The Sofia Echo
The fight for every customer has become intense in the tourism industry worldwide and Bulgaria is no exception, especially in winter. As in previous years, the leading winter destination continues to be Bansko in Pirin Mountain, but other places, such as the small town of Chepelare in the Rhodope Mountains, are also competing for visitors by offering similar services at lower prices.
Bansko still leads the field, thanks to canny publicity, modern ski facilities and well-maintained ski runs. In times of economic crisis, however, price usually has the final say and here Chepelare has a lot to offer. Chepelare has one virtue that distinguishes it from all of Bulgaria’s so-called resort towns.
It is not trying to sell more than it offers. In other words, the city and its municipality have dedicated a great deal of effort over the past 15 years in developing an image as a family destination. Apart from one big apartment complex, all of the town’s hotels are small family-run businesses with nothing more than a room with cable TV at prices ranging between 30 and 50 leva a person. These are usually humble three to four-storey buildings, nothing like the big and lavish constructions now dominating Bansko.
Although the large resort of Pamporovo is just a few kilometres up the hill, the town and its people prefer to distance themselves from the brouhaha. Most of Chepelare’s hotels are in the newer part of the town but this has in no way undermined the atmosphere. In fact, passing through, only the numerous signs on the main road advertising the hotels would suggest that this town is out to catch tourists. After 8pm, the town’s main pedestrian street is practically empty with just one or two coffee shops and bars open. The town currently has two nightclubs but they only work on Fridays and Saturdays and are usually half-empty.
Few local people are interested in their town’s nightlife and, when pressed, can seldom suggest a place for a late night drink. In terms of taverns the town has a wider choice but again a word from the locals is advisable if you have never been to Chepelare. Fortunately, travelling from one part of the town to the other takes no more than 30 minutes.
And if word of mouth is a good guide, the Kostovski Han tavern’s owners must be happy because most locals point it out as a place to have dinner. It is a few metres up on the road from the Rodopski Dom apartment hotel, more or less the only luxury hotel in the town, with a small swimming pool and other spa and wellness procedures.
It also houses one of the town’s nightclubs in Chepelare. The other one is in the central Chepelare hotel on the town’s square. Like most taverns and small restaurants in the town, the Kostovski Han is part of a family hotel under the same name but it is open to all visitors. It is wide and spacious given that it has two floors. The interior has everything one would expect to find in a traditional Bulgarian tavern: wooden floors and benches, tables and red tablecloths. Local cuisine is well represented with the inevitable patatnik (pancake of potatoes).
The other option is the shop next to the communist-era hotel building in the centre, the only food store working non-stop in the town. Everywhere prices are what one would expect in your local pub or store. This also fits in with Chepelare’s profile as a family-friendly, low-cost tourist destination.
A winter resort, however, is more about skiing than going out at night and in this respect Chepelare tries to offer value for money. Despite its closeness to Pamporovo and its slopes, Chepelare started developing its own ski centre decades ago in the Mechi Chal area just above the town.
Although the ski centre there has been in use for years, it got its real development push in the past five or so years when the city hall, together with local businessmen, decided to invest in new lift facilities, better maintenance equipment and parking facilities and, most of all, expanding the number of ski runs. Now the centre has something to offer those accustomed to the slopes in Bansko, Pamporovo or Borovets.
One of its main benefits is easy access, straight from the road, a few metres from the Chepelare sign on the road to Pamporovo. The parking facility is big enough to accommodate dozens of vehicles and is free. Most hotels offer transport to and from the ski run as part of their accommodation.
There are several ski renting shops where one can get full skiing or snowboard equipment for 57 and 62 leva, respectively, which also includes a daily lift pass. By comparison, the daily ski pass in Bansko alone is 50 leva. A daily pass in Mechi Chal without renting ski equipment costs 38 leva. It takes about 12 minutes to get to the top on the four-seater lift.
There is one main ski run going all the way down. Beginners may find it difficult because it has a few extremely steep sections. The ski run is cut in several places making it possible to choose one’s route and avoid getting bored with the ski run. Beginners, however, will not be disappointed because the Mechi Chal’s green ski run is probably one of the best slopes for beginners. It is narrow and yet fast enough to save you the effort of pushing. It is not recommended, however, to snowboarders.
A good skier will need 12 minutes to go down on the green ski run which means that beginners might need 20 minutes to come down. It is perfect for practising skills and taking rests to enjoy the scenery.
Another of Mechi Chal’s assets is that its slopes hardly get crowded, unlike those of Bansko or Borovets. The only problem is that, after a day or two of skiing, experienced skiers might get bored with the same run. Although it has plenty of crossing sections, it is in effect one and the same track. This more or less defines Mechi Chal as a place to go just for the weekend, unlike the rich variety of ski runs in Bansko or nearby Pamporovo.
Another negative is that the ski runs are not always kept in the best condition. It seems that local management wants to avoid spending too much money by having the snowcats (carefully parked next to the lift) operate just once in the morning. The result is that by midday, especially when snow is falling, skiers form one narrow section in the middle of the ski run, with the area outside it unsuitable for skiing.
In terms of eating and drinking, Mechi Chal is not the most fascinating place on earth but what it offers is enough to keep skiers going through the day. There is one tea place at the lift’s starting point and two small but very cosy restaurants at the top, offering tasty food at reasonable prices. In other words, 10 leva is sufficient to buy a good meal and a beer.
Another weak point could be snow itself. Mechi Chal, and Pamporovo in general, are always the first victims of warm weather, more so than other Bulgarian ski resorts. This tends to shorten the active season. So far this year the snowfall has been more than enough and locals expect the active season to last until the end of March or beginning of April.
At the end of the day, Chepelare and its ski runs offer one a new and refreshing experience and all at a price and conditions that only a small town can offer.
How to get there
Chepelare is 220 kilometres from Sofia, the first 150km of which are on the Sofia-Plovdiv highway. There is a special detour on the highway a few kilometres before Plovdiv that takes drivers directly on the road to Smolyan and Pamporovo via Assenovgrad, bypassing Plovdiv. The difficult part of the route is the last 51 kilometre-long distance from Assenovgrad to Chepelare, thanks to its endless turns and slow traffic. The entire Sofia-Chepelare distance can be covered in three to four hours depending on speed and traffic. Buses to Chepelare leave Sofia central bus station seven times a day, seven days a week, for 20 leva a person.