Bulgaria is touted as 'The New' Tuscany or Provence. Westerners are flocking to buy cut-price vacation homes here near Black Sea beaches or budget ski resorts. Summers are long and hot; skiing is Europe's cheapest and sunniest.
Following the fall of Communism, young Bulgarians left their rural hometowns, seeking their fortunes in cities newly open to commerce. Now, older generations are dying away, leaving country homes vacant. But young Bulgarians wouldn't dream of vacationing in decrepit old homes: They want the glitz of Cancún or Bangkok. So, many villages are abandoned until "discovered" by Westerners who relish tranquility at rock-bottom cost.
Old country cottages are now on the market for as little as $5,000, but Bulgaria's entry to the European Union next January is expected to send prices soaring. The country is well connected to budget airline flights from Europe and beyond. It's adventurous and outdoorsy with great food, and, so I'd read, friendly locals and picturesque villages: the perfect antidote to a hectic Western lifestyle, and a good potential investment.
So, with three days, $20,000, and romantic notions of the perfect retreat, my husband and I set out last month to find a dream cottage.
4 p.m.: It's spitting snow in the southern ski resort of Bansko, the first destination on our whistle-stop mission. Described by the Lonely Planet guide as "one of the shiniest jewels in Bulgaria's tourism crown," it's gray and unpolished: a Soviet-style town about 170 miles south of the capital, Sofia. Garishly outfitted skiers are the only color in the drab scene. Billboards announce new condo projects: "Tranquility Vistas" or "Mountain Nook." Bars churn out burgers, karaoke, and cheap beer. My spirits sink, as do my feet, into the gray roadside slush.
We're four hours late, due to poor roads and a dearth of signs (the ones that do exist are printed in Cyrillic, undecipherable for us). But our first real estate agent, Petar, is unperturbed. He revs his car alarmingly. But as we round the first hairpin bend at high speed, a siren wails. Bulgarian police, notorious for bribery, spend the next hour negotiating a fine. With dusk descending, Petar is back behind the wheel, leading us to a half-finished concrete shell beside a busy road. No thanks.
The sunset blazing, we zigzag up a mountain to the village of Obidim. Greek and Macedonian mountain ranges loom into view. The only traffic is some scrawny goats, herded by a withered old lady in flowered dress, thick stockings, and a head scarf.
Village houses are largely plain brick. Nailed to every front door are handbills bearing black-and-white portraits. "What are those?" I ask. "Death notices," says Petar breezily. "Lots of old people dying; lots of houses empty."
In the main square, a handful of old people stare at the intruders in their midst. We tramp around five eerie, tumbledown shacks, arriving back at the square to cackles of laughter. Images of an Eastern-European "Deliverance" spring to mind. So much for "friendly locals."
We drive off, dispirited, into the Bulgarian night.
7 a.m: Due to heavy snow, we're forced to change our route, cutting our second location from the itinerary. Slow-moving trucks and horse-drawn carts stretch a 150-mile trip to 10 hours, most of it through miserable concrete cities, and bleak scrubland.
Stopping for refreshment at several mekanas (inns) we're impressed by how amenable Bulgarians actually are. Lack of common language makes for much hilarious gesticulating. But one odd thing is the toilet facilities. Public toilets in rural Bulgaria seem to be unisex, with holes in the ground arranged directly facing one another. I refrain from coffee the rest of the day.
Pressing on to Pamporovo a modern resort the Lonely Planet author describes as "charmless," we're surprised to find a forested town with twinkling lights and large but pretty hotels. Perhaps there's hope.
6 p.m.: After finally locating Dimitar, our second real estate agent - "We're in a hotel," he yells over a cellphone, "In the lobby!" - night has closed in and with it our chance to view properties. Instead, we follow Dimitar to a bare, neon-lit office, and flip through pictures of unpromising old houses. Some are too close to neighbors (we want solitude), others have no yard (we want barbeques). Others are just piles of old stones (we don't mind renovating, but prefer a few walls), or soulless concrete blocks.
"With a bigger budget, you could have a real investment," Dimitar beams, showing us new condos, hotels for redevelopment, and plots of virgin forest beyond our price range.
7 a.m.: We set off early to rendezvous just 20 miles away with our final agent at 9 a.m. But after five hours of wrong turns and dead ends, we arrive at noon, flustered and irritated. Our flight home leaves Sofia in just 12 hours: It seems we were naïve to think this whole escapade might be even remotely possible.
Deso, the agent, is 20 years old and greets us in MTV English: "Hey,crazy guys!" He climbs into the back of our car: "Let's go, mates! Put this CD in: It's cool!" With gangsta-rap blasting, we head off to the first viewing. He's the worst back-seat driver in the world. "Ooh! Watch this bump, dude." We glower silently.
The first viewing: an ugly Communist-style schoolhouse, the roof caved in under snow. The views are terrific, the building is not. The second house is the opposite: a pretty place sandwiched between a gas station and a butcher. Maybe that's the catch: there are certainly bargains to be had, but all involve compromise. We're resigned to going home and crossing Bulgaria off our list.
"Guys," muses Deso from the backseat, "there is one last place..." Sure. We don't want to get to Sofia's dismal international airport with too much time to spare.
We turn onto a frozen, bumpy farm track and climb about three miles to the top, where a small, picture-perfect village appears. It's almost completely depopulated - of roughly 80 houses, 10 are inhabited. Most are unsellable, because no one even recalls who owns them.
We wander down overgrown tracks leading to pretty stone houses along a mountain ridge. An old stone fountain burbles away to itself; moss and ivy creep up undulating walls; in the distance, a solitary rooster crows. It's as if we've entered a fairytale - or the set of "Lord of the Rings."
"This one's for sale." We stop at a cute stone cottage, its windows commanding incredible mountain views. Its roof needs repair; its chimney has fallen in, and window glass is long gone. There's no bathroom, plumbing, or electricity. Below spreads an overgrown acre filled with fruit trees.
As if on cue, sunshine breaks the cloud cover: "We'll take it."
8 p.m.: Driving back to the airport, we consider the next steps: Bulgarian bureaucracy, attorneys and notaries, stamp duty, taxes, and local builders to do the repairs. But, just 20 miles from the ski slopes, and four-hour drive (in theory) from Sofia, Istanbul, Turkey or Thessaloniki, Greece, we've found our hidden slice of paradise. And Deso says he'll throw in a copy of his CD, too.