When I booked our flight from Italy back to Bulgaria, I found a good deal from Bergamo. I knew that the town was nestled at the base of the Italian Alps, and I felt that it would be a good opportunity to get a glimpse of this spectacular mountain range.
Unfortunately, it was again foggy and nearing dark when we were dropped off, so we didn’t get a good view of anything, that night, or the next morning. However, when we went out to dinner that night, we were surrounded by people in puffy jackets, and bearing brands such as North Face, Patagonia, and Deuter. Clearly, there was outdoor adventure near by, and we felt much more at home here in our grubby backpacking clothes, than we certainly had in the high fashion streets of Milan!
The casual wear, and the ski town atmosphere, certainly helped us to get in the mood for the next leg of our trip. The following day we were heading back to Bulgaria, and eventually to the popular ski town of Bansko, nestled in the Balkan Mountains. This portion of our trip is likely what spurred us along in choosing Bulgaria as a destination to begin with, and we had been eager to hit the slopes since leaving Canada 5 weeks earlier.
It was actually quite shocking how many people we encountered, both before leaving, and since arriving in Bulgaria, that would ask “Why Bulgaria?”
One of our answers was always, inevitably, “to ski!” We always get mixed reactions to this. After all, we live in Canada, and I myself grew up in the famous ski area of the Canadian Rockies.
Of course, there are other reasons we wanted to visit Bulgaria. Since hearing about it last May, we had been intrigued. The man we spoke to was from France, and he said that Bulgaria was beautiful, very friendly, inexpensive to travel, and of course, had good skiing. The skiing part was just the icing on the cake.
We had suffered through a couple winters of terrible conditions, and no snow at our local ski hill on the West Coast of Canada. We felt that maybe, just maybe, we would find the snow in the Balkans instead.
We were also intrigued with a place that not many North Americsns visited. I tend to consider myself a bit of an explorer, and if nobody has been there, I am that much more eager to go and check it out. And I must say, we were nothing but absolutely thrilled with Bulgaria. Around every corner we found interesting things to see, wonderful people to talk to, and just a happy-go-lucky sort of attitude all around.
It’s no secret that the country is in a constant struggle to overcome it’s history. The heavy hand of communism is still in people’s minds, but there is definitely an appreciation of the opportunities that they now have. Like any where, and with every human on this planet, the vision of the “grass is greener on the other side” is a popular belief among many residents, especially the younger generation. Unfortunately a lot of them feel held back. Held back by limited opportunities, by a low valued currency, by an oppressed history. It’s difficult coming from a place where we have so much opportunity, and, in their eyes, wealth, to try and actually convince them that where they are is wonderful, just the way it is. Of course, we only got a glimpse, and we aren’t experiencing day to day life, of which I can imagine can be quite trying at times. BUT we both felt that Bulgaria is a wonderful place, and even talking with Australian expats who make a fraction of what they would make at home, felt that it was a very nice place to live.
Never did we feel unsafe, or victims of the typical tourism targeted operations. They are fair people, and they still seem to maintain values that are somehow lost on the Western World. Appreciation for family, friends, celebration……all the things that are REALLY important in life. Money is something nice, but it doesn’t necessarily bring happiness. I hope that the future of Bulgaria can realize the gem that it is, and don’t fall victim to the over inflated, and many times false promises that more “advanced” countries can provide.
But enough of that! Let’s get back to the snow!
We had been following the snow reports like hawks while travelling around Greece, checking in to make sure that it was even worth trying to ski. Up until arriving in Italy, all it showed was 30cm, even at higher elevations. However, the rain we experienced in Italy, provided a much needed blanket higher up, on all the mountains in the region.
Thankfully Bansko, and other parts of Bulgaria received a good amount, and we we’re beyond excited when our plane touched down to a winter wonderland in the country capital of Sofia.
The last time we had arrived, delirious with hardly any sleep in 36 hours and severely jet lagged, we had been slightly shocked by the state of some of the buildings we had passed on the way into the city. This time, the snow, somehow, seemed to have softened the hard edges that we had experienced earlier. That mixed with our new found fondness for the country as a whole, gave us a feeling of coming home. We proceeded to the bus station, from the airport, and headed straight
into the mountains. We had booked one night in Blagoevgrad, before heading to our 5 night stint in Bansko. Unfortunately, much like Bergamo, we arrived near dark, and there was again a heavy blanket of clouds constricting our view of the nearby mountains. But, there was snow on the ground, and lots of it. We had high hopes that we would actually get to ski after all! We left on the bus the next morning around 10:00 and arrived in Bansko about an hour later.
After being in Greece during a tourism low season, we were actually very happy to see a hopping, bustling town. Shops, restaurants, bars, and everything in between were open(!) as throngs of people clad in ski gear wandered up and down the street.
We weren’t sure what to expect of Bansko. With most major tourist destinations, the locals complain that it is over developed and over commercialized. While we definitely noticed that prices in restaurants were higher than the rest of the country, we didn’t feel that it had lost its charm.
Our bus definitely dropped us off in the “new” area where shiny hotels and apartment buildings look to be under constant construction. But as we wound our way up the hill, to our accomodation, we were greeted with absolutely adorable, and quaint little streets, of which, by now, we realize is typical of most places in Europe.
We found our hotel quite easily, and were thrilled that it was a quintessential, picture perfect little Balkan ski lodge. We got ourselves checked in, and then headed out to explore the town.
We initially set out to track down ski rentals so we would be all set up for the morning. The first shop we walked into, the young lady behind the counter recognized my 2010 Vancouver Olympic pin on my jacket. She had competed in the Biathalon at those Olympics and was keen to know if I had volunteered or participated. I told her that I was only a spectator.
We got to talking about skiing abilities, so they could match us up with the proper gear, and I explained that I’m not a professional, but have been skiing since I was three years old in Banff. I then asked her if she had ever been to Banff. She told me no, she had only been to nearby Canmore.
Ack!!! That’s where I grew up! Being 20 minutes from Banff, Canmore was the greatest place to grow up. And, it was home to the 1988 Biathalon and Cross Country events during the Calgary ’88 Olympics. The town features a world class Nordic Center, which was built for the games, and is still a very popular training facility, and hosts numerous international competitions to this day.
OF COURSE she had been there! She knows a local cross country skier named Chandra Crawford (who’s mom was my hairdresser growing up) and is also familiar with a friend I graduated with who has medaled in the Olympics for cross country skiing, Sara Renner.
She then went on to tell me that her Dad actually competed in Biathalon in the ’88 Olympics. Now, this is where things get really cool!
My mom was an Olympic volunteer and was the chairman of the Athletes Village in Canmore. She physically met every athlete that competed there!
Of course, her dad was there, and he explained what he remembered in very broken English. Here I was, practically a world away, on the other side of the planet, and I was speaking to a man who had already met my mother, almost 28 years earlier.
THIS is the beauty of travel! THIS makes the world infinitely smaller. THIS is when we stop to realize that we are all connected. The networks a person creates, and the people you can meet when you take the time to hear a persons story can be astounding.
Then it hit me! These are the clues that life sends to tell you that you are on the right track! I like to think of it as fate, synchronicity, serendipity, or whatever word you use to describe it. It’s when the world just lines itself up, a everything falls into perfect place for those perfect moments.
It made me feel that this trip was indeed meant to be. By not travelling for so long, I had stepped off my track for a brief stint, but I was back! And I was on top of the planet!
Tomorrow we were going to ski in BULGARIA!
Stay tuned to hear about our interesting skiing experience!