Bulgarian Ski Adventure

Bansko, Bulgaria
Istanbul, Turkey
Vienna, Austria
March 6-20, 2010

top of the world

Our trip leader at Bansko, Bulgaria

On a sunny Saturday, six game and eager travelers set off to ski and explore Eastern Europe. This was to be a classic “old-time” (well… pre– 2000) European experience, with 3 different countries offering 3 different languages, 3 different currencies, 3 different cuisines and even 2 different time zones. The trip began in style, with Charles Robinson’s friend Ron picking us up in a stretch limo for the ride to Dulles Airport. There, following a last American dinner of cheeseburgers and fries, we boarded an Austrian Airlines jet and set off across the darkened Atlantic. We landed in Vienna the next morning following a light snowfall. Much of Northern Europe remained snow-covered even into early March following a cold winter. After a tour of the airport there due to changing flight gates, we set off again bound for Sofia, Bulgaria. It was sunny with a bit of snow still on the ground there as we met our local tour guide Nelly and boarded a van for the 3 hour ride into the Pirin Mountains and our initial destination of Bansko. The scenery along the way was very rural, with local farmers selling huge bags of onions off the hoods of old Soviet-era cars and mammoth potholes pock marking the roads. We arrived in Bansko during late afternoon and checked into our hotel, the Banderitsa.

Bansko is currently the largest ski area in Bulgaria and has its highest skiing elevation and largest vertical. The aggregate ski run from the top of the mountain to the village via the long, winding ski road totals appx. 16 kilometers. The Bulgarian government with the help of the European Community has recently pumped much money into this ski area, installing the long gondola from town and upgrading many of the old, slow lifts to high-speed quads. As such, the ski queues were kept to a minimum during our stay despite lots of fellow skiers (mostly Brits, Greeks and local Bulgarians) in the town and on the slopes. There has been a slew of building around town too as part of this expansion, with lots of spiffy new condos intermingling with the centuries-old, falling-down houses made of the local stone. But most of the new building has been confined to the area around the gondola base; the Old Town area of Bansko near our hotel has changed little since the 18th-19th centuries and is immensely charming and picturesque. Bansko was an important stop on the medieval trade routes between The Byzantine/Ottoman Empires of the Middle East and Budapest/Vienna and the rest of Europe. As such, it had a long history before the ski resort came to town, and many famous local writers, artists and scholars lived here including the man who originally devised the (indecipherable to us!) Cyrillic alphabet still in use across this region. The Holy Trinity Church here (built 1838 and still in use) was the largest church in the country until the end of the 19th century. The Turkish overlords forbade any Christian church to be taller than a man on horseback during that era, but the local officials ignored this edict and got away with it. Today there are multitudes of charming “mehana” taverns housed in ancient stone houses throughout Old Town, offering up scrumptious local fare along with traditional music. It became a nightly tradition for us to wander the streets of Old Town, popping in at various mehanas to soak up some of this flavor along with big mugs of the local Kamenitza beer. Donna Andrews was duly serenaded by a local musician at one such place during the week. There was scarcely any snow on the ground in Bansko upon our arrival, but that was about to change.

The ski week in Bansko began on Monday with a steady snow falling. Visibility was limited and the group elected to wait until the afternoon to head up the mountain and set off exploring the town instead. It was “International Women’s Day”, which is apparently a big occasion in Bulgaria, and many of the locals were carrying around fresh flowers sold at an outdoor flower market held beneath big umbrellas in the falling snow. During the afternoon the snow intensified, but Cathie Morrison, Ellen Pearce and Steve Andrews decided to give it a try anyway and set off for the slopes. The hotel ski bus led to the gondola base, and from there a miles-long ascent of the mountain ensued. The gondola brings everyone to the main ski area, from which chairlifts go up higher still (top skiing elevation is appx. 8500’, with a 5400’ vertical). Though you couldn’t see much in the way of scenery or anything else that first day, the skiing was good and everyone made it back to town in one piece. In Bulgaria there really isn’t any concept of “trail grooming”; basically the skiers groom the trails themselves. Fortunately there were plenty of them to complete this task! Though the Bansko ski area isn’t big by Western European or North American standards, the runs are steep and long and there is ample skiing to keep one busy for 3-4 days there. The snow continued heavily throughout the remainder of that day and night before tapering off Tuesday morning with over a foot’s accumulation. After that it snowed off and on throughout the week, with another foot or so falling on Wednesday afternoon/night so we were all set in the snow department. On Tuesday, the other skiers in the group (Mike Zullo and Charles Robinson) joined us on the slopes for a full ski day. Donna spent the days around the hotel relaxing, going to the spa, exploring the church or shopping in town before meeting us for après-ski libations at the hotel’s Bander Pub. Most of the day Tuesday was spent skiing in and out of the swirling clouds upon the mountain, with a light snow falling. However late in the day it suddenly cleared off briefly at the top of the mountain, and the summit was bathed in glorious sunshine. For the first time you could see the majestic snow-covered peaks all around us and get a true appreciation for the beauty of the Bulgarian mountains. That night several of us hit the noted “Happy End” après-ski bar for libations.

On Wednesday we all took off from skiing and had Nelly arrange a day trip to the historic winemaking town of Melnik. Melnik is really just a tiny village tucked along a single mostly-dirt road in a valley surrounded by high chalk cliffs eroded into fascinating shapes. It is located only about 20 km north of the Greek border. By the way, there was formerly a 10 mile or so demilitarized “no-man’s land” strip of land here which separated the Capitalist and Socialist worlds. This forlorn, unused land is now the premier wine-growing area in Bulgaria! We first toured the Rozhen Monastery (founded in 1217) located on a mountaintop outside of Melnik. It was snowing lightly all day, and the winding single-lane road up to the monastery was rather treacherous. Afterwards we returned to the village for a tour and tastings at one of the local wineries and then had lunch in a traditional restaurant. After numerous courses (all accompanied by a different liquor!) and several hours, we re-boarded the van and headed back to Bansko. That night it began to snow heavily once more, and we got another foot or so overnight. It was beautiful walking around in it as we hit a few mehanas that evening.

Thursday was a return to the slopes for most, with lots of new snow to be tracked and clearing skies. Yours Truly managed to ski every trail on the mountain at least once, along with surviving an oft-piste gully running down from the top. There were also great views of the mountains to be had once more when the clouds parted. Friday was our final day in Bansko and we all spent the day packing up and wandering about town.  In the afternoon a happy hour was held to drink up the remaining Bulgarian wine and spirits we had left over. Charles modeled the new wolf hat he bought in town, while Donna got to try out her new rakiya decanter set. Mike and Charles later enjoyed their final nighttime brandies in the basement bar.

The following morning we had one last Bulgarian breakfast in the Cask Room downstairs, then met Nelly and the driver and departed Bansko for the next leg of our adventure. We drove first to the Rila Monastery, the largest, most famous and most beloved monastery in Bulgaria. Our drive there was delayed for a few minutes while a large herd of cows crossed the narrow access road. Nestled high in the Pirin Mountains, the monastery is an absolutely gorgeous architectural treasure containing many historical and religious relics. Chief amongst these was a wooden cross carved over a dozen years with detailing so intricate that the monk who carved it eventually went blind while making it. After the monastery tour, we had lunch at an adjacent restaurant. Cathie had a “Special Moment” when the main course was served—local trout with the head still on. We left the mountains afterward and continued on to Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital and by far largest city. An inland, waterless city, Sofia is a rather recent capital (late 19th century) and was built mainly in the French Second Empire style. The core city has many grand buildings interspersed by small parks. The crème-de-la-crème of these is the huge Alexander Nevsky Memorial Church, completed in 1912. We toured it and spent several hours exploring the city, then headed for the airport for our nighttime flight to Istanbul. Upon arrival at Ataturk International Airport there, we met our transfer bus and headed into the sprawling metropolis of Istanbul which was for centuries known as Constantinople, legendary capital of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Our hotel there, the Hotel Barin, was located just outside the ancient district of Sultanahmet and across from a large, illuminated mosque. Also located nearby was the massive Valens Aqueduct, which is also brilliantly floodlit by night. Built by a Roman Emperor in the 1st Century A.D., the aqueduct was used up until the late 19th century to bring fresh water into the city from the surrounding hills. It was built so solidly that despite centuries of use, it still withstands the constant rattle of cars, trucks and buses which continually rumble past on the 8-lane roadway running through its arches after nearly 2000 years. In Istanbul there is a mosque on seemingly every corner, from little tiny ones up to mammoth, sprawling extravagances such as the Blue Mosque. Each one, no matter, how small, contains a minaret tower from which the Call to Prayer is broadcast on loudspeakers at intervals throughout the day. We were to discover early the following morning that the first one starts at 4:50AM this time of year and continues on ceaselessly for about 20 minutes….

We spent the next 3 days in Istanbul, named “European Cultural Capital” for 2010, hitting most of the main tourist hotspots and savoring the charms the city has to offer. It was mostly sunny but on the cool side while we were there. Primary stops included the famous Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia Church/Mosque/Museum and the Topkapi Palace which together line the west bank of the Bosphorus. The Blue Mosque (official name Sultanahmet Mosque) is by far the largest of Istanbul’s hundreds of mosques and one of the few that non-Muslims have easy access to. They merely ask that you take off your shoes and place them in a sealed plastic bag to enter. It was built in the 17th century to outshine the adjacent Hagia Sophia, itself built as a Christian church and then converted to a mosque and finally a museum. The latter is named, coincidentally, after the same Saint Sophia that Sofia, Bulgaria likewise honors. The Topkapi Palace is perhaps the real jewel of the three; we spent nearly 5 hours in there one day touring the extensive museums, lush courtyards and separate Harem complex of this Sultan’s Palace which served the rulers of the empire from 1460-1918. We were joined by many hundreds of Turkish schoolchildren on field trips; this would be their equivalent of a trip to Washington DC or Williamsburg here. These three attractions are interspersed by beautifully landscaped parks and gardens which offer magnificent views across the Bosphorus Strait far below and over to the “Asian Side” of Istanbul beyond. The Bosphorus is filled with ships at any hour of the day or night; from small pleasure craft through tugboats, ferries and up to huge freighters and tankers. Basically all ships traveling between the Black and Mediterranean Seas must pass by here. The symphony of all the ships’ horns, bells, whistles and engines is an integral part of the city’s character. One afternoon we joined this armada by taking a short boat tour of the Bosphorus, past all the centuries-old and modern palaces which line its shores for miles. We also visited the Spice Bazaar, a very aromatic market selling every conceivable spice at very affordable prices. The other large market, the Grand Bazaar, was Donna’s favorite hangout as she wheeled and dealed with the merchants there on several occasions. Dinner one night was at a seafood restaurant beneath the Galata Bridge spanning the Golden Horn; this time Cathie was relieved to note that the fish came with the heads off. Another night some of the group dined at a traditional Turkish restaurant on the grounds of a mosque, where they were seated on floor cushions (and sans shoes of course….). And for late-night munchies there were always the innumerable doner-kebab sidewalk stands.

It was an early St. Paddy’s Day wakeup call when we departed Istanbul at 5:00am to our final strains of the morning Call to Prayer. But we weren’t done with Europe yet. It was on to Vienna, which the rest of the group “twisted my arm” to return to for the first time in 13 years. It was much warmer in the Austrian capital this time around, and Spring was in the air. People were out everywhere enjoying the beginning of the nice weather following a tough winter. Sidewalk cafes were packed, bikers, joggers and strollers paraded along the Danube Canal and people relaxed al fresco in the many parks and gardens of the city. We joined them to soak up the ambience, history and culture of Vienna over the next three days. Our home base here was the stately Hotel Bellevue, built for the World Exhibition of 1873 at the height of the Hapsburg Empire. Vienna is blessed with more surviving grand buildings from this era than any other European city (yes, even more than Paris) and the Bellevue didn’t disappoint us. The lobby area and breakfast room were gorgeous, as was the little front bar and the sweeping grand staircase. The hotel was located a bit north of the Ringstrasse which surrounds Vienna’s ancient core, but we made good use of the adjacent tram and subway stops which were our portal to the extremely efficient and extensive public transportation system. And charming too—the 1940’s and 1950’s era wooden trolley cars we rattled around in were a throwback to the midcentury Vienna of “The Third Man” fame.

On our first night in the “City of Composers”, Mike arranged to get us tickets at the esteemed Vienna State Opera House. On the bill that night was “The Flying Dutchman” by Richard Wagner. As the final act, the heroine Senta burns herself to death on stage to free the Dutchman from his curse of wandering the Seven Seas forever. Thanks, Mike for getting us the great seats for a true Viennese experience! In the subsequent days in Vienna we explored the magnificent Belvedere and Schonbrunn Palaces that are the true gems of the city. Other interesting sights were the 1897 Prater Ferris wheel, the Liechtenstein Palace, some of the huge, foreboding Flak Towers left over from WW2, the magnificent public buildings of the Hofburg (Hapsburg city palace) and the “blue” Danube itself. In the central St. Stephen’s Cathedral we were treated to a semi-private performance by a visiting choir group from Homer, Alaska of all places.beer garden Charles reveled in the paintings of his favored artist Gustav Klimt in a Belvedere museum. Another day he along with Ellen, Mike and Steve toured the Military History Museum (which contained the bullet-holed car and the blood-splattered tunic of the assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand among other things) while Cathie and Donna held our seats at a great little beer garden in the park outside. By evening we dined on local specialties like schnitzel, sausage and dumplings in atmospheric cellar restaurants washed down with large mugs of Gosser beer.

But all good things must come to an end as they say, and after two weeks of gallivanting around Eastern Europe it was finally time to return home to the U.S. We lugged our tired selves and accumulated acquisitions (including Donna’s new Tous designer suitcase…) back to the Vienna airport for our return flight home. When we arrived so had summer, as it was nearly 80 degrees in Washington and there was really no need for the heavy jackets and turtlenecks we wore any longer. Ron and his limo were there waiting for us with the wine chilled and in such style we completed the final leg of our journey. Thanks to all for making this such a great trip. And for those who weren’t there, make sure you ask Mike to model his yellow Turkish hat sometime!

Respectfully submitted,

Steve Andrews
Trip Leader

Webmasters Note: On April 15 a volcano in Iceland, that had been having small eruptions for about a month, finally blew. Because of the ash from the eruption several airports in northern and central Europe were closed indefinitely, including the airport in Vienna, Austria. Our travelers could have been stuck in Europe, or even missed the trip entirely due to the eruption.