Bansko and Mount Vihren

August 9, 2010

I visited Bansko during my last trip to Bulgaria in 2000, but I was a little hesitant to return. A ski lift was built in 2003, launching Bansko's new career as a major European ski center. But while row upon row of identical Euro chalets march all the way to the Pirin Mountains, Bansko's charming rural character remains mercifully unchanged.

The cheapest place to stay turned out to be the nicest. For about $10 per person per night, we moved into Sharkova Kushta, a 200-year-old stone house in the center of old Bansko with walls nearly two feet thick. There was a great restaurant on site, and from our second story "chardak", or balcony, we had a bird's eye view of the Pirin Mountains and the red tiled rooves and cobblestone streets of Bansko.

Barb and I hike to an alpine meadow near Mount Vihren, with a refreshing stop along the way!

It was a great place for watching people. Or goats. Or for just relaxing with a glass of red wine and good book.

Bansko is a great town for walking, and we walked miles every day, relishing the textures of the ancient stone walls, and the extravagant gardens peeking out behind tall wooden gates. Everywhere there were green grape arbors and fruit trees heavy with purple and yellow plums, pears and cherries. And the smell of hay made it plain that many of those courtyards also sheltered chickens, goats and cows. On our way to listen to some music, we met a fellow taking his cow — obviously a beloved pet — for a walk along busy Glazne Boulevard.

Where does the water in Bansko's antique aqueduct come from, and where does it go?

Traditional music is still alive and well in Bansko and nearby Razlog. Like seagulls, we followed the tour buses and reaped the benefits of the carefully scheduled performances by local musicians. And stumbled home in the dark after one too many shots of Slivenska Perla.

It tooks us three days to locate Velyanov's house, which was just around the corner from Sharkova Kushta. It's a wonderful example of National revival architecture, surrounded by thick stone walls and featuring a second story porch with a large dining area, ornately carved wooden ceilings and trim, and fabulous murals inside and out. It was built in the early 19th century for Velyan Ognev, a master builder and icon painter.

On our last night in Bansko, our hosts Ivan and Alexandra prepared a fabulous dinner of shopska salad and stuffed mushrooms, all fresh from their garden. We were sorry say good-bye to them, and even sorrier to leave Bansko!