chocolate with a free-poured ‘shot’ of warming rum. The tipi does food and drinks all day, but it is at its loudest and proudest from 4.30-5.30pm when everyone stops in for a drink on the ski home. You will hear the remixed 80s beats before you see it. Keep in mind that it’s only about 1km of very gentle slopes (a bit tricky for beginner snowboarders) back to town, so a couple of drinks shouldn’t impact your journey too much.
5. If it’s your first time, or it’s been a while since you skied, get a lesson. I can’t recommend this enough. Learning the basics is much more involved than just strapping on your skis and watching everyone else. Having never skied before, I was grateful for my two 2 hour sessions with Vladimir, who taught me how to snow plough (very important anti-crashing technique), crash without killing myself (I especially appreciated his realistic acting) and how to turn (essential for not falling off the side of the mountain). In the days that followed I found myself chanting his instructions as I attempted slopes that were a little beyond me: up, down, downhill ski… up, down, downhill ski…flat feet, bend your knees…up, down, downhill ski…
6. Stretch and soak your tired muscles. Skiing for six hours a day, six days a week is more exercise than most gym junkies do, so naturally your body is going to feel it. I found that day three was the worse, leaving me gasping every time I stood up or sat down. A good stretch in a hot shower every morning and night definitely helped, as did the two hour sauna and spa session I indulged in on day three. If your chalet or hotel does not have a sauna and spa, you should be able to find one nearby that does. We were quoted between 9Lev and 25Lev for one day access to another hotel’s facilities and found the prices really did reflect the cleanliness, age and comfort of the pool and sauna. In the end, we went to a lovely 25 Lev per person ‘Spa Centre’ that gave us towels, robes and access to a sauna, showers and pool.
7. Don’t ski the blue beginner’s run on the summit unless you feel confident. Being the determine beginner that I am, I decided to go up to the blue summit slope on day two (or hour 5) or my skiing experience. While beginner snow boarders were able to edge down quite well, I found the whole experience just a little too challenging considering I’d only been shown how to turn an hour before. The first section of the slope is by far the hardest and the whole run is fairly long, so if you get stuck part way through, you really have to stick it out until you are down. In the end, I found that experience to be a character-building trial by fire. There are a couple of other blue runs that you should attempt first before making your way to the top.
8. Make sure you pack… three pairs of thick socks so you can rotate for warm, dry, fresh feet; a couple of sets of thermals; a fleece if your ski jacket is not very thick; moisturising eye drops to soothe your eyeballs after a day in the cold wind; sunscreen; gluten free or allergy-safe foods if you need alternatives (the free-from section is non-existent); and a sense of humour to help you get back up after you’ve fallen over for the 20th time.
Info & resources:
A bit of everything…
A big warm, cuddly thank you to Elissa and Arli, who organised the bulk of our group trip. Girls, your patience with a spread sheet, travel research skills and intrepid spirits are all things to be admired!! Also, a shout out to Jess, Jamie, Mark, Lara, Adam and Dave for being part of an awesome group to travel and ski with. Na zdrave!
Just a note in case you’re wondering ‘where in the world is Nic?’ Last week I was in Bulgaria but now I’m on my way around the UK and Ireland in a Wicked van, thanks to the support of Wicked. I’ll be blogging the whole way with a few little interruptions about other places I’ve been, so keep an eye out for my Wicked adventure posts.