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On the Edge of the Forest

Source: Kerin Hope, Financial Times
Published Date: 13 Nov 2005

Drive into Elhovo, a small town set among rolling pasture land in south-east Bulgaria, and you enter a time warp. Weathered concrete buildings, sagging tiles and grass verges thick with dandelions hark back to communist days when the town, less than an hour's drive from Turkey and Greece, was part of a Warsaw Pact military zone. But a buzz of Saturday-morning activity in the main square points to a more lively future.

Elhovo is an unlikely hot-spot in Bulgaria's property boom. British couples throng the cafés and half-a-dozen estate agents' offices, which advertise properties in 20-odd villages in the surrounding area, provide an informal meeting-place for new residents.

Almost 300 British families have bought homes around Elhovo. Another 300 properties in the district are for sale, according to Mihail Chobanov, founder of London-based Bulgarian Properties, who takes credit for making his native region a destination for European second home-buyers.

A lawyer-turned-property-consultant, Chobanov started by promoting developments in Black Sea coastal resorts. Two years ago he posted details of a few village homes near Elhovo on his company's website "as an experiment", but with the hope that a few people would be interested.

"To my surprise they were snapped up at once, and we started receiving a stream of e-mails asking about village properties," he says." It's clear the market is no longer confined to the Black Sea and mountain ski resorts."

Bulgaria's picturesque former capital Veliko Turnovo has attracted foreigners looking for 19th-century townhouses to renovate as holiday homes. Vidin, a historic Danube river port close to the site of a new bridge that will link Bulgaria and Romania, is also becoming popular. So are the villages around Varna, the main Black Sea port, which is becoming a business centre for the region.

The market in Elhovo is price-driven, Chobanov says. Prices start at Lv10,000-Lv16,000 (£3,500-£5,500) for a single-story brick-built village home and rise to Lv30,000-Lv40,000 for a two-storey house with enough land to add a patio or terrace and plant a vegetable garden and fruit trees. Prices in Veliko Turnovo or Vidin are higher, reaching Lv160,000-Lv200,000 for a two-storey house in good condition on a 1,000 sq metre plot.

"The Elhovo houses are solid, but they lack modern amenities," Chobanov says. "You have to invest as much again as the purchase price in order to fix them up."

Local builders install modern interior bathrooms to replace a privy at the bottom of the garden and lay concrete and tiles over beaten-earth floors. Carpenters fit made-to-measure doors and cupboards. Gardeners double as caretakers, handling maintenance while owners are away.

Chobanov's team in Elhovo guides buyers through the ("slow but consistent") Bulgarian bureaucracy, helps new owners find a building company and gives advice on buying a car or joining a Bulgarian-language class.

Dimitar Dimitrov, the mayor, says the influx of foreigners is welcome in Elhovo, a town of 10,000 that suffered high unemployment after the Bulgarian armed forces were downsized in the mid 1990s. Many young people left in search of a more vibrant lifestyle in Sofia. Village properties were put up for sale as pensioners moved out to join their families in the capital.

"We lost about 20 per cent of the population in the 1990s, but now the situation has stabilised," Dimitrov says. "After Bulgarians and Roma, the British are the third biggest community in terms of numbers, and we're beginning to get inquiries from Dutch and Germans."

Bulgaria is poised to join the European Union in 2007 or 2008. Increasing numbers of foreigners from other EU member states are exploring possibilities for setting up small businesses in tourism and services.

"Elhovo is less isolated than it appears," Dimitrov says. The Black Sea port of Burgas, with regular charter flights during the summer, is an hour's drive away. Thanks to a new border crossing with Turkey, opened earlier this year, the Ottoman-era city of Edirne - on the highway to Istanbul - is almost as easy to reach.

Attractions in the area include rod-fishing in a local lake and hiking in some of Europe's last primeval forests, where the communist elite hunted deer and wild boar.

One downside is that not many villagers speak English, so new arrivals are advised to learn the Cyrillic alphabet and bring conversation tapes and a copy of Colloquial Bulgarian, a chunky language handbook. But British residents say there are plenty of skills to be learned from their Bulgarian neighbours - from planting a vineyard to distilling rakia, a 40 per cent proof Balkan firewater usually made from grapes or plums. Another project that requires help from local experts is butchering a pig - a village family's source of meat for the winter.

Mike and Bev Wray, who ran a martial arts school in the UK, were thinking about relocating to Canada before they saw Bulgaria featured on the UK television show A Place in the Sun. They bought three houses on adjoining properties to make a spacious smallholding at the edge of the village of Lesovo, 17km from Elhovo on the road to the Turkish border. The view stretches across undulating fields to a forest on the horizon. A horse, just acquired from a Roma dealer, grazes in the meadow behind the main house.

The couple is offering bed-and-breakfast accommodation and has set up an eco-tourism business Bulgarian Eco Holidays, focused on fishing and hiking trips. They have refurbished and enlarged the main house, adding a kitchen-dining room along its full length, with a fireplace and timbered roof and large raised patio. One of the two smaller houses, each with two bedrooms, has already been converted for guests.

"There's been so much work to do on the property that we've provided steady employment for a team of 10 or so builders," Mike says. "We've also learned a lot from the local people. They have an impressive range of skills."

It takes a pioneering spirit to survive the Elhovo winter, however. "There were definitely some moments when we wondered whether we'd made the right decision to settle here," Bev says. "We were snowed in for several days after one particularly heavy fall and the village was cut off for a week."

Other new residents have opted to settle in more gradually. Rona and Tony Stephens, from greater Manchester, spend part of the summer refurbishing their home in the village of Knyajevo, with a view to retiring there.

"We come over whenever we can afford it and get on with the next stage of the job," says Tony, who works has a business as a self-employed builder. "We rely on friendly neighbours to give us advice - it could be planting peppers or telling us where to buy curtains and cushions."