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BBC: Taking the Pulse of Bulgaria

Date: 12.12.2006

By Tara Reeve
Producer, Working Lunch
BBC News

Bulgarians haven't exactly had the best press lately.

The papers have been full of headlines warning us of the flood of migrants queuing to come to the UK on January 1st - the day when Bulgaria joins the European Union.

So, it was hardly a surprise when we turned up at Sofia airport to be greeted as 'GDFs' (God Damn Foreigners) by our local fixer Ogi Znatev.

He may have been joking, but there was a clear undercurrent of resentment in the way his fellow countrymen were being portrayed in the British media. We were sent to Bulgaria to produce a series of reports on the country joining the EU.

Having read up on a few basic rules (Bulgaria is one of the rare places in the world where shaking your head means yes and nodding your head means no), Working Lunch correspondent, Simon Gompertz, cameraman, Hume Fairholme and myself went to find out.

Bulgaria is home

Life in Bulgaria isn't as depressing as I thought it would be. While the Tower Blocks where most city dwellers live look bleak from the outside, what we found inside was a pleasant surprise.

We visited a 'typical' Bulgarian family living in Sofia.

Dragomir Nenkov was a graphic designer earning the equivalent of £235 a month, but he still managed to own his flat, run a car and provide enough for his wife and nine month old baby.

That's not to say life isn't tight. There's no money left for saving or for a pension. But they seemed happy. And did they want to leave? No. Bulgaria is their home.

That was also the impression we got when visiting the university.

Not many of the students we spoke to wanted to get out. On the contrary, they were optimistic about the EU and what it would mean for them. Anyone wanting to go, we were told, had already left.

Hospitable

Simon's insatiable appetite for stories on renewable energy took us to the south-west corner of Bulgaria, to a village called Kutuntsi near the Greek border. This is where we got our first taste - in a literal sense - of the real Bulgaria.

After touring a hydro power plant up in the hills, our guide took us to eat in a very modest restaurant down in the village.

Half way through sampling the local delicacies, a dishevelled, but very jovial little man appeared, insisting that we try his local home-made rakia and wine. He turned out to be the village mayor.

Georgii Kodsev was so hospitable and entertaining, there was no way we could refuse. The rakia (a liquor made from grapes) was more of a body warmer than something you would rush to buy in the shops, but the wine was absolutely delicious.

It was free from any kind of stabilisers and 100% natural so it had to be drunk quickly - a task none of us found difficult! Several jugs of wine later, after listening to numerous tales of the mayor chasing after wild boar, we were on our way to the mountains, to Pamporovo.

Major facelift

The drive through the Pirin and Rhodope mountains was absolutely stunning. Driving up from the fog in the valley, we were greeted by bright sunshine and beautiful snow-capped peaks.

What greeted us in Pamporovo though, none of us had expected.

We'd read a lot about development happening in Bulgaria, but so far hadn't really seen much of it. Entering Pamporovo, which is one of Bulgaria's biggest ski resorts, there were literally thousands of apartments under construction.

This is something happening in many pockets of the country. All the big ski resorts are getting a major facelift. Not only are there new apartment blocks being built, there are also new restaurants and new pistes under construction.

A similar thing is happening along the Black Sea Coast and nearly all of it is being bought up by the British.

It's easy to see why. Two bedroom flats in Pamporovo with almost direct access to the slopes, are going for around £60,000. A bargain if you were to compare a similar flat in the Alps.

No frills airlines are also apparently lining up to fly to Bulgaria as soon as it opens its doors on January 1st making it even more attractive to investors.

Opportunities

Apart from the obvious ecological concern, the only real danger we could see was the possibility of over-development and the stress this would put on the infrastructure.

This was a worry for the locals but nevertheless they seemed happy with all the development. It brought thousands of jobs to the area and hopefully, joining the EU, thousands more tourists too.

After a week of travelling round Bulgaria, we were left with no impression at all that Bulgarians are queuing to come to Britain. On the contrary, they are counting down the days to January 1st and the opportunities EU membership will bring to them in their own country.

What was evident however, is that the reverse is definitely happening.

Britons have already bought up large areas of the country and come January 1st, even more of them will be trying their hand at owning a place in Bulgaria.

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