Snowboarding in Bulgaria may be a cut-price winter holiday option, but Matt Cole finds that cheap can be cheerful

If you're thinking of going snowboarding in Europe soon, here's an exercise. First close your eyes. Now imagine that you're going to take your next winter holiday in Bulgaria. How do you feel? Most of us are programmed to panic at the very thought. Nothing to do with secret agents and poison-tipped ski poles or over-familiar Olympic hammer-throwers, of course. No, this is something far simpler, but equally ludicrous. It's because it's cheap.

If you're thinking of going snowboarding in Europe soon, here's an exercise. First close your eyes. Now imagine that you're going to take your next winter holiday in Bulgaria. How do you feel? Most of us are programmed to panic at the very thought. Nothing to do with secret agents and poison-tipped ski poles or over-familiar Olympic hammer-throwers, of course. No, this is something far simpler, but equally ludicrous. It's because it's cheap.

A tendency to associate the word "cheap" with the word "nasty" has left Bulgaria off the agenda. You can't help thinking it must be more than ugly concrete hotels and unpalatable concrete cuisine that keeps the prices down. Surely the skiing just isn't up to it. Even snowboarders, who don't generally go in for five-star luxury, have stayed away. There has to be something seriously wrong. But, after a week of boarding down spectacular tree-lined pistes and chasing untracked powder in glorious conditions, I can't say I noticed it.

Of course there are areas in which Bulgaria can't compete. If efficient lifts and immaculately groomed slopes are a must, then don't even think about it. If guaranteed snow during the kids' half term is essential, stay away. But anyone prepared to forego some of the "luxuries" of Euro-skiing for a bit of raw Balkan rusticity won't be disappointed, given a bit of luck with the snow fall.

Economic constraints mean that artificial snowmaking is out of the question. But Bulgaria does have a trump card to play here. It has four mountain ranges. None of them ishigh by Alpine standards but they often have very different conditions, and the records of recent years suggest that you can normally find good snow in one or the other.

As the smallest of the package resorts, Pamporovo tends to attract families looking for peace and quiet. But for snowboarders there is also a lively scene revolving around The Snow Shack - a shop run by two helpful British boarders who are the authority on getting the best out of the mountain. And there is a surprising amount to get the best out of for snowboarders who can take on the dreaded drag lifts. Steve and Gary of the Snow Shack virtually introduced snowboards to this resort, which is otherwise dominated by the state-run ski-school. In fact the whole ski area is still state run, along with its biggest hotel, the wonderful Perelik.

The Hotel Perelik's undoubted highlight is the dining hall. Every evening a cabaret band struggles against the swimming pool acoustics to serenade visitors with popular favourites such as "(I Never Promised You A) Rose Garden" - the perfect soundtrack to the sight of tourists grazing on grey and brown protein (more precise description isn't easy). More recognisable is the welcome colour and variety of the cucumber, tomato and feta cheese salad. Greece is only 60 miles away, and visible from the top of the ski lift - a geographical insight that explains why Pamporovo markets itself as one of the sunniest ski resorts in Europe.

After the sleepy charm of Pamporovo, Borovets is a wake-up call to the senses - a boisterous scrum of stalls and shacks jostling for position around high-rise hotels. Smoke rises from pancake and shashlik stalls and every bar and restaurant has a different theme. At night the whole thing lights up like a pinball machine. Neon signs flash outside the karaoke bars and music pounds from the stalls flogging counterfeit CDs.

Despite all this, the setting is superb. In another era Borovets was a secluded hunting lodge for Bulgaria's pre-revolutionary royalty. And the Alpine charm of the beautiful wooded hillsides and distant peaks still makes a stronger impression than the excesses of the modern town.

The ski area is far more extensive than at Pamporovo and with fresh snowfall there are plenty of new runs to be found. Not all of them take you back to the main lift station, but there is always a horse-drawn sled ready to ferry you back to the centre for a few pence. There's something you don't get in Chamonix.

In a country as cheap and hospitable as this, the greatest rewards are for those prepared to deal with the unfamiliar language and culture and branch out. When the pistes of Pamporovo are tracked out or too crowded, head for the sweeping four-mile runs of nearby Chepelare, where the Soviet-era army used to train its troops, and where you are winched to the top of a run on the wooden-slatted, one-person chair lift.

One more unnerving fact about Bulgaria: you have to fly over the Alps. But as those expensive resorts of Switzerland and Austria wink up at you in the sunlight, smile and reflect on the fact that you have chosen the cheapest ski package resort in Europe for reasons other than cost.

* Matt Cole travelled to Borovets and Pamporovo with Crystal Holidays (0870 848 7000, www.crystalski.co.uk). Seven nights, half-board, in the Hotel Rila in Borovets (including return flights from Gatwick to Sofia and transfers) costs from £299 per person. A week in the Hotel Perelik in Pamporovo costs from £295. Learn to Snowboard packages can also be pre-booked with Crystal

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