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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

Thursday, 21 June 2018

165. Early harvests

The garden is ramping up and feeding us regularly, despite last week’s epic storms. In fact, we’ve eaten (small) beetroot, (even smaller) courgettes and (lots of) tomatoes from the garden every day this week.

Our early Latah tomatoes, and spoils from the first basil pruning
of the year (chopping off the tips makes for bushier plants).

I’ve also made some strawberry jam with our strawberries, and frozen some sour cherries to make pies later in the year. Turns out we have three or four small sour cherry trees up the back of our garden, on the hill, that I didn’t even know were there. I rarely venture into the very far corner of the garden – it’s so hilly and uneven that with my vertigo and clinical clumsiness I’m likely to break my neck – so that area still throws up the odd edible surprise.

Sour cherries and green walnuts.

It looks like we’re in for a good walnut year. One of our trees is so loaded, the branches are almost weighed down to eye level (and we’re talking about big, mature trees here), but at least that made it easy to pick some of the unripe walnuts earlier last week. Why did we do that? For booze, dear reader, BOOZE!

Thanks to a hot tip from friends, we’re trying our hand at Nocino, an Italian walnut liquor, made from unripe green walnuts, vodka and spices. I’ve never had it before, but I’m told it tastes a bit like a spicy sherry. (Handy, seeing as Kaufland has stopped selling sherry, thereby ruining my blissful slide into middle age.)

Chop, chop, chop.

Taken immediately after filling the jar. It's since turned a very dark,
witches-brew green. Which I'm sure is normal??

Now we just leave the jar and wait for several months. It should be ready in time for Christmas.

In other booze news, we’ve got lots of grapes on the vines this year and a decent crop of apples ripening on the trees, so fingers crossed we’ll have wine, cider AND liquor to get trollied on this winter.

If this all seems a bit idyllic and boastful, keep in mind that we’re still having regular storms (bringing with them almost daily power cuts). We had three days without internet at the weekend because of a cable problem. And we currently have ants invading the kitchen. Ain’t rural life fun?

Thursday, 14 June 2018

164. Before and after the storm

I say ‘the storm’, like there’s been just the one. But we’ve had storms almost every day for weeks and weeks. It’s normal for this time of year in the mountains – we have beautiful hot, sunny days followed by stormy evenings – and we never usually mind. One storm at the weekend was so impressive we ended up turning off the film we were watching and just watching the lightning for half an hour.  (All the tiny power cuts were getting annoying anyway. In our area, it only takes one gust of wind or clap of thunder and the power starts cutting out. I wonder if it’s like that everywhere in Bulgaria?)

But there’s always one storm in the season that’s a bit of a bastard, bringing water into the house and flattening the garden like a Bullingdon bad boy. That storm was yesterday.

So here are some pictures of how the garden was coming along throughout May and June – followed by some not-so-nice ‘after’ shots. Like a muddy reverse makeover.


Honeysuckle and roses in bloom at the same time. This arch is heavenly to walk through
in May ... so long as you don't mind a few (dozen) bees.

Edging closer to my dream of a mad old lady cottage garden.

I want to be like Mariah Carey, demanding fresh cut flowers and a dozen kittens in every room.

Lots of lovely latahs (and alliteration).

Tiny courgette from earlier in the week. To be fair, I only sowed the seeds
at the end of April, so I think they've come on really well.

Look, reader, I have managed to cultivate some lettuce. The bastard snail army had already
eaten my first batch but I'm too smart for them. These jagged bottles seem to be keeping them at bay.

And after

Look at my fucking rhubarb!!

Winner of World's Saddest Courgettes 2018. They should recover, though, they normally do.


My poor kale. Already almost destroyed by the bastard snail army, then drowned in my
clever anti-snail device. Luckily, I have some more kale seedlings in the polytunnel.

The wonky polytunnel held up surprisingly well, even against the huge hailstones.
We just had to get rid of this alarming bulge of water...

Water running down the walls from the window on the floor above.
What a wonderfully airtight house we have!

Here’s hoping the stormy season is nearing its end for this year…

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

163. June!

I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but it’s June. Already. June of 2018. Yesterday it was 1998 and I was sitting my a-levels, driving a knackered orange Fiesta with a broken speedometer, and planning an award-winning career as a foreign correspondent (or stage actress, or firefighter, or wife of any member of the Prodigy). Now it’s 2018 and I can practically hear time whooshing by my ear. ‘Sleeveless dresses? At your age?’ time whispers as it whooshes by my left ear. ‘You probably need a hip replacement,’ it whooshes by my right.

Still, it’s summer, which is good for the joints. (But not so good for the eyeballs. I just saw my neighbour working in the garden wearing nothing but a pair of speedos and a bumbag.)

My folks visited us last week and we made the most of the beautiful summer weather with trips to Sofia, Veliko Tarnovo, Etar, Dryanovo Monastery and Troyan Monastery (staying in VT for a couple of nights as a base). You know what’s coming next, don’t you? It’s the Holiday Bore slideshow. Pass the mini gherkins, Margo…

Being the marvellous host that I am, I dragged my poor family around all MY favourite places in Sofia: Made in Blue for food, the University Botanical Garden and Maxi Mania (the giant second-hand clothes shop under the covered market). Very fun it was, too (for me).

Inside Made in Blue restaurant. Everyone else was eating in the charming garden, obviously.

Botanical garden.

More hot garden action. The gold dome of Alexander Nevski Cathedral shining behind.

Etar is very sweet and worth visiting if you’re in the Gabrovo region. It’s an open-air museum/village thing with traditional craftspeople making and selling their wares. So, basically, more shopping. Egg mayonnaise vol-au-vent?

You can't tell from this photo but there were a gazillion Italian tourists at Etar.

On the way back from Etar to VT, we stopped in at Dryanovo Monastery and Bacho Kiro cave (which are right next to each other). It wasn’t my favourite cave in Bulgaria (we are quite the cave connoisseurs), but definitely worth a look if you’re passing. The surrounding scenery is beautiful. And the monk in the monastery lets you fill up your own bottles with holy water, which is fun. Twiglet?

As one of our neighbours says, Dryanovo Monastery has 'very good energy'.

Surrounding scenery. We saw snakes in the river.

We took very few pictures of VT, probably because we’ve been there a few times now. (VT old town is pretty but we prefer Plovdiv for old-town shizzle and Sofia for, you know, civilisation.) But I did buy a very nice green lamp and we had some ruddy good food, so it’s all good. Here, have a slice of Viennetta.

Lastly, we went to Troyan Monastery on the way home, mainly so I could indulge my pottery fetish in the craft museum next door. (Have I mentioned what a good host I am? Give, give, give, that's me.) In what can only be described as a fit of madness, I bought no pottery whatsoever.*

*Four egg cups and a serving plate. But, for me, that’s nothing.

They're in the process of tarting up Troyan Monastery, and doing a very fine, very sympathetic job.

Sunday, 27 May 2018

162. Budapest

Armed with a bumbag full of plasters and my one foreign language (which unfortunately isn't Hungarian), we trundled off to Budapest last weekend. We’ve always wanted to go and our upcoming anniversary (12 years – I’m not sure which one of us deserves a medal more!) seemed the perfect excuse.

So, nothing at all about Bulgaria this time. Just a few pictures (alright, loads of pictures) of our time in lovely old Budapest.

The touristy things
Churches, parliament and the like…

Siklo cog railway. 

Liberty Monument.
Matthias Church.
Shoes on the Danube.

Gellert thermal baths. So good after a long day of walking!

Inside Parliament.

Studying the map and ignoring the view.

After spending a morning in the beautiful Buda hills, we rode the cable car back down.
It was relaxing and terrifying at the same time.

The socialist section: Memento Park
Rather than destroy all their old socialist monuments, the canny Hungarians shoved them all in a park for eager tourists to visit. So we did.

The weird and wonderful
First up: the Children's Railway. Except for adult drivers, this railway line is run entirely by children. Look at the tiny conductors go!

We couldn’t resist the Buda Castle Labyrinth, a series of tunnels under Buda Castle where Dracula was imprisoned. It was wonderfully kitsch. For some reason, they’ve filled the tunnels and caves with mannequins dressed in opera costumes, and opera music blares at you as you walk around. Inspired!

A typical scene down in the labyrinth. 

I mean, what the actual fuck??
Just terrifying.

One bar claimed to play all these different music genres. I know I’m old but surely half of these are made up?

Kinky reggae, anyone?

Crazy wiring in Szimpla Kert, a totally touristy, totally brilliant ruin pub.

This one's for a friend:

And, finally, here I am with Columbo. Obviously.