This town ain’t big enough for the 10,094 of us

Okay, so here’s the deal: is kicking back and relaxing (if masochism is your idea of leisure) in the Bulgarian village of Borovets, some 50-odd miles (75km) south of the capital Sofia.

The can of Coke was how much? Give me a moment: I just need to remortgage my house.

You have my full understanding if the name draws a blank in your lexicon of famous winter resorts. Even though it’s the St Moritz (or Chamonix, or Garmisch) of Bulgarian snow sport, Bulgaria isn’t that big a country, so there not much competition for the top spot. Put another way, Borovets is to St Moritz what Brighton is to Monaco.

I likened it in an earlier post to the Wild West. It’s a hamlet, a bend in the road, which geography has blessed with a rich touristic seam of gold.

Borovets sits on the northern approaches to Bulgaria’s highest mountain, Musala. At a rounding error short of 3000m it casts a long shadow over its northern flank, gifting it a microclimate that leaves it frigid and snowbound in winter. Drive a mile out of town and there’s no more snow, no more gold rush.

The first time I made the journey here in the winter I thought climate change had cancelled the holiday. A chill wind whipped across the bleak forecourt outside Sofia airport, but that was it. This didn’t faze me: Sofia is a pretty big city, and such cities are often smothered in a grimy insulating fug. Aboard the shuttle bus the urban bleakness gave way to rural bleakness but the weather remained the same.

Even after unofficial road signs popped up, pointing the way to this or that hotel or restaurant, it could have been one of those days in London when sporadic 2cm patches of snow bring the transport infrastructure to its knees. We kept on trucking down the forest road at Bulgarian speeds as though it were midsummer.

A glorified shed in alpine style appeared: a restaurant. Then another, then an unbroken line of them. Some horses stood on the right, bored, chewing and ejecting their feed.

We had arrived.

As I said earlier, Borovets is on a bend in the road. In between the haphazard collection of lean-tos, mega sheds and mini villas are several low-rise hotels, punctuated opposite the main cabin lift by a hotel of astonishing architectural brutality.

Welcome to the Hotel Samokov. You’ll never leave!

This is the Hotel Samokov, giving a socialist middle finger to the puny capitalist sheds thrown up around it post-’89. I imagine it hosted commissars and ministers in its glory days, but now looks almost embarrassed still to be standing. I can bet the local government would dearly love to knock it down and start again, but a makeover will be all they can manage: there’s so much reinforced concrete in this building it will surely be a landmark in the desert once climate change puts a stop to the alpine fun.

Just a few reasons why indigenous folk are a little thin on the ground.

I’ll end with a nod to the title. A 2013 census put the population of Borovets at 94. Estimates from around the same time put the hotel capacity at 10,000. Since this place is currently heaving I suspect the natives are outnumbered 100 to 1.

Caffeine limit reached before dawn: a new record

It’s that most wonderful time of the year, when price-gouging airlines force legions of guilty parents to skip school early.

Tired and wired.

Household preparation for this recent addition to the family calendar begins shortly after Christmas. Our children start a new game, ‘suitcases’, which involves endless dry runs of baggage checks, and leaving small wheeled sit-on cases in doorways and hallways for their parents to trip on.

We heart budget airlines.
The joy of budget airlines.

What awaits us, we hope, is enough snow to ski on (no longer a certainty) and a reduction in falls on last year, when I mistook myself for a teenager and took snowboarding lessons. What folly.

Newcastle nightlife, where the dress code never varies

Spotted in the Metro newspaper on a random train: comforting proof that while blizzards swirl and the mercury plummets, nightclubbers in Newcastle upon Tyne still adhere to a dress code where avoiding hypothermia is of lesser importance than avoiding a long queue at a cloakroom.

Layer-free revellers in Newcastle.
This is the correct form of dress in Newcastle for a Friday night out, even when it is -4°C.

As Metro says:-

It seems wearing a coat in Newcastle even when it’s freezing is a sign of weakness. Clubbers were out again in force yesterday night despite the cold temperatures and snow…

— Read on at

It’s all true. I have several years’ worth of first-hand experience. Coats are shunned.

The Iceman Cometh

Ice patterns on car bonnet.
Nature’s mathematician is let loose on water frozen to a car bonnet. The world around us throws up countless examples of such beauty daily, if we care to look for it.

To those visiting from another galaxy, it might come as a surprise to learn that on Earth, some days are colder than others. The rest of us have less of an excuse. (That said, the millennial thrill-ride that is climate change has given us a few anomalies in recent years that would make the most jaded pay attention.)

So, I’m not one of those who pays much attention to the weather. It happens. Winter can be cold. Rain is wet. In another era I might have painted myself with woad to greet the sunrise, but these days, not so much. I suspect it might have something to do with age.

I’m straying from the point (there is one). Today the chatter from my two young daughters was whether school would be on or not. It got me to thinking where the line was historically drawn.

My childhood was spent on the icy steppes of The North. Winters tended to deliver several nights of -10° and lower, very dark mornings and afternoons, and generous amounts of snow.

School was rarely closed. Closures, if they happened, were usually forced upon the school once the heating packed up completely. Until that point was reached the snow and low temperature were little more than inconveniences. The drifts could be big enough to hide a family, the ice extensive enough for a curling tournament: it would be business as usual.

The school boilers were housed in a sooty underground bunker next to the kitchens, an area off-limits to us cherubs. A giant pile of coal marked the entrance. In these cellars lurked the stoker, a Geordie Freddy Krueger who was rarely spotted above ground level. Unless the boilers were never extinguished he must have begun getting up steam before dawn, the captain of his landlocked steamboat.

Fast forward to my daughters’ musing, and things have changed. Children now have an operating temperature below which their brains struggle to function. Walk into a classroom blindfolded and you might think you’ve entered an NHS ward. Room too cold for t-shirts? Everybody out.

Outside, there’s more ammunition for the reluctant scholar. There might be a light dusting of snow, or patches of icy ground. That could well be enough to abandon lessons: we’re a more litigious society now, and parents taking a tumble while ferrying their offspring to the classroom door will be queuing up for compo to ease the pain of their contused coccyx.

We’ve had a few chilly days now: time enough for the ice to thicken. Come Monday, and a shortage of salt might be all it takes for my girls to enjoy a 3-day weekend.

Snowdrops, I think.
Snowdrops (I think) photographed during a trip to Wisley, the gardening equivalent of a pilgrimage to Mecca.