When ‘the virus’ exploded across the world stage, we were house hunting in Bulgaria. A bit random you might think, but we’ve had this idea for a while – or more of a ‘wish’ really – to set up some sort of base in Europe. Australia is still home but it’s so far from everywhere. At this nomadic stage of our lives, we’ve been thinking how good it would be to have a little bolthole in the centre of the world. We were thinking of somewhere in Southern Europe, where it’s not too cold, maybe Portugal, Spain, Italy or Greece. I started learning Spanish and then switched to Portuguese. JH was really keen on Portugal but even the bargains were too far out of our reach. We kept on dreaming and casually looking at property sites.
When I got my final tax refund from my last proper job, I figured it might be the last lump sum I ever get – unless, goddess-forbid I ever have to get a real job again. So, we thought we’d better spend it wisely on something solid rather than fritter it away on credit card debts or good times. We started looking seriously for bargain properties online and discovered that the cheapest property in Europe, by far, is in Bulgaria. Who would’ve thought? We came through Bulgaria last year and the little bit we saw looked great. We try to avoid flying, for the environment and that, but feeling pretty guilty (we paid the carbon offset, honest) we booked a cheap WizzAir flight (£50 each return) and set off to Bulgaria on a house hunt.
We lined up heaps of properties to look at from the online real estate sites before we left. People say that you can get much better deals by just rocking up at a village and asking the mayor which local properties are for sale. Every village has a mayor apparently, no matter how tiny. With no knowledge of the Bulgarian language yet and no idea which village we wanted to live in, we thought we’d better stick to using a proper real estate agent. The price of houses is unbelievably cheap – just a few thousand euros/pounds/dollars. I’ve even seen them advertised for £1000. Many of them are total ruins though, so you have to go and look. Bear in mind that in this price range you’re buying an old house in the country in varying stages of disrepair, rarely close to a city or big town, and usually with dirt floors, an outside toilet and no bathroom. They tend to have huge gardens though and are solidly constructed of stone.
With mountains, ski-fields, lakes, rivers, wetlands, beaches and forests, Bulgaria is not a big country but it’s very diverse. There are bears and wolves in the mountains and it’s known for bird watching. It’s one of the least known, least populated and last wild places in Europe. The more we found out, the more we liked the idea. With borders to Greece, Turkey, Romania, North Macedonia and Serbia, it’s the perfect central location. Like most of Europe, the winters can get bitterly cold, so we decided to go for the warmer zone as close as we could get to the Black Sea coast.
Property in Bulgaria is so cheap because the population is declining, especially in rural areas. It’s relatively poor – the poorest country in Europe (together with Romania) – and wages are very low. It’s also identified as the most corrupt country in Europe, due to organised crime and government corruption. The people themselves are, by all accounts (and from our own experience), very open, honest and friendly. It’s a struggle for many Bulgarians to make ends meet even though the cost of living is incredibly cheap. Young people are moving to the cities or to other European countries where they can earn much higher wages. This has been happening for decades. This exodus of people from the countryside has left whole villages abandoned and in most villages there seems to be as many abandoned and ruined houses as there are inhabited ones. There are literally thousands of houses for sale in rural villages, all over the country. The locals want people to move to the villages to keep them alive.
Bulgaria is a country in transition. There’s a real contrast here of the old and the new. Shiny new cars pass donkeys and carts. There are excellent highways and others are just goat tracks. Big European shops like IKEA are juxtaposed with traditional vegetable markets. People work by hand in the fields, yet there is super fast internet. Huge wind turbines sit amongst lavender and rose farms. It’s a beautiful country. Life in the villages is still slow-paced but the cities are modern and vibrant. I can’t wait to explore more of the small groovy cities like Ruse on the Danube (known as ‘little Vienna’) and Plovdiv – one of the oldest cities in the world and the European Capital of Culture 2019.
As one of the oldest countries in Europe, Bulgaria is so rich in history. There are remains and ruins from almost every period of its past – tombs of the Thracians, buildings and artefacts from the Persian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires, and the Bulgarian Tsars. So much to explore!
On the first day we looked at three properties and thought either of the first two would be fine but we fell in love with the third one. JH wanted to buy it on the spot but I thought we should look at some more first. So, we spent a few days looking at more places but really we already knew. So, with a bit of half-hearted bartering we agreed on a price and are in the process of becoming the proud owners of a cottage in Bulgaria. Well, actually JH is. As a foreigner I’m not allowed to buy land but JH can as he’s still European until bloody Brexit really happens in December. To be honest, the owners are the sweetest old couple and we would happily give them more money if we had any.
Our little stone cottage has a concrete veneer on the front, lots of tiny rooms and a red tiled roof. The floors are packed earth and there is a pit toilet and a sort-of shower. It needs lots of work but it’s going to be such fun. The best part though, is that it’s on half an acre, at the end of a dirt track with no neighbours. As a ‘girl from the bush’, I like my own space. I’m not really keen on having my nose pressed up against other people.
The garden is well maintained with an established vineyard. The lovely old couple have already planted out the entire garden with seasonal vegetables.
Every household here grows grapes and makes their own wine and rakia (the pokey national drink). They grow their own food and make their own bread and cheese. Like most ex-soviet countries, sustainability is alive and well in Bulgaria. The soil is reportedly very rich and everything grows in abundance (except citrus). We were seeing the landscape at its worst, at the dry end of winter. Spring is just beginning and the predominantly deciduous trees are all poised to burst into flower and greenery.
The other best thing about our (almost) new sometimes-home is its location. Our village of Neykovo (population 90) is in the north east of Bulgaria, just 12km from the tiny fishing village of Krapets on the Black Sea and 20km from the Romanian border. This undeveloped and mostly uninhabited patch of coastline has a 6km sandy beach, protected lakes and wetlands, the oldest lighthouse in the Balkans and the remains of a temple to the Goddess Kibela from 260 BC. About half an hour away is the lovely seaside town of Balchik with many bars, restaurants and a marina. From here you can sail to the Mediterranean.
When the virus hit Europe, everything changed so quickly. Bulgaria responded decisively and went into instant total shutdown. We tried to get an earlier flight back to England but no luck. We couldn’t complete our purchase so are now doing this by email. Some of the legal systems we need are closed, so we’re kind of in limbo for now. In Bulgaria we were isolated in holiday apartments. Everything was shut and the few people we saw were wearing face masks and gloves. In Dobrich we could order takeaway food delivery via ‘foodpanda’. It was surreal ordering online (in English) and having gourmet food delivered to our apartment by a guy in full protective gear. Then we drove our rental car (no contact with anyone) to our pre-booked apartment in the 3000-year-old seaside town of Nesebar. It was beautiful but deserted. There was no food delivery, except breakfast provided by our hosts who had no idea what to feed people who didn’t eat ‘normal’ food, so yet again, it was many days of cucumber sandwiches.
On arrival in Liverpool, it was a shock to see people behaving as if nothing was happening. No one was wearing masks, not even the airport staff. We went straight home to Bignall End and haven’t been anywhere since. JH still goes to work every day on a renovation job where he only sees one person. Luckily, I can still work online. I’m ordering everything I can online but the supermarkets have no delivery slots available for months, so we’ve had to go to the local shop twice. The first time we got most things we needed. The second time there were no vegetables left.
Since I’m a huge reader of dystopian fiction and JH is a catastrophist, we’ve been preparing for the zombie apocalypse (or its equivalent) for years. How terribly inconvenient that it’s arrived while we’re in Bignall End, with nothing but a fridge top mini-garden, caught between our self-sufficient armageddon-ready home in Australia and our not-yet home in Bulgaria.