Gate of the Bulgarian Alps
Modern ski tracks and tourism infrastructure, extraordinary natural features, rich ethno heritage ranging from architecture to music and gastronomy, the authentic charm of the cobblestone streets and numerous small shops, took this small town in northeastern Pirin into the very top of winter tourism on the Old Continent. Here is what the editors of National Review noted

By: Mišo Vujović
Photo: Dragan Bosnić

With modern ski tracks, its tourism infrastructure, accommodation capacities, unique architecture, traditional cuisine, cultural heritage and local hospitality, the Bulgarian town of Bansko made it to the very top of winter tourism destinations of Europe in only ten years. Located at the foot of the northeastern part of Pirin (the highest peak Vihren is 2.915 meters), 160 kilometers from the airports in Sofia and Plovdiv, 220 kilometers from Thessalonica and a bit less from Skopje, thanks to the supremely located tracks, it has become one of the most attractive ski and snowboard destinations during the previous few years. The ride in the most up-to-date gondola from Bansko to Banderiška Poljana, located on a vast plateau above which two ski directions separate – Čalin Valog (1.100-1.600 meters) and Shiligarnik (1.700-2.500) – lasts about twenty minutes. The tracks vary from beginners’ with a slight inclination, to the most extreme ones for supreme professionals such as the ”Alberto Tomba” track. Their total length is 70 kilometers, while the length of the gondolas and cable cars tracks is about 26 kilometers.
During the previous years, Bansko hosted the best world skiers in several disciplines: Women's Alpine Skiing World Cup in 2009, Men’s Slalom European Cup in 2010, Biathlon Open European Championship in mid-February and Men’s Alpine Skiing World Cup on February 24, 2011.
The people of Bansko are proud of the freedom fighting and rebellious spirit of this, previously cattle raising area, and base their tourism strategy on traditional and ethno heritage. In his welcome speeches, the first man of Bansko, Aleksandar Kravarov, also emphasizes authentic values, from the old edifices turned into comfortable inns and restaurants between which cobblestone streets wind, to the cultural heritage led by the Ethno Museum, Gallery of Old Icons, Church of Holy Trinity, ”Nikola Vaptsarov” Museum, Spiritual and Historical Center ”St. Pajsije of Chilandar”.
”Bansko is a magical symbiosis of natural richness, history, tradition and culture. This place offers a lot for both the soul and the body. Here, in these cobblestone streets, each stone is history. Each visitor can find a part of himself in legends about heroic rebels, in the rich cultural heritage treasury, in luxurious folklore, in the tastes of the national cuisine, the original humor, the atmosphere reflecting the authenticity of the Bulgarian spirit”, says mayor Kravarov for National Review, showing us the slopes of the powerful Pirin in whose most beautiful part the lively little town is located.


”The National Park ‘Pirin’, natural reserve protected by UNESCO, is in the territory of our municipality. The Pirin mountain itself has 23 peaks above 2.500 meters and seven above 2.800 meters, which makes Bansko the ‘gate of the Bulgarian Alps’. Pirin hides 176 mountain lakes within it, ‘crystal eyes’, as the lovers of this mountain call them. The National Park has 13 basic and 17 second-degree tracks. Excursions are organized with a folklore picnic, sports fishing in the emerald lakes, hunting, rafting, all accompanied with rich ethno, folklore, artistic events and programs throughout the year”, says mayor Kravarov, expressing his satisfaction because of the growing number of Serbian tourists.
The entrepreneurial spirit of the people of Bansko can be noticed everywhere, from the attentive merchants standing at the doors of their grocery shops, street sellers of souvenirs and antiquities, picturesque village women offering their hand-made knitted products, artists, to ”guest hunters” who readily approach tourists with business cards of restaurants and clubs offering a whole range of food, beverage and benefits.
While we are parking across the small hotel ”Bojanovo ćoše”, where the charming mayor’s secretary Magdalena reserved for us, small Philip approaches us, welcoming us in a mixture of Serbian and Bulgarian and inviting us to visit the ”Kod starog komite” (At Old Komit’s) inn. The archaic name of this inn, located in an old one-floor stone house, symbolizes the period of rebellion against the Turkish occupation, which the people of this part of Pirin Macedonia treat with special respect, without missing a single official opportunity to emphasize their freedom fighting past.
The interior of ”Old Komit” is similar to other ethno-restaurants densely located along the cobblestone streets of Bansko. Ram bells, ox horns, several yataghans, woven rugs, pottery, old cloaks, all hang on several centuries old wooden beams.
The charming and polite inn owner Adrijana recommends with oriental charm home-made starters with cheese, roast paprika and horse meat sausage. The former Miss Bulgaria, although living in Venice and Sofia, spends all her free time in Bansko.


”Komits used to hide in this place. One of them was my great great-grandfather, whose father built this more than three centuries old house. That is why this space has a soul. Centuries flow through it, as they flow through our veins. We try to remain faithful to tradition. We don’t run away from contemporary life, we are open for it, but we are also aware that it impersonalized the Western man, reduced it to a machine with programmed needs. If we renounce ourselves, we will remain naked in the snow storms of the running civilization”, says Adrijana, emphasizing that cherishing authentic tradition is the only way of preserving the immunity of small nations before the strokes of globalization.
”This area is famous for its freedom-loving spirit. People are similar to you Serbs. They defend themselves, yet they are very hospitable and good hosts”, says Aleksandar – Sašo from Plovdiv, asking for his friend Giovanni, owner of the confectionary with the same name in Novi Sad and praying, with three fingers, for the health of the Serbian general. He recommends us to try the local chardonnay from oak barrels. In the beautiful ambiance, in harmony, like during centuries in nature, stone and wood have grown together, ornamented with a few metal nails, pieces of leather or a colorful woven rug spread on wooden benches. Sounds of rock ballads from the sixties are echoing. As if the evergreen songs, easy rock, some chansons, have always been part of this archaic atmosphere full of soul.
After all, the sharp eye of our editor of photography Dragan Bosnić noted a large part of what Bansko offers.


Among the twenty-odd teams at the Biathlon Open European Championship in Bansko also was the Serbian national team, consisting of six members in men and one lady in women competition.
Although they did not succeed in winning first place, Nikola Jeremić from Zlatibor, student of Physical Culture Faculty, did not hide his satisfaction with the conditions and surroundings in which the competition took place.


Rila Monastery
Only about thirty kilometers from Blagoevgrad, on the Sofia-Bansko road, on the southwestern side of the Rila Mountain, at the altitude of 1.147 meters, in the valley of the river with the same name, stands the Rila Monastery, the greatest sacral, cultural, architectural and historical edifice in Bulgaria. It is dedicated to St. John of Rila who supposedly established this monastery in the X century. The relics of the saint have been resting here since the late XV century.
We will, however, soon have a special story about this sanctity visited by numerous pilgrims and tourists.


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