Bansko in Bulgaria provides budget winter skiing, but when the snow melts in early June the Pirin mountain range reveals a fantastic area of peaks and lakes, threaded with well-marked hiking paths
Imagine a landscape of knife-sharp granite ridges and peaks, babbling mountain brooks overflowing from cold, clear glacial lakes, and alpine meadows bursting with fields of flowers. Hiking paths lead from the trailhead to mountain huts where hot soup and warm blankets will restore you for the following day on the trail. The marked paths are clear enough for seasoned hikers to follow, although a locally hired guide will be able to take you safely to hidden corners of the Pirin range.
The Pirin Mountains are a range of (mostly) granite peaks, found in the south-western corner of Bulgaria. They offer skiing and snowboarding during the winter months, based in the little mountain town of Bansko. As the snow melts from the high peaks, a wonderland of mountainscape, ridges and lakes is uncovered, to delight hikers until the snow covers it again in October or November.
Where to stay
To access this hidden gem, fly to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria and drive to Bansko, a scenic trip of about a hundred miles. Once in Bansko there is a wide choice of accommodation. Those for whom money is no object will stay at the Kempinski Hotel Grand Arena, a five-star hotel opposite the gondola at the southern end of the town. If you would prefer to have English hosts, the Devonshire Lodge on Stephan Karadja Street or Chalet Orbelus in the southern part of the town are good choices, with friendly, knowledgeable hosts. To experience true Bulgarian hospitality, Mamin Kolio (8 Bulgaria Street) is a family-run tavern and hotel, and Dedo Pene in the centre of Bansko has a fascinating restaurant stuffed with interesting historical objects, and lovely rooms with balconies.
Hit the mountains
Once fed and rested it is time to hit the mountains. Either drive up the winding mountain road to the Vihren Hut or take the Gotze Delchev chair lift from above the neighboring town of Dobrinishte. The chair lift runs summer and winter and for a one-way trip the cost is 5 lev, (about £2.30).
A map of the Pirin Mountains, available in local shops will show all the major paths in different colours. On the ground the paths are marked in the same colours, with paint stripes on suitable rocks and trees. Several classic trails exist, to cater for all. Just wanting a gentle stroll or with little children, you can walk from the Vihren Hut to Okoto Ezero, or the Lake of the Eye in English. From the chair lift a path leads south to Lake Popovo, a gorgeous picnic spot surrounded by grim, forbidding peaks. Make sure you get back for the last chair lift at 4pm or book a bed at the Bezbog Hut, perched right on the edge of Bezbog Lake. The toughest route crosses the limestone karst region north of Vihren Peak and includes a section of ridge, 1500 metres long with precipitous drops on either side. An iron handrail runs the length of the ridge for security! This section is called the Koncheto, or Horse, presumably because you will want to travel with one leg on either side. This hike, from Vihren to the Yavorof hut (accessible by road) will take fit and active hikers seven to 10 hours so it requires an early start.
If you want to bag peaks there are a total of 45 of them, all over 2590m. Try Vihren Peak, straight up the marked path from the Vihren Hut, or Bezbog Peak, a two hour climb from the Bezbog Hut.
A Sample itinerary
The network of trails, combined with safe, warm, basic accommodation at the mountain huts enables you to plan a great variety of routes. We chose to drive to the Vihren Hut early in the morning and walk to the Tevno Ezero Hut, further south. The first couple of hours involved gentle climbing through alpine meadows, along the banks of a clear, fast-flowing mountain stream. The geology of the region means that steep climbs alternate with flatter areas, as this is how the mountains were carved by glaciers during the last ice-age. Late morning brought us to an area with several lakes, and here the path divided, going left up over a ridge and into the Demianitsa valley, or right, our route, up and up over table-sized chunks of granite until we reached a point where three ridges met, giving us stunning views into three separate valleys. The path follows the ridge allowing the choice of skirting the peaks for a more level walk, or taking in the peaks as you go. Given our fitness level, we chose the easier option.
Staying high felt good. As soon as we started to descend we knew we would have to climb again to reach our objective. However at one point our ridge walk dipped down to a col, to cross the Wine Gate, where in years gone by, wine would be brought over the mountain range by mule or horse train from Greece.
The last climb was punishing, and we were teased and tormented by glimpses of our final pass which we approached by crossing a scree field under an impressive peak. Once through the pass we skirted around behind a new ridge and up to the Dark Lake itself, where just twenty minutes flat, lakeside walking brought us to the Hut.
This Mountain shelter is open all year, it is above the treeline, so all supplies, including firewood are brought up by horse along the Demianitsa valley, even so, there is plenty of choice of soup, hot food, coffee, beer and chocolate! We ate and drank our share and retired to bed in what felt like Heidi’s attic bedroom.
The next day the route brought us down the valley, then back up through the Ulen Nature Reserve to our start point. Eight hours hiking each day left our legs like jelly, but the sense of satisfaction was wonderful!