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The luxury of Bulgaria' s rahatluk

monday, april 3, 2006,International Herald Tribune

VELIKO TURNOVO, Bulgaria Other than some bars and real estate of- fices with signs in English, there are few visual clues that Veliko Turnovo has be- come one of most popular places in Bulgaria to buy a second home, especially for the British.

In recent years foreigners have bought about 500 homes in this north central town of 65,000 and the surrounding mountaintop villages, ac- cording to Stephane Lambert, co-owner of Stara Planina Properties.

Lambert, 40, arrived in Bulgaria from Lon- don in 1998 as an urban planner for a United Nations project to restore public buildings. In 2001, the British Channel Four series "A Place in the Sun," enlisted him to help produce an episode about buying a property in Bulgaria. Since then, the country' s real estate has be- come something of a national obsession in Great Britain.

Lambert has sold about 200 properties to foreigners from his offices in Veliko Turnovo and Varna, which is the biggest city on the Black Sea coast.

He said most buyers have come for the bar- gains: Country houses and city apartments generally sell for 10,000 euros to 20,000 euros, or $ 12,000 to $ 24,000. (The Bulgarian lev is pegged to the euro, so real estate values are expressed in euros, even though the country is not in the euro zone.)

Veliko Turnovo' s varied past is reflected in its architecture. Founded by the Romans, it was the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire from 1185 to 1393, when it fell after a three month siege to the Ottoman Turks, who controlled the entire region until the late 19th century.

The town' s natural fortifications are visually stunning. It is surrounded on all sides by the Balkan mountain range, from which the peninsula takes its name, and overlooks the Yantra River, which snakes through a valley far below.

The wooden Turnovo houses have white washed facades, oak balconies and roofs of red ceramic tiles.

Their fitted stone foundations blend imperceptibly with the rocky earth, so they appear to grow from their surroundings as naturally as geological formations.

Le Corbusier, in his 1911 book "Journey to the East," marveled at the "avalanche of houses" in Turnovo and praised the "perfect cleanliness." He described the Balkan people, based on the evidence of their architecture, as "men who do not reason" and have an "instinctive appreciation for the organic line."

In the past several years, Lambert has also sold about 10 Ottoman-era houses to Britons intent on high-end restorations. Most of them were registered as national monuments of culture, so government approval was required before any changes could be made.

Some of the finest examples of Ottoman-era houses are in the village of Arbanassi, about five kilometers, or three miles, away on a hill overlooking the city. Because the entire village is classified as a national monument, the building materials are strictly defined: oak, sandstone, red ceramic roof tiles, traditional straw and plaster walls.

Nikolai Stoyanov, an architect in Veliko Turnovo whose company, Arka Architecture, has restored Ottoman-era houses in Arbanassi, says foreigners are attracted to the beauty of the houses and the way of life from past centuries that they represent.

Rahatluk is part of this, he said. a concept treasured by the Ottoman Turks that roughly is translated into "pleasure from comfort, and not doing much at all."

In homes, the concept is reflected by the chardak, a large shady porch where the resident can greet guests, drink tea or nap, and the minder, a large couch lined with pillows used for much the same activities.

Stoyanov said rahatluk is a spiritual condition that goes beyond simply relaxation, laziness or comfort. "Health, happiness and business need to be taken care of before you can have rahatluk," he said. "It is an oriental idea." Emma Johnson, a fashion student in Manchester, England, bought an 18th century house in Arbanassi that she intends to renovate as a vacation home.She paid 36,000 euros for the 395-square-meter, or 4,252-square-foot, eight-room house with about eight-tenths of a hectare, or two acres, of land.The estimates she got from local architects put the cost of renovations between 58,000 euros and 130,600 euros.

Johnson wants the finished house to have the comforts of a modern home while preserving the original style, similar to that of the museum houses she has seen nearby.

"I love the character, the platforms, the carpets, the fireplaces," she said. "It's incredibly comfortable and relaxing here."

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