I’m dangling high in the air on a ski lift and I’m scared of heights. My eyes are clamped shut until it comes to a rickety halt. The backdrop to my first skiing venture looks like a perfectly decorated Christmas cake. Coated in glistening white snow, my eyes follow the smooth curving slopes and examine the cutting peaks. The prickly pine trees soar high above, making the minuscule skiers and snowboarders look like tiny decorations on this fondant icing spread.
I scour the busy meeting point for my ski instructor. “Look for Christoph in green,” Maks, the co-founder of Snomads (the eco-chalet where I am staying) said. There are a sea of instructors enveloped in green jackets, from teal and emerald. A lime-coated man approaches me with flashy sunglasses on, his hand lurched out. “Hi, I’m Christoph.” His dazzling white teeth match the snowy scenery.
I'm hardly difficult to miss. I borrowed a retro-style ski suit with flashes of neon pink, bursts of bright yellow and numbers splashed all over. “Where are you from?” Christoph enquires. “England,” I reply loudly over the children’s skiing lesson taking place next to us. “Ah, Brexit,” he shakes his head. “Let’s start skiing,” he smiles.
A more experienced snow-goer making tracks in Bansko, Bulgaria © urbaneye011/Shutterstock
We shuffle to an empty patch of snow lugging my heavy ski gear in tow. My hands are already clammy, cushioned in the mass of ski gloves. “We’ll start with one ski on, one ski off,” Christoph nods. I clamp my heavy right boot into a mint green and white ski, jolting as it fastens. “Use the poles here to push you forward,” he taps to the front of the skis. I stretch and plough the poles into the crumbly snow in an attempt to drag myself forward. My upper body strength is feeble, I’m wobbly. Edging slowly, I finally slide smoothly across the snow, left boot hovering in the air. “Brava!” Christoph exclaims, wrinkles curving around his mouth. I swap sides and glide away with him continuing to cheer.
“Next, we’ll do some moves,” Christoph instructs. I’m intrigued. We work on the difference between parallel and snow plough. “Nice job! Now for your first slope!” Christoph enthuses.
We slowly edge to a chunky T-bar lift. There’s a queue with small children hovering at the front. The first child, a young girl in a bright pink ski suit with matching helmet, grips a T-bar and shoots up the beginner’s slope with no problem. I eventually side-shuffle to the front of the queue while Christoph moves to watch me face on. Sticks lumbered in my left hand, the T-bar comes to an abrupt halt next to my right side. My right hand grabs onto the end of the bar, which looks like a violin scroll. “No, you’re not ready!” shouts Christoph. But it’s too late. I’m already lurching forward with the bar, my whole right side lunging forward, pulling muscles I never thought I had. Burning pain and the urge to yelp follows, but there isn’t time to think about it. I’m heading up the slope and I can’t stop now. Skiers ahead of me throw themselves away from the T-bar when they reach the top. They quickly scuttle away so as to not knock into skiers approaching from behind. I reach the peak, launch myself to the side and Christoph is already there. I apologise in a typically British manner but we continue just the same as before.
The retro-style ski lift at Bansko © Nataliya Nazarova/Shutterstock
“Let’s go!” he cries, pointing to the smooth slope before us with his pole. Do I dare? I edge forward sheepishly and then suddenly I glide forward down a slope, faster and faster; the wind flaps against my ski suit, the heat glaring against me. I feel a rush of adrenaline, but I need to focus. “Parallel!” Christoph instructs. I push my skis together, leaving a gap between them: I’ve got it. “Turn left!”, “Brava!” Christoph shouts.“Now, snow plough!” My feet come together, my skis gradually slash the snow and form a triangle. My legs stretch painfully, but it’s working, I’m slowing down and eventually come to a stop with mounds of snow dust around me. “You did it!” Christoph grins.
He decides we should continue the following day. “Meet you at the same place tomorrow,” Christoph waves me off. Elated, I still want more. The thrilling speed, rush of movement and sense of achievement is infectious. I can see why skiing is addictive.
I return to the chalet. Maks greets me, “How did you find it?” he softly asks. He has piercing blue eyes and a mound of curly wispy hair sandwiched under a thick wooly hat – he oozes cool. “I loved it!” He grins back at me. Maks has been skiing since he was seven and set up Snomads six years ago with three friends he met while working for a skiing company in the Alps. The friends would holiday and tackle the slopes together and chose to come to Bansko one year.
A snowboarder showing off his skills at the resort © Sergey Novikov/Shutterstock
Staying in a chalet down the road, Maks felt that the destination “ticked every box”. “You’re just as likely to see a horse and cart on the road, as a car. It’s more alternative here,” Maks enthuses. The team now has several chalets in the town, all named after different musicians, from Diana Ross to Prince.
There's more to it than music though. The chalets use sustainable heating systems and serve local and organic produce, catering to vegetarians and vegans too. There’s a plethora of homemade jams, irresistible breads and cooked breakfasts to start the day, as well as daily three-course evening meals.
The next morning, I layer up and fumble onto the gondola once again. I whisper Christoph’s words back to myself about the various skiing positions. I am ready. I peer down of the gondola and soak up the glorious view of Tordoka mountain: it’s endlessly magical with its crisp snow sparkling in the sun. Looking below me I see skiers twisting and turning down the slopes of all different shapes and sizes. I spot another vibrant ski suit, but on second glance, I realise it’s not a ski suit, it’s a Pikachu onesie. I laugh to myself and smile as I realise that Bansko has not only been a wonderfully alternative holiday, but that I’ve overcome my fear of heights.
Zara stayed at Snomads in Bansko. Rooms start at £199 per person for seven nights half-board including transfers from Sofia International Airport.
Header image: Bansko, Bulgaria © Nataliya Nazarova/Shutterstock