Bansko, Bulgaria: A Tale of Three Cities

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Our main goal was to get to a cooler climate. I think this might fit the bill.

We’re almost always about the wine, unless it involves any form of discomfort, at which point we head for the exits as fast as possible. And that was the case for us in Melnik. As you could tell from Carrie’s last post  we loved Melnik, especially the Melnik wines, but it was really hot and getting hotter. So, it was time to throw a few bottles of the Melnik juice into our bags and head

Carrie caught admiring the cool, cool fresh air. Or to quote an old Quicksilver Messenger Service song: ‘Have another hit…of fresh air.

to the cooler confines of the mountains, specifically the ski resort town of Bansko.

Having lived in the mountains for a significant number of years and visited many other mountain communities throughout the world, we had some preconceived notions as to what we should expect. But, Bansko would prove to be a surprise, even for seasoned travelers like us, because Bansko had three faces; some pretty and some not so much.

But first, let’s talk about our accommodations at the Hayloft Guesthouse  because it was that special ingredient that made Bansko memorable. Ivan and his wife Reni run the guesthouse as if there is a perpetual family reunion in progress. From the second you walk in, you’re at home. Ivan, a big burly guy, nimbly frolics in the

The first glimpse of the Hayloft Guesthouse compound. Cool!

small kitchen with a constant devilish grin preparing delicious local fare. “What you want to eat?” He would ask and then completely ignore your response of “Oh, just a piece of toast, jam, and some coffee. ”A few minutes later he delivers a breakfast feast that would easily feed a small army. When not overfeeding us, he acts as chauffeur running guests to and fro from bus stations to train stations. Reni, maybe 100 pounds (45kg) soaking wet, flutters around the compound like a hummingbird on steroids; acting as your personal concierge, chef (she also cooks), waitress, and maintenance department, all the while acting as Mom to their young son. That’s a lot of jobs packed into that small package. One evening they were preparing a meal for a group of a dozen Brits staying nearby and asked all the

Getting ready for dinner. Our hosts, Ivan and Reni are standing.

guests – 3 couples – if they would like to be included. Smiling, Ivan says: “We’re making lamb shanks.” A no brainer as we all grinned back nodding affirmatively. And what a great meal, and even better time, as we all got better acquainted with our Slovenian and Czech friends, mildy discussing world politics and the state of football in Cleveland. Some of us had a better time than others. You’ll understand better after you read the next paragraph.

A guesthouse of this quality garners a reputation as a fun place to stay within the travel community, therefore, it attracts a fun loving clientele. And we had the privilege of meeting and dining with a few of those fun loving type folks. One

An international incident was barely avoided. Yep, a Steeler fan in Bansko, Bulgaria. Huh, didn’t find any Browns fans.

couple from Slovenia were road tripping around Eastern Europe on their incredibly beautiful Harley Davidson. The other couple from the Czech Republic, were on a few week holiday using Bansko as their hub to explore Bulgaria. It turns out that Tomas is involved in an American style football club in Prague called the Prague Black Panthers. His favorite American team is the Pittsburgh Steelers! I’ll leave it to your imagination to create the bantering between Carrie, the diehard Browns fan, and Tomas. And believe me there was some quality bantering. A stay at the Hayloft Guesthouse is worth the trip to Bansko alone.

The Good, The Bad, And The Beautiful

So now, let’s get down to business and get into the three faces of Bansko.

A photo shoot in old town. Traditional dress and toy race cars naturally go together.

The Good: Bansko has a really cool old town/hip local section. The area is replete with green spaces, pedestrian streets, sidewalk cafes, bars, and restaurants. You’ll get your fill of locals enjoying the great mountain summer weather; kids playing in fountains and riding toy cars, adults relaxing with friends and an adult beverage, and… well you get the picture. Idyllic.

The Bad: Bansko is known primarily as a ski resort town or more precisely a party goers ski resort town. And with that comes disco clubs, ‘exotic’ dance

I guess you drop your kids off at the toy store while you go and enjoy a few lap dances?

clubs, sex shops, and the like. These were mostly located nearer the mountain and close to the gondola station. Fortunately, summer doesn’t draw that crowd to Bansko, so most of those places were shut down.

And The Beautiful: Bansko is located at the foot of the Pirin Mountains and they are gorgeous. Public transportation is easily accessible – and cheap – to get you up the mountain where you’ll find an abundance of trailheads. The trails are geared for all levels/desires of exertion from multi-day back country camping to an easy half hour walk for the hippie drum circle experience. We chose one that was

What would a serene mountain hike be without a hippie drum circle?

sort of in between. A moderate walk up to Okoto lake, then another moderate walk to Ezero Lake, where we sat for a few hours drinking wine, enjoying snacks, and soaking in the beautiful scenery. The walk took less than 2 hours each way, keeping in mind that we did stop for some photo taking.

We were a bit hungry after the hike, so we walked a bit further downhill from the

Some fellow hikers that we met at the mountain restaurant. With Carrie we have; Mom (a Bulgarian living in Spain), Daughter, and Grandson. The family that hikes together, stays together.

trailhead, along the road, where a nice little restaurant is nestled in along one of the switchbacks. They serve good cold beer and very good local Bulgarian food. Once fed and watered we simply flagged down the bus as it descended from the top and headed back to our oasis, The Hayloft Guesthouse.

 

 

The Colorful Exit Approach

It was time to say goodbye to our new friends and head off to our next destination.

The Bansko train station. The ‘colorful’ part of the trip.

There are basically two ways to leave Bansko. By bus, the most logical, efficient, and most frequently used method, or by the scenic train, which meanders through the mountains at speeds that would even embarrass The little train that could. Guess which one we chose? Yep, the train which would eventually dump us off in Septemvri, where we could connect with another train to Sofia. It all started off well. We jumped on the first car because it looked like an antique from the early period of this rail line. Hey, we thought, this

The classic, authentic car, to enhance the experience.

will enhance the experience. The cool part is that other than one other couple and the conductor, we had the whole car to ourselves. Things started going downhill about a third of the way into the trip, when a group of preteen hooligans got on board with too few chaperons. For much of the remainder of the trip all we heard and saw was screaming, yelling, and jumping. The kids particularly enjoyed screaming at the top of their lungs each time we entered a tunnel. Unfortunately, the tunnels were frequent and some quite lengthy. To top it all off, the ride down from Bansko

The train engineer checking our brakes before the descent into Septemvri.

wasn’t really all that pretty.

Once we arrived in Septemvri we needed to purchase tickets for the next leg to Sofia. Finding the ticket office; no problem. Buying tickets; big problem. You see, for some reason the ticket agent, whom we had seen selling tickets to other Bulgarian customers, refused to understand that we wanted the same tickets. She kept directing us to the train platform without a ticket. We finally found a helpful Bulgarian that spoke English and told him of our predicament. He went up to the ticket window and told her to sell us two train tickets to Sofia. She wasn’t happy, but she obliged. What an rectal orifice! (I was going to use a more efficient word, but Carrie didn’t like it.)

The beautiful Pirin Mountains. A great place for drinking fine wine.

The moral of this whole story is do go to Bansko. Do it in the summer, not winter (unless you’re into apres ski nudie bars). Stay at the Hayloft Guesthouse and avail yourself to the wonderful natural beauty that surrounds you. And finally, take the damn bus to Sofia!

Hike Drink Live Laugh (Apero Time) More photos below.

An international dinner date. Great fun, with great people, and awesome food.

 

We were on the red train. The green train is heading back to Bansko. The little trains that barely could.

 

A section of old town in Bansko.

 

One more shot from old town Bansko.

 

A street near the Hayloft Guesthouse.

 

The hip local area of Bansko.

 

Carrie on a mission to find the perfect spot for a bit of vino. A votre sante!

 

 

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