Recently, I was fortunate enough to be invited to stay with a friend`s family, all expenses paid at their home in Bulgaria. How lucky am I! My brother has been to Bulgaria two or three times before and he was considering buying a house there, however he felt at the time that the presence of the mafia was too great and decided against it, so I wasn`t sure what to expect. There is still a mafia presence in Bulgaria but as a visitor or ordinary resident there, it is most unlikely you will become involved or influenced by them or even notice them at all.
Houses in the villages in Bulgaria are extremely cheap if you don`t mind putting in the graft. I found a place on the `net today for £2,800 euros which included a 2 roomed house, a large (and convertible) barn and quite a big swathe of land. It`s out in the sticks but with amazing potential, water and electricity is already in supply and it is situated by a large and beautiful lake. You would need to install windows, doors, floors, probably a new roof and a septic tank but how lovely it will be if someone eventually purchases it. As you would expect, houses will go up and up in price, the nearer your residence is to a large town or city and they range from under £10,000 euro`s for a proper do-er upper to a lot of dosh for something fabulous overlooking the sea or the mountains.
My friend Mike and I began our stay in the capital Sofia, named in the fourteenth century after Saint Sophia, the saint of wisdom. Sofia is a busy, bustling city similar to Berlin with buses and trams travelling along wide boulevards lined with trees, statues, shops and hotels and where to the west, you can see the peak of Mount Vitosha. We spent the night at Hotel Lion which is a beautiful, old and elegant hotel with rounded walls and balconies overlooking the town. The décor is greys and beiges and very calming. We ate our breakfast in the dining area and I was amused to see on the menu, “eye of egg” which is a Bulgarian description for scrambled egg. We noticed the hotel welcomed evidently very poor people, to collect small parcels of food from the dining area to start their day and discovered this is a common practice, to share food with those less fortunate. Sofia has a food bank, the first of its kind in the country and is attempting to address the massive 620 tonnes of food currently wasted in the country each year, by sharing it with those people who are poor and hungry. Every year through a network of social agencies, the food bank collects and distributes around 850 tonnes of food to thousands of Bulgarians who are living below the poverty line.
Mike drove me over three hundred miles across the country to arrive in Rudnik, a village in the municipality of Burgas where he and his sister Jackie`s home is situated. We drove up high to reach the village, the roads can become treacherous in winter conditions but while we were there, the weather was a sunny and very hot 28 degrees, with stunning views of the Rhodope mountain range along the way. The Rhodopes span an enormous area of Bulgarian land and the remaining part of the range sits in Greece. On the drive up to Rudnik, Mike pointed out pull ins where young girls stand alone in the hot sun. You might wonder what they are doing half way up a mountain but they are sex workers, waiting for customers and I felt sorry for them, they will no doubt have to hand over the cash at the end of the day.
There are several Unesco world heritage sites near to Rudnik. The closest is the ancient city of Nessebar which we visited, it is unspoilt, beautiful and charming with cobbled streets and houses with windows that overhang the street below, it reminded me of The Shambles in York. There are also very pretty public gardens running alongside gorgeous, panoramic views of the Black Sea. Places of archaeological interest are being discovered all the time in Bulgaria and it`s important to consider this if you are buying, renovating or building property because in many areas you will be expected to foot the bill for an archaeological survey to be carried out prior to the work beginning and then there is the wait.
Wherever you drive in this part of Bulgaria you will find lots of roadside stalls along the way selling fresh fruit, vegetables, honey and jams. All produce is home grown and much of it is organic. The tomatoes are the best I have ever tasted and HUGE! I found the Bulgarian people I met extremely friendly, helpful and genuine and language did not prove to be a barrier, we communicated with nods and gestures and my understanding the lev currency. It was roughly speaking, two levs to the British pound but of course that is changing at the moment because of all the uncertainty around Brexit. In any event, it is still incredibly cheap to eat out in Bulgaria. A typical dinner for four people would be around 35 – 40 lev or less than twenty pounds depending on where you eat. You can add on around 70p for an alcoholic drink. Bulgarian gin is delicious and their single measure is the equivalent of about three shots in the UK so I was squiffy on one drink!
We visited some lovely places, somewhere different every day. Varna city is majestic with lots of churches, clothes shops, fountains, street markets, lovely architecture and a very beautiful cathedral. I was surprised to see fur on sale there but there are many fur and leather goods outlets in the larger cities so there is still a massive market for fur. The country`s main faith is orthodox Christianity but Bulgaria is tolerant of all beliefs including atheism and you will see mosques, temples and synagogues in many of the large towns and cities. We visited Sunny Beach which is an area a little bit like our Blackpool and which attracts mainly young people. Unlike other beaches I visited, Sunny Beach is very commercial and there are lots of massive hotels there, a big waterpark as well as some interesting galleries and lots of supermarkets. We had dinner on Sunny Beach and it was lovely and quiet as it was the end of the season so we could look out over the sea, very pleasant.
Wherever we went, we had to first consider the needs of Jackie`s son Andrew. Andrew is a young, cheerful, disabled man who uses a wheelchair and has a very entertaining sense of humour. He works with a personal assistant, a very nice man called Mick. Bulgaria still has a way to go in planning for the needs of people with disabilities and there are loads of places Andrew would very much enjoy visiting but the lack of provision makes that an impossibility for him at the moment. Even in the cities, there are steep verges with no wheelchair access but hopefully that will be addressed over time. In spite of these challenges for Andrew and his family, we all went out together as a large party every day which was great. We visited friends in other towns and other villages, we visited lots of different places to eat, we had some lovely drives through stunning, mountainous scenery with occasional, breath taking views of the ocean. Mike and Jackie drove me all over the place, they are both super drivers and took me to two other beaches, a harbour, very different to Sunny beach, quiet and picturesque and for the final part of our stay, to Plovdiv, the second city which is roughly half way between Rudnik and the airport at Sofia.
We stayed at the Hotel Leipzig in Plovdiv, a unique experience in a delightfully idiosyncratic building. Each room a different colour, knock your eye out orange, purple, lime green with fake leopard skin sofas and in my case, a silver armchair. I absolutely loved it and breakfast there is fabulous, an array of cold meats, bread, croissants, jams, cheeses, eggs, sausage, fried bread, toast and fruit with fresh coffee. Lovely! The hotel is next door to a really impressive shopping mall with lots of nice places inside to mooch and eat such as The Cake Shop café and The Victoria restaurant which I can highly recommend. If you ask for tea in Bulgaria you will be given chamomile. Ask for black tea with milk and you`ll get a familiar cup of tea.
Bulgaria has been taken over and occupied so many times in its centuries of history. It is bordered by many other countries and this has made it vulnerable but it has a history of friendship with Russia and we noticed references to Russia in lots of street names, cities and buildings. It was the Russian Empire who made liberation from Turkish occupation possible in 1878, however the relationship between Russia and Bulgaria went awry during WW2 when the Soviet Union`s Red Army marched into the country in 1943 and declared war. They voted to abolish the monarchy who promptly went into exile. King Boris the third whose reign spanned WW2, had already infuriated Hitler by refusing to allow the deportation of Bulgarian Jews to the death camps in Germany. Even though he eventually allied with Germany and declared war on Britain and the USA, he also eventually suffered a mysterious illness and death probably brought about by a slow acting poison slipped to him by someone in the Nazi party. Today Bulgaria is a Republic and it seems to me, remains a democratic country in its attitudes. Having said that, there is a razor wire fence on the border with Turkey spanning over one hundred miles. Commissioned in 2013 by the then president, there are plans to put up more fences at the borders with other countries to stop illegal immigration and to hinder so-called ISIS sympathisers from making their way into Europe from Iraq and Syria.
Above Plovdiv standing tall on a high hill is an enormous statue of “The Russian Soldier.” Some people want it taken down as they see The Red Army as their oppressors, some wish it to remain as they view the Red Army as their liberators.
So – what a fascinating and sometimes tragic history this beautiful country has. Mike asked me if I would go back and at the time, I paused because the experience was so full on, I needed time to process it all. Now I have, I hope I do get to visit again for I am hooked and if you go down to the woods in Bulgaria, you might indeed be confronted by a bear, a boar or a wolf, so watch out!