Escaping to the Winter Sun

Pamporovo, Bulgaria (Photo: WikimediaCommons)Bulgaria, often a summertime destination or pit stop for those visiting the southern part of Europe, is frequently overlooked as a great continental winter break. This needn’t be the case, however, as this hidden European gem offers both spectacular mountain scenery and winter sports at fabulously low prices, all with the very finest of international standards. Being so far to the south, this small country gets the best of both the Mediterranean sun and the Carpathian snow, which if you’re lucky, come together to make for a charming winter wonderland. There's nothing quite like blissfully lounging near a mountain top café and soaking in the sun before donning your skis or hopping on your snowboard and picking a path through an ancient snow-filled forest to the ski centers below.

Arrival is commonly in the capital Sofia, where a lengthy transfer journey proceeds south to the resort of Pamporovo by bus. There's always the opportunity to return to Sofia on a day tour from the ski centers, should visitors want to add sightseeing to their itineraries. Though the floodgates of wealth have not yet poured their resources into every East European home, and Sofia's atmosphere is still slightly reminiscent of its Communist past, the city is worth a visit as some historical surprises surely await.

Travelling to Pamporovo to swish along some of the fine mountains that lie along the country's southern border with Greece is a complete joy, to be missed neither by the intrepid skier nor the snow bunny, or anyone in between! The best time to head for the hills here is January or February, though the ski season usually extends a month on either side of that. 

Upon arrival at the ski resort after a journey of several hours is a complete joy, thanks to the greetings from the warm mountain sun, the perfect crisp snow and an abundance of luxurious three, four and five star accommodation and entertainment venues. Even the three star resort accommodations offer guess evening spa and massage facilities in house. Anything above three stars is sheer luxury, with plenty of relaxing options for soothing those limbs that ache from a workout on the slope. Services are first class and the welcomes genuinely warm. 

Bulgaria: Full of winter charm

Ancient forests surround Pamporovo, going right up to the summit. On a good day, after a snow fall, trees creak under the weight of soft powder. It’s an enchanting sight that makes a winter wonderland paradise, where charming cafes and restaurants dot the landscape offering food and refreshment for all tastes. Bear tracks are sometimes seen in early spring, between the trees.

The ski runs vary from leisurely trails through the charming forest, not too dissimilar to the fantasy land of Narnia, to more demanding, steeper runs, making Pamporovo a good first taster to continental skiing. The excellent prices and chance of winter sun bathing draw many back for return visits, particularly if France and Switzerland are beyond budget. 

At the top of the Mount Snezhanka sits a tower that is similar to the Fernsehtrum in Berlin. It is possible to have lunch here, high up in the tower enjoying the surrounding views. Few ever do, however, it seems; the approach gates have been left to rust leaving visitors to wonder if this Snezhanka tower isn't an unwelcome reminder of dark times in Bulgaria.

The ski instructors tend to direct their students to lunch and relax at any one of the numerous Bulgarian, Italian and Serbian cafes and bars that dot the mountain and offer log fires, good music and great food, not to mention a comforting welcome. These establishments are testament to the social mountain atmosphere in this unique corner of the world.

Traveling to Bulgaria would not be complete without immersion in traditional and culinary delights. It possible to match high octane thrills on Bulgaria’s mountains with delightful, peaceful evenings sampling culinary delights, sumptuous costume and dancing and music, not to mention local liquid refreshment. 

Pamporovo offers plenty of entertainment

Bulgaria is also famous for its historical and cultural charm. Bram Stoker's Dracula is fabled in popular culture to have lived among the castles and mountain forests of Bulgaria and Romania alongside the bears. Visits to his castle can also be arranged at some ski centres, as can visits to local towns and markets for shopping and culture if the adrenaline of the mountain slope gets too much.

Most European tour operators now offer skiing holidays in Bulgaria to notable resorts such as Bankso, Borovets, Chepelare and, of course, Pamporovo. All offer cultural excursions and the possibility of independent travel along with the ski or boarding experience. I went on a package deal, cheap by conventional skiing package prices though still including all transfers, equipment, accommodation and instruction. Be sure to take out winter sports insurance and suitable clothing if you undertake this adventure. 

The Carpathian winter offers sport, adventure and something a little different as well as the chance to experience some local culture. A winter escape to Bulgaria is definitely one worth making, as you are sure to enjoy a first rate holiday that's high on the savings and low on regret.

About the Author

With a background in sociology, education and social justice, Stephen Lee Mowat has strength in visual arts and is currently teaching English. He enjoys sports, the outdoors, experiencing life in other cultures and traveling in Asia & Europe.

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 Full name: Republic of Bulgaria

 Population: 7.04 million (CIA, 2012)

 Capital: Sofia

 Largest city: Sofia

 Area: 110,879 sq.km. (42,810 sq. mi.)

 Major languages: Bulgarian, Turkish, Roma,  Other

 Major religions: Bulgarian Orthodox, Muslim,  Other Christian, Other

 Monetary unit: Leva

 GDP per capita: US $13,500

 Internet domain: .bg

 International dialling code: +359

 Source: CIA World Factbook