Bulgaria, from straw-bale houses to eye-popping art

Travel map of Bulgaria
Gene Thorp/The Washington Post
By Tyler Guthrie
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, July 23, 2010; 2:53 PM

The hard cider has proved to be unpalatable, and the rocket stove cracked after the first use. But all in all, things are progressing pretty well. Slowly, the old mud bricks that were once the backbone of a 19th-century pigsty, now carefully soaked and stacked, are becoming an interior wall of a straw-bale studio in Hotnitsa, Bulgaria.

The environmentally friendly studio is for Allan and Eileen Sutherland, a semi-retired British couple my wife, Rachel, and I met through the cultural exchange Web site Help Exchange. A village of 400 or so, Hotnitsa is home to a surprisingly large community of Brits who have settled here for cheap land and the opportunity to build a new life from the ground up.

As it's a dream of ours to someday hop off the grid a la Tom and Barbara Good (for those unfamiliar with classic British TV, see "The Good Life"), Rachel and I are willingly trading our labor for a nice place to sleep, three bountiful meals a day, all the red peppers we could possibly eat and the opportunity to become familiar with many of the practices of permaculture and self-sufficiency.

For two weeks, we've been clearing space for a forest garden and working to bring electricity to the studio. Our ultimate destination in Bulgaria is the Orthodox monastery housing Rafail's Cross in the southwestern Rila Mountains, but we've come here first to slow down from our hectic travels and give our credit cards a rest while getting to know a few of the many expats who call this part of Eastern Europe home.

After placing the last mud brick in the wall dividing the entryway from the living room, Rachel and I begin to cover and seal it with a layer of cob, an adobe-like building material of sand, dirt, clay and straw. Mixing it by hand is an arduous but contemplative task that makes the centuries-old cob cottages and pubs I've seen in Wales and England seem that much more impressive.

One palmful at a time, we squeeze the cob into all the cracks we can find and then spread it evenly over the bricks. It would be sweaty work if not for the 18-inch-thick straw bales insulating us from the heat of the day. A building technique born in the American Midwest, straw-bale construction has become highly popular among eco-conscious budget builders the world over.

As we smooth out the last layer, we hear the click of the gate outside and footsteps coming up the path. The workday is often interrupted by the grandmotherly next-door neighbor, who lumbers over uninvited (but always welcome) to deliver yet another bushel of peppers and lecture our hosts in Bulgarian on the proper way to plant, harvest or eat a certain crop.

These footsteps, however, belong to two burly men and a dolled-up reporter, who asks whether the Sutherlands would like to be filmed for a Bulgarian National News series about sustainable solutions. Allan consents to the interview, with us as the backdrop. As he details the purpose of the straw-bale project, we continue smoothing out the already-finished wall, silently wondering how long we can carry on before it becomes obvious that we have nothing left to do.

At the end of our time with the Sutherlands, we hitch a ride into the nearby town of Veliko Turnovo, once the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396) and now a charming regional center. We roam the cobblestone streets looking for a guesthouse I had scouted out online but failed to jot down the name of. Feeling confident that we'll find it, I rely on my traveler's instinct and a vague recollection of what the front door looks like, but it isn't long before we're lost.

"Looking for a hotel?" a middle-aged Australian man yells from an empty bar. As I begin to describe the guesthouse we're seeking, he interrupts. "You can stay here at the Loft Hostel; you'll have it all to yourself and I'll give you a great deal." He begins to badger us, and after we firmly decline and walk away, he calls out, "Stupid [expletive] Americans!"

An elderly Danish couple overhear the exchange and politely suggest that we find lodgings with them. Relieved, we follow them around a sharp bend in the winding Yantra River and through a narrow stretch of town toward the Tsarevets, a medieval castle that was once the seat of power for most of the Balkans. The old man's cane clicks softly against the stones as my wife makes mental notes of various sites for later exploration. In vain, I continue to peer at signs and doorways looking for the guesthouse I'd lost.

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