I first came to the village of Shiroka Luka, high in the Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria, by accident, on a walking holiday, in 1988. Bulgaria was then a more or less functioning socialist economy, if not the socialist paradise it had set out to become forty years earlier, and the village thrived as an agricultural community and as host to four substantial state institutions – an orphanage for children and teenagers, an orphanage for babies, a specialist folk music school for instrumentalists, singers and dancers, and a primary school for children from the village and the orphanage. There were jobs to be had in these institutions as well as in the fields and woodland that surround the village.
Even so, the population of the village and the surrounding area was lower than it had been a hundred years earlier. Subsistence farming and the simple rural life were even then less tempting than decades earlier, when villagers rarely left the valley, dressed in the local colourful styles and played the bagpipes and flute.
Since my visit in 1988 the population of the village has halved. Farming in the high meadows above the village has all but ceased, and this year, for the first time, not a single cow can be seen ambling in the early morning from the village to the nearby pastures to graze, and back again in the evening. Even fifteen years ago, cattle were housed in stables beneath the villagers’ houses, and in the evening you would see each cow break away from the herd to find her own way home as the cowherd led them through the village square. Villagers, presumably, milked their own cows and made their own cheese and butter.
The orphanage housed nearly 70 children in 1988, and there were 20 babies in the baby home. The primary school taught 100 children and the music school boarded more than 200. That was then. The baby orphanage closed about ten years ago, the children’s orphanage closed this year, the music school boards only around 100 pupils now and the village school teaches only 17 pupils.
You would think, looking at the village, as I have, over the last few days, that it still thrives, albeit in different ways. The village square is lined with restaurants and craft shops, selling Rhodope rugs, slippers and bells. But this occupies the village only for a few months each year. With these four institutions in decline or closed there is nothing to keep young people here, whilst in Plovdiv and Sofia there are jobs, and modern life and a more comfortable way of getting through the winter. However sentimentally we might regard the old way of life, we would be the last to choose to live it.
There’s an idea now that the orphanage might become a special centre for artistically gifted children, or a centre where the arts might be employed to inspire ordinary children – I’m not sure which. All of this stems from the work that my friend Elena Panayotova and her colleagues have done through the Children’s Theatre School, but I can’t see how this could be enough to keep the village alive, or where the money might come from to finance it. It is a desperate, but a barely plausible hope.
It is, of course, sad to see village life, indeed a way of life, decline. But Shiroka Luka is too far away to serve as a pretty weekend bolt hole for the middle-classes of Plovdiv and Sofia, and, in any, case these are not yet sufficiently prosperous cities. What’s happening here happened fifty years ago in the United Kingdom and most of Europe and no one can stop it happening here. Things change.