Bansko was founded during the 10th century on the site of an old Thracian settlement. During the 18th century it was a prosperous place, home to craftsmen, artists and merchants. Its highly regarded icon painting and woodworking schools were among the most influential in the country.
Today, Bansko is certainly one of the jewels in Bulgaria's tourism crown. This charming, historic town is located in the broad Mesta River plain, which is bordered by three mountain groups: the Rila, Rhodopes and Pirin. The latter, topped by 2,914-meter Mt Vihren, form a stunning alpine backdrop to the town. Bansko's mountain-influenced climate means relatively short summers and long winters, with an average of 160 days of snow. Like the rest of Bulgaria, Bansko is feeling the pinch from the demise of its state-supported industries, but tourism, hiking and skiing are taking up much of the slack. The town's traditional stone and timber buildings have been transformed into homey mehana taverns and small pensions.
There are numerous ski slopes, a gondola lift, five 4-seat lifts, a 3-seat lift, a number of rope toes.
Although Bansko is best known as an alpine skiing, climbing and hiking center, it boasts a rich cultural and historic legacy as evidenced by the 150 local cultural landmarks. The town museum complex (M-F 9am-noon; 2-5pm) includes: the historical museum; the NicolaVaprtsarov, Neofit Rilski, and Velyan Ognev house museums; the icon exhibit; the crafts exhibit; and the pre-historic museum collection in nearby Eleshnitsa. In addition, two of Bansko's churches are designated national landmarks, as are several of its National Revival-style house compounds.
Bansko has yet another claim to fame: more than 70 mehanas, tradtitonal taverna-restaurants which feature national and regional cuisine accompanied by live folk music in authentic surroundings - namely, the distinctive 19th century stone and timber buildings for which the town is justifiably renowned.
While Bansko's nightlife is more typical of a small town than a popular ski and tourist resort, the newly inaugurated annual jazz festival (a week in mid-August) is successfully attracting an assortment of noted Bulgarian and Western performers.
Many visitors to Bansko are so taken with the place that they find it hard to leave. For those able to tear themselves away, there is excellent hiking in the nearby Pirin: the Bunderitsa and Vihren mountain huts (14 and 17 kms from Bansko, respectively) offer convenient bases for single or multi-day hikes. Contact the tourist club Eltepe for info (Bansko tel. 07443-2271)
The nearby villages of Bania and Dobrinishte have bath houses fed by warm mineral water springs. Dobrinishte also has downhill skiing facilities, though they're not as-developed as at Shiligarnika; a two-stage chairlift originates from the Gotse Delchev hut, 11 kms south of Dobrinishte, and allows winter skiers and summer hikers to access the Bezbog Hut, at 2239 meters the biggest and highest in the Pirin.
Razlog, the largest town in the region, is largely industrial and has considerably less to offer tourists than does Bansko. Still, it does have more than 40 designated cultural monuments, including several old churches and attractive Revival-style houses. Worth noting are the New Year's mummers celebrations and, especially. the Pirin Sings folk festival in nearby Predel Col . Held biennially in mid-August (next one is due in 2001), the event is one of Bulgaria's most outstanding cultural happenings as folk musicians and dancers from throughout the Pirin region perform on eight outdoor stages.
From Sofia, state buses to Bansko depart from the Ovcha Koupel station in Knyazhevo five times a day (5 hrs, $2); private companies such as Trans 5 depart from behind the Princess Hotel (3 hrs; $3). During the winter, Sofia tour operators offer multi-day ski trips that include transportation.