Belitsa Bear Sanctuary & Bansko Jazz Festival

From down near the Greek border we headed back up north to Bansko. It took us maybe a couple of hours and we arrived around midday and found the small guest house we had booked into. It was on the edge of town and a strange little place. The owner was there and we had already been contacted to ask where we were as originally I had said we would arrive around 11am. However, the room we had booked was still not ready so we were shown to another, an apartment, but basically where the owner lived and  told we could have that for the night but they needed to change the beds. So we went off to walk the dogs and came back half an hour later, to find it was still not ready. After a lot of faffing around we were eventually able to go in, but they had no key for the apartment so would have to get this to us later and there was some confusion about being allowed the dogs in the room, even though we had specifically booked a pet friendly place to stay.

Rila Fish restaurant near BanskoAll this meant we were running a couple of hours behind schedule by the time we managed to set off and drive to the village of Belitsa, about 20 minutes away from Bansko, where the bear sanctuary is.

A nearby fish restaurant had been recommended so we stopped for lunch here and had trout caught freshly from the little lake there. The bear sanctuary was then around 15 km further on, but at least the road was now repaired and tarmac as last time we had tried, back in 2011 we had given up after a couple of kilometres as the road was nearly impassable. Now it was only the last few hundred yards that was a bit muddy and stoney. There is now a newly built visitors centre and a car park. It is around 6 levs each for entrance and the guided tour.

Dancing Bear Park near BanskoThe Dancing Bears Park at Belitsa is run by the Four Paws organisation and is the largest bear conservation area of its type in Europe. It is home to 25 bears, all rescued from Bulgaria and other neighbouring countries, 20 of which used to be kept to dance for tourists for money.

Before the tour begins, you can go on the viewing platform and see some of the bears sun-bathing and playing near by. The tour takes around 45 minutes and whilst it was conducted in Bulgaria, the girl did speak some English and would explain the main points to us. You could really walk around at your own pace, although were meant to stay with the group, after a German tourist got lost in the park a year or two ago (he was found alive and well a few hours later). It is heart breaking to see the state of some of these bears, with mutilated noses and paws, clearly still traumatised from their experiences at the hands of man. We were surprised to find that a number of the bears Dancing Bear Park near Banskocame from the village of Yagoda, next door to where we live, and that they were kept in yards and in the houses of gypsies who would take them as young cubs from the surrounding mountain area, and then were paid by the government to take them to Sunny Beach and Sofia, where they would ‘perform’ for money on the streets. After the tour we were shown a couple of videos of the history of the park and dancing bears. Dancing Bear Park near Bansko

We left the park just as it was closing and headed back to Bansko, ready for a nice warm shower and a bit of a relax before going into town to watch the Jazz festival. But we appeared to have no hot water in the apartment and after several phone calls to the owner, were eventually told that the only hot water in the place was in a shared cramped messy shower room downstairs as the hot water and heating was diesel powered and they did not turn it on in the summer!!!! So it seemed kind of pointless booking a deluxe room with a private bathroom!

Bansko Jazz festivalBansko town was heaving, with thousands there to watch the Jazz festival. The atmosphere was brilliant and there was live music on the stage in the centre and little stalls selling beer and wine and snacks. We opted to walk a little further up towards the gondola and I managed to find the apartment I had put a deposit down on and nearly bought some 12 years ago.  The complex was finished but did not appear well maintained. A lucky escape on that one!

We ended up eating in a cosy Mehana in the old town, again sheltering from the rain upstairs. The food was ok good but veryexpensive compared to usual Bulgarian prices, but to be expected in a tourist resort.