Bulgaria is rich but very poor. How can that be?

Opportunities fight with challenges as the EU’s poorest country seeks to close the gap in wealth and standards with its richer western neighbours, says Rhys David

 

As Wagner’s majestic music from Tristan und Isolde and, several days later, Parsifal, washes over you, a seat in Sofia’s beautiful, bijou opera house is a good place to reflect on the EU’s most recent member country.

 

Bulgaria is a small to medium-sized, under-populated country of roughly 70,000 sq. miles, with just 7m people. Yet, it is full of surprises. Its Wagner festival is not the Met, Covent Garden or La Scala but few similar-sized countries would be able to cast such an event almost entirely from within the country’s own musical resources. Few performers, too, would want, as several did here, to sing important roles in both operas – a total of 11 hours on stage across only a few days.

 

Bulgaria, poor as it is, manages also to produce musical talents not just for its own opera houses but, like other eastern European countries, for many of the more renowned houses around the world. It is a tradition that goes back a long way, embracing such names as the basses, Boris Christoff and Nikolai Ghiaurov.

 

Its schools and universities, too, seem to have no trouble in producing near-fluent English speakers many of whom have never visited an English-speaking country. In Bulgaria those choosing to study languages are taught their other subjects as well through the medium of their chosen foreign language. This helps the best to develop an impressive grasp of vocabulary and idiom.

 

Since opening to the world with the fall of Communism in 1989 and entry into the EU in 2007, Bulgaria has experienced unprecedented new levels of prosperity. Its economy has been growing in recent years at more than 3 – 4 per cent a year and will match that performance again this year. Services now account for nearly 60 per cent of the economy, with much of that due to an annual 8m a year visitor tourism sector. Manufacturing accounts for 24 per cent – still considerably higher than the western European average but now more focused on modern light industries than in the past. Agriculture at 5 per cent is also higher than in more advanced EU member states and less mechanized but includes a strong export-orientated wine sector.

 

In the increasingly vital tourism sector, the country been seeking to capitalize on its outstanding cultural and archaeological heritage. Investment has taken place in new high standard tourism facilities, including hotels, and in the development of important sites. Just in the last few decades important new discoveries of Roman antiquities have been made in the capital Sofia, the ancient Roman Serdica. These include an 3rd-4th century amphitheatre, preserved under the city’s 5-star Arena di Serdica Hotel outside the former city gates, and Roman ruins preserved in an underground display under the modern city centre. The visitor can walk along slabs polished by generations of shoes in the Roman era, including no doubt by the Roman emperor, Constantine the Great, believed to have had a special affection for the city.  

 

Seat of the monarchs for seven decades after the  liberation of the city from the Ottoman Turks with Russian help in 1878, Sofia also has a not very distinguished-looking royal palace, and, in several monumental blocks that formerly housed Communist ministries, banks and party headquarters, a reminder of grimmer days past. (There is a Museum of Totalitarian Art for those interested in Communist-era paintings, sculptures and monuments.)

 

Its churches, which largely survived the Communist era, remain one of its glories, however. Saint Alexander Nevski with its highly decorated interior was named after the Russian patron saint to honour the role played by Bulgaria’s Slavic cousins in securing freedom. The 6th century Sophia Basilica, a contemporary of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople is one of the most important examples of early Christian architecture in south eastern Europe. The 4th century St. George rotunda church, the oldest preserved building in the city, has frescoes dating back to the 10th century. More than 80 per cent of the population profess to be Orthodox believers in a country which embraced Christianity in the 9th century and translated the Bible into Bulgarian, a close relation of Russian shortly after.

 

There are other towns and cities with an equal claim to demonstrate the varied history of a country that has seen not just ancient conquerors but power in the hands of Bulgar, and, for two centuries from the 10th and 11th century, Byzantine overlords as well. In Plovdiv a Roman theatre, one of the best preserved in Europe was uncovered in a landslide in the 1970s and restored well enough for a range of events to be held there, just as in Roman times. Nearby, in the centre of Plovdiv, excavations uncovered a stadium, a part of which has been exposed, most of its vast length unfortunately having to remain under the main shopping street.

 

Plovdiv, formerly Greek and Roman Philippopolis, once the capital city of Philip the Second, father of Alexander the Great, lays claim to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe, its origins going back even further to Trojan times, and hence older than Rome or Athens. Its old quarter houses an important group of streets lined by merchant properties from the early 19th century in Bulgarian National Revival style, the most visited of which is the Balabanov house, originally built for a wealthy textile merchant, Hadji Panayot Lampsha. This year the city of roughly 350,00 people has been celebrating as 2019 European Capital of Culture.

 

There are world heritage sites, too, on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast, where Soviet bloc aristocracy (and more recently bargain-hunting western Europeans have flocked for sun sea and sand. Varna on the Black Sea coast offers more ancient remains, including nearby  Odessos, home to a huge Roman bath complex, and,  a little further away, Nessebur, ancient Messambria, another Thracian, Greek  and then Roman town, which later became an important trading centre with strong links to Constantinople, and now a Unesco World Heritage site.

 

There are two other jewels, however, contributing to the remarkable array of treasures on offer in Bulgaria, somewhat surprisingly third after Greece and Italy in the number of cultural and archaeological sites contained within it. The Thracian plain, south of the Balkan Mountains that run east west across Bulgaria, roughly parallel with the Danube as it flows towards the Black Sea, was home to warlike tribes who were allied to the Trojans during their famous war with the Achaeans.

 

The Thracians, who lived in this area from around 1000 BC, were highly skilled craftsmen, producing exquisite jewellery, workshop and household items, and military equipment. Their work is on display at the national archaeological museum in Sofia and in a smaller but still very impressive museum on site in Kazanluk. Much of this gold has been discovered in the unique conical burial mounds that cover the Thracian plain, or Valley of the Thracian Kings, a replica of one of which with stunning internal decoration on its walls and cupola ceiling can be seen near Kazanluk.

 

There are other towns which have played an important part in Bulgarian history, such as the old capital, Veliko Tarnovo, situated on a bend in the river and protected by surrounding hills, and 140 monasteries, the spectacular Rila and Bachkovo settlements among them, and like many of the others  offering accommodation to visitors.

 

It would be hard not to wish this country of friendly and enthusiastic people well as they integrate further into the EU but difficult, too, not to feel some apprehension. The population has fallen from a figure of 9m under Communism. It could hardly be otherwise when so many of the young and most able have left for Germany, Italy, Britain and other countries in search of well-paid employment and to escape youth unemployment of 12 per cent. The birth rate, too, is too low to be self-sustaining.

 

Average incomes are around Euro5000 a year, though higher in Sofia where newer sectors such as information technology have seen growth. Old people who used to be able to afford a holiday – the country was a big Communist-era holiday destination for citizens of the former Soviet Union countries – now say they are no longer able to do so and whereas in western Europe the older generation is helping its youth with the high cost of housing and other expenses, in Bulgaria younger people – or those in good jobs at any rate – are supporting their parents, many of whom also rely on remittances from overseas Bulgarians.

 

Economic growth is helping and is expected to be faster than the EU over the next few years. Indeed, Bulgaria has gone from living standards of around one third of the EU average to more than half. The economy will need to grow at a much faster rate, however, to close the gap and is being hampered by the loss of its most talented people in the engineers, doctors, IT professionals and other graduates who have headed West.

 

The politics they have left behind is another impediment. The current strongman Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov, is a former Mayor of Sofia who has been a firefighter, police academy professor, professional footballer, national team karate coach and bodyguard to former Communist dictator, Todor Zhivkov, and former king, Simeon II. The government of GERB, the centre right party he founded has been criticised in EU capitals in the West for allowing bad practices to flourish. The concern is over the close ties that exist between government officials, and local businesses that have resulted in contracts being given to a handful of privileged companies.  When officials can exert their influence through excessive regulation, or over who gets jobs, school places or other privileges and permissions, a climate is created into which bribery, corruption and organised crime can enter. Such interference, too, puts sand in the wheels, slowing down development and hence economic growth while ed tape and excessive bureaucracy are negotiated and permits and other favours are bargained for.

 

In the meantime, Bulgarians are having to live with a disconcerting jolt away from the familiar pattern of previous centuries not least the break with their former liberator (and subsequent Communist overlord) and fellow Orthodox Slavs in Russia.

 

Derelict buildings, especially in the depopulated countryside are common, and are only slowly being replaced by Western investment. One of the biggest new investments is a huge sanitaryware plant outside Plovdiv built by US group Ideal-Standard. Putting to one side the ubiquitous Lidl supermarket group, there are few other signs of large scale new investors capable of filling the gap left by previously protected domestic concerns. Russia can still exert its influence over the country, however, through its strong position in the energy sector. It is an important operator of refineries on the Black Sea coast and its oil company Lukoil has a large share of the domestic fuel market.

 

The successes have been in sectors such as IT that have concentrated in Sofia, offering higher wage levels that have given the capital’s citizens higher wage levels than the Euro5000 average in the country. The result has been, like emigration, to draw away young people from the country at large.

 

Tourism, too, has been a success but is subject to its own ups and downs. The country draws in large numbers from neighbouring countries and has an increasingly wealthy western clientele using its large, international hotels. This year, however, has seen declines so far from Russia (largely as a result of price competition from neighbouring Turkey) and some EU countries, though not the UK.

Shops selling souvenirs have proliferated at tourist sites and in parts of Sofia where the intention has clearly been to attract higher end businesses. The shopkeepers, however, report a slow year even for Bulgarian speciality products such as those based on the country’s centuries- old rose cultivation sector.

 

EU funding since membership has contributed substantially to rates of growth and is evident in some of the new roads that now link major centres in the country and beyond. Varna is on the designated trans-European E-route linking it (in theory) all the way to Coruna, and Sofia is connected by its E routes to Lisbon, Riga and Thessaloniki. There is the challenge of reduced funding from the EU to be faced as well. Bulgaria received Euro10bn under the EU’s 2014-2020 funding package, but this level of support is set to decline as the EU seeks to adapt to more difficult conditions elsewhere in the bloc and to the loss of UK contributions.

 

Polls have shown consistent support for the EU, coupled, however, with disappointment at the impact it has had on the domestic economy. Therein lies the country’s dilemma: polls have shown a principal reason for the EU’s good standing in the public estimation is the freedom it has given Bulgarians to move abroad in search of a better future. It is the loss of those who might be best equipped to contribute to its transformation economically and politically that is likely to hold it back.

 

August 2nd, 2019

Rhys David is chair of Nova Cambria, the Welsh policy institute

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Walk on the Wild Side – in Wales

Rhys David finds solitude and interesting signs of a new vitality on a trek through the middle of Wales along Glyndwr’s Way

“Of all the beautiful sights in the world, I am not sure if there is anything more lovely than the Welsh hills. It is as if the character of the nation – its under-rated strength and vitality – is contained and channelled in those meadows and rolling slopes.” (The Times June 6th 2016). These comments by Matthew Syed, sports writer and diarist, earlier this month (June) had a particular resonance for those like myself walking those very hills when the article appeared in the best weather window in months.

There is something magical and even reassuring about being a short distance from a sizeable settlement, such as Shrewsbury and the neighbouring West Midlands, and yet in countryside so remote the number of people to be seen during the day can be counted in single figures, with possibly even fewer cars. Instead, one’s constant companions almost everywhere on the horizon and sometimes much closer in this part of the world are sheep in their thousands.
This is the evocatively-named Glyndwr’s Way, a 135-mile long wishbone shaped trail from Knighton to Machynlleth, with a return leg back to Welshpool, the 80 mile first section of which my party of two men and three women covered. Opened in 2000 Glyndwr’s Way purports to follow the route taken by the legendary Welsh hero Owain Glyndwr. Supported at one stage by French forces who marched to within eight miles of Worcester, Glyndwr inflicted several crushing defeats on his English opponents in the early 15th century – notably at the Battle of Pilleth near Knighton in 1402 – before mysteriously disappearing without trace in 1413 but not from Welsh people’s memory.

Today’s route is just a convenient fiction for although Wales’s Braveheart controlled the area for long periods there is more to connect him with the various towns – notably Machynlleth, which he made his capital and seat of his Parliament in 1404 – than with the trail that bears his name. The linking of various UK national trails to historical figures has been a shrewd marketing initiative, however, and one that can probably claim some credit for the growing popularity of long distance walks. Our group walked another such route – St. Cuthbert’s Way from Melrose in the Scottish Borders to Holy Island off Northumberland last year and there are plenty more to choose from, including Wales’s other eponymous trail, Offa’s Dyke. After all, who wants to walk just from A -B, struggling to follow footpaths through remote fields, even for one’s health’s sake, when you can retrace the (supposed) steps of a hero along a scrupulously waymarked route, pointing you in the right direction at every unclear fork or open vista.

But it is not just walkers who have cause to rejoice at the spread of new national trails. Walkers have brought trade and led to facilities being put in place along the routes in towns, villages and other smaller settlements where there was previously not a lot on offer to the outsider (or even the insiders sometimes). Abbey Cwm Hir, one of our stops, is about as remote as it gets yet now boasts a splendid B&B, and walkers are a new potential market for the owners of a quirky country house, Abbey Cwm Hir Hall, built for London lawyer, Thomas Wilson on the site of a Tudor house in in 1833 and purchased four years later by Francis Phillips, a Lancashire landowner and businessman.

Renowned as a roadbuilder (on which subject he published) Phillips is assured of a minor place in history for catching Spencer Percival, the only British Prime Minister ever to be assassinated, as he fell to his knees dying from shotgun wounds in the House of Commons in 1812. The hall’s latest owners have opened it to the public for viewing the series of quirkily eclectic collections they have put together. The nearby ruins of Wales’s biggest abbey, are getting more visitors, too, and educating new generations in Welsh history. Wales’s last native Prince, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, is reputedly buried here – minus his head which stayed in London where it had been on grisly display following his defeat at Cilmeri in Breconshire in 1282. There are signs of new business in other points along the route. Restaurants have sprung up to serve a growing market in Knighton; a pub has re-opened in another tiny place, Llangunllo; the community shop and café at Llanbadarn Fynydd is getting a few more customers; and there is more business, too, for the teashops, restaurants and mini-markets in Llanidloes and Machynlleth.

Knighton, in particular – once one of the biggest sheep markets in Britain – has gained a new lease of life. It benefits from being not just the starting point for the Glyndwr Way, accessible from the Swansea or Shrewsbury directions on the very scenic Heart of Wales railway line, but from its position near the centre of the much older Offa’s Dyke path. It hosts the visitor centre for this trail. Traditionally very much a border town of divided loyalties, its main street now vies to be the most patriotic in Wales, bedecked with the flag of Glyndwr (four lions passant guardant, red and gold quartered and counter-changed). Having besieged the town’s castle in 1402 and then destroyed it and much of the town, Glyndwr would no doubt now have been giving a wry smile of satisfaction.

These and other developments form part of a more general welcoming feel throughout the area, or so it seemed from our admittedly brief observations. At Velindre, our first stop, the owner of the holiday accommodation we stayed in drove us several miles to the nearest pub serving food and picked us up later. Our host at the Lion Hotel in Llanbister, (who proudly claimed his family had farmed the area for 1,000 years and had the records to prove it!) picked us up from several miles away on the route at the end of one day and took us back the next morning. (His was the nearest accommodation.)

At remote, remote Cwm Biga Farm, near the Clywedog reservoir and now self-catering accommodation, the owner had taken over an historic Welsh mixed farm, owned successively by the Welsh prince Gruffudd ap Gwenwynwyn, the monks of nearby Abbey Cwm Hir, and (after the dissolution) Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Chancellor of Oxford University, he passed it on his death in 1588 to University College, which held it until 1920. After a short period in private ownership it was requisitioned by the Forestry Commission in 1939 on the outbreak of World War Two and its 1,300 acres largely planted with conifers. Having semi-retired the new owner like many in the area now has a portfolio career, providing financial, environmental and IT advice to local businesses and groups as well as cooking for guests if required

There are other signs of a new entrepreneurialism. Public road transport was never plentiful in this area and has now largely disappeared but a small network of taxi companies will ferry people about – and just as importantly take walkers’ luggage from one night’s stay to the next. This was a service we used. (We did meet more hardy walkers, such as Elvira, a Swiss living in the south east who was walking the full 135 miles stretch in nine days with what looked like a 30-40lbs backpack.) The same minibus taxis take children to school helping people to stay in the area, as does another relatively new service, the Post Office Travelling Shop. We came across the familiar red livery in Llangunllo, a van equipped inside to sell stationery, greetings cards and other similar items, as well as offering bank cash withdrawals and, of course, selling stamps and taking parcels. The van travels around to different small communities, parking for an hour or so in each on set days each week, providing services which in some cases, such as simple banking, will have never been seen in the village or settlement before.

Other services are not so available. Mobile phone coverage is patchy, though the extent differs from provider to provider, depending on the area. I did receive one call on the roof of Wales between Llanidloes and Machynlleth where there was not a settlement in sight. “Hi, I’m ‘Alex’”, an Indian voice announced, “and I’m calling you from Windows Technical Department about your computer”. The scammer, to paraphrase Stanley Baldwin’s famous comment in 1932 will always get through, I suppose.

It barely does justice to mid Wales to say the scenery is breath-taking and the weather on our walk was ideal – 20-25 degrees with a slight breeze. After you have ascended from the valley towns at the start of each day most of the walk is at between 1,000 – 1,500 feet over rich green hills just asking to be climbed over, or around at a lower contour level, if you are lucky. The odd farm or other building has to be passed through and there are short stretches of stone track or even road but overwhelmingly the terrain is grass or narrow trackway.

The sights, too, were magnificent and accompanied by a constant chorus of birds, with cuckoos particularly prominent throughout the area. Kites have, of course, remained native to this region even when they had been driven out elsewhere and are relatively common alongside buzzards, and plenty of other smaller birds – curlew, dipper, skylark, meadow pipit, wheatear and redstart to name a few.

There are occasional small rocky gashes in the hills where stone has been taken, probably to build the nearby farmhouse, but the main sign of former industrial activity is at the huge Clywedog dam, near the walls of which is an old lead processing works, one of several dating back to the 19th century in this area. In the tributaries that run into this giant reservoir with its 235-ft high concrete buttress, river trout dart about, their presence one of the reasons for the re-establishment of the osprey in the area. A pair can be viewed from a hide alongside the 11 billion-gallon reservoir where Natural Resources Wales have set up a special telescope to enable visitors to see the female on the nest and her partner nearby.

How tough is the walk? The ground everywhere apart from a few very small, somewhat boggy patches, is good and firm, and clear of obstruction. There are some steep climbs but most of the inclines are relatively gentle, if rather frequent. Weather is, however, all-important. Over much of the area there is relatively little cover once up in the hills. The walk can, of course, be taken in stages – one long walk for the fittest, and section by section, if this is more appropriate.

The growth of interest in this type of get-away-from-it-all holidays has led to the emergence of a number of companies that will make all the necessary bookings. We used The Walking Company, based in Monmouth, which took our proposed itinerary and booked the various hotels and B&Bs, and the taxi luggage transport, as well as providing a comprehensive guidance kit consisting of the excellent Harvey map and Cicerone booklet, and other valuable advice and information.

There is perhaps one other invaluable companion on such a trip, George Borrow, the nineteenth century East Anglian author of Lavengro and The Romany Rye was devoted to Wales and in 1854 tramped over most of Wales with his wife and daughter, wondering at the scenery, talking to local people, and learning about the country’s myths and history, all faithfully recorded in his masterly tome, Wild Wales.

http://www.thewalkingholidaycompany.co.uk/
http://www.harveysmaps.co.uk http://www.cicerone.co.uk

Rhys David is the author of Tell Mum Not to Worry. A Welsh Soldier’s World War One in the Near East. ISBN 978-0-9930982-0-8