by Katherine Watt; photography by Dragomir Ushev

Binge drinkers, scroungers, yobs and high prices force Britons to seek Bulgarian bargains

Katherine Watt

Seven years ago, my mother suggested we go on a “girlie jaunt” for the summer holidays. Excited by thoughts of sunbathing and balmy nights in the Algarve or Majorca, I quickly agreed. But when she held up two tickets to the Bulgarian resort of Golden Sands I was perplexed. “Isn't that somewhere in the desert?” I protested, still geographically naive at 15.

More fool me. I had such a good time that I returned to the Black Sea the following year with my best friend, this time to Sunny Beach. When we told friends about our destination they reacted just as I'd first done. Most people had no idea where it was, let alone about beach resorts there!

After my second time, I decided to visit Bulgaria more often, but I wanted more than just a fortnight's break a year. I finished my education, got a job and moved out of my mother's home. I barely saw the house I'd taken as I was always working to pay for it. The benefitgrabbers loitering in my street saw it far more frequently, their idleness funded by a chunk of my income.

My boyfriend and I spent weekends in Peterborough unwinding, hastening from pub to taxi to avoid being vomited on by binge drinkers or attacked by yobs. (We were assaulted four times in the space of a year, all unprovoked and in public.) Reading the Sunday papers and learning about the government's daft plans on education, immigration and how to aid and abet the United States in its latest war only enraged us the more.

Katherine Watt

When property in Bulgaria tiptoed into the media spotlight, I was more than ready to become an expatriate. But, just 20, at the bottom rung of any career ladder, and broke – it seemed like wishful thinking. Thankfully, my boyfriend Luke, jack of all trades and master of most, shared my desire and proved our salvation. He too was fed up with British life. His ambition to design and renovate properties was unattainable in the UK, with no capital to start up and no prospect of a loan or mortgage. So, perhaps by default, our Bulgarian dream seemed the best chance.

I researched a possible move while toiling in boring office jobs. I “googled” potential pitfalls in the real estate market, suitable regions, types of property and their costs, and soon we had a portfolio and detailed business plan ready to submit to the one power that could fund and facilitate our dream – The Family Bank of Dad. After seeing his own home reap handsome dividends from the British boom, he agreed to loan us enough to get started, with a much lower interest rate than any commercial bank would have offered. Next, we arranged our trip.

We arrived in Burgas, the second seaside capital, a city filled with young and bohemian Bulgarians. We gave our specifications to Dinko, our imperturbable estate agent, happily buoyed by soaring property values, and he arranged two days of viewings.

Katherine Watt

After looking at a few properties in different states of wreckage, we took our films to the One Hour Photo place and matched the snaps with our extensive notes. Some were easily cast aside, like the “twostorey” cottage with no actual second storey, or the dark and derelict dump, reeking of damp, and covered with greenish peeling paint. After eliminations, we were left with a choice between two: a spacious but slightly crumbling cottage in a village with good road links (£14,000), or a sizeable piece of land with two houses (£27,000). The more we compared, the more obvious the decision. The two-house option was just 15 km from Burgas, with beautiful views of the hills leading to the Atanasovo Lake Reserve, a huge garden with over 40 fruit trees and enough space for a third dwelling. It sounds like all pros and no cons, but the catch was that we only had £30,000 from my father for the house plus renovation costs. Caught up in the moment, we decided to make an offer in case someone arrived overnight, paid the vendor in cash and “stole” our property. Once everything had been confirmed, the phone call to my father went like this:

Me: Dad! We just bought a house!
Dad: Already? But I…
Me: It's perfect. There are two houses on one massive plot. We can live in the old bungalow while we do up the half-finished house!
Dad: Right… So how much was that then?
Me: Well, it was £27,000 but we managed to get him down to £25,000!
Dad: ...
Me: Dad?... Luke, I think the line's gone dead...
Dad: No, I'm still here. I just had to pick myself up off the floor.
Me: Oh. Is that not OK?
Dad: Well, I said I'd lend you £30,000. How are you going to relocate to Bulgaria and renovate two houses with £5,000?

Katherine Watt

Fair point, but we were still happy with the decision. I had some savings of my own and Luke was due a bonus when he finished a renovation project in Peterborough. We had a few items that we could pawn. Also, Luke's grandparents, lovely people who started their lives together in Malta, kindly lent us some money to cover living expenses.

With the contracts in the works, we gallivanted, feeling high, around the cafés and watering holes of Burgas, our new home town. We settled in a bar, poring over the photos of our first house(s) and, of course, the menu. It's very easy to get carried away about the utter affordability of all consumables in Bulgaria, so into our nattering about building plans we interjected happy shouts of “Wow! A shot of tequila for 30p!” and “This rakiya stuff is even cheaper! Let's try that!” Several shots and cocktails later, we stumbled back to our hotel, not realising till the morning that we'd left the bemused waitress a tip worth £10. It's very easy in Bulgaria, as in any country using a different currency, to treat it like Monopoly money – until you wake up with a throbbing head and the calculation of your true outlay makes your head feel even worse.

So, the next morning, we were hungover but happy to be in Bulgaria. At least we hadn't been vomited on during our drinking spree and Peterborough's hooligans were but a fading memory...

...To be continued


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