Skiing: Conquer your fear, then it's downhill all the way
After finally plucking up the courage to go skiing, Eilis O'Hanlon found it to be the perfect choice for a family holiday
THIS must be how Jonathan Harker felt, was my initial thought as the coach took us off the main road into the forest. Higher we climbed, deeper into the trees, until the only thing that stopped me getting out the garlic and a crucifix was the knowledge that this wasn't Transylvania in the 19th Century, and I wasn't on my way to Castle Dracula. It was Bulgaria in the 21st, and I was going skiing for the first time.
Two ambitions. That was all I had. One was to not break my neck. (A surely not unreasonable desire.) The other was to not break any other limbs. I'd also brought two children with me, so if neither of them had to be brought home in a wheelchair, I'd consider that a result. Being a responsible mother, though, I kept my fears to myself. "Why are you shaking, Mummy?" "It's with excitement, dear!"
We reached the hotel, had something to eat and went to bed. By 10am on Sunday morning we were on the slopes, raring to go. Well, not raring exactly. All three of us felt more like piglets being dragged along to the slaughterhouse.
Skis, I soon learned, are not the easiest things to get the hang of. Unless you can ski already. Which we couldn't. The boots are heavy, the sticks are awkward, the snow is hard. After half an hour, you're knackered, but you're not allowed to stop for a rest because you have a ski instructor to please, and these people are indefatigable. Years spent teaching stupid foreigners how not to kill themselves on mountainsides does that to a being. Slowly, the stupid foreigner (that'd be me) learns a whole new way of doing things they always took for granted before. Like walking. Who'd have thought putting one foot in front of another could be so hard? But fun, that was also what we discovered. There were five people in our little group and we laughed from the minute we put on our skis until we limped back to the ski depot a few hours later, broken and battered and desperate to do it all again. I'd found a third ambition in my repertoire: to come down a (very) small slope and still be intact at the end.
The thing I found out about skiing during my all too brief week on the slopes is that it's physically exhausting. I wasn't prepared for that. I don't think I've ever known tiredness like it. At the end of the first day's lesson, we went back to the hotel room and collapsed on the bed, comatose with an almost existential weariness. Too tired even to speak. A few hours later, we woke up. Had dinner. Went straight back to bed. By eight o'clock the three of us were fast asleep. So much for apres ski...
Day two. From the minute I opened my eyes, the pain assaulted me. Ankles, shins, knees, thighs, bum, back, arms, neck -- you name it. Face too, because after just one day on the slopes your face gets windburnt or sunburnt or snowburnt or whatever the correct description happens to be. But there's something different about this pain. If I was going to the gym and this was the result, I'd just stop going. Despite the pain, though, I was genuinely looking forward to another day on the slopes.
Here's the thing I came to know. Skiing is the perfect family holiday. If you've ever had the misfortune to go anywhere with your children, you will know the most likely words to come from their mouths are "I'm bored", or "What are we going to do today?" Generally, when my own children utter these words, I am filled with a murderous rage. I spent all this money and you tell me you're bored? When I was your age... blah blah. In no time, everyone is fed up with each other. In Bulgaria, I found the perfect solution: skiing.
There's something to do every day. You don't have to fill the hours because they're filled with skiing. They do not have time to get bored, because what is there to get bored of? It's all fun. Ski lifts are fun, especially that first time when your children are screaming with fear at the prospect of tumbling through the air to a gruesome, snowy death below (or was it me doing the screaming?)
It's fun trying to avoid the local pedlars and their bizarre collections of bells for sale. It's hard to explain to a man draped in bells that there's not much call for campanological souvenirs back in Ireland. The ringos are fun too. Did I not mention those? Basically, huge rubber rings on which you sit whilst a sadistic man pushes you at speed down the ski slopes. More screaming invariably ensues as you fully expect to smash into the side of a hut. You don't, but scream some more anyway, because it seems like the right thing to do.
The acid test of any holiday is whether you'd do it all over again. You bet I would. I didn't want to go home. Not only was this the best holiday I've ever had, I'd go further. For sheer fun and laughs per minute, I'd gladly forgo my summer holidays for more skiing. No small compliment for a dedicated sun-worshipper like me. Meanwhile, if anyone wants to buy some second-hand bells, you know where to find me. Give me a ring. (That's a bell joke. Sorry, couldn't resist it.)
Eilis travelled with Balkan Tours which does direct flights from Belfast to Bulgaria. Current offers include a recession-friendly €359 (week starting January 9, 2011) with free child and group prices available. Christmas skiing is also available, flying out on December 26, for €549. Prices are pp per week in a hotel at half board. For further information, ring Balkan Tours 01-6794415