Bansko, Bulgaria.

Bansko, Bulgaria

While hanging out with my co-working friends on Koh Lanta someone mentioned that a little ski town in Bulgaria was an inexpensive place to base and work from in the summer. After exploring Greece I was looking for a way to escape the Schengen Area for a month or two, and flights to Bulgaria were the right price. I landed, checked into a hotel in the capital for one night, spent the next morning walking around the city, and caught a bus up to the Pirin Mountains.

Patriarchal Cathedral of St. Alexander Nevsky
Patriarchal Cathedral Of St. Alexander Nevsky – Sofia, Bulgaria

After a few false starts I finally found the correct bus station, bought my ticket and waited around for the Bansko Bus. A few hours later I arrived during a drenching downpour, hopped in a cab, and got dropped off to my apartment near the ski lift. That week was the Bansko Nomad Fest and I considered getting tickets, but after playing in Athens and on Crete for a few weeks I decided to double down and focus on work. I’d only booked my place for a week, but after a few days exploring the village I decided it was my summer spot and started looking for longer term accommodation.

Chris in Bansko, Bulgaria.
Exploring Bansko

I rented an apartment for two months, joined a coworking space, got a gym membership, rented a mountain bike, and started running and biking all over the valley. My typical day started with cycling 5 minutes to the Summit location of Atlspace where I’d make coffee and work a few hours, bike home, make an early lunch, work a few more hours, bike down to the gym, workout, run, clean up, make an early dinner, then head out on the town to meet up with friends for sunset happy hours and shenanigans. It was a pretty good routine.

Standing desk setup in Bansko.
My Standing Desk Setup In The Bansko Apartment

In addition to being incredibly economical in the summer, Bansko is nestled into the base of the mountains of Pirin National Park, which is an absolute playground for hiking, biking, trail running and just enjoying all the epic views. The mountains constantly shed snowmelt and water rushed through every street and alley in the city, especially during rainstorms, and I got used to the calming sounds of cascading water during my stay.

Pirin Mountains, Bansko, Bulgaria.
The Pirin Mountains Behind Bansko

I rented a bicycle from Phillip, a British guy who has been living in Bansko for 15+ years. He offered to show me around the valley on two wheels and with that kind of local knowledge I couldn’t turn it down. I promised him that I was in good enough shape to keep up, and as we spun across the valley and through tiny villages Phillip conversed in Bulgarian with local farmers and herders. We explored small churches, rode a remote dirt road over a pass, stopped for a snack of grilled cow tongue, and finished our 50 km day with a cold pint at the Pivoteka craft beer bar downtown.

Visiting a church in Bulgaria.
Exploring Local Mountain Churches

Seriously sore from such a long ride in the saddle I switched gears and joined my friends on a day hike up in the National Park. I knew Alex and Resi from Koh Lanta, but ran into them at WordCamp Europe in Athens earlier in the summer and we all ended up hanging out in Bansko together. The more I travel the smaller the world seems and it’s really nice to have friends all over the place!

We met early in the morning to catch the bus to Vihren Hut and set out up a steep incline into the mountains. We made a large loop that included a good amount of cross country rock hopping around stunning glacial lakes and through remote valleys past herds of chamois, a goat-antelope species that is native to the mountains in this region of Europe.

Alex, Chris and Resi.
Alex, Chris and Resi
Glacial lakes in Pirin National Park.
Glacial Lakes In Pirin National Park

In addition to hiking and biking, I met a great group of friends interested in running. We decided to start a weekly running club and since we all also enjoyed drinking we called it the Bansko Running and Drinking Club and we tried our best to live up to the name. Weekly, and sometimes more often, we’d meet up to run 4-7 km along dirt roads in the foothills outside of town, often while carrying group drinks and playing silly games at ever kilometer mark. Most evenings we finished the run downtown at Pivoteka for delicious craft beers and occasional karaoke nights.

Bansko Running and Drinking Club.
The Bansko Running And Drinking Club

While the Bansko Running and Drinking Club was a bit more about the shenanigans, we were actually runners too so one day I joined my friends GP and Evelyn for our self-created Summit to Summit to Summit challenge. Just after sunrise we met at the Summit location of Altspace and set out to run/hike 9+ miles up 6,000+ feet to the summit of Vihren Peak and then back down to town. We had a beautiful day, scrambled up steep rock walls, jogged down the ski runs, covered 18.5 miles, and finished with a strong IPA at Pivoteka downtown.

On top of Vihren Peak in Bulgaria.
On Top Of Vihren Peak, Pirin Mountains Bulgaria

While the natural beauty around Bansko was a huge draw, the quaint village vibes and downtown life was equally awesome. I spent the days wandering around cobblestone streets, visiting small shops, and attending fun summer festivals including the Jazz Fest, Rock Fest, Mountain Film Fest and more. Every day and every event totally felt like I was living a surreal life straight out of an Eastern European movie set.

Downtown Bansko.
Downtown Bansko

Most people in Bansko spoke English which definitely helped because I have no Bulgarian. I enjoyed running and riding around town, or standing at my window desk watching the world go buy. Each morning my neighbors hitched up their horse and rode their wagons out to work the fields and in the evenings kids congregated with their bicycles and soccer balls at the park down the street. Every day was amazing and it felt like I was living in a bygone time.

Horse cart in Bansko.
Bansko Transportation

Certain places leave a sound imprinted in my memory. In Thailand it’s the “ding” of the 7-Eleven doors, in Bali it’s the cacophonous call of the Tokay gecko, and in Bansko it was the ubiquitous whir of chainsaws and wood cutters. All summer I watched as truckloads of logs were dropped on sidewalks and streets and the piles slowly shrank over weeks of splitting, chopping and stacking. With all this valuable product sitting out in the open I asked about theft and was told that in Bansko you can take a man’s wife, but you can never touch his firewood!

Bansko Wood Piles

I love travel for the places, views, and cultural experiences, but the best part of my vagabonding for nearly the last decade has been meeting people and making friends along the way. I was lucky to meet some amazing people in Bansko and we spent a few too many nights bar hopping around town, telling travel stories, singing karaoke, and having way too many rounds of rakia. It was truly an amazing summer in Bansko.

Friends in Bansko.
Friends In Bansko

As always, time seems to go by faster than expected and just when our friend group was really taking off people started to depart. Soon enough it was my turn. Two+ months had passed way to fast and I wasn’t ready to leave, but I had new adventures on the horizon so I backed my bag and caught a cab back to Sofia.

Glacial Lake in Pirin National Park.
Glacial Lake In Pirin National Park

I checked into a hotel near the airport and spent one more afternoon wandering the streets of a less touristy part of town. This had been my first trip to Eastern Europe and it was unlike any place I’d been before. Unique, different, and very intersting, I knew that someday soon I’d probably be pulled back to the Balkans.

Sofia, Bulgaria

Early the next morning I caught a cab to the airport and checked into my flight to Western Europe. I was getting ready to have another adventure of a lifetime, this time sharing it with my dad and brother in Portugal and Spain.

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