Discover Bansko ski resort in Bulgaria, through the words of Kempinski Contributing Editor, Antoine Gauvin, and the lens of Claes Bech-Poulsen. When you’re booking your trip, choose the most luxurious hotel in Bulgaria’s trendiest resort: the award-winning Kempinski Hotel Grand Arena Bansko.
Powder snow and merry evenings: in just a few years, Bansko in southwest Bulgaria has become one of Europe’s most popular winter destinations. Yet the resort has managed to remain the size of a large village. Lying at the foot of the Pirin mountains, which have UNESCO World Heritage status, it is surrounded by a wilderness of natural beauty.
After the warmth of a friendly welcome, we are comfortably settled beside a crackling fire, sipping a hot chocolate as warming as the flames leaping in the fireplace, with a sensation of intense and relaxing cosiness. We’re at Kempinski Hotel Grand Arena Bansko, a superb resort at the foot of the Pirin mountains in Bulgaria.
The Pirin range lies 160 km to the southwest of the capital, Sofia. Its wild beauty has earned it UNESCO World Heritage status – picture deep forests, vertiginous peaks, over 180 glacial lakes... and bears. Their presence demonstrates the unspoilt nature of this awe-inspiring region. From the terrace of our room, we see that the hotel straddles the edge of the great mountain forest and the snowfield and the position makes us feel we are up there among the ski runs. The view is captivating.
Families and couples come from Sofia and further afield for the ski slopes or the cafés, depending on the time of day. One thing is sure – Bansko creates a powerful impression and stirs the emotions.
The 75 km of ski runs include slopes for all skill levels and regularly play host to the ski and snowboard world cup competitions. The most daring free-riders can hurl themselves at dizzying speeds down the stately Togopka, which peaks at 2,746 m. The area’s climate – continental with Mediterranean influences – creates excellent powder snow with which the slopes are clad from December to April. As we negotiate the labyrinth of ski tracks from the top, one of the most striking sights is the size of the conifers. The Bulgarian fir, named Abies borisii-regis in honour of King Boris III who first identified the species, can grow to a height of 55 m, making it one of Europe’s tallest firs. Standing like cathedral spires and laden with fresh snow, these majestic trees form a powerful yet delicate decor, sparkling like diamonds in the sun. But it’s time to head downwards. The long slope to the resort is a pleasant descent among streams, rivers, and woodland, with small café terraces where you can stop for a warming drink on the way. Then before we know it, we arrive at the hotel door.
Off with our skis and in we go, to be enveloped by the gentle warmth. The hotel comprises a row of large white chalets, which stand side by side to form one large building. The attractions are located throughout: the lobby bar, a selection of restaurants and a spa. All tastes are catered for by their talented chefs, from Japanese specialities to Italian fine dining, and themed buffets with live entertainment in the main restaurant.
Hit the slopes yourself then retreat to the calm and comfort of Kempinski Hotel Grand Arena Bansko
Kempinski The Spa is the perfect place to indulge your senses, tone up, and revive your energy levels. It embraces the contrasting sensations of heat and cold that infuse Bansko, with a dynamic fitness programme that’s not for the faint-hearted! First you plunge into a steaming jacuzzi in the -5°C open air, then run to the enveloping warmth of a large pool heated to 28°C where your muscles relax. Next come the herbal and infrared saunas, the aromatherapy steam bath and crushed ice body rub, followed by the cold snow room. Entering this small cave, hung with stalactites of ice and snow, is the ultimate wake-up experience after a hot sauna.
As well as fitness, Kempinski The Spa offers a range of authentic Thai massages and beauty procedures, plus a lounge where you can enjoy a cup of herbal tea by the fireside.
The early evening brings a relaxed, happy mood to Bansko. The resort has been built around a typical small town which has retained all its charm. Bansko prospered for centuries thanks to its position on a major trade route between the Aegean Sea and Central Europe. Stunning examples of its past remain, such as some fine fortified houses and the impressive Holy Trinity Church with its three naves. It was the country’s largest church until St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was built in Sofia.
It's time to head to a 'mehana', one of the town’s traditional inns, to immerse ourselves in the Bulgarian spirit! The Obetsanova mehana is perhaps the most authentic of all. Coming in from the cold night air, we’re greeted by the warmth and atmosphere of an old town house and cheerful music from a live folk group. We start with sizzling local cheese and sour cherries, accompanied by homemade garlic bread, before tucking into a game stew. Authenticity guaranteed!
Bansko is a place where you truly feel the Slav soul and can surrender to the wild, majestic landscape. Throughout our time there, we're reminded that Perun, the highest and most powerful of the gods in Slav mythology, gave his name to Pirin, the mountain range whose image will be imprinted on our memories forever.