My photo
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

Thursday, 16 January 2020

A trip up Vitosha

One of the many things I love about Sofia is how Vitosha mountain hulks beside it. We’ll often stroll down the streets and comment how unusual it is, in a capital city, to see a ruddy great mountain squatting at the end of the road.

But we’ve never really been up this mountain that we’ve seen so many times. (Well, apart from that weird drum and bass festival we went to a few years ago. Never mind.) So, in the spirit of trying something new every now and then – read: not spending all winter watching horror movies and drinking wine – we decided to head up there for a stroll in the snow.

We took the cable car (cabinov lift as it’s called in Bulgarian) from Simeonovo, which is basically behind Ikea (aka my spiritual home and rug nirvana) on the ring road. It’s wise to call ahead and check whether the cable car is running before you set off (the same goes for the chair lift at Dragalevtsi, apparently). The working days are, shall we say, a bit sporadic. In theory, weekends. But, you know, sometimes maybe not.

Climbing up from the outskirts of Sofia. In the top pic is one of Vitosha's ski runs.

My only other experience of cable cars was in Austria years ago, where the cabins were as big as buses and full of people. This couldn’t have been more different. The cabins are dinky – about the size of a large ferris wheel cabin – so we had one all to ourselves. Which was handy, considering the ride was pretty long (it takes you all the way up to Aleko hut, about 1800 metres up the mountain). Obviously, having a car to ourselves saved us the bother of avoiding eye contact with strangers, like on the Tube in London, or, worse, making awkward conversation for 15 minutes.

The best bit of the ride is when it shoots you out of each station, like from a catapult. (Seriously. Anyone who’s been on it can testify to this.) The worse bit? When it stopped unexpectedly, leaving us dangling at a very high point for what felt like hours five minutes. At 17 leva for a return, the cable car is pretty expensive, but I'd say it’s worth it for the experience.

What of the mountain itself? Well, we expected it to be really peaceful, but there were LOADS of people up there: families with toboggans, people skiing and snowboarding, children having group ski lessons, babas out for a walk, you name it. We had no idea Vitosha would be so busy on a January day. The ski season had just opened a few days before, so clearly everyone had the same idea as us.

Rather than hike up to the peak, Cherni Vrah (too slippery and slow for us in the snow), we went for a gentle stroll around, soaking up the wholesome atmosphere, jumping out of the way of tobbogans, and looking down at the air pollution over Sofia. (Seeing it from above, like a brown Saturn’s ring, was pretty shocking.)

There's just a brown haze where the city should be!

Anyway, if, like us, you need an excuse to peel yourself off the sofa after Christmas, get yourself up Vitosha for some clean air and outdoor fun. We can’t wait to go back in spring or summer to do some proper hiking.

And if you can, do take the dinky cable car. It’s juddery as hell, but that’s half the fun, isn’t it?

Tuesday, 7 January 2020

Back in the saddle

White trees on a snowy walk.

Happy New Year to you, dear reader. And welcome to Auntie Bulgaria 2020, which will no doubt be pretty much the same as Auntie Bulgaria 2019. Cats. Snow. Wonky stuff in the garden. The usual.

So how was it for you, the whole Christmas thing? We feasted. Christmas Eve there was fondue, bubbly and Bill Murray (in Scrooged, which we watch every Christmas Eve and always, without fail, get emotional at his closing speech: ‘I believe in it now. I believe it’s gonna happen to me now. I’m ready for it.’ *sniffle*). Christmas Day there was baked ham, bubbly and, oddly, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey in the evening (not a tradition, just something we fancied watching). And Boxing Day (or Pie Day, as it’s known in our house), there was the annual ritual pie, comprised of whatever’s leftover from Christmas dinner.

Pie Day chaos.

What's better than one pie? Two pies, of course.

That’s about it really. We were given some lovely books for Christmas, so spent most of our time keeping warm, reading about food and mountains, and stuffing sausage rolls in our mouths while the cats lolloped around us. Can’t complain.

It's extremely tiring being a cat.

Three out of the four cats in an uncharacteristic love-in.

Do I feel ready for a new year, hell, a new decade? Not really, if I’m honest. Mentally, I’m still curled up in my biggest cardigan, looking forward to a day of reading, watching and eating. Physically, I’m at my desk looking at this week’s deadlines. I really need my brain to get off the sofa, out of the snuggly cardigan and into work mode. So far, it’s not cooperating.

But now, to the real purpose of this blog post: pictures of January snow. Enjoy!

Sunday, 15 December 2019

Decking the halls

It’s not been terribly Christmassy in the Auntie Bulgaria household this December. We both picked up a horrible bug that knocked us sideways for the first 10 days of December. I mean, this bug had everything: aches, shivers, sore throat, crackly wet cough, fever dreams, sickness, headaches, you name it. I had several retinal migraines caused by low blood pressure or low blood sugar or something. And I spent a feverish night begging Rob to stop the world’s commodities being traded through my jaw. My poor jaw was in agony from non-stop dreams of all the world’s commodities passing through it every second. Never been delirious before. It was pretty fun. Not for Rob, obviously, who had to try and placate me while I was tripping my balls off on bad (stock market?) dreams – all the while feeling pretty rough himself. What a guy.

So, anyway, when it snowed on 3rd December – our first proper snowfall of the year – neither of us could muster any enthusiasm to even take a picture. You’ll just have to imagine the scene instead. It snowed for a day. Everything was white. It was very pretty, probably. We were flinching in bed with the curtains closed.

One good thing about being ill is it gives you lots of time for watching Christmas movies. As a result, we’ve already watched loads of our Christmas favourites and it’s only 15th December. We’re fast running out of movies to watch. We might have to – gulp – dust off Love Actually.

As we’ve returned to normal health (and normal dreams), the Christmas spirit has slowly been building. We managed a couple of big supermarket trips, so we’re well stocked for Christmas and the winter – I don’t know about you but a full pantry always gets me feeling cosy and wintery. We managed to force down a few mince pies. And we put up the Christmas decorations yesterday.

As for what we want for Christmas, we’ve been apart a lot this year, each of us spending a lot more time in the UK for one reason or another. So what we really want for Christmas is two weeks of uninterrupted time off together, with both of us feeling healthy and happy and ready to embrace another year. That, and some good books, and plenty of bubbly and we’ll be living the dream.

What about you, what do you want for Christmas? And what have you got planned for the big day? For Christmas dinner, we’re eschewing turkey again in favour of a baked ham, and we’ll be having a very seventies fondue on Christmas Eve. There’ll be trifle for pudding, and our trusty cheesy-and-Marmite ‘sausage’ rolls (no actual sausage included) to nibble on. Boxing Day will be, as always, Pie Day, meaning we’ll bake a big pie with leftover ham, red cabbage and potatoes. Looking at it on paper, that’s a lot of cheese and pastry coming our way! But you have to feed a cold, right? That’s our excuse and we’re sticking to it.

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Hello again

If you were wondering why I’d been a bit quiet lately, it’s because I was visiting in the UK, and then going through the customary readjustment to Bulgarian life. It’s like jet lag (life lag?), where the culture shock takes a while to wear off. Our house seems too small at first and there are cats everywhere. It takes me at least a few days to remember I LIKE it that way.

(Latest news from the UK, for those who are interested. It rained every day. There’s yet another election going on. Something about Brexit. All female teenagers have terrifyingly thick eyebrows. And I saw a grown man vaping in a garden centre. Inside a garden centre. A grown man. Puffing on his e-cigarette and emitting a disgusting sherbet smell, oblivious to the fact he was the world’s biggest wanker. That’s pretty much it. Thanks UK, see you next time.)

Back to Bulgaria and Rob’s been busy making this year’s batch of cider. We’ve tried a bottle already and it’s the usual delicious, dynamite-strength nectar – definitely strong enough to send us into a sofa stupor over the Christmas/New Year period. There’s homemade red wine, too, as if our livers weren’t in enough danger. The white wine is refusing to clear for some reason, so we’re not sure if that’s going to work out.

Our store of cloudy cider, red wine, and cider vinegar (a happy accident
from a previous year's batch).

The weather is glorious here – misty and chilly in the mornings, then burning off to reveal warm sunshine. We’ve hardly had the heating on. It’s far too warm to even consider putting the winter tyres on the car or stocking up for winter. And yet we must, because we know winter comes like the flicking of a switch here. One day we’ll be gardening in short sleeves, the next it’ll be snowing…

Thanks to the warmth, the garden is still offering us plenty of tomatoes and chillies. And we’ve harvested the first of our giant Bulgarian leeks, using them to make these Glamorgan sausages. The rest of the leeks will stay in the ground over winter, and we’ll pick as and when we need them. Being able to get fresh produce from the garden in, say, February always brings a bit of cheer. I wonder what else we could grow that would stand in the ground through winter? Purple sprouting broccoli? Thoughts?

Harvested mid-November.

Big leeks.

Exciting developments in our nearest town, Etropole: we finally have a supermarket! True, it’s only a T-Market, it’s not even that big, and it’s unbelievably crowded (novelty factor), but it’s better than nothing. We no longer have to do a 50-mile round trip to the nearest Kaufland or Lidl. (I mean, we’ll probably still trek there occasionally. Lidl is often the highlight of my week. But we don’t have to, that’s the point.)

That pretty much brings you up to date. Anyone else noticed the eyebrow and vaping thing in England? What do you struggle to adjust to when you travel in either direction? And what’s good to buy in T-Market?

Saturday, 26 October 2019

Patience is a virtue

This month I’ve stood in a 90-minute queue for something, had two separate hospital visits (nothing serious) that both involved lengthy waits, and endured a three-hour flight delay. Every time I was waiting, I kept expecting to get restless or annoyed or impatient.

But nothing happened. I didn’t constantly look at my watch. I didn’t swear (no more than usual, anyway). I didn’t even tut. I just stood/sat there, waiting for events to take their natural course.

Turns out I’m, like, totally Zen. Which is weird.

It’s Bulgaria’s fault. The country has gradually chipped away at my natural impatience until there’s nothing left. Somewhere along the way we just got used to simple things taking a whole morning, and the fact that everything – EVERYTHING – takes longer than you think. Now, faced with an inconvenient delay, all I can muster is one of those typical Bulgarian shrugs. (You know the type I mean. That downturn of the mouth. That almost imperceptible rise of the shoulders. The look that just says, meh, what can you do? That shrug.)

And it’s brilliant. I feel like – how to describe it – a grownup? I’ve finally evolved from a petulant being who wants everything now goddammit to someone who’s learning not to get worked up about things I can’t control. It’s liberating. What’s more, all that shuffling and complaining and looking at the clock was tiring. Now all I have to do is shrug. It’s way more energy efficient.

So thanks, Bulgaria, for teaching me the virtue of patience. All I need to do now is apply the same Zen attitude to Brexit news, and I’m pretty sure I’ll achieve actual enlightenment.