Original article published on telegraph.co.uk
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.
They don’t use the word organic here because everything is organic.
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.
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.