Bulgaria is a member of the European Union, the Council of Europe, and NATO.
Bulgaria has become much more stable in the years since communist rule. Its wealth is above average in terms of world rankings but it’s still one of Europe’s poorest countries and the poorest in the EU.
Read what I did here.
I’m revisiting Bulgaria as I came here once skiing a very long time ago and my photos haven't survived. I was going to travel on my own, but I saw this very cheap trip advertised - Landscapes and Traditions of Bulgaria. So here I am, with nine others. on a circular tour of western Bulgaria.
My hotel in Sofia is in the shopping precinct - very handy. The room is about as spartan as it gets - bare cotton sheets and a window you have to stand on a stool to look out of. And just to compound my grievances - others have a kettle. Still, I’m only here for one night. Things can only get better?
Out to explore Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, framed by Vitosha Mountain. It’s a whistle-stop tour, umbrellas at the ready and s there's a torrential downpour. Guide Ani marches ahead at pace, pauses for explanations and then is off again. Photos are taken on the fly.
Most of the sights of Sophia are historical remains, reflecting the city’s history. Sophia has Thracian heritage (associated with the poet Orpheus), but the area was named after the Celtic Serdi tribe, and became Serdica when it was a Roman city. It is replete with Roman remains, some only excavated a year ago. Sophia has been destroyed and rebuilt four times, but the city retains its sixth century Byzantine form. Two key Byzantine buildings remain - St Sophia’s Church on the highest point of city dates from the sixth century. The round Church of St. George is one of oldest churches in the world, dating from when Constantine and his mother Helen adopted Christianity in the 4th century. It was originally part of another imposing public building, perhaps baths or an imperial reception hall. It has five layers of frescoes.
There are few relics of the Ottoman empire and only one remaining mosque, the Banya Bashi. Most of them were destroyed by the Soviets. The Mosque of the Baths was designed by warriors conscripted from the villages by the Turks and designed to rival the mosques of Sinan. In the Central Square, close to the Banya Bashi Mosque are the thermal springs that give it its name. There’s a yellow and red Ottoman style building that housed the baths and was utilised during Soviet times. It since been restored as a museum.
Much is made in Bulgaria of the Russian Liberation from the Ottomans in 1878 and monuments abound. The most famous are the Russian Church and the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is extremely grand. The domes are covered in real gold and have recently been redone. There are copious amounts of marble and onyx and the walls are adorned with hosts of icons painted by the foremost artists, mainly on canvas. One especially popular with visitors is deemed to be miraculous. There are three naves, the patriarch's throne and the king’s throne, which is naturally much grander. The frescoes are murky due to candle smoke but there are no funds for restorations of these at the moment.
Alexander Nevsky is a Russian Saint from the 11th century a warrior, chosen to commemorate the travails of King Alexander in removing the Ottomans. A lady in her late 80s climbs 220 steps daily to ring the bells of the cathedral. She's has been performing this ritual for 30 years and is on You-tube.
Although Serdica was an important Roman city Sophia did not become capital of Bulgaria until this period. Opposite the historic covered Central Market Hall (closed) is the synagogue, a 1905 copy of the one that was destroyed in Vienna.
There are plenty of relics of the Soviet occupation. The main draw is the oddly Baroque and newly renovated Central Soviet Square with its Parliament, Presidency, ministries, Sheraton Hotel (only for Soviet dignitaries), underpasses and Louvre like glass domes. The buildings to one side shelter the St George Rotunda.
What else do I remember from my Route March? The National Theatre and a very noisy rock festival in the park behind the central Square - the police have even closed the road.
Last time I was in the second oldest city in Europe it was Christmas Eve. It was charming. It was snowing and there are small decorated stalls set up around the main square and gilt onion domes of the Aleksander Nevski Cathedral. The locals were buying cards, baubles and Christmas trees, hoisting the latter onto their shoulders to carry home. Pleasingly atmospheric and delightfully uncommercial.
Today we’re off on our clockwise tour of Bulgaria. Our driver is called Angel. East and slightly north, through the oak and beech covered Balkans Mountains. Hayricks, cheese shops and stalls stacked with wooden implements. The vendors sit sour faced on their stools. It’s not encouraging.
First stop is the Troyan monastery, with its chalet style monks cells. It’s home to a miraculous three handed Madonna icon, a copy of an eighth century icon left here by a monk in the 14th century. His horse kept tripping as a signal that he should leave it behind. So the story goes. The additional hand commemorates St John of Damascus who wrote in defence of icons during the Islamic influence, when such representation was discouraged. Emperor Leo was not impressed. He forged documents implicating John in insurrection and the Caliph of Damascus decreed that his hand should be cut off. The deed was done, but John prayed, the hand was healed and in remembrance an additional silver hand was stuck to icons. This eventually became a third 'proper' hand on all copies.
The monastery only dates from the sixteenth century so I’m totally confused as to how the dates for the icon work and I can't find any information that clarifies things. But the building is delightful with its profusion of trailing red flowers over the timber balconies and the minuscule church. This is heavy with incense, replete with suspended candelabras glistening gold and every inch of wall covered in paintings. Visitors line up to touch the icon and at the altar the priest is conducting a baptism.
Veliko Tarnovo was the capital of Bulgaria during its first empire when Asperuh became the first ruler of Bulgaria in 681. There’s a sprawling Tsaravets fortress topped by a Russian church. It’s all been heavily restored by the Soviets. They used mortar in the walls and decorated the inside of the church with dramatically disturbing monochrome murals depicting the history of Bulgaria. There’s a castle with great views across the modern city. The excavations stretch across to the adjacent hill. It was some capital. One of the towers in the lengthy walls was used as a prison for Baldwin of Flanders, who got permission to cross Bulgaria on his way to the crusades but then formed his own empire in North Greece and ungratefully attacked Bulgaria. He was captured and restrained for the rest of his life.
Arbanasi, just up the road was the chosen home for aristocracy of Greek heritage who built houses here in the seventeenth century under Ottoman rule. It was a lawless time and the uncultured Turks were not inclined to protect Christians from bands of robbers. The restored house museum of Konstantsalieva is heavily defended with thick walls, stout wooden doors and steep staircases. There’s even a panic style store room for food. Apparently brigands still got in and murdered the householder when she had been left on her own by her husband.
The rooms contain exhibits demonstrating what life was like in those times-apart from weird and terrifying. The kitchen has three ovens - one for making yogurt.
The hotel is over the road from the restored house museum. It’s got wooden chalet style rooms and a swimming pool. But all that glitters is not gold. The bedside lights don’t have any sockets to plug into.
Food in Bulgaria has a strong Greek and Turkish influence. It consists of a great deal of fresh bread rolls, flatbreads, salads like shopska (tomato and cucumber with cheese grated on top), bean soups, marinated meat, chips and fried cheese. Most of the meat is chicken. Pork features occasionally. Lamb is unusual - maybe in the spring - and beef doesn’t generally feature. Cattle is only reared for dairy products. The Bulgarians claim to have invented yogurt and that turns up with the salad, or as dessert at most meals. Other desserts are very sweet, pancakes with syrup and nuts or baklava like pastries.
Last time I was here, my hotel stuck to a bland (on good days) ‘international’ menu. On Christmas Day we were served something unappetisingly dry and very dark brown. I inquired what it was. ‘Turkey, of course,’ replied the waiter smiling.
The local firewater is rakia, often made from plums. There’s vodka also of course, due to the Soviet heritage. Whatever my first day’s eating doesn’t agree with me and I spend most of the night in the bathroom. I’m tempted to spend the day by the swimming pool, but I’m also terrified of missing out, so I sneak a pillow out to the bus and commandeer the back seat.
Today, another fortress Cherven, contemporary with the Tsaravets fort of yesterday. But this one is not restored. It's a puff of a hike climbing two hundred or so steps for an up close view of the ruins (mainly just one tower some walls and several ruined churches) along the magnificent gorge in the Rusenski Lom Nature Park.
Then two rock monasteries. Up more steep paths in the park, with more gorgeous views. The frescoes depicting Jesus’ life in the UNESCO protected rock churches of Ivanovo date from the fourteenth century and are semi restored. The monasteries were occupied by a hermit monk order who focussed on silence and the spirituality of light - Hesychasm. Another monastery, Basarbovo, closer to the city of Ruse, was founded by a shepherd, Dimitar Basarbovo and he was buried there. But when they tried to transfer his relics to Russia via Romania many people were cured of the plague en route and so they kept his bones in Bucharest instead.
Bulgaria’s third city of Ruse for lunch, in a rooftop restaurant with views over the Danube. Then a very quick wander round the main Svoboda (Liberty) Square and adjacent buildings of note. There’s the Baroque Profitability Building - as the name suggests it was intended to make some money. Then the Palace of Justice, Opera House and in the centre the Monument of Liberty, celebrating the Liberation from the Ottomans. Up the road the impressive gold domed Pantheon of National Heroes, an ossuary, with the bones of 453 war heroes from the uprising against the Ottomans.
The jury is out as to whether I would have had a better day by the swimming pool.
South west through the Central Balkans National Park and beech forests climbing sluggishly over a long pass. We stop for a view across to a monument to the Russian liberation, thus arousing the ire of (maybe) 500 dogs barking in unison. The other side of the pass we stop to admire the Russian Church at Shipka, also a monument to the battle that took place here. It has a very ornate carved spire and the usual gold onion domes. The Bulgarian crosses have Islamic crescents underneath the Russian double crossed I.
Through the Thracian Valley of the Kings (or roses), liberally scattered with tombs. The Thracians enjoyed wine and fighting each other. The tombs contained objects that are deemed to be useful in the afterlife. Wine, armour, even horses. According to Herodotus they also buried the favourite wife with the warrior. The ancient kingdom of Thrace spread across southern Bulgaria into Greece and the European finger of Turkey which is today known as Thrace.
In the centre of Kazenluk is a UNESCO recognised Thracian tomb accidentally discovered in 1944. But no one is allowed in that as exposure has damaged the frescoes. So there’s an exact copy just up the Funerary Hill with a dome and painted murals of chariots and music that you can pay to visit instead.
At Kazanluk there's also there's the Museum of Roses. Here we learn that they in the main grow the damascene pink roses here, which are best for oil. The petals must be picked before dawn, when there is the largest proportion of oil in the petals before they open.. Distillation vats on display. 3000 kg petals produce one kg of rose oil. Rose was first water brought to Europe during the Crusades, but rose oil devloped here as major export in in the nineteenth century.
There’s even a stop off at a Bulgarian country house at Tyzha with a dramatic mountain setting - Mount Bothev. We get a tour of the garden: vines, corn, tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins, other fruit and a very friendly dog. We are fed filo cheese pastries rakia aryan ( salt yogurt) figs and pears.
Then to Plovdiv, the second city of Bulgaria and an ancient Roman town, with narrow cobbled streets and medieval and eighteenth/nineteenth century houses. There’s a tower dating back to the third century AD, in the walls of ancient Philippopolis, as it was called (after Phillip of Macedon who founded the city). Under the Romans it became the capital of Thrace named Trimontium, as it was built on three hills. Marcus Aurelius built the wall round the city.
The old walled town is a gathering of pastel coloured jettied buildings stooping precariously to leave the prescribed street width – enough room for two donkeys to pass. The city has expanded like Rome to cover seven syenite hills. One disappeared, as they quarried all the stone, but the other six all propose great view points.
As you drop down from the old town into the new, passing the very well preserved ( with some help) first century roman theatre and there’s a beautifully multi domed mosque. The modern city intertwines with the old nicely. A Roman stadium semi revealed and accessed by plate glass staircases beneath the main shopping street. At the other end of this elegant promenade are the two sections of the plate glass enclosed Roman forum. The avenues are lined with pavement cafes and fountains.
I clamber up Danov Hill on the edge of the main shopping street in the new town, for views in all directions. There are so many different routes to the top I’m giddy trying them all out. The Balkan Mountains to the north, the Rhodope Mountains and the ski resorts to the south; two more hills, one of which has Soviet martyr monuments. The old city on its three crags and the modern sprawl below. There’s a clock tower on top that chimes and an ugly satellite tower.
My room in Plovdiv is noisy next to a seat on a park, so Angel is a real angel and swaps with me. He also takes me and Ani out to dinner. Though conversation doesn’t exactly flow. He doesn’t speak English.
South to the Rhodope Mountains through the city of Asenovgrad famous for its wedding dresses then stopping at a Byzantine Fortress restored by king Asen in the early fourteenth century and ultimately destroyed by the Turks. There’s not much of the Fortress left but there are gorgeous views of the mountains and down to the church built there after a very slippery climb up marble steps.
Beautifully framed by the mountains, another UNESCO monastery, Bachkovo, the second most important in the country. Originally founded in 1083, most of the current buildings date from the sixteenth to nineteenth century. Three churches and again in a an almost Buddhist style, wooden balconied terraces on the first floor for the monks cells. Incongruously, there are also satellite dishes.
One small St Nicholas Church has grotesque Doomsday frescoes of torture and richly clad (recognisable nobles it seems), being punished in hell, as they had refused to give the artist Zahari Zograf the money he had requested for a school for artists. There is the usual miraculous icon, the Virgin Mary Eleusa from the fourteenth century. It was hidden in a cave, but rediscovered as it emitted light in the forest. People thought it was a fire. They rescued the painting, but on three nights consecutively it returned itself to the cave. The monks eventually negotiated with the icon, who agreed to live in the monastery with them provided she was returned to the cave once a year. This is done in an annual procession.
The icon is hung prominently close to the doorway (according to her wishes) in one of the other two main churches, the Virgin Mary cathedral dedicated to the ‘Falling Asleep Mother Mary’. She is depicted on what I assume is her death bed. The decoration in here is extraordinary. It’s a cornucopia of icons, candelabra, frescoes and gilt. It’s so complex it ought to look completely overdone, but somehow it results in an incredibly spiritual experience. At least it does until someone begins a loud conversation, or a mobile phone trills out.
The mountain road up to the monastery is lined with stalls – refreshments, pottery, wooden utensils plenty of chopping boards and statues, amongst which garden gnomes are prominent.
The road now leads through larch and pine clad slopes and along snaking passes, to the ski resort of Pamporovo. Tall aparthotels and triangular prisms that are modern chalets. Last time I was in Bulgaria I was skiing at Borovets. It was cheap and I wanted to visit Bulgaria. A double whammy. As I’ve discovered before, cheap can be problematic. The slopes were hard packed snow and icy, not the most well-tended I’ve ever attempted to plummet down. And we were also a little dubious about the lift system. The story going round reported that ski lifts were built new in Switzerland. Then they were sold second hand to France and Italy. When they reached the end of their useful life there they were sent to Bulgaria. Ani says that the opposite is now true. Her friends go abroad, as it's cheaper to ski in the Alps than in Bulgaria.
The scenery is stunning, as the way winds on through stone built hamlets. We have lunch in a Rhodopian speciality restaurant in the village of Sharoko Loko, a virtual open air museum of timber and stone houses, churches and cute bridges. We are fed potato pancakes - patatniks - made with cheese and coriander.
Almost to the Greek border, through immense gorges, and uphill to the Devils Throat Cavern. There’s a great deal of climbing on wet steps with rusting rails that would absolutely not be allowed in England. Below us a gorge, with supposedly the largets underground waterfall in Europe. though I'm struggling to glimpse it. There's a small waterfall once we emerge.
The best surprise of the day is our hotel outside the village of Trigrad, still further up the mountain from the cave. Here the slopes are swathed in spruce, there are a whole herd of horses in the pasture and I have somehow ended up with a suite and balcony that overlooks the whole wonderful panorama. I’m celebrating with an extremely large gin and tonic. It helps to mitigate the bag pipe playing at dinner. The bag pipes are huge, made out of goatskin.
First thing in the morning it’s pretty chilly. Another cave, Yagodinska, up yet another pretty curving and nausea inducing climb. This cave has a three levels, with one concrete path of just over a kilometre open to tourists. There are a few flights of rusty stairs up and down bringing it back to almost the same height. It has railings most of the way and isn’t too skiddy. And here there are mineral infused speleothems (my new word for the day): stalactites, stalagmites, stalagnates (columns where both meet) and cave pearls (layers of calcium carbonate round grains of other materials in strange nest like clusters).
Thankfully, there is little in the way of gaudy lighting, though the custom has not been entirely eradicated.. The highlight is the New Year Cave where local speleologists gather to spend the festivities. There’s even a Christmas tree that stays carefully preserved with all its decorations. Alongside, is a platform for celebrating weddings. But no photos are allowed that’s why there aren’t any here !
The scenery just gets better and better as we navigate the pine clad slopes to Dospat for a stunning view of the artificial lake and Turkish style pot stew lunches with potato, cheese and a little beef, (no pork for the local Muslim population of course).
Now west, almost to the Serbian border and there’s a dramatic change of scenery. It’s still spectacular, but in the Pirin Mountains now, there are high sheer stone peaks, the valleys are flatter and the trees are deciduous again. And there are vines. Melnik is a wine making village (officially the smallest town in Bulgaria). It's impossibly picturesque. And extraordinary in that it is surrounded by 150 metre sandstone pillars or pyramids.
The hotel rooms in Bulgaria have been 'interesting'. Most very basic, foam mattresses, cotton sheets. Wi-Fi of various levels of acceptability. Sockets parting company with the wall. The room in Melnik is pretty with pine furniture and am iron bedframe. But this one still follows the pattern of light bulbs that don’t work. Half of the dozen bulbs here are dead. And that includes the main light in the bathroom. Perhaps it’s a Bulgarian tradition
We started our trip in the rain in Sophia and we've finished in the rain. At least that means there are no other visitors here at Rila, Bulgaria's' most famous monastery. St John , the most prominent Bulgarian saint, established a monastery here further up the mountain but it was repeatedly destroyed and the site was moved in fourteenth century. The only part of that monastery which survives is a defence tower. The rest was destroyed by fire. The remaining UNESCO monastery is the best example of revivalist (post Ottoman) architecture in the country (I'm told).
There are more frescoes by Zohari Zograf depicting scenes from the Bible. The interior is even richer than those we have already inspected. It’s bigger and wooden, much darker and there are a plethora of gold stands, candelabra and vivid paintings surrounded in gold filigree. But for me, although beautifu,l it does not have the same allure as the Bachkovo Monastery. The monks cells here are on terraces, with pretty painted stone arches and balustrades.
This is probably the earliest and freshest I ’ve ever eaten lunch real time. Trout from the fish farms that lie alongside the mountain streams beneath us in a Rila restaurant. We have to be at the airport at 12.20 for the return journey home. The plane is delayed, of course.
Read more about Bulgaria here.
Andorra was supposed to be visited at the start of my trip and I’m fitting it in after Munich, as Covid restrictions prevent me from going to Slovenia, Bulgaria and Hungary, as planned. This involves traversing France and back again, so I can get back (sort of ) on schedule. I’m heading from Munich to Paris and then to Toulouse, where I catch a bus to Andorra.
The TGV trains are incredibly slick - travelling at over 200 mph. I can track the route on my laptop - they award you a diploma when the speed reaches 300 kph – and the opportunity to post your achievement on Facebook. There’s a palpable jolt sideways when we pass another train and my ears pop when we shoot through a tunnel. And definitely no chance that I can take a decent photo. Fields and fields of cheery yellow sunflowers, heads all facing expectantly in the same direction. Every seat is filled, so no one metre distancing here. It’s like travelling on a plane, masks on at all times.
Toulouse and a catch up with friend Nico. It’s south of France at its best today. The temperature has dropped to thirty degrees in the evening, so the street cafes are bustling and it’s comfortably balmy on the restaurant terraces by the Garonne.
Then, the bus to Andorra which departs from Toulouse station. Covid regulations have reduced the (obliged to run only half full) service to once daily. The outward journey leaves at noon. The return goes at five in the morning. I’m really looking forward to that!
There are road works on the Toulouse by-pass, making for a slow journey. Climbing up into the Pyrenees, the scenery is increasingly beautiful, with solid tree covered slopes, plunging valleys and mist covered peaks. The border crossing into Andorra is at the top of a string of hair pin bends. I’m glad I took my travel sickness pills. The border town, Pas de la Casa is every bit as hideous as Smithsonian magazine suggests. They call it ‘The Ugliest Town in Europe’, ‘with its huge warehouse-like hotels and supermarkets stacked artlessly like shipping containers along narrow streets, where people eye the identical offerings of a hundred tax free junk stores. Other cement buildings seem abandoned, making them fair game for graffiti enthusiasts..’
We zip past and eventually arrive in the capital, Andorra la Vella (Andorra the Town); we haven’t even stopped for a toilet break. La Vella is also chock full of boutiques and jewellers on the main srteet, not to mention several shopping centres. It’s not as ugly as Pasa de la Casa but it’s certainly not La Bella. The highest capital in Europe (1,023 metres above sea level) is crammed into a long valley so narrow that they have to build high to accommodate everyone. There are terraced rows of grey stone or concrete apartments eight to nine storeys high, capped with grey slate roofs, interspersed with cranes and building works. It’s nothing like the Vaduz with a few more shops spread prettily across the mountain slopes that I had happily anticipated. Now I know why it's been dubbed 'The Poor Man's Switzerland'.
A slightly redeeming feature is the old quarter, Barri Antic, which houses the ancient, but restored church of St Esteve and its square bell tower and the Casa de la Vall. This was a family house taken over for use by the General Council: Andorra's parliament. The walls display both the current coat of arms of Andorra and the old one (from after the 14th century. There are even some machicolations. The building's now been restored. There are also a few modern sculptures to zhuzh the place up, a couple of bars and a few shops. But I can tour the stone buildings and dark narrow streets in five minutes. In fact, I can walk the Barri twice in five minutes.
A light lunch is another challenge. There is no sign of supermarkets, or even small grocery shops amongst all the duty free merchandise. Many of the stores close for a couple of hours in the afternoon, though we’re not allowed to call it siesta. They’re just shut. It will have to be ice cream then..
Then, I gird my loins, don my mask and set off up steep flights of stone stairs (even these, though hardly crowded, are arrow designated one-way, to prevent social interaction) leading to a path that ambles along the valley side above the town. This is the Walk of the Sun (Passeig del Solar). Above are mountain terraces with smallholdings, flowers: spiky gladioli and roses and vegetable plots. They are nurtured by a suitably gushing mountain stream that has been diverted along a concrete water channel that runs alongside my stone walkway. In between are numerous rock slides and beneath me, the gloomy sprawl that is Andorra la Vella.
So, my first day in Andorra hasn’t gone brilliantly. No-one speaks English. I’m told the locals speak French, but they’re not understanding my attempts. They all seem to be speaking Catalan, so I can’t even try my really basic Spanish. I haven’t had anything substantial to eat and none of the restaurants open until eight. It’s mandatory to wear masks, even out in the open air and there are gloves and sanitiser everywhere. This is the most serious approach I’ve encountered so far this trip.
I must learn not to jump to conclusions. The stone walls in the online advertising made me think mountain side chalet style hotel. However, Hotel de L’Isard is on the main shopping street in La Vella. It’s pleasant inside - in fact, my room is wooden and spacious, if rather dark. The lady on reception is lovely. But the Wi-Fi doesn’t reach to my area, although noise from the building work going on opposite does, as does the clomping of the other residents. And because Andorra isn’t in the EU I don’t get free roaming either. And I wondered if two nights would be enough…
I'm taking a taxi up to the Roq del Quer mirador - viewpoint - above the village of Canillo. The ride has cost me almost as much as the bus from Toulouse, but it's worth it to get out of town. It's not exactly peaceful, as there are Spaniards or locals also visiting - they're all sensible enough to have their own cars - and the noise from the road below echoes up the steep slopes. The houses beneath, with their dark roofs aren’t entirely pretty either. But the mountain views are lovely, across the Col D'Ordino mountain pass. The string of hairpin bends we've just navigated are below us. The air is refreshing - there are patches of snow on the peaks - and it's another beautiful day, despite the weather forecast, which suggested otherwise.
There’s a metal sculpture - The Observer - slung at the end of the viewing platform. The promotion says that there's also a splendid glass area where you can feel suspended above the valley too. I was terrified by the one at the Grand Canyon, so I've resolved to avoid it. But here there are just a few glass slabs set into the concrete and the drop is only huge right at the edge. Even I, can cope with that.
I’ve been on a short stroll up the slopes above the mirador, amidst gorgeous patches of flowers. But most of them are thorny or thistly and when I finally do find a clear patch to sit down my arch enemies the ants detect me immediately and launch a full scale attack. Antdorra!
My driver picks me up again and is prattling away gesticulating wildly around, presumably giving a commentary. Sadly, I can't understand a word. I'm not even sure what language he's speaking and there's a perspex screen between us. I do manage to comprehend that I am being whisked around the heart of Andorra. More towering peaks. We stop for him to take my picture. The Andorrans thoughtfully provide metal stands for selfies at all the viewpoints.
We dive under a gondola lift carrying mountain bikers up to the ski resort of Arinsal and stop at the village of Ordino. 'Antic. Antic,' cries the driver. So I scurry round, taking pictures of the old church and the museum signs as instructed. This village, with its curving medieval streets is described as charming in the literature. It's certainly prettier than the capital. And there's a small Romanesque bridge.
Tomorrow is early start time. Carcassonne via Toulouse.
(Read more about Andorra here.)
Klosters, is an Alpine ski village, in the Prättigau Swiss tourist area, in southern Switzerland, below Liechtenstein. Its full anme was Klosters-Serneus, after the municipality in which it finds itself, but it's now, just Klosters. There's the Dorf (Village) and Kloster Platz (Place), and some small settlements. It's also famous for celebrities and especially, as the Royal family’s resort of choice. There's even a cable car, named after the Prince of Wales. Fortunately, it doesn’t seem any more exclusive or expensive than the rest of Switzerland, bearing in mind that Switzerland always burns a large hole in your wallet anyway. Apparently, it specialises in 'discreet luxury'. Also fortunately, the Royal family aren’t here.
I'm with friend Lenka instead. And we've travelled 93 miles in a bus from Zurich, the nearest international airport.
Ski areas include the Madrisa, also home to the Madrisa Land Adventure Park, and the whole of Davos (six miles to the north), which is connected to Klosters by the Gotschnabahn cable car. I’ve skied in Davos before, on a day trip from Italy (there wasn’t any snow in Livigno where I was). There’s the famous mountain railway, which is fun to ride - a different experience - and the slopes are wide, cruisy and attractive. Unfortunately, at the weekend they can be appealing to a lot of folk, so descent then can be a little stressful, unless you don’t mind how many Germans you take out, whilst emulating Franz Klammer.
Crowds are a good excuse to retreat to the mountain huts and indulge in Tiroler gröstl (a sort of bacon, potato and onion left over fry up with a fried egg on top) or one of the delicious melted cheese concoctions on offer.
In the village there are cuckoo clock shops, as well as the predictable designer gear – skiing or otherwise. The, there's the Nutli-Hüschi Folk Museum, in a cute 16th-century wooden house. It exhibits artifacts depicting life in the Alps and village over the last two hundred years. The chalets are pretty and the bars elegant and surprisingly quiet. Very different to raucous Austrian après ski. But there's usually someone for us to chat to.
Read more about Switzerland here.
I've been skiing in Austria a dozen times. The country has bags more atmosphere than anywhere else. And I wrote this for Ski Beginner website.
Green runs: 0
Blue runs: 37
Red runs: 80
Black runs: 7
High alpine touring runs: 8
Heliski pads: 2
Ski schools: 2
Access to slopes: 4
Beginners’ area: 2
Overall: 4 (unless you are marking just for beginners, in which case 1 or 2)
Getting there: about one and three quarter hour’s drive from Friedrichshafen airport where charter flights land. An hour and half from Innsbruck or an hour on the train from Innsbruck.
St Anton is a classic resort, but it’s tough for a novice, unless you are very intrepid and enjoy falling over. The continuing mantra from instructors and skiers alike was ‘if you can ski here you can ski anywhere’. That said, this is a large ski area and there is some genuinely nice cruisy blue skiing, especially higher up the valley at Lech and Zurs. It’s a good resort for a mixed party as there’s a reasonable amount to do off the slopes and plenty of good shops, bars and restaurants. The valley is pretty and easily accessible and the snow record is good, backed up by lots of snow cannons. The infra structure is excellent and transport is decorative and comfortable, as well as being efficient.
The Arlberg Mountains lie in the western finger of Austria, sandwiched between Switzerland and Germany. St Anton is the most well known village, marketing itself as the place where alpine skiing first began as a leisure pastime. The lift pass covers a sprinkling of villages at a higher altitude that include Lech, Zurs, Zug and St Christophe. These are the most fashionable ski areas in Austria and the playground for rich Germans. The villages are all accessible from St Anton by bus and vice versa. The journey to Lech takes 25 minutes over the Flexen pass. Zurs, Lech, Zug and Oberlech are linked by lifts and the ‘White Ring‘ route through the whole of this region is a good day’s outing, which is not too challenging. You can ski it all on fairly gentle blue runs, except for one red ski route which isn’t too steep.
I’m not a beginner, but it’s so long since I went skiing that my boots are best described as vintage. Moreover, a mouse had nested inside the right one when I retrieved it from the loft. So I felt like a beginner. I started at St Anton, up the Galzig gondola and at first glance the slopes were daunting, to say the least. There are plenty of blue runs marked on the piste map. But nearly all the blues have an element of red in them. There are also a few, narrow, just- about-downhill schusses.
Falling over is pretty well a foregone conclusion. The lower runs get very crowded, and there is a lot of slushy snow that quickly builds into pretty heavy going. Some of it is too steep to snow plough turn on and if you do manage to side-slip down you will probably get taken out by someone else, whizzing past at the end of the day. But that was day 1 and I did survive, reaching the sanctuary of the lively mountain huts that dot the lower slopes, especially alongside route 1, under the Galzig gondola.
On day 2 my legs were aching so much from all my sit-back-too-much-in-panic skiing the day before that I felt like giving up. However, a holiday ski host took me to the blue runs at the top of the new Rendl gondola on the opposite side of the valley. Much more amenable and a reasonable ski down to the village as well, though one or two steep areas to watch out for again on all slopes. As I grew more confident and explored, things began to look a lot better on both sides of the valley. The number 8 run down to St Christophe was a fairly easy blue with an authentic Austrian mountain restaurant, the Hospiz Alm, as a reward.
But the best blues for beginners by far are over in Lech and Zurs. There is enough here to occupy novices for a week. The scenery here is glorious and there are really pretty chairlift rides, such as the one over the pine trees at Zug. Most of the blue runs are genuine blues and there is plenty of ground to cover through the linked system. A nice nursery area, but no really easy green runs on which to build confidence.
The whole valley lift system is ultra modern and really efficient. The lifts are mainly large gondolas or 4 or 6 man chair lifts, some with heated seats. Several of these were new this year. The Galzig gondola, a typical example, is cased in glass and the capacious cabins are lifted round a giant Ferris wheel. There is a little queuing at peak times, especially during holidays, but the capacity is so good that the waiting time never got frustrating. However, not all the lifts quite link up and there are several spots where a waddle uphill for a few (or more) metres is required.
I preferred to practise on my own, or ski with the hosts. Nevertheless, other skiers attending ski school were impressed by the quality of instruction in both regular classes and individual lessons; so don’t write St Anton off for beginners. A new skier I spoke to felt she had managed comfortably on the blue slope under the Galten gondola. After all if you haven’t seen gentler slopes you won’t realise what you’re facing. And just think how well you’ll do elsewhere, on the next trip.
There are quite a few ski boarders around, though they use the same runs as the skiers. There are plenty of facilities for children in addition to the ski schools. There’s a Funpark up at the Rendl area, complete with little jumps. There’s also a special deal for children who are 8 or under on the lift pass. It’s only 10 Euros for the year.
St Anton is an attractive mix of űber-cool modern, intermixed with alpine charm. And you won’t have any trouble making yourself understood. You’ll hear English spoken everywhere, most of it with a public school accent. This is Austria’s main chalet resort, but there is also a good selection of hotels, most of them fairly expensive. The majority of the bars and restaurants are strung along the main street, Dorfstrasse and there is some excellent food available.
Reflecting the architecture, modern European sits alongside traditional Tyrolean. Several of the many restaurants (over 80 in all)) have been awarded the Gault Millau toque, including the Hospiz Alm mentioned above. There was so much to sample and the inevitable cold-weather draw towards comfort food like Grőstl (Austrian fry up) to battle. My snug-fit ski pants were going pop whenever I bent to undo my boot buckles, by the end of the week.
The bars are intermixed with sports shops and hire places. There are lots of these to choose from. I used Skisport Fauner. The equipment was good and the staff very friendly. There are also two very well stocked supermarkets. Plenty of choice for those self catering or just looking for a picnic lunch.
There are quite a few options if you still have some energy when you come off the snow. Nestled at the bottom of the slopes is the arlberg-well.com. This is a modern complex with indoor and outdoor swimming pools, jet pools, sauna, solarium and steam rooms. It’s pleasant swimming and looking up at the snow capped mountains, though the dash between pools is a little too bracing. The sauna is mixed and strictly nude; so the view isn’t always as pleasant as the one from the pool.
Next door, there’s a natural ice rink. There’s also a sports park, Arl-rock, with, as the name suggests, a climbing wall, as well as tennis, bowls and other sports. If you’re still not exhausted, the museum, which traces the history of alpine skiing, is well worth a visit. In addition there’s a packed programme of events each year, including a weekly ski show, ski races, an inter sport spring festival and musical concerts.
Finally, the après ski is varied and many skiers party late into the night, every night. Take your pick from cocktails to karaoke.
I stayed at the Rosanna chalet-hotel on a Mark Warner package. It’s ideally located in the centre of St Anton in close walking distance of all amenities and the lifts. The hotel operates like a chalet in the sense that service is more personal and you get lots of extras like afternoon tea. The whole thing was impeccably organised from airport to door and home again. The chalet was modern and very comfortable and the food was abundant and of excellent quality.
Ski hosts took out parties two days a week (intermediates or advanced only). The staff were exceptionally well trained and were delightful. Nothing was too much trouble. The only downside was that Warner’s also manage Scotty’s bar and pizzeria, which is underneath. Very convenient if you had a yen to stay up late drinking, but not so great for those who wanted to go to bed in preparation for an early assault on the snow and had rooms at the back of the hotel.
Probably the epitome of űber-cool in the village. High tech, beautifully put together and not too far to heft your skis from the bottom of the Galzig lift. There’s even a glass-sided children’s playroom perched above the stairs, so you can keep an eye on your brood while you’re relaxing. By day a funky bar/cafe and by night a restaurant. The food is modern European and absolutely delicious. Try the chilli, ginger chicken. Every silver lining has a cloud and at peak times there’s a bit of a scramble for tables. The Germans and locals have the same attitude to queuing here as they do to reserving sun beds. It’s every man for himself.
Down some steps off Dorfstrasse this is a lively and traditional wood-furnished place to hang out and sip a mojito or caipirinha. If you’re hungry you can eat Mexican, while you watch the football on the big screens.
Another modern European restaurant attached to the Hotel Manfred, just off Dorfstrasse. Stylish, with very friendly staff. It serves Tyrolean dishes such as Wiener Schnitzel and pork chops. There are also huge ice cream sundaes to finish. However, most folk go there for the specialty fondue, so it’s another good place to take children.
There are numerous places to eat and drink on the mountains, especially towards the bottom of the runs. The most famous of these is the Krazy Kangaruh. But the Moosewirt is the happening place currently. The number 1 run swarms with skiers rushing down there at the end of the day, although you can travel by road if you can’t face the bumps. There’s a countdown to the official start of après ski at 3.30. On Fridays and Saturdays the crowd on the terrace spills right out onto the narrow piste and you get the full Bierkeller experience. Dancing on tables, drinking songs and waiters balancing huge, round trays of up to 50 shots of schnapps at a time. Statistics vary depending on the source, but it is reputed to sell more beer per square metre than any other bar in Europe. And it’s only open for half the year.
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