10 Best Things to Do in Bankso During Summer

Bansko, once a quiet village in the foothills of the Pirin Moutains, has now become an ever expanding town with half-built, half-empty apartment blocks continually  pushing its perimeters further outwards. Presently, a town of two halves but previously inhabited by Thracians, Romans, Byzantines and the Slavic Peruns tribe; many traces of archaeological remnants – fortresses, burial mounds, baths and, as always, legends – have been uncovered around the locality. Later, during the Revival era, Bankso’s clans became a wealthy population through merchants and crafts-people settling here and their fortress houses, characterised by high walls and large gates, are built from a mix of heavy stone and wood, and are now attraction in themselves.

Fast forward to the present day and you’ll find the growth of winter tourism has brought property developers, mostly British and Russians looking for a fast buck, but yet have aided the transformation of Bankso into a competitive winter resort. However, retaining much of its Revival charm and, in combination with its amazing location close to the Rila, Pirin and Rhodope mountain ranges, the region has emerged as a great place to explore natural landscapes.

Despite being better known as a winter resort, its summer activities are also becoming more popular in recent years: hiking, sports, mineral pools and festivals are all a draw to entice visitors for spending their summer holidays here. Although less busy out of the winter season, the area is increasingly offering the tourist plenty to experience so here are the 10 best things to do in Bankso during Summer:

1. Hiking

What would usually be under vast, white blankets of snow during the winter, opens up to a new breath of life in the heat of the warmer months. A nature reserve protected by the World Heritage List, the Pirin Mountains with its high peaks and pine-scented air has a network of well-marked trails. Bankso is the starting point to some of the most popular peaks in the area: Golyama Todorka, Muratov Peak and Mt Vihren; the latter of which is the second highest mountain in Bulgaria and can be done on a relatively easy trek, even if you’re not a pro.

Further afield, take the lift from Dobriniste and explore the vast landscapes of Bezbog where there are a variety of routes that can be done with or without a guide, depending on your experience and if you have a decent map! Walking past waterfalls, along riverbeds and through dense forestry where the ground is littered with pine cones makes you realise how little life has changed in these wild mountain pathways as you’re sure to bump in to shepherds, pick your own wild herbs and fruit and wonder if our modern life even exists. You can also choose to spend a night in one of the many basic huts (hija) and wake up to stunning scenery the next morning to continue your hike.

2. Ride a Train

A Romanian, red engine leads this short train all the way from Septemvri to Dobriniste, near Bankso, and travels through the Rhodope, Rila and Pirin Mountain ranges. Famous for its narrow gauge line (760mm) and slow-travelling heights, the journey usually takes around six hours but there are no hard and fast rules up in these gorges and valleys. The only thing to do is sit back and enjoy the leisurely ride through the 25 station stops and 125 kilometres of stunning backdrops that it encompasses.

However, if you don’t fancy doing the journey in its entirety, you can just do a return trip to Velingrad, a well known spa town and still get to experience the spiral heights of the Northwestern Rhodopes without going the whole distance. If you do want to complete the voyage, you can travel onwards to Sofia or Plovdiv from Septemvri. Train details can be found here or read about my journey here.

3. Or Ride through a Slide!

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In its second year, the longest inflatable slide in Europe is one of Bankso’s newest attractions. Stretching 350 meters, it’s located in Banderishka Polyana and you can pay for return tickets on the Gondola to get you there and back. Once you’re at the top there are other activities to get involved in such as mini golf, football, inflatable castles, swings and playgrounds.

4. Swimming

There is an abundance of hotel pools where you don’t have to be a guest, just pay an entrance fee when you visit. Popular with tourists are Astria, Belvadere and Regnum hotel complexes, the latter of which has great water slides for kids. You’ll find many of the major hotels have indoor and outdoor pools to cool off and have fun in and are also equipped with excellent spa facilities for when you really want to pamper yourself or are feeling the pain after a hike!

There’s a wealth of mineral and curative water sources throughout the area and you’re bound to feel the health benefits from spending a few hours in one of the pools. Visit the smaller towns of: Dobriniste where you’ll find Alpha SPA and Pool – the largest mineral swim pool complex with hyper thermal, sulfate, sodium, fluorine and solicit waters; or, visit Banya, rich in mineral water springs, pool complexes and the village’s public baths date back to Roman times.

5. Old Town

The old, original neighbourhood of Bankso, typically characterised by decorative stone dwellings from the Revival period, is where you’ll find a labyrinth of narrow, cobbled streets and alleyways. Visit The Holy Trinity Church, famous for it’s bell tower, the statue of Bulgaria’s famous philosopher, Paisiy Hilendarski and explore the museum houses of Velyan, Nikola Vaptsarov and Neofit Rilski. Enjoy the laid back atmosphere in one of the many bars and restaurants in Vazrajdane Square or take a walk in the shaded park close by.

From the Square, walk upwards through Pirin Str, a long pedestrianised street, with numerous shopping opportunities of souvenir shops selling rose products, clothing, pottery or jewellery. Just beyond the top of the street is where you’ll notice distinct architectural differences as you hit upon the modern apartments, hotels and bars surrounding the gondola area and higher.

6. Taste some delicious food

Bankso has some fantastic restaurants where you can eat your way through Bulgarian scrumptious cuisine. You’ll notice plenty of old ‘mehanas’, traditional Bulgarian restaurants, behind the stone walls of the old quarter and although there’s not much variety between the menus, there’s plenty of seasonal salads, soups, fish and meat dishes including the popular favourite, Kapama, a mixture of meat and vegetables stewed in an earthenware dish.

For a more contemporary helping of cuisine, try one of the new eateries opening up such as the Smokey Mountain Restaurant for mouth-watering smoked burgers and ribs. Or, out of town, visit the Dam Krinets Restaurant, a fish farm next to a pretty dam which specialises in trout or carp, grilled or fried.

7. The Dancing Bears Rehabilitation Park

The Dancing Bears Park is borne from an international charity project of Four Paws Foundation, a non-profit organization which funds this sanctuary for mistreated bears. They’ve created a space which replicates the natural habitat for these former circus bears who need to be taught from scratch how to behave like bears, free from the environment of dancing and performing. Each bear has its own territory with access to water and plenty of space for climbing.

Guided tours are available between April and November so you can see first hand the bears in their wooded enclosures. It’s located in Belitsa, tucked in an area of natural forests, lakes and valleys but the track up to the Park can be bumpy ride!

8. Other Sports

If you’re the more adventurous type when it comes to mountainous sports, there are some great opportunities for kayaking and rafting. For those who prefer more calmer waters, choose the Mesta River for a more chilled ride where you can meander and enjoy the surrounding nature. The second river that flows through the Pirin National Park is the Struma which forms the Kresna Gorge and is more of an extreme adventure.

For those of you wanting a 2 wheeled adventure, there are 7 main biking routes, ranging from beginners to the hardened trails and Bansko hosts a number of mountain bike events throughout the year. There are also several options for horse riding, golf, fishing, rock climbing and hang/para gliding in the region.

9. Take a Day Trip

There are numerous tour operators offering day trips from Bankso if you don’t have your own transport. Visit Rila Monastery a little over an hour’s drive away and one of Bulgaria’s main tourist attractions. The monastery houses two churches, History Museum, Cookhouse, Hreliov’s Tower and a library which stores literature dating back for thousands of years. It’s easy to be consumed by the painted frescoes, towers and stairways and seemingly never-ending archways.

.Alternatively, visit Melnik, the smallest town in the southwestern Pirin Mountains. An architectural reserve with 96 of its buildings listed as cultural monuments, Melnik is famous for its unusual landscape of sandstone formations, cliffs and pyramids, as well as it’s red wines and there are a number of vineyards worth calling in to. Closer to Bankso is the historical village of Kovachevitsa where you can step back in time to yet more unique Bulgarian architecture and authenticity.

10. Festivals

Representing all genres of Jazz, the Bankso Jazz Festival is the biggest of its kind in Bulgaria and hosts a range of worldwide artists. Held on an open air stage in Nikola Vaptsarov Square with smaller concerts being organised in other local venues, the event is over a week long and is all free. 2017 is special because the festival will celebrate its 20th anniversary.

Bankso also hosts a variety of other festivals including pop, opera and film, all of which usually take place in the main square.

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Happy travels 🙂

 

Monument of Bulgarian-Russian Friendship, Varna

Climbing through a small hole in the wall that someone has hammered out just enough bricks to squeeze through, I am starting to have second thoughts about what’s ahead of the darkness on the other side. One by one, and after balancing on a few stones piled on top of each other to help us clamber through, we’re inside but then have to prepare ourselves for some creepy exploration by the looks of it. The seemingly silent, inner chambers of the Monument of Bulgarian-Russian Friendship in Varna awaits us…

Monument of Bulgarian-Russian Friendship

I thought being inside the Buzludzha building was eerie but the angular, concrete walls and pitch black staircases we stumble along in here is much spookier, mostly because there is zero light to guide us. A friend who has been here before warned us about a gaping hole in the ground with a long drop below located just after the entrance, but not being able to find it was more disconcerting than if we had seen it. I try to put thoughts of falling metres down into the dark abyss behind me and we continue hesitatingly ahead.

The letters would have read: Friendship for centuries throughout centuries

The letters would have read: Friendship for centuries throughout centuries

The monument the land was built on was previously a Soviet stronghold during the Russian-Turkish war between 1828-9 and so underneath this impressive, concrete structure lies the bloodshed remnants of those Soviet soldiers who fought here. The monument itself was built to symbolise the relationship between the Bulgarian and Russian people and came about through a design contest in 1958; the idea being to create a memorial to commemorate the Soviet Army and their battles in support of Bulgaria.

Monument of Bulgarian-Russian Friendship

In the middle of the arch used to be a bronze cube with an eternal flame                    and at the entrance were bronze doors weighing 3.5 tons

In the present day, the monument is abandoned; the only evidence of people is their rubbish scattered throughout the floors and graffiti on random surfaces. The sounds from the outside are distant and muffled from behind these solid walls but when some pigeons, previously quiet, decide to suddenly swoop above us, making cooing noises that echo in the blackness, we all jump in surprise and clutch our torches as we try and see beyond the dim shadows.

Fortunately, the next room we come across has concrete slits in the roof design and the light from them is a welcomed relief. At the end of this narrow room is a Communist star embedded into the concrete. The layout of the room has no obvious meaning, tucked inside this obscure building, but its significance is obvious.

Monument of Bulgarian-Russian Friendship

Following the steps further, we are all relieved to be outside on the roof, and in the light. Here, we have a superb view of Varna and also of the imposing statues that make up the sides of this vast monument. On the right hand side are the empty, sharply-carved faces representing the Soviet soldiers complete with rifles over their shoulders…

Monument of Bulgarian-Russian Friendship

…and on the opposing, left wing are three Bulgarian women: one with hung hands, another holding a flower, and the third has a tray with bread and salt.

Monument of Bulgarian-Russian Friendship

Back in its heyday, this Communist monument would have had Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony being played on a loop, day and night, from the moment of it’s opening ceremony in 1978. It originally housed an information centre, conference facilities and Soviet bookshop, all of which was sponsored by the Russians in the belief they were enlightening the Bulgarians through education. The Monument’s Park below can be reached by the, ‘Staircase of Victory’, a series of steps where more than 10,000 trees were planted at the time of opening and the 180 floodlights shone so brightly that the grandeur of the monument could be seen from offshore.

Monument of Bulgarian-Russian Friendship

Trying to leave, we lose our way and miss the opportunity to go to the other side where the Bulgarian women are poised. But I’m planning to return: having done some subsequent research, there is also an abandoned nuclear bunker and alleged tunnels underneath the monument which might be worth the extra visit….with a decent torch!

Monument of Bulgarian-Russian Friendship

The concrete wings are 23m tall and 48m across in totalality

Monument of Bulgarian-Russian Friendship

Over 27000 volunteers worked on completing the monument

Monument of Bulgarian-Russian Friendship

 

Monument of Bulgarian-Russian Friendship

Once Communism fell in 1989 so did the upkeep of monuments like these

Monument of Bulgarian-Russian Friendship

The monument was designed by Varna sculptors, Alyosha Kafedzhiiski and                                                 Eugene Barumov

Monument of Bulgarian-Russian Friendship

The Staircase of Victors consists of 305 steps that stretch 49 ft.

 

Step Back in Time to Tryavna

Strolling through the neat, cobbled streets, traditional white-washed buildings designed with characteristic state roofs, overhanging eaves and wooden shutters, will indulge you with a real glimpse of architectural splendour from the Bulgarian National Revival Period. Despite the cold day, inside the windowed shops, artisans can be seen busily crafting beautiful wood, ceramic and textile creations in their tiny workshops, and it seems that nearly every house in this part of town has been preserved in honour of it’s ancestors.

Tryavna

Tryavna, located near Gabrovo and on the northern side of the Stara Planiana Mountains, is one of Bulgaria’s most enchanting Renaissance towns. First impressions would appear that little has changed for centuries, such is the attention to detail given to protecting their cultural and historical heritage. The original settlement dates back as far as 1565, and both the Thracian and Romans have inhabited the area, but, from the Eighteenth Century, it has flourished as a trading and cultural hub which is still very evident today.

The Museum of Wood-Carving and Ethnographic Arts

The Museum of Wood-Carving and Ethnographic Arts

During the high seasonal months, crowds of tourists descend on this small town to immerse themselves in the beauty and skills of old and modern artisans. Tryavna is particularly famous for its icon painting and wood-carving to which museums such as the The Daskalov House, with its famous wood-carved ceiling suns, have been meticulously kept as a homage to the intricate skills of previous crafts-people. Traditions have been passed down by generations who are continually learning and sharing their talents though the Tryavna Artistic School which is one of the oldest, and most famous in Bulgaria.

Clock Tower, Tryavna

Clock Tower, Tryavna

Back in Dyado Nikola Square is another well-known attraction – the Clock Tower. Built from stone, it dates back to 1814 and stands at 21 meters tall with a decorative pointed dome which overwhelms the smaller, cafes and nearby shops. While you’re there, in the cafe next door, you can sample hot chocolate and coffee made on hot barrels of sand, munch on one of the delicious pastries and consume the surrounding atmosphere at your leisure.

Tryavna

From the square you can either take a walk across the arched, stone bridge where the River Trevenska flows underneath, and pass by local shops which sell unique tourist mementos; or go left from the clock and amble down the craft street – Petko Rachov Slaveykov – where you’re able to watch the skilled processes that go into making jewellery, leather, wooden items and icon paintings. The buildings on this street from which local artists create, are themselves works of art and was declared a cultural and historical reserve in 1979. On the opposite side of the road, is the St Archangel Michael Church whose features include its stone roof, wooden belfry, carvings and icons.

St Archangel Michael Church

St Archangel Michael Church

There’s much to see in this small town and a day trip just won’t cover it all so if you don’t live in the area, stay at one of the many traditional guest houses to make the most of your visit. There are many more museums and restored houses which used to belong to famous Bulgarian intellectuals, revolutionaries and artists, including, surprisingly, a Museum of Asian and African Art. Over 140 monuments dedicated to Renaissance Art are scattered throughout the streets, and even their recycling bins have an artistic role in this intensely enriching town of Tryavna.

Recycling Bins,

 For more information browse the town’s website here but if you have your own tips about what to see, feel free to share them below…

Architecture in Plovdiv

Like most Bulgarian cities and large towns, Plovdiv is no exception to having had a turbulent history: Thracians, Romans, Byzantines, Slavs and Ottomans have all had a huge influence in the city’s evolution which, in turn, has had a profound inspiration on architecture in Plovdiv.

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Plovdiv is not only the second largest city in Bulgaria but also the third oldest city in Europe and wandering around the centre’s amazing structural designs, its remarkable how some of these buildings have remained so true to their original styles. Built on the banks of the river Maritza and lying in between three hills, Plovdiv’s architecture offers a unique insight into ancient eras of history.

This list is by no means exhaustive but here are four of the best architectural charms to visit.

Roman Architecture

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Part of the Roman Forum and Odeon

Plovdiv and its neighbouring districts have over two hundred archaeological sites to explore, many of which date back to Roman times. The city centre’s heritage has been revealed through the excavations of the Ancient Stadium, (situated under the main shopping area) and the Roman Forum and Odeon, (which can be reached from behind the main Post Office), both of which offer a fascinating look into Roman times.

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Roman Amphitheatre

Unbelievably, Plovdiv’s Ancient Roman Theatre was only re-discovered in 1968 by coincidence when the Roman stone and marble, which dates back to the second century, was uncovered. Many of its large columns are still intact and the quietness is a stark contrast to the thousands of spectators that would have filled the marble seating blocks. Remnants of the splendid decorations are still prevalent but instead of gladiator fights, the Theatre now plays host to cultural and music performances throughout the summer months.

Plovdiv Old Town

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Houses in Plovdiv Old Town

Behind the walls of the opulent brightly-coloured Revival Houses of the Old Town, lie museums, galleries and the workshops of local artisans. Narrow, cobbled streets will lead you through an open air museum of the Bulgarian Revival period where their creative flair of east meets west is evident by the splendor of ornamented houses with their painted details, characteristic shutters and wooden entrances.

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Plovdiv Regional Historical Museum

Mostly built during the Nineteenth Century, here you’ll find the famous house-museums of Balabanov House, Philippopolis Art Gallery, Nedkovich House and even a Museum of Pharmacy. Inside these buildings are magnificent high ceilings, painted murals and art and lavish interior decor. These buildings are scattered amongst numerous cafes, restaurants and shops selling traditional souvenirs.

Religious Architecture

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Dzhumaya Mosque

You can see the pink-painted minaret long before you see the Dzhumaya Mosque as it stands at twenty-three metres tall. On closer inspection, the Byzantine brickwork, which dates back to the mid-15th Century, is what makes this mosque one of the oldest Ottoman religious constructions of the Balkans. There are nine domes all covered in sheets of lead and a unique sun dial which was later added in 1878.

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Wooden Bell Tower of St Marina Church

There are countless cathedrals, synagogues and monasteries dotted throughout the city and several beautifully decorated churches including the St Dimiter, St Nedelya and St Marina Churches located in or near the old quarter. The latter of which has been re-built several times since its original holy temple way back in the 5th Century due to various reasons of demolition and fires and now has a  distinctive wooden clock tower that was restored in the 1950’s.

Tobacco Quarter

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Abandoned building of the Tobacco era

Ok, so this might not be to everyone’s taste of architecture but the old, neglected buildings of the tobacco industry are a vital feature to an aspect of Plovdiv that are often overshadowed by other historical buildings. Mostly built in the 1920’s, their architectural designs were influenced by neo-Classicism, Art Nouveau and the Vienna Secession and were specially made for renowned, and affluent tobacco traders. However, they have now been left to decay but still offer a distinctive style of economic prosperity during this time.

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Whilst wondering around the Plovdiv streets you can’t help but bump into the numerous murals and statues that appear on walls and buildings. This one’s from the post office.

For more information on Plovdiv’s tourist attractions check out this excellent site: www.visitplovdiv.com

Gabrovo

Gabrovo is renowned for being the Bulgarian capital of humour and the Gabrovan people have long been the object of many Bulgarian jokes as being stingy with spending their money. Its population has taken this reputation of frugality with good humour and celebrates these jokes with a carnival and one of their most renowned assets, the Museum of Humour and Satire.

The town is situated very close to the geographical centre of Bulgaria, near the Stara Planina mountain range. Rich in textile and cultural heritage, Gabrovo pays homage to its past with numerous bridges over the Yantra River and their accompanying memorial statues which are scattered throughout the centre.

Gabrovo

Walking around Gabrovo has a different feel from nearby Veliko Tarnovo, with its pedestrianized centre and open plan park where you can enjoy a drink from one of the surrounding bars and watch the world go by. Narrow streets will lead you to one of the seemingly hidden mehanas which serve great traditional Bulgarian cuisine. Or if you prefer, you can buy ingredients for your dinner from the outdoor market – including some excellent homemade wine!

The Assumption’ Church

The Assumption’ Church

Although the centre appears quite small, it has an array of museums, churches and theatres worth a visit. The surrounding area offers great hiking and cycling routes and sightseeing attractions which include monasteries, the village reserve of Bojentzi, Etar, Skipka Pass and Buzludja.

 More information about Gabrovo’s attractions here