Ten years ago, the words skiing and snowboarding were pretty much synonymous with the Alps. However, in recent times the Balkans have been growing in popularity with adventurous snow seekers - and the mountain town of Bansko, Bulgaria, is more or less topping the list. Just two hours from the country's capital, Sofia, it's not hard to see why it's tempting people off of the proverbial piste: top hotels for a fraction of the price, cheap eats, good apres-ski, similar weather and super friendly locals.
Nestled at the foot of the Piran Mountain, Bansko was for many years a thriving trade town, reaching its peak in the mid-19th century before gradually declining in popularity, until it was redeveloped as a ski resort. In the past five years or so, it has benefited from multi-million dollar investments with new hotels and chalets popping up left, right and centre. Now, it is undoubtedly the most up-to-date resort in Bulgaria, with decent lifts and all pistes widely covered by snow cannons.
Bansko is a particularly good resort for beginners and those looking to improve, with a strong selection of gentle blue and slightly more challenging red runs. The fact that it's so much cheaper than other snow spots also means it's less of a commitment if you're just starting out. Unfortunately, it's severely lacking in options for advanced skiers and snowboarders, with only one black run, which to be honest is probably more of a token than a true black. Sorry pros - try Italy instead!
A winding 11km home run from the top of the mountain into the town is officially a blue, however it does contain some sharp bends and in the late afternoon can be dicey as it fills up with more experienced skiers able to ramp up their speed on the run above and whip through to the bottom. If you're hoping for a gentle ride, your descent may require a little bit of cross-country elbow grease at times. Safe to say, this is not one for boarders.
Bansko has enjoyed a surge in popularity in the last few years, and despite ongoing investment the infrastructure hasn't entirely caught up yet. The queues to get up the mountain in the morning can be long, especially during the school holiday, but don't be put off - either get up early and beat the crowds, or find a friendly local - barmen are often a good shout - to drive you to the top for a small fee.
One of the big draws of Bansko is the fact that food and drink is considerably cheaper than in most of the Alpine resorts. The town has a wide range of restaurants, pubs and bars, ranging from the traditional to the errrr, not so much, each with a chilly waiter outside hoping to hustle you in. Don't leave without trying the shashlik kebabs at El Torito Bar and Grill, which arrive at the table flaming; head over to Mehana Bansko for a cosy drink in front of an open fire, complete with traditional music.
For those that are partial to a little retail therapy, Bansko is also a great place to pick up outlet ski gear and knock off designer goods. While admittedly slightly tacky, the town's Pirin Street is full of fashion and souvenir shops, and does lead down to the Old Square, which has prettier houses and traditional monuments.
More than just a ski resort, in the summer Bansko offers superb walking and hiking opportunities, climbing routes, mountain biking, horseback riding and microlight flights. With temperatures averaging around 30c, it's also a great place to catch some rays, away from the hectic party zones of Sunny Beach. In August, the International Bansko Jazz Festival pulls in the crowds.