Bulgaria is the poorest country in the EU. After WWII it embraced communism with relish and whilst is now a democracy the majority of the country exhists in the sleepy way it has done for a hundred years or so. Little hamlets and villages dot the bountiful countryside, with citizens either farming specific crops for sale, to trade with other villagers or with their own livestock and vegetable gardens providing for the majority of their culinary needs.
Tourism was introduced by the Soviets in the 70’s as a way of bringing foreign currency into the country and in recent years the international appeal has increased with large hotels and resorts dotting the black sea coast for package holiday sun lovers whilst the snowy mountains draw skiers looking for awesome snow and affordable lift passes.
Camping in Bulgaria is limited so for our first night after crossing the romanian boarder we stopped off in the village of Voditsa to stay at the ‘St James Park secret campsite’. This is in fact the garden of Newcastle lass Elly’s traditional farmhouse on the edge of the village. She bought the property 10 years ago with her mother for £7k after deciding that buying in the UK wasn’t for her and certainly wasn’t going to wok with her budget. Over the years the property and gardens have been modified through the work of the 2 women and their Work Away volunteers who have done everything from planting the garden, making jam, killing chikens and building walls to picking fruit and learning mud art. Ellys boyfriend Dancho is village born and bred and bar a few trips to England and France with Elly has spent most of his 30 years exactly where he is from. Hugely kind and helpful, Dancho is the type who will do anything for anyone. The couple make their modest living selling property in the village to foreigners, predominantly Brits, and help them to adapt to their new surroundings.
Bulgaria has a declining population. With more and more young people going off to the cities or abroad to study and work many choose not to return to their villages. The fast pace and convenience of the modern world doesn’t penetrate the sleepy way of life so the allure of the bright lights leaves many small places devoid of the next generation and many properties empty.
Elly and Dancho’s vision is to repopulate the village with people who will bring a new lease of life and prosperity to their home. Their properties are advertised on their website, however they would prefer not to sell to anyone who wouldn’t fit in with the community. The idea is that different types of people will bring new ideas, work and more diversity to a place that a may otherwise ceas to exist as it is within a generation or two.
With property prices in the UK and many more affluent nations beyond the range of an average salary the prospect of buying a 2-3 bedroom home with land for under £10,000 is incredibly attractive. But what are you getting for your money?
We visited a number of properties out of curiosity at our hosts kind invitation. Elly Dancho and her mother own 3 or 4 houses in the village, whilst her brother has another. None of the village houses are connected to mains sewers. For a regular toilet you would need to dig a septic tank so most people use long drop or composting toilets in the back yard. Heating comes from wood burning stoves and water is piped in from a local spring. Basic electricity is in most but the oldest homes.
They were all varying states of delapidation. Bulgaria is full of buildings which are stretched to the end of their lifespans without being maintained. There just isn’t the money for their owners to do it and sadly I imagine many just end up abandoned when they become unliveable as there just aren’t the new generation of families looking to take on this kind of project. Many have belonged to elderly people who leave their lifes possessions behind unwanted by relatives living in flats with all the modern convenienes. Small woodburning stoves, plum brandy barrels and other delightfully quaint chests and furniture are often unwanted and would be a vintage sellers dream. I had a good rummage through some facinating old books and photographs in the house of a little old lady. Hopefully someone in the village might want the memories. It was sad to think of them being thrown away ( I’m far too nostalgic!). There was tremendous character to all of the houses and with vision, hard work and money they could all have been transformed to beautiful homes. As they were, if you are happy to live with damp, cold and very basic facilities this could be managed very comfortably. The villagers do and by the sounds of it there are some fascinating local remedies available do deal with coughs, colds and other illnesses. Ask Dancho about the winter cabbage!
The cost of the properties does make it tempting especially when for an extra £20k or so they could be transformed to a level of luxury way beyond what could be achieved in the UK for such a sum. For retires who don’t own their own homes or face a future life of relative poverty on a state pension the prospect of a relaxed, inexpensive life in your own property very appealing if you don’t worry about being too far from family and friends. Similarly, anyone looking for complete peace to write, create or perhaps try farming could do very well here. For young families or individuals though I think it could become quite lonely with little in the form of entertainment or prospects for young people. Walking through the village there was an air of it having been abandoned. The playground consisted of some Soviet style metal climbing frames, long devoid of paint and the small factory, bakery and nightclub which provided entertainment have long shut down. There wasn’t a particular feeling of welcome ( although this is based on 1 day so not a very balanced conclusion) as we went through and I wondered exactly what the locals really thought about strangers from other countries coming to their small part of the world. I imagine there are mixed feelings, as there always are but without a decent grasp of the language a person could feel quite shut out as the majority of other new residents don’t live in the village year round. Ellie had a rather limited grasp of it consdering how long she had spent there which made me wonder how much about what people wanted she really knew. To be fair to her the partnership she has with Dancho means she organises the volunteers and people intersted in visiting the village and he on the Bulgarian side of things. However I’m sure a better understanding would improve the experience for her and the people she introduced. Learning a language is never easy especially with a new alphabet and when the people your learning from want to practice your own language themselves!
There are some interesting developments in the village. Ellie and Dancho hope to turn their centrally located new property into a place for locals and foreigners to really mix with a shop/gallery showcasing local craftsmanship, an area for local children to hang out and an area for foreign groups to come and conduct courses. I imagine that if this comes off then it will bring a new lease of energy to the core of the village as well as opportunities to the local youth. Small, isolated communities only really work well when people are looking out for each other and working togeather. Communication and building relationships will be key and I would encourage anyone who is interested in being part of that change to contact Ellie who is passionate about bringing people together to make a change. Its so important to do it for the right reasons so language, respect for local culture and communication would be key.
The nearest small town is Popovo, 15km to the East with Sofia and Varna Airoprts around 2.5 hrs drive to the East or South West. A vehicle of some description would be essential unless you are prepared to be very limited in what you do. There is a local bus which can take you from the main road to local towns and a train station. The stop is 1km from the village centre.
- Bulgarians overall are friendly and helpful. Their food is delicious and fresh. The beaches of the black sea are stunning. Areas such as Varna, Burgas and Sofia have a lot of facilities similar to Western European towns and cities.
- Having spent some weeks travelling to various areas of Bulgaria I think it would be foolish to buy any property in Bulgaria purely as an investment outside of the seaside resorts and then, as with any big purchase, to be very careful about what your getting yourself into.
- Local laws, customs and politics can be compliated and if the person your getting to negotiate your sale is looking to make money from it they are not going to nessesarily be working in your best interests. That may not be the case however getting a number of opinions or shopping around for legal advice is definately recommended even if to give a different opinion.
- Living in isolated communities and learning a completely different language, alphabet and culture is a challenge. I would advise anyone to think carefully about their decision and do significant research before investing. Spend some time in the area your looking to buy in and at different times of year.
- Connecting to services can be complicated in another language. Securing someone with local knowledge to work on your behalf as a translator is key. Paying them a fee to set up your services, explain what you want to a builder and to be on hand to help you with any problems will make your introduction to the country far easier.
- Be honest with your own ability to cope. Are you really up to chopping wood and collecting your own water in the winter? What will happen if you get sick?
- Don’t be caught up in a dream and get all the right facts before you hand over money.
- If you want to escape the ratrace or love a rural simple life this could be the perfect opportunity for you. Be prepared to work hard but there will be many rewards if you do… And all winter to hibernate!
With huge thanks to Elly and Dancho who shared their home with us for a few days. We wish you loads of luck with your next big project and hope the village continues to thrive.
If your interested in their properties or services they offer get in contact through their website: