Bulgaria One of the Seven Lakes of Rila
source: internet

There are plenty of excellent books and web resources available about Bulgaria; they range from the scholastic to the touristy. This review is a personal perspective that makes no claims to be definitive, simply one perspective on Bulgaria and the joys and pitfalls of living here.

Where is Bulgaria?

This is a question we were often asked in the UK when we announced our intention to move here; basically the answer is about as far as you can go (geographically and culturally) and still be in the European Union. Bordered by Greece, Turkey, Romania, Macedonia, Montenegro and the Black sea, Bulgaria is pretty much in the South Eastern corner of the European map. Greece is further in terms of kilometers but Bulgaria has much more of 'old Europe' to offer.

What's the climate like, does it ever get above 0 C?

Another question we are often asked...

The official classification is 'warm summer, continental climate', but as in England, climate is what you expect, weather is what you get.Bulgarians say they have four strong seasons and certainly in our first year here we saw swings from -28c to the high 30's.

In 2006, the winter never really arrived and the summer of 2007 has seen record high temperatures, often climbing into the 40's, no one really knows if this is due to global warming or just normal fluctuations, only time will tell.

Compared with Britain you can expect far more extremes and much less rain. For me the dryer climate has been wonderful (in the UK my bones ache and knees don't straighten from September to March). Minus 28 Celsius is cold, but providing you're sensible ('no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing!') it is nothing like as much of a problem as you might expect.

The southern location of Bulgaria means that the country experiences neither the long summer, or short winter days of the UK, even in December the warmth of the sun has power and knowing that it won't get dark by 3pm lifts the soul.

What's the political set-up?

Former Soviet state, young democracy. There are teething problems with the political organization of Bulgaria, hopefully with accession to the EU now a reality, Bulgaria will grow and mature politically, by which I mean that Bulgarians will gain faith in their political institutions and will have trustworthy people to lead them.

Practically speaking, the political aspects of the country have limited effects on day to day life, though at times when trying to deal with the bureaucracy it can feel all encompassing.

Our usual joke about some (not all) Bulgarian officials is that once they've made you suffer and wait long enough it'll be fine. Systems are still being organized, people are adjusting to new ways of doing things and different attitudes; if you can't bring a hefty dose of patience with you, a sense of humour and a long-term perspective then you may not enjoy this country very much. Armed with these things, living in Bulgaria or spending some of your time here is an experience where the rewards far outstrip the frustrations.

What's the Infrastructure like?

The roads vary from acceptable to dreadful, maintenance is sporadic. Road signs are variable; there are more in the Latin alphabet everyday, but it's worth learning Cyrillic, if only to the level of recognizing the symbols so you can match the name on the sign to the village on the map. Expect detours which take you into the countryside and leave you stranded there, with no clue of your return route. Buy a good map, a compass and allow plenty of time for journeys to unknown places. Fuel stations are plentiful; trains tend to be late; there are good bus networks between major cities. Public transport is cheap.

Electric supply to village houses is sometimes weak, if you're offered '3 phase' electric it's worth having. We've experienced less power cuts than we expected and they rarely last long. The country is in the process of 'gasification' - main gas supplies are being laid but not to all villages, bottled gas is an option for cooking if you hate electric and aren't confident about wood-burning ovens.

With cold winters likely you will want to think about your heating systems carefully, Bulgarian villagers often live in one room for the winter, this saves having to heat the whole house. Brits, who usually like to spread themselves around a bit more have the option of fires in every room or wood burning central heating systems. If you choose the latter, be sure to install a battery back up 'UPS' system to ensure that a power cut won't result in the central heating pump failing and the fire being damaged or (worst case) exploding and taking your house with it!

Mains water is present and relatively reliable in most villages but it's worth talking to local people before buying to find out about regional problems (for instance the house at the top of the hill may offer fantastic views, but if the local pumping station is unable to get water up the gradient you could end up relying on bottled or rain water!)

Many houses have wells, these are supposed to be registered with the municipality for taxation and quality control but this is a relatively recent requirement that not all villagers have complied with.

Since mains sewage disposal is not well developed in the villages you will want to think carefully and get the well water tested before drinking it. Even if the locals have been doing so for 80 years don't be surprised if a western digestive system reacts differently!

Following on (or before!) this, public toilets in Bulgaria can be an unpleasant experience, you often have to pay 20 stotinki to squat over a smelly hole, there is usually a lock, it sometimes works! At the other end of the scale, many restaurants have now recognized the importance of these facilities and you will also find spotlessly clean and beautiful lavatories in modern hotels and gas stations.

We are considering running a 'best and worst' competition, all photos gratefully received.

What about the towns?...

There are some beautiful buildings in many Bulgarian towns; sadly most are also surrounded by rather ugly tower blocks. These will likely be replaced as they come to the end of their natural life span, but currently the 'Soviet Ring' (as a friend of ours termed it) can be a bit off-putting to Western European eyes. If you get the opportunity to visit someone who lives in one of these blocks you may well discover that the sense of community within them off-sets much of the initial unattractiveness. Even if you don't visit a housing block, don't let their presence put you off exploring a new town, you may well discover a beautifully preserved centre.

And the villages and countryside?

Most Bulgarian villages seem to have been built for about 3 times their current population, once you've visited a few you'll begin to recognize many of their features, the former government shop, mayor's office and village hall all located around a large square. There's generally at least one bar/café and you will spot villagers chatting, drinking and passing the time of day almost anytime you visit.

The countryside is beautiful and plentiful, (less than 8 million people in the land area of England), fruit trees often line the roads and seem to be a free for all resource. On the down side, rubbish disposal is not well developed and at times you could be forgiven for thinking that the trees near the local dump fruit old plastic bags.

In both town and country you will find statues and monuments erected in the socialist period, these tend to the concrete and angular, some are frankly ugly, others have a certain brooding presence, a few are beautiful, all are fascinating symbols of the recent past of this paradoxical country.

The people?

In our view, the best reason for moving to Bulgaria is the Bulgarians. We have been overwhelmed by the generosity and good nature of our village neighbours. Expect warm welcome, spontaneous parties, guests at odd hours, more cucumbers, tomatoes and other garden produce than you will ever be able to use. More than anything else Bulgarians demonstrate that you do not have to be wealthy to be rich in spirit.

There is of course a downside to anyone and anything; if we had to be critical of any aspects of the Bulgarian national spirit we would have to admit that there is a more relaxed attitude to timekeeping for work related appointments (though people always come on time for parties!), some Bulgarian officials have not yet grasped the concept of 'public servant' and yes, sometimes there is a belief that since all British people are rich (!) we will not mind paying higher prices for work.

So, overall, what's it like to live in Bulgaria?

It's rare for two days to be the same, living here is a joy for those who crave novelty and the unexpected, a nightmare if you like predictable routine.

It's not an easy country; the climate is extreme, the politics young, and the infrastructure undeveloped. Because some days are heavenly, whilst on others everything you try to do turns into a battle, living in Bulgaria can be an emotional roller-coaster. If you're easily downhearted or thrown by the unexpected, this may not be the country for you.

For us it's not heaven, but as close to it as we expect to get on this earth - the space, natural beauty and our pets make this the place we want to live.

If you decide to join us, we look forward to meeting you and will do everything we can to help you in the transition and in your new life in Bulgaria.