Bulgaria: Bucolic Beauty on the Edge of Europe
As Robert Nurnden found when he bought a house there, Bulgaria is a timeless country where life is lived at a slower pace
I bought my house in Bulgaria for a snip back in 2005. I admit unashamedly that I jumped on the bandwagon, along with thousands of British and Irish families buying cheap properties as the country prepared for EU membership. The summers were good, the pace of life slower and the cost of living cheap. It had the appeal of the unknown – nominally European but with strong flavours of the east.
I bought a bungalow in a village 25 minutes’ drive from the Black Sea city of Varna. At first I used it as a summer retreat but later lived there for two years, when I moved to Bulgaria to teach English.
The first thing I hear in the mornings is my neighbour’s sheep padding by on their way to their grazing pastures. Days are spent lazing around, catching up on reading those books I never have time for back in England. In the evenings there are barbecues with friends on the terrace roof, drinking wine from the indigenous Mavrud grape – probably the variety Homer waxes lyrical about in the Iliad. Bee-eaters flash by in the dusk in their green, yellow and blue plumage. In September the golden orioles strip bare my fig tree; I can always buy more in the village.
There’s the silence, too – days and days of it. Bulgarians have taught me how to relax. The country is a little smaller than England, with a population of just seven million, and the landscape is largely deserted and unfenced. Ancient meadows rather than fields abound, which makes walking a dream.
They don’t use the word organic here because everything is organic. Potatoes taste like double cream, the peppers are mouth-watering, the walnuts succulent. The countryside is perhaps as western Europe’s used to be, 100 or more years ago. Even so, it can be hard to explain the appeal of Bulgaria; the cultural references are often so alien. These dark, passionate, immensely proud people trace their lineage back to the Bulgars, who arrived from central Asia in the eighth century and established a huge empire under Khan Asparuh. I have even heard modern-day Bulgarians claim to be the first real Europeans.
They nod their heads for no and shake them for yes. The calendar is marked by a range of unique festivals. On March 1 they celebrate the coming of spring with Baba Marta, when everyone ties red shrug and carry on.
There are swathes of concrete tower blocks, a legacy of the communist era when the authorities “persuaded” people to move from the country. But they continued to use their old houses at weekends, and the gardens were a vital source of produce. Bulgaria has twice as many houses as people.
The transition to a market economy continues to be painful but somewhat muted, because the country has started out from a lower base than other nations.
In the end, I did come back to England. But I had learnt the importance of living at a slower pace, of sharing a meal for hours in a restaurant with friends, and, well, doing nothing much. And if I ever find I’m forgetting, I just hop on a budget flight to Plovdiv and chill out for a few days.
The best of Bulgaria
The Thracians, Romans and Ottomans occupied one of Europe’s loveliest cities, and the architecture of each era now vies for attention. A well-preserved 1,800-year-old stadium runs under the main pedestrian street, with glass panels giving bird’s-eye views of the past. The ancient amphitheatre is used for operas and concerts. The Old Town, crammed with Bulgarian renaissance-style houses either side of treacherous cobbled streets, is dotted with fine restaurants and art galleries with views of the Rhodope Mountains to the south.
Hotel Hebros (00359 32 260 180; hebros-hotel.com).
Restaurant Veselo Selo, meaning Happy Village (32 955 118).
Bulgarians are rapidly discovering their Thracian heritage, and this is the place to see it. One of Europe’s most mysterious peoples left a stunning legacy of relics. Like the Egyptians, they used hieroglyphics and followed a cult of death. In the town itself lies the Kazanlak Tomb, a burial chamber with frescocovered walls that take the breath away. In the Valley of the Thracian Kings are more sites stuffed with statuary and paintings in near-mint condition. The Rose Festival, held in the first week of June, involves picking the damascene rose at dawn – its highly valuable oil is used in perfumes worldwide.
Hotel Zornica (431 63939; zornicabg.com).
Restaurant Kransko Hanche (43162319).
The most charming of Bulgaria’s Black Sea resorts, which manages to cater for the young, party-going set from Sofia as well as those seeking something more sedate. The classy old town offers shoreline restaurants and bars where you can watch the sun slide down over Asia. To the south, miles of sandy beaches stretch as far as Turkey. To the north, Sunny Beach pulsates to the beat of 24-hour parties.
Hotel Diamanti (550 22640; hoteldiamanti.com).
Restaurant Windmill (550 22844).
This ancient settlement sits under the 9,000ft Pirin Mountains. Its fiercely independent people boast that they were never conquered by the Ottomans. Today it’s animportant skiing resort and home to one of golf’s loveliest courses. In summer walk through blankets of wild flowers to Bulgaria’s second highest peak, Mt Vihren. In September the international jazz festival pulls in thousands.
Hotel Avalon (749 88399; avalonhotelbansko.com).
Restaurant Baryakova Mehana (749 84482).
It was here that the struggle for independence from the “Turkish yoke” kicked off in 1876, and today Bulgarians recognise its significant place in their history. This picturesque town of half-timbered buildings, guarding the Sredna Gora Mountains and divided by the meandering River Topolnitsa, hosts important music and folklore festivals.
Hotel Panorama (718 42035; panoramata.com).
Restaurant Dyado Liben (718 42109).