Bulgaria; mountains and a lot of meat

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In 2017 I traveled for about 6,5 months with my skis and part of the plan was to ski in Bulgaria. I arrived in Sofia in the beginning of March of that year and explored the Balkan region but, due to bad conditions, I did not ski in Bulgaria. Instead, I went ski touring in Kosovo and Greece. The mountains of Bulgaria have been in the back of my mind ever since and this year I have spent a week in the end of March for some exploration of the Rila and Pirin mountains.

My trip started in Sofia where I arrived late in the evening. After a quick check-in at the Peter Pan guest house, I explored the neighborhood to see whether a nice restaurant would still accept a hungry Dutchman. Soon I found Miyabi, a Japanese restaurant, which was open till midnight. My first ever veal tongue was an interesting experience. On the way back to the guest house I found a kiosk selling Bush Blonde, my favorite beer. So far, only signs of a good trip!

The next day I left the capital city and took a bus to Samokov, a town located roughly 1 hour and 10 minutes southwards at the foothills of the Rila mountains. For me, this sleepy town served as a base to ski nearby Borovets for a couple of days…

Samokov in twilight

Samokov showed no signs of being anything close to a ski town. Wandering down the streets, I noticed a lot of elderly people and the occasional youngster but no skiers or boarders. Luckily Chris, the manager of the Legeto guest house, was a skier and offered to drop me off at the base of the Yastrebets gondola every day and I could give him a quick call and only 15 minutes later he would pick me up again. Bulgarian service ain’t so bad!

That night I went to bed only to be woken up by my Bulgarian neighbors several times and once they were quiet the barking of the dogs kept me from sleeping. Let’s say light sleepers have a hard time in Bulgaria. A staff member of one of the hotels I stayed at later this trip told me that having pets is some sort of status symbol for many Bulgarians. Unfortunately though, they have no clue how to keep them. As a result huge dogs are tied up in the garden and bark their lungs out the whole freaking day. Luckily for me, I was on the mountain during the day…

Tired but filled with some typical Bulgarian yogurt, or yogurt as the locals call it, Chris drove me up the hill on Sunday the 24th of March so I could explore the ski resort of Borovets. Despite its close proximity to Sofia, it’s not as popular as its big brother Bansko, so even on a sunny day in the weekend there were no big crowds to be seen. A perfect day to get the legs going and try out my new skis, the Kastle TX 107!

the backcountry of Borovets with Irechek (left) and Musala in the distance (right)

The bottom half of the mountain was brown by now but there was enough skiing left on the upper part of the mountain. The true attraction of Borovets however was the easy access to the backcountry. From the Yastrebets gondola a long traverse would get you within one hour of skinning from the Musala hut which is surrounded by several bowls, offering nice and interesting skiing. The first day I skied some groomers and explored the area and tried out all the gear by skinning to the hut. From there I knew I had to come back the next day for more touring…

The most popular objective in the backcountry of Borovets is Musala, with its 2.925 meters the highest mountain of Bulgaria. In order to climb and ski it with minimal risks, I figured I had to stay in the hut so I could have an early start. After all, temperatures were quite high and the northeast face would be in the sun all morning. The Musala hut seemed to be occupied based on the trash in the hut but at the same time nobody was around. Apparently the manager of the hut is known for being an alcoholic and crazy man. I decided not to stay there and visit the backcountry from the first gondola the next morning. As a result Musala was not on the menu anymore, Irechek had now become the main objective since it was a bit closer and offered both north – and west facing slopes.

nice couloir in the backcountry of Borovets

The next morning I quickly made my way towards Musala hut and skinned up Irechek. On the way up a beautiful couloir almost immediately drew my attention. What would the conditions be like in there? What about stability? It was quite warm, possible rock falls while not wearing my helmet? Would a solo mission in this couloir be a smart idea? A lot of questions to be answered, in particular for an indecisive person like myself…

So, let’s park the “couloir-plan” for now and first climb and ski Irechek. Soon I arrived at the ridge, just below the summit, from where I had several chutes to choose from, all of them having the same aspect as the couloir. It turned out to ski very nicely and the snow felt really stable so I immediately made my way towards the couloir. Inside the couloir the snow would be more protected and therefore less affected by the wind. Since the couloir had been in the shadow all morning, and the fact a well established bootpack had been created by other skiers the days before, would make the climb quick and easy. As a result I decided to give it a go. In under an hour I made it to the top where I quickly transitioned into ski mode. The snow was firm but still nicely skiable. Satisfied, I arrived back at the hut where I enjoyed a cold coke in the sun. Borovets turned out to be a nice introduction to skiing in Bulgaria! 

traditional Bulgarian food at Kaimakanovata kashta in Samokov

Skiing in remote countries is great but getting to know the culture is probably at least as important to me. Local guest houses, wandering through the streets and observing local life as it passes by and having a chat with some locals every now and then are a nice way to get an impression of what the culture has to offer. But one of the most enjoyable ways to get a taste of the local traditions for me, is by eating out. Samokov surprisingly delivered to the fullest in that sense. I tried out two traditional restaurants, both of them recommended by Chris and both of them offered a fantastic experience. At Mechana Starata kashta I tried kavarma (pork and vegetable stew), stuffed zucchini and lyutenitsa (a spicy vegetable chutney), too much food but absolutely delicious. The last night of my visit to Samokov I paid Kaimakanovata kashta a visit. Their Belchinska kopanitsa and breaded cauliflower accompanied by some traditional bread (see photo above) were truly delicious. With a full stomach and some good skiing in the bag, time had come to move on. Next stop: Bansko.

some impressions of the town of Samokov

The weather turned bad for a few days, ideal for a quick stopover with some culinary outings in Sofia on my way from Samokov to Bansko. After some nice foreign (as in non-Bulgarian) food, I arrived in the largest ski town of Bulgaria on Wednesday the 27th of March. With a population of nearly nine thousand people and characteristic architecture, this town at the foothills of the Pirin mountains offers a lot of charm. Traditional restaurants are plentiful and both children and elderly people are busy with their daily activities. While exploring the many curved streets and alleys, the ski resort on Todorka mountain can often be seen in the near distance…

Bansko is definitely not as fancy as Whistler or Vail, I like it

I had read online that the manager of the Avalon hotel organized some amazing curry nights, in fact, he was well-known for doing so. After checking in at my guest house and dropping my luggage in my room, I directly went over to the Avalon for some delicious curries. Unfortunately, the curry nights were only organized in case of a certain demand and since I was the only one that evening, I had to look elsewhere for my evening meal. Nevertheless, my visit to the Avalon proved to be more than useful though. James, the manager of the hotel, turned out to be a great source of information. He had the latest updates about the conditions and he set me up with Mark, a New Zealander who moved to Bansko some years ago. Where my stay in Samokov was a bit lonely, the days to come in Bansko looked far more promising with safe conditions and some good contacts.

Conditions were typical Spring-like with very comfortable temperatures in the valley and close to freezing levels on the top of the mountain, during the day that is. A high-pressure system ensured the powder was gone, but stability on all aspects was very good. In fact, touring conditions were quite optimal. I started the skiing by exploring the freeride options from the ski resort. Bansko is known for Todorka which can be climbed from the upper chairlift in about 40 minutes by following an exposed ridge. From the top, one can choose to descend in almost any direction on nice steep slopes. In case you descend the west face you’ll end up in one of the many Bunderitsa couloirs which can also be accessed by traversing directly from the upper chairlift. On the northeast face of Todorka a beautiful couloir can be skied, something I couldn’t resist…

Since the northeast face gets the sun in the morning, it makes for a perfect start of the day. Taking the gondola and the chairlifts to the top and climbing the ridge means you can ski the couloir between 10:30 and 11:00 am, perfect timing. In case you’re feeling strong, you can do another lap before heading over to the west face of Todorka where the sun arrives in the afternoon. By taking the traverse you can ski laps in the Bunderitsa couloirs in about an hour. So you can easily do a few laps of great couloir skiing with gradients varying between 35 and 40 degrees. And during my time in Bansko I have never seen any other people in any of the couloirs. Where do you still find that?

The ski resort of Bansko is really nice but the area has a lot of touring potential as well. Before setting off to Bulgaria I bought a great guidebook with 50 backcountry routes all over the country. In anticipation of the trip I studied the book and one route stood out to me; the Strajite West couloir. There are plenty of nice routes mentioned in the book but Strajite is one of those striking areas, especially when you’re a fan of couloirs like I am.

the striking Strajite ridge with its amazing couloirs

Even though I was almost obsessed by the Strajite area, I arrived in Bansko with low expectations. If I could do any ski touring I would be satisfied. At least that’s what I tried to convince myself of. Then, one evening, I sat down with James and Mark in the Avalon to discuss plans. Drinks, maps and the guidebook were all out on the table as we went over the options. Soon it became clear Strajite would actually be a near perfect objective as part of a day trip. We would take an early morning taxi to the village of Dobrinishte to catch the Bezbog ski lift, tour around Bezbog towards the Polejan shoulder, up to the Strajite ridge and ski down all the way towards Demyanitsa hut in order to make our way back to Bansko eventually and hopefully be back before the dark. Since the couloir is west facing, skiing it in the late afternoon would be perfect. This plan sounded like music to me, and because Mark also agreed, we had a taxi waiting for us the next morning at 7:30 am!

Besides being an easy-going person, another good quality of Mark is being always on time. So, 7:30 am exactly we left on our mission. And neither one of us has roots in Germany! Roughly 20 minutes later we arrived at least 10 years back in time and keep in mind that we were already somewhere in the 80’s for the previous days. Dobrinishte is quiet and the base of the ski lift was, quite simply, dead. Well, besides an odd dog of course…

the ski lift in Dobrinishte, clearly no fancy 6-seater…

We prepared our equipment and once the staff had arrived, we literally jumped on the lift. In this fancy chairlift you actually carry your skis and your backpack occupies the seat besides you. It definitely reminds you of the fact you’re not anywhere close to the Alps. About 15 minutes later we arrived at the Bezbog hut from where we started skinning. Unfortunately the weather was overcast and the only familiarity of the area and our route was in Mark’s mind from a Summer trek some time ago. Of course, we had information from both James and the guidebook and hopefully the weather would change according to the forecast…

Soon we arrived at the Bezbog shoulder. We had to go a bit higher in order to ski down a chute and continue skinning in the clouds, hopefully in the direction of Polejan. We were looking for a ramp to ascend as mentioned in the guidebook. That would be the shortest way to Strajite but no matter where we looked, we couldn’t find it. Well, due to the low hanging clouds we simply couldn’t see much in general…

Alternatively we would climb Polejan’s shoulder and follow the Strajite ridge until we found our couloir. Around noon I was feeling hungry unlike Mark who skips breakfast and lunch and only eats dinner. He made clear it’s possible with severe training of the body but I really needed some energy injections by now. A few energy bars, some water and nice conversations later, we continued our ascent. When looking up in the skies, we suddenly noticed blue patches of sky. Was the weather really changing?

Mark was happy on his crampons!

By now, we could also finally see the Strajite ridge. Since we had our objective in view now, motivation increased. Once we had passed the next bump, we had one final stretch to go to reach Polejan’s shoulder. The slope we had to cross felt like a combination of concrete and pure ice, so crampons were the way to go. This was the first time Mark walked on crampons and he felt like a happy mountaineer. Without the fumbling around on skins, we made progress quickly and soon we arrived at the ridge.

The sky had turned completely blue by now so we had great views while looking for the objective of the day, the Strajite West couloir. This sounds a lot easier than it actually was. The Strajite ridge is very long and the actual couloir was almost on the other end of the ridge from where we started, as turned out later. So we walked almost the whole ridge looking down at every possible entry point only to conclude we had to continue to the next one. Once we had almost checked out the whole ridge and were actually about to ski down on the east face, I decided to have another look at some of the nearby entry points. I have no clue how we had originally missed it, but we were very close to the actual couloir. The distinctive chimney made clear we had found our objective. After 8 hours of true adventure, time had finally come to ski! 

skiing the upper section of the Strajite West couloir

Well, almost. The top of the couloir was lacking of snow so we had to downclimb to pass the rocks before stepping into our skis. While climbing down we were carefully observed by several chamois, amazing to realize these animals live in this rugged environment. Around 4 pm we were ready to enjoy the downhill. Blue skies, hardly any wind, comfortable temperatures and a beautiful couloir to ski, life was definitely good at this moment!

Even though Bruce Tremper, the author of Avalanche Essentials, recommends not to ski down first in order to reduce the risk of ending up in an avalanche, I had the honor. I couldn’t wait to drop in. The upper section of the couloir had a nice gradient and looked a bit more narrow than the remainder of the couloir. It skied beautifully and once I had reached the first safe spot, I yelled to let Mark know he could come down as well. We regrouped, discussed conditions and prepared for the next section…

the lower section of the spectacular Strajite West couloir

Conditions were pretty good inside the couloir, probably because the snow is protected quite a bit from the elements. In fact, we hit some soft patches every now and then, but of course, true powder snow was hard to find. No complaints here, we had a fantastic descent. The middle section skied quite well and the surroundings were simply impressive with the huge rock walls. That is exactly what I love about skiing couloirs, the feeling that there is no way back once you’ve entered it.

The adventure in general was quite amazing. We used a taxi, an old ski lift, visited a mountain hut, used skins and crampons, ascended in several weather conditions and didn’t cross paths with any other person. And we were not finished yet. After exiting the couloir, we arrived on a huge slope filled with corn snow. Nothing beats the feeling of making some smooth GS-turns after the intense skiing in a couloir. One by one, we skied the so-called ‘hero snow’ (corn snow is generally believed to be the easiest snow to ski in the backcountry, hence the name) until we arrived in the trees. Here we had to be careful not to end up in the creek or simply get injured because of snow bridges, tight trees and the many rocks that were present. Luckily, we survived skiing the trees and arrived at the Demyanitsa hut just before the dusk…

when the evening was about the fall, we finally arrived at the Demyanitsa hut

Usually I enjoy a cold coke just before the descent, simply as a treat but also as some sort of celebration of the fact I made it to the top and the downhill is the only thing that’s left. Since it was already getting late when we still had to ski the couloir, I had to skip my ritual. The Demyanitsa hut however proved to be the ideal location to sit down and have a drink. The hut felt abandoned, there was nobody around which was surprising to me given its proximity to Bansko and the fact it was a Saturday. Soon after we had sat down, the manager arrived with her three dogs, named after the local mountains. The dogs ran around the hut for a few minutes only to fell asleep shortly after. Peace had returned in the hut, I finished my coke and we got ready for the final stretch of our adventure…

There was just enough light left to ski the 11 kilometer path back to the road, cross the forest on the other side of the road to the piste in order to slide back to the town of Bansko. The path skied extremely fast because the melted snow had frozen back up, so we had to be careful because it’s easy to make a mistake after a full day of intense activity. Completely shaken up from all the bumps we finally arrived at the road, took our skis off and went for a walk in the forest. Around 6 pm we found ourselves on the piste when the resort had been closed for more than hour. Tired but satisfied, we were back in town only 11 hours after we started our adventure, what a day!

the old town of Bansko has a lot of charm

That evening I enjoyed a great dinner at Baryakova Mehana, highly recommended in case you’ll find yourself in Bansko. Even though the restaurant is quite big, it feels cozy because of the different rooms, low ceiling and traditional decoration. My waiter was as friendly as they can be and the meat was abundant. To justify all the meat I had ordered some broccoli as a side dish, funny how the mind works. Having eaten too much once again, I left both satisfied and with guilt…

My trip to Bulgaria had come to an end, so it’s time to reflect. The skiing in Bulgaria has been quite amazing, especially in Bansko and its surroundings. Borovets delivered as well, don’t get me wrong, but Bansko simply has many more options and this time of year both areas are quite peaceful. For a quick relaxing getaway in the middle of February I can imagine Borovets being the better choice, but with Spring around the corner, Bansko would always be my number one choice in Bulgaria.

During this trip I have met some inspiring people. James, the owner of the Avalon, who has spent years in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan and now runs a nice hotel in Bansko turned out to be a great source of information and always made me feel very welcome. Then there is Mark, the friendly Kiwi who changed the rat race in London for a relaxing life in the Pirin mountains and finally I have to share a story about an Irish man I have met in the chairlift. This man, probably somewhere in his fifties, had been coming to Bansko for 12 years and spent a full season there for the first time this year. Despite the time he had spent in the mountains he skied like a true beginner. He asked me how to make a proper turn and how to use his body in the right way. In short, the man couldn’t ski at all. But, he wanted to learn and was enjoying every single bit of it. I gave him a few tips and we skied a run together. He kept practicing the remainder of the day and was really excited. What an inspiration!

I have had the pleasure to explore parts of both the Rila and Pirin mountains but the country has a lot more to offer in terms of skiing. Both mountain ranges have plenty of additional options to explore but then there is also the Malyovitsa area which offers almost touring only options. I have only scratched the surface of the ski touring potential in Bulgaria. With the new contacts I have made, there is no reason not to go back one day. What about a combination of Bulgaria and Greece, I can’t wait!

Click here to see more pictures from my trip to Bulgaria!

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