ALINO, Bulgaria: Every year, hordes of Britons move to Spain’s Costa del Sol or southern France in search of a sunnier, more relaxed lifestyle.
But several thousand have found their paradise in a most unlikely place — Bulgaria, the poorest member state of the European Union.
With its low living cost, the nation of seven million has become the bloc’s best-kept secret for British citizens wanting to retire or reinvent their existence.
At least 10,000 are estimated to now live here either part-time or permanently, although the actual figure could be much higher: a majority don’t register with local authorities.
Among those to call the ex-Communist country home are Tina and Kevin Brassington, two university lecturers who ditched their well-paid jobs in Kent in 2011 and run a small organic farm in the heart of rural Bulgaria.
“Fancy a cuppa?” chirps Tina as she opens the green gates to the estate, set on a dusty road in the small village of Alino, 50 kilometres (30 miles) south of the capital Sofia.
Behind the petite brunette, baby goats bounce around a leafy garden drenched in sunshine. Rows of vegetable beds sit amid fruit trees and flower bushes. They also have chickens, geese and pigs.
The couple, both in their 40s, say Bulgaria has allowed them to fulfil their “dream of self-sufficiency”.
“It’s taken us several years to turn the derelict house and garden into somewhere beautiful where we grow our own food,” said Kevin, taking a sip from a Union Jack mug.
“We’ve learnt to be happy with less,” added Tina, who at one point worked as a marketing expert for banks in London.
When they’re not selling their produce at a farmer’s market, they herd village goats, meet neighbours for coffee and improve their Bulgarian.
“This isn’t Spain where you can live as an English person in an English community. The adventurous ones come to Bulgaria,” said Kevin.
News of Britain’s recent vote to quit the EU proved upsetting even to this jovial pair.
“I’m proud to be British but I also love living here. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive,” said Tina.
Starry nights and pools
Britain’s romance with Bulgaria began in 2004 when Sofia launched a massive tourism campaign in Britain to draw foreign investment.
The Bulgarian entry into the EU single market three years later further eased rules to live and work here.
Brits bought around 60,000 homes between 2004 and 2008, according to Rumen Draganov of the Institute for Analysis and Assessment in Tourism.
The boom even inspired a now-defunct comedy TV series on Bulgarian state TV, “The English Neighbour”, about a British pensioner who moves to a fictional Bulgarian village.
The influx ebbed off with the financial crisis but people are still coming, Draganov said, especially “young-spirited” pensioners.
“Surprisingly, a lot don’t opt for resort places but remote, unusual spots. They seek a community feel and starry nights,” Draganov told AFP.
Kim Sayer from Norwich was one of the first Brits to settle in the village of Marcha in central Bulgaria.
Many are drawn to the region because of its mountains, lakes, and medieval heritage.
“I saw an article on Bulgaria 12 years ago. I always wanted to go abroad and after my divorce I decided to make the move,” the 56-year-old trained plumber and construction expert told AFP.
His vast property features several self-built houses and a luxurious swimming pool overlooking a lush valley.
“I couldn’t live like this back home,” he said with a grin.
‘My life is here’
In the nearby traditional town of Dryanovo, British accents can be heard on every cafe terrace.
“Ten years ago, we thought Brits were exotic but now there are so many that you hardly notice them,” said resident Yanko Stefanov.
“I know them all around here. They call me Jacob,” he laughed.
His British “mates” include retired Belfast musician Stephen Mulhern and his partner Catherine who own a plot of land off a dirt track in the village of Turkincha.
They left London three years ago after realising their pensions would go a lot further in Bulgaria, where big homes can be bought for less than 15,000 euros (£12,600).
The couple acknowledge life can be tough in winter during power cuts and heavy snow.
“We are not blind to the fact that it’s not a rich country but it doesn’t stop us from thinking it’s a fabulous place,” said Catherine.
For all their differences, Brits here have one thing in common: they hope their government will strike a “Brexit” deal with the EU to protect their expat status.
“We want to stay if they let us,” said ex-army pilot Keith Davies who runs an expat services company in the village of Gostilitsa.
“I’ll never lose my English identity but my life is here.”