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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.

Monday, 16 March 2020

Get ready for Gardening Bore 2020


Another spring, another Gardening Bore entry. Christ, there’s a lot to do in the garden at this time of year, but we feel pretty on top of things this March. The veg beds have had a thorough weeding and a fresh layer of compost. We’ve sown the first seeds (tomatoes, chillies, lettuce, broccoli and kale). The roses have been pruned.

Isn’t it funny how the first 20°C day of the year feels more like 40°C? That was the case last Friday, as we dug out the compost heap and spread our precious compost on the vegetable garden. Dressed in light trousers and a t-shirt, I was sweating my balls off, but it just felt too early in the year to change into shorts (well, that and I was sporting more leg hair than Bigfoot). After all that work, we sat on the terrace, soaking up the last of the day’s sun and drinking a G&T. I swear the first post-gardening G&T of the year is always the tastiest!

This weekend, we’ll attack the flower beds, weeding everywhere and dividing plants to plug a few gaps. Weeds are rampant in our garden in spring and early summer. Really horrible gits like bindweed and couch grass, which are so difficult to get rid of completely. As soon as we finish weeding one part of the garden, it’s time to go back and start again on the other parts. It’s like painting the Forth Bridge. But there are some non-weeds to enjoy. Primroses, crocuses and daffodils are all out. Tulip stems are growing fast. And the hill at the back of the garden is awash with little cyclamen-type flowers that I’ve never noticed before. It’s a mystery where they’ve all come from.

Elsewhere, in the veg garden, rhubarb and garlic (planted before Christmas) is beginning to shoot up. No signs of any asparagus yet, and we’ve had a bit of mole activity in the asparagus bed over winter, so I hope the plants are alright. They’d better be. I’m relying on asparagus and lettuce to keep us in fresh greens over the next couple of months, as we try to avoid going to the supermarket as much as possible.

Garlic, plus another bloody molehill!

Soon-to-be rhubarb crumble.

In sad Gardening Bore news, the wonky polytunnel is no more. We got several years’ use out of our homemade polytunnel, made from bendy central heating pipes and a sheet of plastic, and it’s served us (and our annual tomato crop) well. But the bendy pipes finally caved in last winter, making it too, well, wonky to use. Rob has been banging on for years about wanting a proper glass greenhouse instead of a wonky polytunnel, so this year it looks like he’s finally going to get his wish.

Farewell to our wonky, plastic caterpillar of a polytunnel. You'll live on in our hearts, old friend.

Again, we’re going for the homemade approach. The greenhouse will be the same size as the old polytunnel (a whopping 8 x 3m), and buying one in that size is beyond our budget. So we’re planning a rustic greenhouse made from old hardwood windows (of which there are a few piles knocking around the village, which people might be willing to sell to us) and fallen trees from the forest. That’s the plan anyway – watch this space to see how it actually turns out.

The greenhouse is the major gardening project for now. But Rob is also working on building a big retaining wall, cutting into the hill and creating more flat growing space (so we can spunk yet more money on plants). It’s a big job, digging everything out by hand, and will probably take all summer to finish. But, eventually, we’ll have a beautiful stone wall, with steps up to the hill and maybe some pretty Alpine plants cascading over the top of the wall. With the garden increasingly resembling a building site, I’m visualising the shit out of that beautiful stone wall and pretty cascading plants. Thoughts become things, and all that.

Rob's stonework in an early section of the new retaining wall.

Tuesday, 3 March 2020

Preppin’

This is actually a pretty standard number of toilet rolls for us to have at home. Growing up
in a big family, we constantly ran out of loo roll. Behold the mental scars.
Nowadays, I get nervous if we have fewer than 40 rolls in the house.

Being a fan of zombie apocalypse movies and list-writing, it’s perhaps no surprise that the ‘prepper’ movement appeals to me. Not in a hoarding-guns-and-building-bunkers kind of way. Just in a mild hoarding-food-and-water-and toilet-roll kind of way. Having spent eight winters in Bulgaria, and with the luxury of a large pantry and chest freezer, we’ve honed our winter prep skills to perfection.

Imagine my enthusiasm, then, for the opportunity to extend my winter hoarding in light of the new coronavirus. Now, I’m not saying I’m thrilled about a potential pandemic. I just happen to enjoy the sport of extreme food shopping.

And so I found myself in Lidl the other day, manhandling a trolley half-full of soya milk, tinned delights and fresh vegetables (ready to cook down for the freezer). One guy took a look at our trolley, said something about coronavirus to his friend and then laughed heartily. Laugh away, I thought. I’ll be the one chilling at home in a couple of weeks while you’re queuing to buy whatever’s left on the shelves after people start panic buying. (Actually, it’s hard to imagine Bulgarians panic buying, or indeed panicking about anything. They mostly just shrug and have another glass of rakia. But you never know.)

Being in rural Bulgaria and working from home, I’m not very concerned about being exposed to germs. But it’s nice to know that if we do want or need to stay home for a couple of weeks, we’ll at least have nice things to eat.

Speaking of nice things, being the borderline Millennial clich├ęs that we are, some of our prepper priorities are slightly embarrassing. Sure, we stock up on the sensible stuff like loo roll, tinned goods and long-life soya milk. (Like everyone else in the world, we've recently watched The Game Changers documentary and given up dairy milk.) And we always keep the pantry stocked with pasta, rice, flour, chickpeas and lentils. But some of our more questionable purchases included:

  • Half a dozen avocados – because no public health emergency is going to interfere with our smashed avo on toast.
  • Tequila, rum and vodka – because, if you’ll excuse the pun, you’ve got to keep your spirits up.
  • Several 5L boxes of wine – see above.
  • And, through a slight miscalculation, seven tins of coconut milk. SEVEN! So, if anyone needs me in the next few weeks, I’ll inevitably be in the kitchen, making curry AGAIN.

Anyone else indulging in a little prepper’s delight? Are you going to bother with the whole surgical mask faff? The other day we asked the pharmacy in Etropole if they sold masks, and they reacted like, no, why would we? It was all very nonchalant and Bulgarian.

Friday, 7 February 2020

Explorking

Explorking: Verb. A portmanteau of exploring and walking. Basically a nonsense word we made up.


This is what we’ve been doing with our afternoons lately. After work and a big lunch, we’ll use the last couple of hours’ daylight to go explorking the many unmarked tracks in the hills and mountains around us – most of them not included on our walking maps. (We seem to collect maps. Maps and cookery books. And cats, of course.)

I’m rubbish at reading maps. Countryside maps, anyway. (Give me a city street map and I’m fine.) So there’s something quite liberating about heading off, without a map, and following trails to see where they end up, occasionally glancing back to note landmarks – a weird-shaped tree, the view of a house in the distance, fucking litter – to help us find our way back.

We’re still discovering new things all the time. Another hamlet above our village that we didn’t know existed. The beautiful beech forest that we had no idea was hiding the other side of the hill visible from my office window. (The track down into the forest is obscured and overgrown in summer. This winter it suddenly revealed itself to us.) Another day, we walked so far we ended up high above Etropole.



All this explorking has been possible because the winter has, until this week, been so mild. We had the customary heavy-ish snowfall in early January and then nothing but sun, sun, sun for a month.

What’s happening to our winters? I have this huge, padded, below-the-knee winter coat that makes me feel like Ernest Shackleton on an expedition (but probably makes me look like a football manager circa 1995). I’ve hardly worn it. It’s been too warm outside.

Still, it’s been beautiful weather for explorking.

Then more snow finally came on Wednesday, complete with an 18-hour power cut. Unable to switch on a light, let alone do any real work, we went off for another day of walking – this time kitted out in a few more layers!



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!