Post and photos by: Philippa
A Bulgaria Family Holiday
Ever since my sister and her four children uprooted themselves from London in the UK to establish themselves in Bulgaria, we have been keen to visit and discover what this quiet mountainous region has to offer families. This summer we finally go the chance.
Our first stop when we arrived at Sofia airport was to pick up a hire car and navigate to Bansko, a moderately sized alpine ski station which is trying hard to make a name for itself as a summer mountain idyll.
Navigating the roads in Bulgaria can be a challenge since the alphabet is in Cyrillic, so place names look completely different to the Western spelling. We came prepared with a battered road map, which was soon side-lined in favour of google maps – hurrah for data roaming!
Despite everything being open in the summer, the town is peacefully quiet, which meant no queues for activities and plenty of availability at restaurants (traditional Mexhanas). Most of the town is pedestrianised so ideal for children to scamper about. Activities in the centre of town include a swimming pool (at the nearby Regnum hotel), water park, little cars for the kids to drive in the square, a spectacular park with beautiful lawns, cafés, a climbing frame and sandpit, and the gondola. The gondola ride from Hotel Kempinski takes you to a peak with several bouncy castles, a restaurant, a giant Batman statue, and a huge water slide running the course of the ski piste. Our kids had a wild time on the bouncy slides and climbing walls.
Bansko is totally laid back during summer. Bubbas (grandmothers) in white head scarfs and long black skirts sit out on the pavements watching the world go by, kids play in the street well into dusk, gypsies drive their horse drawn carts intermittently through the town, and fresh fruit and vegetables spill onto the pavements from local vendors. It is a charming destination for a summer family holiday where activities for the children are affordable and aplenty. The main attraction for our gaggle of six children aged between one- and 11-years-old, plus one grandmother, two mums and one daddy, were the out of town activities nestled in the pockets of the Pirin mountains less than one hour away from our base.
The brilliant riding stables, Dvorene, is a two-minute drive from the town. It is owned by Nikki and his wife and offers incredible nature rides through deserted moorlands and very reasonable riding lessons (appx $90 for 10, one hour lessons, or $13 for a one-hour lesson) for kids. I will treasure the memory of taking my experienced 11-year-old niece on an hour-long nature ride, where we galloped past goat farmers, jumped over streams and watched the storks fly overhead.
Another unforgettable experience was at the Bear Sanctuary, where Bridget Bardot has created a huge enclosed area in the forest for retired dancing bears. These beautiful, lumbering creatures enchanted the children in their natural habitat. The bears are well cared for with acres of forest to roam, their own dens and plenty of food and water. They have been rescued from cruelty and are now able to live safely and at piece in this fairytale setting.
During our stay in Bansko we also enjoyed a misty family hike around the Bezbog lake and an indulgent full day at the Ognyanovo Petreliyski spa hot springs.
Where to stay in Bansko
We stayed at the charming Snow Pine Chalet in the centre of the old town, where host Martin took very good care of all our needs. The chalet runs year-round and offers comfortable bedrooms, a spacious courtyard garden and the option of catering. Its within walking distance of the main town and park. If you are looking for a little bit of luxury the Kempinski Hotel Bansko is located at the bottom of the gondola and is a five minute walk from the old town.
The Rila Mountains
After an active week in Bansko our troop set out for the Rila Mountains. First stop was the world famous Rila Monastery, which is a majestic group of buildings surrounding a cobbled courtyard nestled in the heart of some of the oldest mountains in Europe. We got our culture fix here, by marvelling at the incredible frescoes and architecture. We took our time to light candles of remembrance in the main church before taking a stroll outside along the nearby river.
Next to the monastery is the fabled Monastery Bakery where we staved off hungry tummies with delicious mektsi (local doughnuts) and ice cream. Later that afternoon we headed back into the mountains to the Panorama Hotel, which is run by the friendliest people in Bulgaria! My sister had booked two log cabins (there are only two available) at this newly refurbished alpine retreat, and they were idyllic. Bravo Sis!
The next day we hired Yvetta, an alpine guide from the hotel to take us on a 6km hike to see the Seven lakes of the Rila Mountains. Legend has it the lakes were formed by a giant’s love sick tears. Loaded with goodies, plenty of water and sun cream we set off with six kids in tow!
The hike included one 20-minute chairlift ride over the never-ending pine forests. The views were breath-taking and our group of intrepid globetotters happily galavanted in the mountains (with just a few grumbles from the three- and four-year-olds as their legs got weary). Luckily there was a café waiting for us back at the chairlift station selling Milka chocolate!
Where to Stay in the Rila Mountains
If you plan on venturing to the Rila Mountains the Hotel Panorama is excellent. We booked two log cabins overlooking the forest and were thrilled. There is a large children’s playground, alfresco dining deck and an indoor restaurant, plus oodles of space for the children to explore.
Our last stop before flying out was the capital city of Sofia. Sofia is a charming little city with a beautiful Basilica and local Doktors Park. Cafes and Markets spill onto the pedestrianised pavements, selling fresh berries and endless varieties of tomatoes. Our pit-stop in Sofia made a brief introduction to a pocket sized city which I would love to explore further.
What to Eat in Bulgaria
Honestly, my expectations of Bulgarian cuisine were very low prior to my visit. Oh, how I was surprised! Bulgarian food is seriously delicious. Along with copious amounts of cherry and tea picking with my nieces (a local flower called Gorski which is divine to drink), I was also introduced to the incredibly flavoursome Chicken Kavarma Stew, refreshing Shopska Salad, filling Banista Bread and mouth watering grilled cheeses with walnuts and honey.
We went to so many gorgeous Mexhana restaurants many of which had gardens for the children to play in (one even had bunnies and terrapins in the garden). My top picks include:
- Dannys Bar in Bansko: A quiet place with enclosed garden, mini stream and water features.
- Tvpckata in Razlog: Located in Razlog park (Bansko’s neighbouring town), this restaurant has a huge menu with local lemonades, huge garlic flat breads, salads, cheeses, stew and curries.
- Ognyanavo in Petreliyski spa: Serves amazing thin crust pizzas
Highlights & Lowlights
The highlight of our trip for the whole family (from one- to 70-years-old) was the Petreliyski spa in Ognyanavo. The mummies relaxed poolside with magazines intermittently taking dips, daddy imitated a human climbing frame as five children jumped all over him, while granny played with the children and enjoyed the spas thermal properties.
There are four hot pools with different gradient temperatures full of natural thermal mountain water. The water in the main pool is the perfect temperature, suitable for babies and little kids. The sun shone for us all day as the kids played in the warm pools, which we had almost to ourselves. The pools are surrounded by grassy lawns, swings and deckchairs and there is a restaurant that serves fabulous pizza and ice cream. We played cards by the pool, soaked ourselves and bonded as a family. Next time we visit I am keen to stay at the nearby Valentina Castle and put the kids up in the Smurf house.
The most difficult part was navigating the Cyrillic alphabet. There was definitely a language barrier for us in Bulgaria. Luckily my nieces speak quite well and were able to translate for us.
When to Visit Bulgaria
The best time to visit during the summer is in July when it is quiet and sunny.
How to get to Bulgaria
Fly with low cost airline Wizz Air for international travel to Sofia. Then hire a car or book a transfer to Bansko.
- Phrase book
- Mobile phone with google maps
- Sun cream 50+
- Swimwear and towels
- Sun Hat and glasses
- Card games – light to pack and fun for the evening
- Poles for hiking
- Water carrier and camelback or equivalent
- Baby carrier if with an infant
- Rain Jacket
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