'I went in search of the new Tuscany - but I found a post-Soviet wasteland'

<preform>For sale: delightful house with views of the picturesque Rhodope mountains. Like thousands of Britons, Marcus Tanner</b></i> went house-hunting in Bulgaria - and returned with a cautionary tale for those keen to make a quick buck</preform>
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The Independent Online

We had been in Sofia for all of half an hour - me and my colleague John - before we met our first rivals. Nick was a New Zealand-born electrician from London, and he had hardly sat down beside us in the felafel stall before he got round to real estate. "Got two flats in Sofia already," he said, spearing his undercooked chicken. "Where are you guys buying?" "The Rhodope mountains," we chorused back - me, miffed at coming across another Bulgarian house-hunter so rapidly.

We had been in Sofia for all of half an hour - me and my colleague John - before we met our first rivals. Nick was a New Zealand-born electrician from London, and he had hardly sat down beside us in the felafel stall before he got round to real estate. "Got two flats in Sofia already," he said, spearing his undercooked chicken. "Where are you guys buying?" "The Rhodope mountains," we chorused back - me, miffed at coming across another Bulgarian house-hunter so rapidly.

Rival number two appeared at the reception of the first hotel we tried, where a silver-haired old gentleman told us he had just sold a house in Portugal and was trying his luck around Plovdiv. "You buying?" he asked. "Rhodope mountains," we chorused back. We tried another hotel. There was another Brit at the reception, from Belfast, judging by the accent. I didn't ask what he was doing. I felt I knew already.

It was stupid to imagine we would have Bulgaria to ourselves. The property boom in Europe's sunny south-east has been in full swing for well over a year, spawning several internet sites offering cosy hillside cottages and seaside villas at pre-war prices - pre-First World War prices, that is. Judging from internet searches, €5,000 (£3,500) was all we needed. "You could get one on a Barclaycard," a neighbour in London had remarked admiringly.

The internet sites were littered with messages from satisfied customers. "Sally from Yorkshire" and "Jeff from Devon" rhapsodised over Bulgaria (safe and friendly) and the brilliant estate agents (Ivan, Marian and so on) for helping them get dream homes that had since doubled or tripled in value.

John and I both had Tom & Jerry-style dollar signs in our eyes while digesting the bizarrely low prices and, after poring over some maps, we raced off to Sofia, having pre-booked a meeting with an estate agent called Liam in Smolian, a town in the Rhodope mountains, on the Greek border. "Not far from Thessaloniki!" I shouted. "Not far from Istanbul!" he shouted back. "And part of the EU in 2007!" we both exclaimed.

As our train rattled and swerved across Serbia and into Bulgaria, we could not stop smirking about our own brilliance. It was pleasant to contemplate the folly of others, throwing away fortunes on villas in Portugal or Spain, when we were about to set up in the "new Provence" or the "new Tuscany" for the price of a second-hand Ford Escort. John and I were already competing about our respective visions for our new homes. "I'm letting mine out to nature-walkers and bird watchers," I said in a serious tone, having read that the Rhodopes were famous for their rich bird and plant life. John was after the ski slopes. The ski resort of Pamporovo lay only miles from Smolian, our destination. At the back of our minds was the worry that we would both fall in love with the same house and end up fighting like dogs over a choice cut.

The first, niggling doubts surfaced when we hired a car. The woman in charge of the rental office was full of words of warning. "Our police are very corrupt," she said. "Only last week, our police fined a British man like you €250, for going two kilometres above the speed limit." She urged us to watch out. "If they see you are foreigners..." Her voice trailed off.

She handed over the car keys as if she was handing over a death sentence. We drive off silently, processing her information. A corrupt, predatory police force? We hadn't considered that factor in the new Tuscany. I had read nothing about police on the Bulgarian property websites - nor were there any clues in the messages posted by "delighted of England".

The silence deepened as our Fiat Brava sped out of Sofia, below the speeding limit, to Plovdiv, in central Bulgaria. The roads were, indeed, lined with cops, though John gamely insisted they looked "fatter and less fierce" than the police in Serbia. But what shocked us was the landscape.

The plains of central Bulgaria looked like a post-Soviet wilderness, littered with the industrial debris of a collapsed social and political order. I have seen a lot of Eastern Europe, including eyesores such as eastern Kosovo, but nothing prepared me for this dismal jumble of pylons, disused factories and rubbish dumps, nor for a skyline which was dominated by crumbling tower blocks.

It dawned on me now that Bulgaria was not any old ex-Communist country, like Yugoslavia, or Poland, but an ex-Soviet-style state. And just like the USSR, Bulgaria had experienced the full-scale collectivisation of the land, virtually wiping out the old peasant order that had survived under Communism in Serbia or Poland. The results of that vast social experiment had permanently reshaped the Bulgarian countryside - with catastrophic results.

Skirting Plovdiv, John and I mumbled that it was "bound to be better" in the mountains, as we turned south and uphill towards Greek Macedonia. It was better, in the sense that filthy, rubbish-strewn canals gave way to rushing streams. But we soon realised that the full effects of Bulgaria's Soviet-style revolution had not stopped short at the edge of the plains. The hill villages, too, had felt the full blast of Leninist doctrine, which demanded the creation of an urban, industrial proletariat in the remotest hideaways. Ruined, dingy tower blocks and empty factories, like those I had seen in Kosovo, lay scattered here too.

Smolian took our breath away for all the wrong reasons. Right up in the mountains, in what must once have been the haunt of wolves and bears, the authorities had planted a large industrial town that was in the process of falling to pieces. "Goodness," said John, in a tone of wonder, as we drove to our meeting with Liam. "That's unusual - real slums in a mountain range." In the OMV petrol station - the only place that we felt comfortable stopping at in Smolian - we finally met Liam. The name was an invention, much like the various "Monicas" and "Jennys" who have telephoned me from call centres in Bangalore. Liam was not Irish and was unable to speak English, so he had brought along a rather sulky interpreter.

After a laborious conversation, we drove off to what we thought we had agreed was a mountain village, to inspect a house John had found on the internet. John's dream home. By the time we arrived it was dark. But it was not so dark that I couldn't tell that the "village" was another mini-Soviet muddle, complete with the usual industrial relics. John's dream home - a small vernacular cottage - was sandwiched between a number of these concrete edifices - something we had not gathered from the website ad. The price had also gone up. On the website it was on offer for €5,000 euros. Liam now wanted €7,000. There was no electricity, so all we could do was stare at it in the crisp night air. Liam and the vendor looked at us. "Her grandma died in it," the interpreter told us, pointing at the vendor.

We left the village, to which we had journeyed several hundred miles, and Liam, seeing our disappointed expressions, suggested we join him in a café to look at some other hot properties on his laptop. One by one we scrolled down through pictures of concrete town houses or cottages lying in "villages" that we had already passed through on the road to Smolian - and which, as I remembered, did not correspond to what most of us think of as "villages". One was the country home of Bulgaria's long-time Communist boss, Todor Zhivkov, the man responsible for so much of the wreckage we had seen that day. "It comes with all the furniture included," Liam's interpreter said, hopefully. I looked at a photograph of a row of office style swivelling chairs and shook my head.

By now, Liam was losing patience. So was the interpreter, keen to get home to his wife and leave these irritatingly fussy Brits. He asked us to repeat what we wanted. Isolated cottages, we said. Older buildings, not concrete villas. "Something in a meadow?" I added. The laptop snapped smartly shut. "Liam says there is no such thing in Bulgaria," the interpreter said. "He also says prices are going up every day and we need to hurry as they are about to build a motorway linking this region to Greece." I think Liam was, actually, just bored, confused and ignorant about the sort of properties most British house hunters are interested in. We didn't regroup the next day, as we had originally planned.

Our last night in the Rhodope mountains was spent in a hotel owned by a Bulgarian woman who had married a British Asian. Vese was amused by our adventures. She regaled us, in a sing-song voice, with tales of property disasters encountered by her partner's many British pals. There was "Richard", for example, who had bought a house by the sea in Varna but couldn't live in it, as he couldn't get a residence permit, apparently. We already knew of the problems concerning foreigners owning land in Bulgaria (you have to set up a private company to circumvent them) but we hadn't even considered queries over residence permits. Bulgarians, she added, didn't want Brits buying up their houses. "They probably should, because the Brits are putting their own money into the country," she said. "But most people say they are taking away our homes and making it expensive for local people to buy."

We had a final lesson about a slice of Bulgarian life that they don't mention on the property websites when we tried to leave the country. We caught a bus across the border, which should have taken six hours to deposit us in Belgrade, but it took 15. Four and a half of those hours were spent on the Bulgaria-Serbia border, where the customs officials - on both sides - punished our bus for failing to pay the requisite bribes by making us wait and wait. On the Bulgarian side, an experienced passenger - a small trader - disappeared to negotiate with the customs men, only to reappear and wail: "They want more!" We all threw money into a joint kitty to pay them off, but he returned, saying it was still not enough. A Serbian gypsy woman trader I sat next to - who makes this journey each week - said she experienced the same "delays" each time. "Four hours, five hours - to get through fast, you need to slap €200 in their hands," she told me, in Serbian. "It's a nightmare and the stress has given me diabetes. Look at me - only 50 - but a wreck." John was philosophical about the entire experience. "Let's face it - you get what you pay for," he said.

I agreed. I didn't feel so much disappointed as exposed. I felt like a fool, lured by sheer greed. Looking back, it had been absurd to imagine a "new Provence" or "new Tuscany" lying around the corner, whose treasures could be purchased by the average British student.

Bulgaria may well become part of the EU in 2007, but this is not Ireland, Greece or Portugal. It is not a land that just needs a few new roads and a lick of paint. Soviet-style Communism transformed Bulgaria out all recognition, and reversing half a century of changes will take decades, not years. I wish the British pioneers in Varna, Veliko Trnovo and the rest of it the best of luck. But this week - unlike last week - I no longer want to be part of their new wave.

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