From Bulgaria’s Bansko ski and trekking center, the calm Aegean coastline of Halkidiki and the Cyclades Island of Paros, Ermia Resorts are havens of comfort, design and fine cuisine.
Bansko nestles in the green, forested Pirin Mountains at 925 meters/3,035 feet within Pirin National Park in southwest Bulgaria. The town has a year-round population of 10,000. Over the past ten years uncontrolled condo and hotel construction has unfortunately blurred the handsome rustic stone and wood architecture of the historic center. Sprawling cookie cutter chalet style construction has taken over the outlying landscape, and as with all building booms, too many projects remain unfinished.
Yet from the balcony of your suite at the Premier Luxury Mountain Resort at the far edge of this sprawl your gaze will fall upon the majestic Pirin Mountains. A member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, the seven years old, 120 room Premier Luxury Mountain Resort was the first hotel in the family owned real estate, hotel and villa enterprise Ermia Hotels & Resorts, headquartered in Thessaloniki. Marina Papounidou, co-owner of Ermia, was ably supervising significant changes and updates to an already prize property.
Summer or winter lush forests, mountains of marble and gurgling streams, surround you. In the cocoon that’s the Premier Luxury Mountain Resort, Le Spa will soften the physical exertions of your outdoor activities. At the art-filled Lobby Bar you’ll imbibe such creations as their Maple Whiskey cocktail. While dining in the Amvrosia Restaurant your taste buds will thank you for choosing the Premier’s unique fusion of Greek and Bulgarian cuisine.
Bansko is all about nature travel and outdoor activities. It’s the closest major town to the acclaimed ski and snowboarding slopes on Todorka Peak, and it is during the winter months when Bansko’s population swells many times its permanent population.
After the snows melt, trekkers and nature enthusiasts hike the many footpaths that cross the park’s craggy alpine landscape, home to bears, wolves and contented cows that summer along the shores of striking glacial lakes. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Pirin National Park is also known for the high-altitude Vihren Peak – 2,914 meters/9,560 feet. The stark, pyramid shaped nearly treeless marble mountain is the third highest in the Balkans and a favorite among mountain climbers.
The tour companies Summer Bansko and Pirin 2000 Ski and Snowboard School provide both daily and multi-day excursions from Premier Luxury Mountain Resort to the surrounding region. Yanitsa Zlateva, guide for Summer Bansko (and a lawyer) spent the day with this travel journalist exploring historic Dobarsko Village and Razlog. The region is peppered with many mineral springs including one in Dobarsko tied to a significant event in Bulgarian history.
Soldiers of Bulgarian Tsar Samuel according to legend founded Dobarsko – 17 kilometers (10 miles) from Bansko – in 1014. Yet these were not typical veterans. After a devastating defeat during a protracted war with the Byzantine Empire, 10,000 Bulgarian soldiers were blinded on orders from Byzantine Emperor Basil II so that these soldiers could never again threaten the Empire. One out of every hundred soldiers were blinded in only one eye so that they could lead the remaining back into unconquered Bulgarian territory.
Returning from battle, the blinded soldiers reached a mineral spring in what is now Dobarsko. Through the intersession of St. Theodore Tyron and St. Theodore Stratilates, two (or possibly the same person) of the most venerated early 4th century Roman warrior martyrs, the soldiers who washed their eyes in the spring miraculously began to heal their wounds.
The Eastern Orthodox Church of St. Theodore Tyron and St. Theodore Stratilates in Dobarsko village is built over the spring. It’s possible that an earlier church building was constructed in the 12th century, but the current structure dates from 1614 after the conquest of the Byzantine Empire by the Ottomans. Generally tolerant of other beliefs, the Ottoman Empire permitted both Christian and Jewish faiths, which they considered the foundations of Islam.
The low, house-like stone Church of St. Theodore Tyron and St. Theodore Stratilates is semi-buried in the ground deceiving the visitor as to its interior size. Ottoman regulations stipulated that Christian churches should not be taller than mosques and should not “stand-out” within towns. Yet the interior is stunning with every inch of the walls and columns covered with vibrant frescos, including over 30 female saints depicted – more than in any other Bulgarian church.
It is not possible to close the windows because of the church’s construction, but the temperature and humidity remain at a constant comfortable lever year round due to is semi-submerged design preserving the vibrant colors of these 500 year old masterpieces. The most fascinating of the frescos, God’s Transfiguration, has been the subject of intense debate and speculation. It depicts Jesus Christ as an astronaut. He flies up to Heaven in an object quite similar to a modern space rocket spurting fire. Under Christ’s feet, the outlines of the atmosphere and stratosphere are visible.
The walled grounds surrounding the church are overflowing with a lush flower garden. Just outside the wall the sacred spring bubbles up from the ground. There is no elaborate shrine marking the spot, but pilgrims with vision problems seek out the spring washing their eyes in its waters putting their faith in St. Theodore Tyron and St. Theodore Stratilates that the miracle of the blinded soldiers will be repeated.
In the nearby village of Razlog at the Deshka Guesthouse Lena and Yana are dedicated to keeping traditions alive by passionately teaching the youth the age-old arts of embroidery, dance, music and cooking. Razlog is situated on the southern slopes of the Rila Mountains with panoramic views of the Pirin Mountain range. Deshka Guesthouse offers accommodations in double and triple rooms. Based on traditional designs, the house is surrounded by a garden courtyard with a covered dining area enjoyed during summer months.
In the winter, fireplaces warm the cozy bed, dinning and lounge rooms. In the kitchen such delicious and traditional dishes as sui chushchi, kapama and the outstanding spiral burek bread are prepared on old wood-fired stoves and ovens. In a museum-like room filled with their exquisite embroidered clothing, all for sale, they conduct their folkloric workshops.
Blagovest Obetsanov is a Pirin 2000 Ski & Snowboard School hiking guide and in the winter works as a Mountain Rescue Service first responder. Hikes, trekking and ski excursions are easily arranged through the Premier Luxury Mountain Resort’s Vladimir, the affable and knowledgeable concierge. Activities range from a couple hours to several days.
After being transported to Vihren Hut, one of several hostels within the Pirin Mountains, this journalist enjoyed a leisurely two-hour hike through fields of wildflowers to Lake Okoto, one of the many glacier fed bodies of water that dot the mountains. Along the way one passes small herds of prized cattle grazing on the lush grasslands. Sitting on the edge of the lake and enjoying a picnic lunch reinforces why the Pirin National Park is a UNESCO biosphere reserve. Then on the way down one must stop to admire the oldest tree in the Balkan Peninsula – Baikusaheva Mura.
Like all good Greeks, Marina Papounidou is committed to fine cuisine and knows that dining is an excuse to gather together with friends. Under the direction of Food and Beverage Manager Yannis Demplas the Premier Luxury Mountain Resort exceeds all expectations. During three leisurely dinners in Amvrosia Restaurant this chef journalist enjoyed both Marina’s company and every bite from the hotel’s kitchen.
Cream of Pumpkin soup was silky smooth with the rich flavors of this simple vegetable and accented by a touch of nutmeg. The salad was studded with goat cheese and topped with prosciutto. Grilled salmon lay on a bed of smashed potatoes and drizzled with the extraordinary combination of truffle oil blended with honey. Chocolate soufflé with homemade ice cream was garnished with pistachios and currents.
Another dinner started with a slightly creamy chicken soup, which included potatoes and fresh vegetables drizzled with olive oil, paprika and parsley with a touch of lemon juice. A salad of asparagus, broccoli, mushrooms, potatoes, slivered roast chicken, red pepper, pistachios and prosciutto was bound by a truffle oil vinaigrette and garnished with edible flowers. Large shrimp rested on creamy orzo pasta with slivered red pepper, parsley and garnished with extraordinary foam of creamed cheese cake in which lemon and vanilla was added. The dish was then topped with red and black caviar.
Not content with simply overseeing the hotel’s fine cuisine, Marina Papounidou created the Premier Gastronomy Festival. Held in November, 2017 marked the 6th year for this acclaimed international culinary event. Among the award winning chefs at this year’s festival were Chef Omar Morales from Le Cordon Bleu Mexico presenting Modern Mexican Cuisine, Chef Chronis Damalas from Santorini creating a dinner centered on Japanese and Brazilian ingredients and Chef Mario Perez from Barcelona celebrating Peru’s world class fusion dishes.
Come to Bansko for some of the best skiing and outdoor activities in the Balkans. Stay at the Premier Luxury Mountain Resort to be pampered. Linger at the hotel for its extraordinary cuisine!
Two easy recipes from Premier Luxury Mountain Resort:
Shrimp a la Plancha (2 servings)
- 12 jumbo shrimp in shells
- 1 to 2 handfuls of fresh baby spinach
- olive oil
- zest of half a lemon
- In a hot (450°F) oven heat a heavy sauté pan for 30 to 45 minutes.
- Pat dry 12 jumbo shrimp in their shells.
- Wash and dry a generous handful or two fresh baby spinach.
- Remove the hot pan from the oven (turn off heat) and add just enough oil to coat the bottom of the hot sauté pan.
- Add the shrimp to the hot pan, a sprinkle of salt and white pepper and quickly sauté until the shells have turned pink. Add the spinach and cook until wilted.
- Transfer the shrimp and spinach to serving plates and grate some fresh lemon zest over the dish. Serve with fresh lemon quarters.
The Premier Lobby Bar Maple Whiskey cocktail
- 60 ml (double shot) Bourbon whiskey
- 15 ml pure maple syrup
- juice from ½ fresh squeezed lemon
- 2 drops bitters
- garnish with a cinnamon stick
- Shake the drink and pour over ice into a glass and garnish with a cinnamon stick
Disclaimer: The author was a guest of the Premier Luxury Mountain Resort, Summer Bansko and Pirin 2000 Ski & Snowboard School. The trip was arranged through Pass Partout Tourism Marketing, DMC, Thessaloniki.