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Popular for its good value beach and skiing holidays, Bulgaria also offers spa and wellness breaks at reasonable prices. Lynn Houghton visits the Sandanski Spa Resort, where mineral springs and a spa heritage dating back centuries are juxtaposed alongside modern facilities and an extensive choice of spa treatments. Travelling...

Getting into Hot Water in Bulgaria

Popular for its good value beach and skiing holidays, Bulgaria also offers spa and wellness breaks at reasonable prices. Lynn Houghton visits the Sandanski Spa Resort, where mineral springs and a spa heritage dating back centuries are juxtaposed alongside modern facilities and an extensive choice of spa treatments.

Travelling through the pristine Pirin Mountains of Bulgaria, I can’t imagine a more restful place to come for a relaxing, rejuvenating retreat. It is winter and the cold, crisp air is sharp and bracing. Snow covered landscapes are punctuated with stunning monasteries as well as typical Bulgarian villages and towns. A 2½-hour journey from Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital city, finds you in the UNESCO protected Pirin National Park. Frequent flights from the UK to Sofia’s international airport make this an easy destination to reach for those interested in winter sports, culture and of course, spas.Sandanski is a centre for balneology (study of healing through naturally occurring mineral waters). As well as thermal springs, the town has a unique climate with remarkably clean and pollution free air and temperatures higher than anywhere else in the country. The first modern balneotherapy centre was built here 50 years ago. Before there were any hotels or tourists, the Ministry of Health opened a boarding school for children suffering from asthma and other allergies. Even further back in history, the Romans bathed in the waters and named the settlement Dezudava. From the 6th century, the town was known as Sveti Vrach in honour of twin saints and healers Cosma and Damyan, who reputedly promoted the benefits of therapeutic mineral water. Finally, in 1949, the town was renamed Sandanski after the revolutionary Yane Sandanski.

As we reach our destination, I notice that remnants of communism are visible throughout the town with weathered apartment tower blocks, run down properties and rusty cars juxtaposed against clean, modern buildings. But soon we are travelling up a canyon to the five-star Pirin Park Hotel, which has 76 rooms as well as 24 apartments and nestles in a sheltered valley. On arrival, we notice immediately that the temperature is remarkably mild. We also notice, with interest, that the national football club is in residence.

Before checking in, we make a beeline for the spacious spa centre. Our group moves past the reception area into the dimly lit premises, tastefully decorated in Asian style dark wood with discrete ornaments. At least half a dozen treatment rooms are set up for massages, another dozen for facials, and still other treatment rooms with baths, some organised for athletes and others for couples experiences.

The good-sized indoor swimming pool has hydro-massage jets and a Kneipp walk. Locker rooms are clean and spacious and bathrobes are available from the reception desk. The spa menu is extraordinary for the sheer number of treatments offered (I counted a staggering 150 treatments and activities), though notably missing are Botox, Restylane and other cosmetic injection type treatments.

I quickly decide to book a Hot Stone massage and also a luxurious Vitamin C facial that reputedly has a lifting effect. It will be fascinating to see if the results match what is promised in print.

If I had been here with my husband, I would definitely have tried the Rose Organic Ritual in the VIP Zone, which sounds quite romantic. Other unusual offerings include: Body Astrology, Grape Seed Peeling Massage, Space Trip Massage and an Aroma-therapeutic bath with wine. Prices range from 5LVE (£2.10) for a chin epilation to 160LVE (£68) for a Klapp Face Ceremony of Gold. If you really want to splash out, the Luxury VIP Zone for two costs 250LVE (about £107). However, I’d probably steer clear of the Rectifying Topical Obesity Programme, even though it promises instant results.

Along the back of the property is a delicious stream trickling down the mountain side. A further tour reveals an outdoor swimming pool (with chunks of ice floating in it!) and a steamy Jacuzzi. There are two restaurants, one Mediterranean, where breakfast is served, and another serving traditional Bulgarian food, plus a small nightclub.

The Bulgarian Union of Balneology and Spa Tourism (BUBSPA) is a fully fledged member of the European Spa Association. It has 40 members and Iliya Paskov, BUBSPA’s president, spoke to me about Sandanski and Wellness tourism.

‘Sandanski has its own microclimate, which means it’s warmer than the surrounding mountains and the air is reputedly completely free from allergens. There are no factories or cities within 150km and there is only one other place on earth, a town in Argentina, that has such pure air.’ He continued, ‘It’s not just the air that draws visitors here, but also the mineral springs and therapeutic quality of the water. Hydrotherapy is the basis of many of our spa treatments and in ancient times, it was the water which drew civilisations like the Thracians and Romans to this area.’

I ask Iliya why a resort that promotes lung health allows smoking in its restaurants. He replies that the Bulgarian government has promised to ban smoking in public places this summer. Indeed, I get the opportunity to ask the tourism minister this too, and he concedes that although it is predicted to be a very unpopular measure, nonetheless, it will be implemented this summer.

What about Botox and similar injection treatments? I ask if Bulgaria will follow global spa trends to attract wellness tourists, if there is a perceived demand. ‘Of course, we would consider offering these treatments, but currently, people go to clinics to have these done under the supervision of a doctor,’ replies Iliya. ‘Certainly, everyone in tourism is affected by trends and fads At the moment, the Russians are trying to sell us equipment for cleaning the blood, a procedure that is popular at the Mayo Clinic in Austria. We will be able to offer this at a fraction of the price charged in Austria.’

Now it is time to try out a massage myself. The therapist guides me to the treatment room and I lie face down on the treatment bed, before being discreetly covered up. Selected areas are covered in oil before the hot stones are used. I am most impressed with the attention to detail shown by the therapist, ensuring that the level of warmth is not excessive. The stones are not only placed on strategic points along my back but also placed in my hands while small stones are inserted between each of my toes! The heat is lovely when the stones are pressed and skid along oily skin. Bliss!

Pirin Park Hotel
27 Hydrostroy
2800 Sandanski
Tel.: + 359 746 35 656, 600
Visit hotel website for latest mid-week and weekend prices, rates approximately:
Single luxury room £73 per night; double luxury room £94; suite for two guests from £135.
Rates include breakfast, dinner, tourist fee, tourist insurance and VAT; high speed Wi Fi, parking, free shuttle /on schedule/ to and from Sandanski city centre; use of extensive spa, swimming pools and fitness facilities.EasyJet flies from Gatwick to Sofia – prices start at around £69 return + admin charge.
British Airways and Bulgarian Airways also offer direct return flights to Sofia from around £250.
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