Derry woman Claire Coulter and her archaeologist husband Chris like to keep things simple. So when they headed for Bulgaria four years ago the idea of running an eco farm came naturally to them. They’ve welcomed guests from all over the world where they’ve passed on trades such as making cheese, wine and preservatives. On a recent visit home they spoke to ‘Journal’ reporter Erin Hutcheon.
It’s now been four years since Claire and Chris moved to Bulgaria to start a new life. Claire, who is also an archaeologist spent many years working overseas but she and Chris decided they wanted something new, a life where things were much simpler.
But before taking the plunge they went to went to work in France on organic farms.
“We learned a lot from the eco projects there,” said Claire. “Then we met someone who said - why don’t you give Bulgaria a try. So we did, and found it was perfect for us.”
They now run a hugely successful eco farm in the north Bulgarian countryside.
When they arrived Claire and Chris bought the house they currently live in, and the house next door to it, which is now an eco cottage they rent out to visitors.
“It’s a very traditional lifestyle and we work with very skilled farmers including a lot of elderly women who still grow all their own vegetables in the backyard and make their own preservatives,” said Claire. “We’ve learned a lot from them.
“The house we bought next door is now an eco-cottage, it hadn’t been lived in for 20 years. But we have completely restored it. It was important that it was all done sustainably so we used solar power and kept the building as natural as possible using mud and straw on the walls and clay paint at the top. This was finished with a lime wash and eco paint giving it a very natural feel.”
Continuing with the sustainable ethos Claire and Chris then recycled the grey water to use on plants. The cottage uses a luxury composting toilet and is fully powered by solar panels.
Claire and Chris have had people visiting from all over the globe, many with different needs and expectations.
“Some people crave the peace and quiet,” said Claire. “Others are interested in the food side of what we do, making our own bread, picking our own vegetables, growing our own meat and making our own jams and cheeses.
“Sometimes people come here and think - what are we going to do for a week, but before they know it they are chilled out and enjoying themselves.
“Families tend to be very interested in the animals. Kids like taking the goats down to meet the shepherds, doing some milking, collecting the eggs and feeding the pigs.”
It was an extra surprise for Chris and Clare to discover they could incorporate some archaeology into their holidays.
“Unbeknown to us there is fantastic archaeology in the area,” said Claire. “There is an amazing history.”
Chris explained that there are three world heritage sites within an hour’s drive.
“There are only about ten in the whole country so there are all kinds of things to see from the times the Ancient Greek and Romans were here. During the middle ages the Romans had a huge empire that stretched across the whole of the Balkans.
“Visitors can have a look at the painted medieval monasteries. There is one close to us which is actually inside a cave. There are coloured paintings all over the cave. We do day trips for guests but for guests who are very keen on learning the history we do week long holidays where we take people out every day. People do get very immersed in the history of the area.”
Guests can also get involved in some of the workshops which involve food and farming.
“We make our own alcohol, wine, cider and rakia, which is the local alcohol, a bit like poitin. In Bulgaria everyone makes it,” said Chris.
“People make it in their backyards, they have these little stills set up and twice and year they make around 20 litres of rakia.
“We also make our own bacon, cheese and sausages.”
The couple have recently teamed up with Derry band ‘Balkan Alien Sound’ who are planning to come and do a tour in Bulgaria and stay in the cottage in September.
“People love visiting Bulgaria because of the Balkan music,” said Claire. “Chris plays in a local band and we like to work with local musicians.”
It’s now winter in Bulgaria and Chris and Claire are bracing themselves for temperatures which could go as low as -15.
“The work is seasonal so we don’t open in the winter, When spring comes we will start planting again and keep busy all summer. We’re expecting a few baby goats when we get back.”
This year the couple are offering an extra special course.
From 29-31 May 2015, Frances Wright, a professional herbalist from England, will be running a course about the wonderful healing properties of Bulgaria’s prolific wild flowers and herbs.
Frances will be working with local women to share knowledge and learn from each other.
To find out more about Wild Thyme Cottage log on to http://www.wildthymefarm.org/ or follow them on facebook.