In the market for a change Mar 18 2005
Daniel Davies, Western Mail
Thousands of people are selling up and leaving behind Britain every year and making new lives in other countries. But is escaping to the sun all it's cracked up to be? Daniel Davies spoke to one Welsh couple who now sell property in Bulgaria
HOW many people have dreamed of ditching their jobs and heading for the sun? Probably more than have dreamt of ditching their jobs and heading for Bulgaria .
Escaping to warmer climes is supposed to be about packing in your job to eke out a simple existence on a sun-kissed shore - selling ice-creams in the Caribbean or living the humble life of a fisherman on a Greek island.
Former Soviet-bloc countries are not the first to come to mind when considering a destination to escape the rat-race.
Tourists have returned to former Yugoslavian coastlines, and East European cities such as Prague are firm favourites for weekend breaks.
But apart from the most intrepid traveller, many countries in eastern Europe are more likely to conjure images of drab, grey housing blocks in the snow.
Bulgaria , however, is exactly where one Welsh couple chose to chase their dream.
Sarah Johnston and John McDermott decided they had put up with enough uninspiring Welsh weather and the toil of running their Carmarthenshire guesthouse.
So they left it all behind to sell ski-chalets in the freezing Balkan mountains , in a country where they can't even speak the language.
Programmes such as Channel 4's A Place in the Sun depend for their success on popularising the idea of emigrating.
Moving to a foreign (and hotter) country is not just for the rich and famous, they say, it is a dream any family can pursue with the right planning and application.
But surely it is advisable to move to a country about which you have some prior knowledge, or at the very least, some place where you have had a holiday?
Before they decided to quit careers in building and marketing and hand over the keys to their business, how much experience of Bulgaria had John and Sarah had?
"Absolutely none," Sarah said. "We were just looking for a holiday home. We went to France , we went to Croatia , we went to Spain , and found everywhere was so expensive and we decided to come to Bulgaria ."
Their first visit was in June last year, but the couple fell in love with the country, its people and its property prices so much they decided to do more than buy a home. They acquired several homes and are now selling them to other people in the UK who share their yearning to escape.
Sarah, 33, is originally from Cardiff and worked in sales and marketing for the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation until she and John, 37, moved to Carmarthenshire in search of a better life.
They ran a guesthouse in Laugharne, named after one of the village's most famous sons. Dylan's Luxury Accommodation is an idyllic location with splendid views of the river Taf, Carmarthen Bay and Laugharne castle, so it's difficult to imagine how anyone would not be able to find peace there.
"You may never want to leave," boasts the web site. But John and Sarah had itchy feet and, after two years, they left.
Although they still own it, Dylan's is under new management and is effectively running itself to pay off John and Sarah's mortgage.
John has long had the travelling bug. From Germany to San Francisco , he worked himself around the world in the construction trade. Perhaps it was inevitable that he would not settle at home in West Wales for long.
But in Bulgaria , they believe they have found their calling. This year they began new careers in real estate and set up Bulgaria Property Agents.
Through their web site and estate agents in Wales and Ireland , the couple are selling to people seeking second homes or a new start abroad.
Clearly they are hoping to introduce more people to the joys of Bulgaria that fired their enthusiasm.
"We fell in love with the people and obviously the property prices are a bonus," Sarah said.
"Everybody wants the opportunity to have a holiday home and Bulgaria gives everyone the opportunity to do that."
In May, the company will take its first parties of potential buyers around the country to see the homes on its books.
The task is to convince "everybody" who wants a holiday home that they want it on the Black Sea or in Sofia , and not on the Mediterranean or in St Tropez.
Bulgarians had their first multi-party elections in 1990 with the fall of the USSR . It had been within Moscow 's sphere of in luence since the end of World War II.
As communism receded, so too did the size of the Bulgarian economy. Like much of Eastern Europe , unemployment and inflation rocketed as Bulgaria emerged from behind the Iron Curtain.
And, like most of Eastern Europe , as the economy got back on its feet in the 1990s, Bulgaria began to look westward. It joined Nato in March last year, and its people now align themselves with The Treaties of Rome and Maastricht , not the Warsaw Pact.
Transformation from fiefdom of the East to a member of the West's premier clubs will be confirmed when it joins the EU on January 1, 2007 .
John and Sarah are just in time for what could be the first year since 1990 when Bulgaria makes its presence felt on the tourist circuit.
"It's the new Croatia : hot in summer, skiing in winter and fabulously cheap," claimed the Sunday Times Style supplement last week.
The Black Sea coast rivals the Med for summer sunshine, and if its beautiful unspoilt countryside you want, it is touted one of the best destinations in Europe .
John and Sarah bought a traditional rural home with four bedrooms, 10 minutes from the Black Sea coast, for about ?50,000 - significantly more than homebuyers can expect to save thanks to the Chancellor's budget this week.
"We wanted to get away from it all and get a better quality of life," John said.
"It's going back in time in a way, and escaping all of the high taxes. I'm confident this will work, especially with all the media around saying this will be the next big thing. We have met people on holiday out here, but not actually living out here."
If you are interested in buying in Bulgaria , don't expect John and Sarah to sell communist-era monolithic architecture.
"There are many areas that are still concrete," Sarah said. But their portfolio includes new developments and traditional homes, ranging from the coast to the skiing regions of Pamparevo and Borovets.
The couple say they can give prospective buyers legal advice and help them adapt to the customs and laws of living in Bulgaria .
Schooling for your children may be problematic, if you decide to relocate from Brecon to the Balkans.
Welsh children may struggle in a Bulgarian class, say the couple who themselves have no children.
And the language? Lessons begin soon, but as in any aspiring Western nation, most people they come into contact with speak English.
"It's really not necessary, but we are doing it so that we feel we are fitting into the community and not being rude," Sarah said.
John added, "The people are very friendly. That's one of the biggest things out here."