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Scientific Skills and Tourism: one couple’s tale

Derek Brown from Aviemore in Scotland first visited Bulgaria in the few remaining years of the Iron Curtain in 1987. He was an agricultural scientist and was on business identifying potential scientific collaborators to develop joint research projects. Derek was considered the world’s expert on microscopic soil worms, called nematodes, which transmit virus diseases to plants, especially grapevines and the Bulgarian wine industry was of specific interest to him. Derek found the country so welcoming on his first trip, that he and his wife June became frequent visitors and developed a close relationship with two of Derek’s scientific colleagues, Lyubo and Vlada Peneva. As their holidays became more frequent and their circle of Bulgarian friends grew, the Brown’s started to consider early retirement.

Bringing the idea to fruition

In June 2002 thoughts of retiring became a reality when the Brown’s finally moved to Banya, Bulgaria 5 km from the ski resort of Bansko. For Derek seeing Bansko develop was akin to reliving his teenage years in Scotland when Aviemore developed as the main ski area, He says, “The similarities are very striking especially the building versus infrastructure problems and rapid increase in prices.” The couple bought and renovated a house and intended to earn an income by setting up a hotel, which they built from scratch on their land. They had become such close friends with the Penevas that they decided to go into partnership with them and the hotel’s name Penbro was borne. Both couples wanted to combine this with their skills as internationally renowned research biologists and decided to focus the hotel towards developing scientific tourism. Thus, the hotel was kitted out with six apartments, a small, private research laboratory / conference room with stereo low- and high- powered microscopes and a small science library, which continues to attract many international groups of scientists as well as local Bulgarians investigating the flora and fauna of the Pirin, Rila and Rhodope Mountains.

The hotel also has a covered and an outdoor barbecue area, each with tables and seating, garden areas, and car parking. There is a fully equipped private Mehana (traditional restaurant) is available on-site for the exclusive use of Penbro guests to organise private parties. Another unique feature of the hotel is that each apartment door was hand carved by a local artisan and each room is named after a Bulgarian wine. When asked why they chose to name their rooms in this way, Derek explains, “I was hopeless at remembering people’s names but I could always recognise the names of wines!”

The majority of the hotel guests are Bulgarians, who consider this area to be a year round holiday destination. Many guests come from Sofia and Plovdiv and enjoy spending a weekend here to escape the heat and noise of these cities. The area is full of many events such as concerts and music festivals.

Derek and June have accumulated a vast amount of local knowledge, which they use to guide their visitors through their holiday. Derek and June believe that at Penbro you arrive as a guest and depart as a friend. Over the years, the couple have developed close relationships with many guests and are constantly touched by their loyalty and friendship.

Integrating into Bulgarian society

The retired Scottish Professor and his wife immediately became the subject of intense curiosity in Bulgaria.  At this time Bansko was almost unknown to the outside world being an almost exclusively Bulgarian ski resort. June has also become something of a local celebrity after being a guest cook on the cookery show “Bon Apetite”. She still receives requests for her recipe for Scottish whisky soup!  They have been the subject of many articles in the Bulgarian press and also had a TV documentary made about their integration in the local community for national Bulgarian television.

Over the years they have become totally integrated and have made many close friends, They follow the local traditions with both being accomplished folk dancers, June is an expert in Bulgarian cooking and hand decorating Easter eggs and they have even learnt the words to allow them to sing along with several folk songs.  Their favourite, which they thought was a very romantic song about a shepherd boy in love with a local merchant’s daughter in fact turned out to be a Bulgarian Macedonian rebel song.

The couple is now so much a part of the local community; on an evening out they once heard some local Bansko people talking in dialect and using the word for foreigner. The couple asked their friends what they had done to offend these people. Their friends roared with laughter and explained that the reference was being made about the people from Sofia at the next table and that Derek and June were considered locals not foreigners!

Being regarded as locals and having local friends has meant that Derek and June experience life in Bulgaria that only a few “incomers” have the privilege to enjoy. Being invited to picnics and parties, attending village days, weddings, name days and birthday parties, being shown local “secret places”, reinforces that living in and being part of a small mountain community means that everyone is interdependent on one another.Every day living here brings new experiences, new excitement, new friends, and perhaps most important of all, new memories. This is why Derek and June came here and they have not been disappointed by their decision.


Derek and June Brown, ApartHotel Penbro, Banya, Razlog Municipality (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )