Outdoors in the Rila, Pirin & Rhodope Mountains
The most rewarding hike in the country is the Rila Seven Lakes trail, a moderate 2- to 4-day walk (5-6 hr. per day). It is well signposted, but if you would prefer an English-speaking guide and prebooked meals and accommodations, Zig Zag can arrange it. Their 4-day Rila hike (180€/$229) also includes a visit to Rila Monastery and Mount Malyovitza -- at 2,729m (8,951 ft.) not much smaller than nearby Mount Mussala (2,925m/9,594 ft.), the latter the highest summit in southeast Europe. Zig Zag also offers a 4-day guided hike in the Rhodope for 250€ ($318) per person (minimum two participants) as well as hikes that combine kayaking on Rhodope rivers and dams.
In Pirin, the most highly rated trail is the Bansko-to-Melnik hike. Almost on a par is the hike from Mt. Vihren (Pirin's highest point at 2,914m/9,558 ft.) to Tevnoto Lake, the highest water in Pirin. Both 2-day hikes are offered by Intersport (www.intersport-bansko.bg), which charges 50€ ($64) per person, all-inclusive.
Bulgaria has three main winter resorts: Borovets, the oldest, is in the Rila Mountains, but attracts the younger end of the market with the cheapest package deals. Skiing in the Rhodope range is centered around Pamporovo, attractively situated in forested surroundings but with no retail or nightlife, while in the Pirin it is Bansko that is turning into the fastest developing winter resort in southeastern Europe. Combining the most sophisticated lifts in the country, the longest ski season (mid-Dec to mid-Apr some years), and a 19th-century village heart that is full of character, Bansko is likely to be your first port of call for skiing. However, given the uncontrolled construction that is slowly overtaking this town, less developed Pamporovo may be a better bet. Here the best hotel -- and with no attractive heart to the resort, you do want to stay in a hotel with the best facilities in town -- is the Hotel Orlovetz (tel. 03021/9000 or 03021/8511; email@example.com). In 2008, 3 nights in a very spacious double room with wonderful mountain views cost 200lev ($162/£100) per night, including breakfast (less per day with a longer stay). The hotel also has an excellent and equally reasonably priced range of treatments to deal with aching après ski muscles.
If you would prefer to have everything booked by one operator, from accommodations and equipment rental to instructor and passes, take a look at www.BulgariaSki.com, the biggest source of information on skiing and snowboarding in Bulgaria. Booking here is often very cost-effective. A 6-day ski package including instruction, equipment, and lift tickets, costs 263€/$334).
Caveat: While they are fairly inexpensive, none of Bulgaria's resorts comes close to the standards set by European and American resorts, and not only from an infrastructure point of view, the reason they didn't make the 2014 Winter Olympics short list. That is something you will notice if you cannot ski for a day or two due to foul weather.