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Hi, I’m Auntie Bulgaria, aka Claire Ruston. In 2010, my partner and I bought a dilapidated village house in the Balkan Mountains in Bulgaria. This is our story. Find out about my freelance writing and editing services at www.wordegg.co.uk.

Friday, 4 October 2019

Scavengers

You know what’s the surest sign that winter is on the way? It’s not the arrival of this year’s wood order, which finally turned up about a week ago…

The annual Rob-in-front-of-the-wood-delivery picture.

Nor is it harvesting the tempting butternut squash, which we did this week, arranging them on a sunny windowsill to cure (basically toughen up the skins so they store well over winter)...

So pleasing.

Nor is it being woken up by the sound of gunfire in the night, as hunters celebrate the start of the hunting season, which is another thing that happened earlier this week…

(I do not have a picture of a grumpy, pyjama-ed me being woken up by gunfire. Sorry.)

Nope. The surest sign that the weather is turning comes from our four cats, who morph from outdoor-loving creatures that refuse to come home for their dinner because they’re having too much fun eating lizards into fluffy, fat layabouts who nag us for food the second we walk into a room, regardless of the time of day.

Picture me sitting at my kitchen table tucking into a delicious breakfast wrap (courtesy of my one true love, Bake Off Nadiya) and being greeted with this face…

'I want what YOU'RE having.'

And cat number four, Merlin, almost just swiped a chunk of halloumi from the kitchen worktop. Which might be the most first-world-arsehole sentence I’ve ever written.

So that’s pretty much our life now, every mealtime, until the cats get used to the change in weather. At least they’re cute. I mean, not cute enough to give them any of my food (no matter how hard Iggy stares), but still pretty darn cute.

Cat bros.

Thursday, 19 September 2019

Last of the warm days

Hot as it’s been during the day lately, there’s a definite feel of autumn in the air. I’m scribbling this outside as, next to me, Rob scrats the apples for this year’s cider. I wish you could smell what I smell right now. It’s a mixture of apple juice and red wine – apples being pulverised and ripe grapes announcing they’re ready to be picked. I don't know who loves it more: me or the wasps.

Scratting the apples using his homemade apple torture device.

The hill at the back of our garden is covered in crunchy leaves (we really must find time to rake them up this weekend). I’m beginning to crave stodgier food, and the butternut squash on the vine are constantly teasing me with all the squash lasagnes, risottos and soups that are to come. Every harvest from the tomatoes, chillies and courgettes feels like a last hurrah. We worship any remaining sign of colour in the flower garden.

Chillies still going strong, but maybe not for much longer.

Also, the neighbour has started laughing at Rob for wearing shorts instead of long trousers – always a sign that the season has definitely changed. (The locals being sticklers for dressing according to what the calendar says, not the actual temperature outside.) To be fair, though, it’s properly cold when we get up in the mornings. It’s almost time to pack away the flip flops I use as slippers in the summer, and dust off my serious fleece-lined slippers.

I think autumn is my favourite season. (Although, ask me again in July when I’m lazing next to a pool, or in May when a new gardening season is ramping up, and you’d probably get a different answer.) Maybe it’s because it always feels like we get a proper autumn here in Bulgaria. In England we only ever seemed to get two seasons: the cold wet season and the warm wet season. (Which reminds me of the guy in Las Vegas who told me Vegas also only had two seasons: the short-shorts season and the long-shorts season.)

Anyway, here’s to a good Bulgarian autumn … and homemade cider. Lots and lots of lovely homemade cider. It should be ready to drink around Halloween, so if I ‘go dark’ for several weeks in November, don’t worry. We’ll just be losing ourselves in cider.

Monday, 9 September 2019

Dry

Not dry as in sober, you understand. (Number of alcohol-free evenings in the past week = a pitiful 1. Instead of cutting back in the weeks after a holiday, our alcohol consumption tends to notch up a gear for a while.)

Dry as in no water. I can’t remember when it last rained. Sometime in July? Much as I love a dry, sunny spell, our poor garden is one step away from becoming a feral desert à la Mad Max: Fury Road.

I’ve said before how stingy we are with watering. What this means in practice is:

  • Pots get watered once every few days – every day in extreme heat only.
  • Tomatoes in the polytunnel get watered every five days, because they’re under cover and can’t fend for themselves.
  • Veg beds get watered once a week, but only if it hasn’t rained in that period. If it’s rained, they get nothing.
  • Flower beds get watered almost never. Just two or three times a summer normally, when plants are really struggling.
  • The lawn gets watered … haha, as if. What grass we do have is yellow, manky and entirely neglected by August, but somehow refuses to die.

Partly this watering routine is a time/effort thing – we just have too many beds to be watering them every five minutes. Partly it’s our gardening ethos – we want robust, tough plants that can largely fend for themselves and don’t need mollycoddling. And partly it’s environmental – I don’t want to be a lecture-y dick about it, but water is precious, right? (Also a handy excuse for not washing so much).

Needless to say this routine has gone right out the window this August and September. Everything is struggling. We’re spunking water left, right and centre, just to try and keep things alive (we’ve given up on the garden looking ‘good’ for now, just ‘alive’ will do).

There have been casualties. Some of the cosmos have given up and browned off to nothing (a shame as they’d otherwise go on flowering until the first frost). I’ve lost a few cuttings from my favourite dahlia. And the courgettes are refusing to give us more than one or two fruits a week, even though we’re lavishing them with water, comfrey feed and positive affirmations.

'You are loved. You are beautiful. Please stay alive.'

It’s not all bad news, though. The butternut squash have been LOVING the heat. I mean, the leaves are constantly droopy, no matter how much we water. But the fruits are massive.

Rob built me a bigger, more robust trellis tunnel for the squash. I can walk all
the way through and admire these brutes.

A lot of gentle cupping goes on. Ahem.

We’re also having a good grape year. Normally either our white grapes do well, or our red grapes do well – rarely both in the same year for some reason. But this year, both are happy. As am I, at the thought of all that lovely wine.


And the leeks are stonking, even though they’re a thirsty crop.

Well on our way to giant Bulgarian leeks this year.

If there’s one lesson we’ve learned from this dry spell, it’s that we seriously need to improve our soil. Don’t get me wrong, our soil is good. It’s rich but drains well. It holds moisture fairly well but is rarely waterlogged (even in the June downpours). It’s not too stony. It’s not hard to work. We’re lucky. But we also take it for granted, and maybe haven’t looked after it as much as we could have. We spread a miniscule layer of compost on the veg beds each spring (and this year we didn’t even get around to that). The flower beds get nothing. Next spring, and every spring after that, we’re going to add as much compost and leaf mould as we can spare, everywhere.

Anyway, how’s your garden holding up in the heat?

Saturday, 31 August 2019

Samothraki (smug holiday slideshow alert)

Ever wondered where all the beautiful young (and young-at-heart) Greek hippies go on holiday? Ever fancied holidaying in Man Bun Central? Ever longed to wear your bum bag, bucket hat and ugly sandals with pride, in a totally non-ironic way?

The answer is Samothraki. In fact, the northern Aegean island, reached by ferry from Alexandroupoli, might be the answer to everything.

We’ve just spent nine days on the island and although it’s a bit of a mission to get to, it’s worth it. If you like quiet, pebbly beaches (we only saw one sandy beach in nine days), waterfalls, gorges, rock pools, an imposing mountain (Fegari, a decent 1600 metres high), and an almost total absence of Brit tourists, then Samothraki is worth a look.

It’s not too expensive, either – probably because of the, shall we say, earthy demographic it attracts. Our hotel, the charming Hotel Orpheus in Therma, was around 40 euros a night (for those on a tighter budget, the two local campsites were doing a roaring trade), and a two-course dinner for two rarely cost more than 35 euros, including a shed-load of the local wine.

(The trick is to not constantly convert everything into lev, otherwise it all seems ruinously expensive. So when a glass of wine costs you three euros, don’t scream internally ‘Six fucking leva? Are they out of their man-bunned heads!?’ Instead think, ‘What a jolly good price that is compared to other Greek islands or, shudder, the UK. La la la.’ That’s the trick. I never consistently pull it off, though.)

Here are just a few snaps of our Samothraki adventures. I’m already looking forward to going back one day.

Beautiful beaches, some wild, some less so





Hora, the main town





Sanctuary of the Great Gods



Stunning nature





Miscellaneous Greek loveliness






Thursday, 15 August 2019

Visitors

We’re always so grateful when friends and family come to visit us. Much as we love it here, we’re well aware that a random village in Bulgaria isn’t everyone’s idea of a top holiday destination.

That means we treat any visitors like the Big Deal that they are. Neatly folded guest towels? Check. Over-catering? Check. Constantly offering them a drink every five minutes? Check. Buying enough alcohol to fuel an 18–30s holiday? Check. Planning activities for every morning, afternoon and evening like it’s an Everest expedition? Check, check, check.

But you know what? Sometimes the best holiday moments for visitors are when you’re chilling in the garden, after a lazy morning at the pool, making homemade pizza and helping the kids (theirs, not ours) toast marshmallows. Because, sure, a random village in Bulgaria may not be everyone’s idea of a top holiday destination – but it’s what they’ve come all this way for. To see where we live, to marvel at the village sheep herd, and all those little, uniquely Bulgarian things.

A few pics from our friends’ visit last week…

It certainly helps to have a beautiful, big-ass pool nearby, especially when the temperature tips
over into the thirties. This is at the RUI hotel and golf resort in Pravets, just over the mountain from us.

Prohodna (Eyes of God) Cave in Karlukovo is a must-see.

Any excuse to make like tourists in Sofia.

Makeshift fire pit in the garden.