Lying some 40km east of the main Struma Valley route, Bansko (Банско) is the primary centre for walking and skiing on the eastern slopes of the Pirin mountains. Originally an agricultural centre, it’s witnessed massive investment in ski tourism in recent years, resulting in the unappealing sight of apartment blocks and hotels squeezed into the backyards of stone-built nineteenth-century farmhouses. Despite this overdevelopment, the central old town, with its numerous traditional pubs hidden away down labyrinthine cobbled streets, is as attractive as ever and the perfect place to wind down after a hard day on the slopes.
Though connected to Sofia and other towns by bus, Bansko can also be reached by a narrow-gauge railway, which leaves the main Sofia–Plovdiv line at Septemvri and forges its way across the highlands. It’s one of the most scenic trips in the Balkans, but also one of the slowest, taking five hours to cover just over 100km.
Bansko centres on the modern pedestrianized pl. Nikola Vaptsarov, where the Nikola Vaptsarov Museum relates to the local-born poet and socialist martyr. Immediately north of here, pl. Vazrazhdane is watched over by the solid stone tower of the Church of Sveta Troitsa, whose interior contains exquisite nineteenth-century frescoes and icons. On the opposite side of the square, the Rilski Convent contains an icon museum devoted to the achievements of Bansko’s nineteenth-century icon painters.
From the main square, ul. Pirin leads north towards the cable car, where there is a buzzing collection of ski-hire shops, bars and restaurants. Ski passes cost 55Lv per day (36Lv for children), and ski and snowboard equipment can be hired for around 30Lv per day. The cable car doesn’t operate outside the ski season so the only option for reaching the summit in the summer months is to head west – on foot or by taxi – via a steep 14km uphill climb to the Vihren hut, where cheap dorm accommodation is available. This is the main trailhead for hikes towards the 2914m summit of Mount Vihren, Bulgaria’s second-highest peak, or gentler rambles around the meadows and lakes nearby.