Dried Roses How Bulgaria is disappearing
The fastest shrinking country in the world
Bulgaria is the fastest depopulating country in the world. Over the past 35 years, Bulgaria has lost 2 million inhabitants. The UN predicts that by 2050 the population will fall to less than 5.5 million people, a decrease of 23%. If we include the period since 1989, the population decrease will be 39%. By 2050 there will be no inhabited villages left in Bulgaria.
Since 2018 there has been no natural population increase in any Bulgarian provinces.
The growth is negative.
The lowest negative growth is in the Sofia City Province at -1.9‰ and in Sliven at -3.6‰. The highest decrease in population is in the Vidin Province at -16.4‰, followed by Montana at -14.0‰, and Kyustendil at -13.4‰. A higher than -10.0‰ decrease is found in nine Bulgarian provinces.
Boyan Mastrenkov age 67, the last shepherd and one of two constant citizens of Dokatichevo village, Blagoevgrad Province.
One of the “seasonal visitors” of Dokatichevo Village. He only comes here regularly from the nearest town of Simitli to gather fruits and vegetables.
Dobrostan, Plovdiv Province
Walking around in Dobrostan, we noticed a big, closed building which was the abandoned local primary school.
We asked locals about the causes that led the village to decline.
“The change in rule. We had a school here, the building over there that is falling apart. They united the schools, so parents started to send the children to different villages to study. From this point of view, the young people who had children were forced to go on rent or bought themself a property in the cities so that their children could go to school.” 23.09.2019
Oreshets, Plovdiv Province
The shop assistant used to live in Plovdiv and in the USSR. Fifteen years ago, she came back to her hometown of Oreshets to take care of her mother. Soon, the person who worked in the local shop got sick, and somebody else was needed to manage it.
“I already had experience in a shop and understood what the job is about, so I started to work there. In the beginning, I worked for 6 hours a day, then 4 hours. Now I’m working only 2 hours a day, for the few pensioners who still live here. We used to have 700-800 people here when I graduated from primary school in Oreshets. Now there is no school, and we have only about 20 people.”
Photograph of the list of Oreshets citizens (29 people) allowed to vote in the upcoming European Parliament elections. 23.09.2019
One of the last inhabitants of Oreshets, on his way back home from the shop. 23.09.2019
Tri Mogili, Plovdiv Province
The distance between Oreshets and Tri Mogili is only 23 km, but it takes almost an hour to go from one village to the other. The very steep gravelled road, full of turns, makes travel a challenge.
When we arrived in the village, we were completely sure that it was totally abandoned. The mayor’s hall looked pretty empty and the building that used to be a shop seemed to be devastated.
Surprisingly, on the hill at the end of the village, we noticed two workers and the brand-new house that they were building.
Closed headquarters of the mayor of Tri Mogili.
The last inhabitant – Nenkovo, Kardzhali Province
Behie Shevket is the last and only person who lives in an unnamed village close to Nenkovo in the Southern part of the Rhodopes Mountains. She is part of the Bulgarian Turkish community which is a majority in this region.
In the communist era, her family made a living from tobacco production. After the forced process of privatization, the Bulgarian economy became less competitive with western ones, so most of the industries collapsed, including tobacco.
Now Behie lives alone. Her son visits her twice a week to bring necessary supplies and to help her in case she needs anything.
Between Turkey and Bulgaria
Behie’s son speaks perfect Bulgarian and Turkish. When I asked him which nationality resonates with him more, he said:
“I cannot decide. I love both countries. And I am both.”
He lives and works in Kardzhali.
An old woman sitting on the bench around Musina village, Veliko Tarnovo Province.
Village Staro Selo in Vratsa Province
A pensioner’s club, still operating in Staro Selo, Vratsa Province. 24.09.2019
Death notices on abandoned house in Fazanovo village, Burgas Province.
Gym in an abandoned school in Tsarevets, Vratsa Province. The school has been closed for more than 10 years; it once had about 1000 pupils each year.
Books and documents in one of the classrooms in an abandoned school in Tsarevets. The school has been closed for more than 10 years; it once had about 1000 pupils each year.
Abandoned school around Cherven, Plovdiv Province.
There are 2.5 million Bulgarians living abroad. Most of them live in the European Union and European Economic Area countries – around 1,400 million in 2019, according to Eurostat.
The European countries with the most Bulgarians are Germany, Spain and Greece. Turkey and the United States are other non-EU countries with large groups of Bulgarian citizens.
Matenica, Plovdiv Province
Kuman Penchev, age 40, returned to Bulgaria in 2006. His family and his fiancée Neli Trifonova are running a horse breeding farm together in the small village of Mytenica. According to NSI, there are currently around 80 permanent inhabitants.
Ilyan Penchev, age 64, Kuman’s father, was the mayor of Matenitsa in 1994-2000. “We used to have a school and a library here. The primary school has been closed since 1999, the library since 2002. The residential school hasn’t operated since 2003. The nearest school is located in Panicheri, 7km from our village. It’s not that far, but this distance made people move out and relocate to bigger villages or cities.”
If everybody leaves, who comes instead?
Bulgaria = retirement paradise?
According to Eurostat, British-born citizens are the 5th biggest immigrant community in Bulgaria (6%). Unlike other minorities, they don’t usually take part in labour integration.
Around 35% are aged 65 years and older. They decided to retire and settled in the spa and small villages and towns. Some of them started small businesses, – for example, real estate brokers for compatriots interested in buying houses in Bulgaria, intermediaries, or investors in health/dental tourism, etc. (Krasteva 2018, 2014, 2015, 2014, 2012, 2005).
While Bulgarians emigrate to bigger cities or abroad, there are plenty of other nationalities who find Bulgaria as a nice place to settle down.
David and Carlien Pritchard sold their indebted house in Scotland and decided to move into a small village of Aglen, located just 1½ hours from the Sofia airport.
“We came to this village because we enjoy the countryside, peace and quiet. We wanted our little girl to grow up away from the city, pollution, and the excessive use of technology. In Scotland we had 24 years of mortgage to pay off, so we decided that we no longer wanted to live like we had a prison sentence. We felt that the mortgage and the bills were like a prison.
We sold our house and used the money to buy our house here. We want to live a self-sufficient life here in Aglen. In the future, we want to install solar panels and collect rainwater. At the moment, we grow most of our fruit and vegetables. In future, we would like to keep some animals for meat and eggs and make some online business – selling jams, chutneys etc.”
Kostas Jarvis, age 70, is a Greek-British man who moved to Bulgaria around 15 years ago. He lives in Sofia together with his Bulgarian wife, who is an academic teacher at the Technical University of Sofia.
“She wants to be here to invest in the future of her country by educating its young people, even though the financial rewards are low.”
Villages around Veliko Tarnovo calm paradise to settle down
Musina, Pavlikeni, Lesicheri and Mihalci – what connects those villages? Big communities of Brits have lived there for many years. It’s quiet, with surprisingly good roads, infrastructure and cheap properties. These villages are located just 30 minutes away from Veliko Tarnovo, a Bulgarian National Revival-era city with medieval churches and a fortress, which is currently awaiting UNESCO World Heritage status. It’s a perfect place to retire on your own rules.
Musina, Veliko Tarnovo Province
Traditional Bulgarian mugs, Greek vase, and group photo with Stephen’s classmates.
Stephen Holwell moved to Musina 9 years ago. He bought this house and renovated it by himself. In the UK he used to be a hairdresser. Tired of busy and noisy life, he decided to move to Bulgaria. He had many propositions to move back to the UK, but he always refused.
House of one of Stephen’s friends in Musina. Many Brits are buying old houses in Bulgaria to renovate them and bring them back to the old, traditional style.
“I am a believer in fate. My husband and I were close to buying a different house in another village. If we had bought a house in the other village we would never have stayed in Bulgaria. Because, you know, when you go back to it years later, you think ‘why did we think about living here?’ But this one is perfect.” Pip Listercherry, in the backyard of her house in Musina village.
Lesicheri, Veliko Tarnovo Province
John Malgarin is an ex-soldier. After he came back from the mission in Afghanistan he suffered from a lot of stress. John bought this house after Stephen’s advice and decided to move to Lesicheri with his family. 26.08.2020
Mihalci, Veliko Tarnovo Province
Additional metal lattice door to protect the house from the thieves.
Phil Yaxley bought his house in Mihalci. Unlike his friends from the nearest villages, he cannot say that it is very secure. He was robbed 4 times already. Even so, he continues renovating the house and wants to stay in Bulgaria for his retirement. Right now, he splits his life between Bulgaria and the UK. 26.08.2020
Ambassadors of change
The last 10 years gave Bulgarians freedom to travel, work and study in the EU, but it also gave people new opportunities and perspectives to change the country. Here are the diverse stories of people who try to make a change: a journalist, NGO workers, volunteers and people who want to preserve Bulgarian villages from oblivion.
Petya Kertikova, Bulgaria On Air
The 30-year-old is the creator and host of the show ‘The Returnees,’ which runs on private broadcaster Bulgaria on Air. The Returnees highlights the success stories of Bulgarians of all ages who used to live abroad but have now returned home. So far Petya has featured more than 70 professionals, including doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs, managers, artists, and IT experts. Their success stories, she hopes, will inspire others to return.
“They had the dream of living abroad, and they lived that dream. Now I want them to live the Bulgarian dream.”
Zhelen, Sofia Province
Filip Kirilov grew up in the capital of Bulgaria. His entire childhood he dreamed of living in a forest, connected to nature. In 2003, after studying in schools and universities in Bulgaria and France, he started living in an eco-community in the mountains of La Reunion Island, Indian Ocean.
Vegetarium – Zhelen, Sofia Province
The “Vegetarium” name means “the perfect environment to grow.” It provides accommodation, food, and a training course about the eco-lifestyle.
Filip runs this project together with Barbara Steinmann from Austria, Dr Dimitar Pashkulev (first on the right), who specializes in natural medicine, and volunteer Stanimir Dimitrov.
My guide at the Vegetarium was Stanimir, a young man from Varna, who quit his dental studies and is now involved in volunteering. I asked his opinion on the UN’s predictions that Bulgarian villages are going to disappear. He replied with a story of his brother who bought and renovated a house in a village in the Strandja mountains, a small, low mountain range near Burgas. Stanimir helped his brother renovate the house, which helped Stanimir realise that being close to nature is his destiny.
“My brother’s experience is not an isolated incident – many Bulgarians are beginning to understand that a country house is freedom and independence. Although most of them still treat them as summer estates, some of them choose to live in these houses permanently. “
Zhelen and the surrounding villages are an ideal place not only for Bulgarians who want to return to their roots but also for foreigners looking for a quiet place to spend their last years. Leonid Druzhinin, whom I met while walking around the neighbourhood, knows this very well. The Bulgarian looks after a house purchased by a British couple while they are away. In addition, Leonid produces wooden furniture. During our meeting, he was making a table for his employers.
Abandoned school, Aglen, Lovech Province
Daniel Atanasov Simeonov is an English teacher in Dermantsi, a village located less than 10 km from Aglen. The school in his home village has been closed for many years. He spent his youth in Bulgaria’s capital where he studied Film and TV Directing.
As a member of the Arte Urbana Collectif Sofia cultural collective, working for theatre and film education, he focuses on the implementation of more cultural activities in the Bulgarian education system. He co-organizes the CinEd project – European Cinema Education for Youth in Bulgaria. He divides his time between activities in the capital and working in the countryside. In an interview with me, Daniel admits that he cannot imagine a different life.
From the runway to the village
While I was walking around Aglen with Daniel, we were very lucky to see the launching of the first eco greenhouse in Aglen.
Svilena Racheva, age 42, gave up her big-city life in Los Angeles and her career as a model to live closer to nature and her roots in Bulgaria. She came back to the country and decided to turn her life around. Svilena runs a farm in Aglen together with her business partner, Nikolay Panayotov, age 34. They sell vegetables in Sofia and surroundings.
In the photo: Svilena with her 3 sons – Khan, Yan and Alec and Nikolay Panayotov