Bansko, Bulgaria and the Pirin National Park

As I was researching for our trip in Bulgaria I could see that this country offers it all. Our tour of Bulgaria has taken us from historic Veliko Tărnovo in the northern hills, to the beach town of Sozopol by the Black Sea, to the mountain resort town of Bansko and soon to the metropolitan capital city of Sofia. As you know, Andrew and I love being in the mountains so we were really looking forward to this chapter of our Bulgarian adventure. And as it turns out, they have some big mountain ranges here in Bulgaria, with Bansko situated on the northern edge of the Pirin Mountain National Park, one of two national parks in this country. It’s nothing like the Swiss Alps, but we came to appreciate their beauty all the same. We were in Bansko from Thursday 20 July – Sunday 23 July.

Transportation: To simplify things for ourselves, we rented a car from the Burgas Airport to drive 4.5 hours to Bansko. It took 2.5 hours on two public buses from Sozopol to get to the airport, but it was cheap and effective. The drive to Bansko was easy as there is a high speed freeway for 75% of the drive, taking us on a traverse across the country from the coast to the mountains in relatively short time.

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Driving through central Bulgaria. A welcome sight, the majority of the fields were sunflowers! Most were either in peak bloom or starting to drop their heads as they were heavy with seeds. We learned that sunflowers are one of the primary crops in this country.

Accommodation: We stayed at the Family Hotel Djangal. It was centrally located in walking distance of the main street with all the restaurants and shops. We got a room with a sitting area inside and a balcony with a view of the mountains. This hotel had a much better Balkan shower design. The shower head was in a corner directly above a drain and we were provided a squeegee brush. This shower didn’t get water everywhere as in our Sozopol experience, and the squeegee helped to clean up the water much better than using a big towel. We’re Balkan shower pros now!

The hosts at the Hotel Djangal were incredibly welcoming and we developed a bit of a friendship with the jovial husband, George. When we first checked in, George pulled us away from starting to retire to our room to take us down to their kitchen, where he insisted on sharing a glass of rakia, a Bulgarian style liquor he had distilled himself from grapes. We were curious if it was customary to sip on the rakia when first offered by our host, but we noticed his portion was missing verrrry quickly 🙂 He explained to us in his broken English that we would not “sip sip” but rather “whoosh” our drink. With such encouragement from our new friend, we took the rakia in one shot each, chased by a glass of water George kindly offered. Welcome to Bansko!

Every morning George sat down to chat with us in a mixture of Bulgarian, English, French and German. He told us “histories” of the hotel, which were stories about his guests; such as the Russian who disappeared for one verrrry cold winter night, to be found in George’s neighbor’s backyard the next morning, curled up fast asleep in a horse wagon. Or another man who went missing for 3 days, only to be found safe and sound later on, but very drunk. He showed us many things, such as his wood working shop where he carved bowls, chairs and wall decorations. One afternoon on our return from a hike he greeted us with fresh cherries from his cherry tree (the sweetest!). One morning he was showing us photographs of an old house on some property he purchased in central Bulgaria (against his wife’s wishes), where he keeps 10 hives of bees. We were given some of the delicious honey with our breakfast. The last evening he proudly introduced us to his daughter, who works in Sofia and was home for the weekend. We did end up deciding to buy a bowl from George’s shop, which he let us carve our names in as a souvenir.

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George’s wood working shop, which was in the ground floor of one of the hotel’s buildings. 
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We don’t often buy souvenirs, but his work was very good. We settled on this walnut tree wood bowl. 

 

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George let us use a wood burning tool to engrave the bowl ourselves. We wrote the city name “Bansko” in the cyrillic alphabet.

When we were packing up the car, George insisted on a departure gift, a bottle of his rakia to take with us. We couldn’t say no!

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Don’t confuse this bottle’s label with it’s contents. This is not Pirin Mountain spring water, but rather the rakia from George!

When we left Bansko, we were sad to say goodbye to George, and were so grateful for his hospitality and sincere friendship during our short time at his hotel. We weren’t sure why he took such a liking to us, as there were plenty of other Bulgarians and Russians at the hotel during our stay who he could converse with easier, but we truly enjoyed getting to know him.

Eats: We had three nights in Bansko to explore Bulgarian cuisine. The first night we randomly picked a restaurant down in the main square, the tavern Mehana Momini Dvori. It had great outdoor seating and it was a beautiful night. We got a “sizzling” dish which was a platter of pork, chicken and vegetables on a sizzling platter – kind of like when fajita meat is served. Not the healthiest, but it was so delicious!


Night #2 we walked into Voyvodata Tavern, which we had seen the previous night while walking around. It’s a bit farther away from the touristy town center but caught our eye for the dining area outside in a courtyard. It was so good the first time that we went again the next night! The second night the service wasn’t as good and they mixed up our order without apology, but the food was still delicious.

My dish, the Bansko style chicken. It is chicken tenderloins in a tomato base sauce with sauteed mushrooms, bell peppers and pearl onions. I will dream of this stuff!
Andrew’s Kavarma. We both agreed this was better than the first time he ordered this stew while in Veliko Tarnovo. I mean, look at how thick that sauce is!
The restaurant dining area. It was in the courtyard of what seemed to be an old inn
Our favorite appetizer so far in Bulgaria: Kyopolou, a roasted eggplant and bell pepper spread that is similar to baba ganoush. I am definitely inspired to try my hand at making this dish once we have our own kitchen again. 

The Bulgarian cuisine continues to please us. The menus at the traditional Bulgarian restaurants and mehanas (taverns) offer a wide variety of dishes. Most have had a book with sections dedicated to salads, sides (most often mushrooms or vegetables in butter, french fries and sautéed potatoes), fish, veal, chicken, pork, pasta, pizza and dessert. The wine lists are often long, listing all Bulgarian wines (which continue to be well priced and good). The menu also will always list the amount of food in grams, which we’ve found is super helpful for portion planning and understanding if something is enough to be shared.

Activities: The reason we came to Bansko was to tour the nearby Pirin National Park. We spent Friday and Saturday exploring two different sections of the park.

On Saturday, we drove up into the park from Bansko to park at the Vihren hut, where we took the trail to hike up the highest peak in the park and second highest peak in Bulgaria, Mt. Vihren, which sits at 2,914 meters (9,560 ft). The hike was 4.5 miles round trip, 3,000 feet up, and took us just under 4 hours to complete.

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A view of Mt. Vihren from the trailhead
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Approaching the last stretch of the trail, which was mostly hiking on skree to the top of the peak.
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Andrew and I on top of Mt. Vihren

On Sunday we drove around the park to a separate entrance where we could take a ski chair lift up into the park to the Bezbog mountain hut. From there we took the trail to go see some glacial lakes. We hiked for 3.5 hours and covered 6.5 miles, seeing many alpine lakes and beautiful vistas. For a portion of the hike we even walked with a younger George, a Bulgarian who is working on his PhD at a Bowling Green State University. He entertained us for a few miles, talking about life in both countries and both of our travels in Bulgaria this summer.

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The Bezbog “hut” at the trailhead, where the ski chair lift had dropped us off to begin our hike.
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A view along the beginning of our hike. You can see one of the lakes we later visited in the center if you look closely.
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A view from the trail looking north. Beautiful with the layers of hills off in the distance.
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Andrew and I at Popovo Lake, the largest lake in the Pirin Mountains. Photo credit goes to our younger Bulgarian friend George. 
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The hike featured many glacial lakes like this one. 

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On Saturday night, George’s daughter had let us know that there would be a free concert on the main square that we should check out. We went after dinner, and were amazed to find that we were joining what must have been a few thousand people out on the town for the night. The “concert” was in fact a bunch of singers and dancers who did covers of pop music while the real music video played on huge screens or kind of lip synced or rapped along with both American and local music. It was interesting to say the least, and definitely provided some good entertainment and people watching.

As we departed Bansko today, we said goodbye to George and his wife of the Hotel Djangal. It was a wonderful mountain village and we were so happy to have come during our tour of Bulgaria. Next up, the capital city of Sofia for two nights before we head back to Switzerland.

 

 

 

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