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460. Sofia to Varna road rehabilitation begins

Sofia Echo: 2009-09-01

All motorists travelling on the SofiaVarna road are advised to pay special attention to the rehabilitation works which have commenced on August 31 and are scheduled to last until October 30.

According to a press release from the National Road Infrastructure Agency (NRIA), traffic will be diverted on several sections of the road affected by the working process immediately, with additional sections to follow, to be announced in due course.

Initially, the Kazandjii Dere segment near Tsar Kaloyan will have the left section (en route to Varna) of the road sealed off for repairs and all traffic will be diverted to the right. Furthermore, near Stublata, traffic will also be diverted to the right, while starting on September 2 the right part of the motorway from Sofia to Varna will be closed with only the left side operational.

All areas affected by the reconstruction works will be marked by the NRIA and the temporary organisation and procession of traffic will be conducted by NRIA officials on the ground. All motorists are advised to be exceptionally cautious and abide by speed limits.

459. Bulgarias Revenue Agency has new computer system to detect VAT fraud

Sofia Echo: 2009-08-31

Bulgarias National Revenue Agency (NRA) has developed a special computer system to detect value-added tax (VAT) fraud, the agency said in a media statement.

The software will search NRA archives to detect possible trade relations among companies registered for VAT.

Search criteria will include VAT obligations and any large refunds of VAT, among other criteria, and will seek to identify any questionable transactions between companies.

European Union Phare funding was used to develop the software, the NRA said.

In 2008, auditors found about 1.4 billion leva in undeclared obligations.

On August 29 2009, Bulgarian-language mass-circulation daily 24 Chassa said that Finance Minister Simeon Dyankov had said that checks on fuel importers and liquor manufacturers had been started after analysis in the past week had raised suspicions that they were evading excise duty and VAT.

458. Bulgarias Black Sea property prices have plummeted real estate federation

Sofia Echo: 2009-08-26

Prices of real estate on the front rank of Bulgarias Black Sea coastline have fallen by 15 to 30 per cent, while prices of properties further inland around the coastal area have decreased by as much as 60 to 70 per cent, Valeri Vassilev of Imoti Bulgaria OOD told a news conference on August 25 2009.

Prices of real estate on Bulgarias Black Sea had decreased by an average of 40 per cent in the first eight months of 2009 compared to the same period in 2008, according to the International Real Estate Federation FIABCI - Bulgaria.

But, Vassilev said, no matter how prices for property further in from the shoreline fell, some would remain unsold for years.

In most cases, builders were selling part of their built projects at lower prices to secure working capital, Dnevnik reported Vassilev as saying.

Valetin Suikov, a member of the board of the International Real Estate Federation of Bulgaria, said that the market had reached break-even point and prices would not change much in the next two years, and the prices of quality real estate would not fall.

Vesselina Ivanova of Five Star Investments said that Russians and Ukrainians were the major investors in the Black Sea property market.

The largest interest was in golf course developments, Ivanova said.

Major problems facing the market were the complicated procedures for Russians to get Bulgarian visas and that there were no direct flights from Moscow to Bulgarias Black Sea cities of Varna and Bourgas outside the summer season.

457. Austrian KIOTO - Photovoltaics will erect a 25M euro solar energy park in Tervel

property wise: 2009-08-25

The Austrian company KIOTO - Photovoltaics will build a solar park in Tervel with a five megawatt capacity, the construction of which will commence by the end of 2009, and my mid-2010, the park is poised to be connected to the municipal electric grid of Tervel, Investor.bg has reported.

Photovoltaics Tervel 1, a daughter firm of KIOTO Photovoltaics Austria, will invest 25 million euro in the facilities and auxiliary equipment, which will be erected upon a 30ha parcel on municipal land.

The Austrian concern is amongst the largest solar energy producers in Europe. Construction will employ about 50 people from the region, but the report has failed to disclose the total amount of permanent jobs that will be created once the enterprise is complete.

Tervel Municipality is earmarked to receive a fixed share for every megawatt hour of solar energy produced for the next 30 years, according to the contract, the report, quoted by Investor.bg has said.

Photovoltaic projects in Bulgaria have become increasingly popular in recent years. A substantially larger plant is also under construction in Pleven, a project which will absorb an investment exceeding 200 million leva and will produce both solar and wind energy.

456. VIP holidaymakers

Sofia Echo: 2009-08-24

Every summer the gossip columns of Bulgarian papers regale us with stories about the summer destinations of the countrys most influential people. Prime ministers, ministers, presidents and MPs are often photographed in one of the several state-owned residences on the Black Sea, a legacy from communist days when all individuals were equal but some were more equal than others.

The preconception still lingers today that Bulgarian statesmen exploit their status by enjoying half-price holidays at luxury seaside hotels, funded by taxpayers money but cordoned off to the ordinary public. Two of the most popular places are the state residence of Evksinograd, near Varna, built by King Ferdinand and widely used by communist leader Todor Zhivkov. The other is the Council of Ministers hotel in Slanchev Bryag (Sunny Beach) seaside resort.

As with many other public myths, that of the state residence used only by the powerful has little basis. Many people would be surprised that anyone can stay there provided they can pay for it and have the sense to book in advance. A website even provides detailed information about destination, cost and availability. The site can be found at http://travel.government.bg.

Unfortunately, information is only available in Bulgarian. The hotel management falls under the jurisdiction of the State Administration Ministry which newly elected Prime Minister Boiko Borissov decided to shut down as a cost-cutting measure.

Some of Bulgarias showbusiness elite have already exploited this opportunity to holiday in Evksinograd where they can enjoy a nice, wide and clean beach almost entirely to themselves. The only problem is that a fishing pier is nearby, enabling the paparazzi to snap the rich and famous in their swimming suits.

A sign that top government officials are residing at Evksinograd is when police officers are dispatched along the beach and patrol boats appear. It is probably one of the few places in Bulgaria where access is limited only to those who have pre-booked, hence its popularity with Bulgarian and foreign VIPs.

Proof of the residences popularity is the message on the website, proclaiming in big red letters, that it is fully booked throughout August. According to commercial national bTV channel, this year Evksinograd has already welcomed Russian deputy ministers and foreign diplomats as well as Bulgarian President Georgi Purvanov and former prime minister Ivan Kostov.

The most expensive feature in the residence is the luxury apartment in the Ferdinand house, costing 700 leva a night in August. Second best is a night in Chinar house, costing 600 leva, followed by Kiparis house at 500 leva. The cheapest offer in Evskinograd in August is to rent a beach house for 120 leva a night or a room in the residences Manastira hotel for the same price.

Other prices vary from 130 leva to 300 leva, matching some of the prices charged by four and five-star hotels along the Black Sea coast.

In the other Black Sea state residence, near the northern town of Shabla, rooms are still available to the public. The most expensive lodging in the remote holiday hideaway is the villa, costing 450 leva a night, while hotel rooms cost 100 leva in high season. Two more state residences are open for private viewing but they are both in Sofia.

These are Lozenets, which operates as a spa club, and Boyana. The website also offers accommodation in three other cheaper hotels: one is in the mountain resort of Pamporovo in the Rhodope mountains, another is in Hissarya resort town in central Bulgaria and the third is in Slanchev Bryag Black Sea resort. As in the case of Evksinograd, the Slanchev Bryag hotel is fully booked for August, the website says. The 110 leva a night apartment is the most expensive feature in the hotel. A room costs between 40 and 70 leva.

Affordable prices have made the place extremely popular among state administration employees who traditionally go there with their families. Hence Evksinograd continues to enjoy the interest of those who are higher up in state hierarchy.

455. Black Sea hotel owners try to sell at 'inflated' prices

Sofia Echo: 2009-08-20

Real estate agents in Burgas are reporting that 204 hotels are currently up for sale on the Southern Bulgaria Black Sea coast.

Bulgarian News Agency BGNES reported that 85 per cent of the hotels are for sale for more than one million euro, with many of the others officially hotels but run as small family guest houses.

Most of the hotels are priced at more than 300 euro a sq m. Local estate agents belive that these prices are unrealistically high. Apparently the hotels' owners are selling them at such high prices to try to cover massive debts.

The most expensive hotel being sold is a small guest house in the old town of Nesebar at a price of 3333 euro a sq m.

454. Shopping spree

Sofia Echo: 2009-08-19

Mention the name of Chris Bennett in front of an investor in business properties or anyone who brokers such deals and watch their reaction. The odds that they will not sit up and listen carefully are close to zero, but if you run into an exception to this rule, tell them that he is the man from Europa Capital, the fund manager that last year raised 750 million euro for investment in real estate, of which 150 million was for deals in Eastern Europe. Even if the people you are speaking to have never heard the name, they will likely give you their full attention, given the complete drought of deals since the start of the year and the high cost of borrowing.

The fund itself is attracting interest because over recent months, its representatives have been busy scouting out investment opportunities in Bulgaria and are even on the verge of closing their first deal. The good news is that it will most likely not be the last and the even better news is that Europa Capital is not the only potential buyer on the market.

Deal or no deal

Kapital sources say that Europa Capital is actively looking at potential investment openings, but for now the only advanced talks are with Balkanstroy Holding. The prospective deal is for the holdings building on Bulgaria Boulevard in Sofia, to which Dutch financial group ING moved its Bulgarian headquarters in June.

Balkanstroy executive director Nikolai Kaloyanov has declined to comment on the details of the negotiations, saying the company signed a confidentiality agreement with Europa Capital. Bennett, who is an independent director at Europa Capital Emerging Europe, could not be reached for comment.

People familiar with the deal said that the negotiations were about yield levels of about 10 per cent and the price offered for the few empty offices in the building was for a monthly rent of 14.5 euro for a square meter. The deal is expected to be worth about 14 to 15 million euro.

Europa Capital has looked into several projects for commercial parks. For now, the most active negotiations have been centred on Retail Park Veliko Turnovo, one industry source said. The focus of the talks is not a traditional purchase, but a joint expansion of the project.

The money people

Europa Capitals fund is not the only one looking at the Bulgarian market. Greek fund Bluehouse Capital, which recently raised 190 million euro for investment in the region, is also close to finalising a deal, sources said. Unlike Europa Capital, it would not be the funds first investment in Bulgaria. The funds portfolio in Bulgaria includes one of the buildings in Business Park Sofia, a residential project in Boyana, acquired from Equest Balkan Properties, and the Greenville Hotel in Sofia, bought from Fairplay Properties real estate fund. The funds other assets in Bulgaria are two smaller office buildings.

Odessa Investments, which recently closed the deal to buy Kambanite Business Centre, home to Hewlett-Packards Bulgaria headquarters, is also on the lookout for more deals.

Investment consultans say that several Israeli funds are also active on the market, but are interested in deals below the market average. At the same time, they are also more flexible and do not insist on the buildings being top-class.

What investors want

One of the reasons why there have been no deals over the past year is clear the global recession, naturally. In Western and Central Europe, there are attractive offers for the sale of business buildings rented by big-name companies. Logically, large institutional investors have turned their attention there, turning their backs on the markets of Bulgaria and Romania. Those investors that had created funds to invest in the region during its better times are still around and casting their eyes about. Additionally, there are some active Bulgarian investors and more risk-taking international companies.

Investors are mostly interested in office buildings, real estate consultants say, the reason being is that retail centres are not a stable enough segment. Office building tenants are often subsidiaries of bigger international companies, while in malls and shopping centres, the customers are either small retailers or relatively small Bulgarian or Greek franchisees.

For any deal to go through, at least 90 per cent of the leaseable space should be rented out, even better if the rental contracts are for a period of 10 years. A large number of parking spaces and a good location, either on a key boulevard or in the centre, are desired. The fewer companies rent spaces, the better ideally, one or two companies renting the entire building.

All investors are interested in revenue-generating properties, but there the choice is limited. Most of the sellers are Bulgarian companies that built the properties and who had little idea about what investment funds are interested in, who did not sign long-term leases with any clauses stipulating damages if the contract is terminated early.

"Sellers in Bulgaria have to keep in mind that right now foreign investors are comparing the yields on offer here to those of similar properties in Western Europe, where rental contracts are for much longer terms and there is a functioning judiciary," Mihaela Lashova, investment sales manager at real estate consultancy Forton, said. There was plenty of demand on the market, but little supply that met the requirements of prospective investors, she said.

Property consultants said that the returns sought by buyers were in the 10 to15 per cent annually range, compared to between seven and nine per cent a year earlier. Expectations are that deals now being negotiated would be closed in the autumn, but no one expected record values or an avalanche of deals.

"Most likely the deals that will be announced will be few, two or three, and will be worth between 10 million euro and 20 million euro," Lashova said. Some funds, more willing to take risks, could embark on a strategy to buy many small properties, diversifying their portfolios and minimising the risk. One advantage of such an approach would be the improved odds of securing bank financing. Yet other funds are not even looking at projects estimated at less than 10 million euro to 20 million euro.

453. Plovdiv airport's new 40M leva terminal will provide gateway to south Bulgaria

Sofia Echo: 2009-07-10

Plovdiv airport's new terminal is poised to transform the region into a major tourist destination and substantially increase investment in south-central Bulgaria, Stroitelstvo Gradut has reported.

Investments poured into the facility's overhaul and modernisation amount to 40 million leva. These are funds secured by the Ministry of Transportation and the chief airport operator, Letishte Plovdiv. The new modern terminal complies with international requirements for safety. Moreover, access to and from the facility has been improved thanks to construction of the terminal's new infrastructure.

The facility's service level is designated as C class by IATA with 1000 passengers in a peak hour, with the airport being able to process a total of 500 000 passengers annually.

Plovdiv Airport's new terminal will commence regular operations on August 1 2009.

"We wanted to achieve a modern, technical, state of the art facility, which will incorporate functionality, comfort and efficiency," said chief architect Ilko Nikolov from Arkont-A, the company awarded the construction contract from a national design competition involving 14 other teams.

With the airport commencing operation in August, local authorities believe it will be a great stimuli for the local economy, investment and regional development. "The new cargo terminal concession, which is to be put in action, will have its positive impact over the local development and economy," said Transport Minister, Peter Mutafchiev, quoted by Stroitelstvo Gradut.

452. Paradise in Bulgaria

Sofia Echo: 2009-07-03

Some climbers generally tend to leave the best for last, so that they can enjoy everything else in between. In my case I had decided to leave both Vihren in Pirin and Moussala in Rila to the last as they appealed to me the most, and my expectations were proven right. Accordingly, it rather put me off when it was finally decided to climb Botev summit in the central Balkan range. I was at some point so reluctant to climb it, considering it substantially inferior to the likes of Vihren, Kutelo and Moussala, that I opted instead to return repeatedly to Pirin and Rila, scaling peaks there that I had already climbed, simply because I thought Stara Planina would be a total waste of my time. And, of course, it turned out that I was a complete, fully-fledged, card-carrying idiot.

The journey took us from Sofia to the town of Kalofer, following a mountain road running parallel to the River Iskar and the Iskar gorge, a trip which, in itself, deserves an article. The Balkan range divides the country in half and usually sets the standards for all rivers of the Balkan peninsula: north of it, they flow in the Danube, and south of it, onwards to the Aegean Sea. Not Iskar, though. Iskar slices right through the range, crossing most of Bulgaria, only to pour itself in to the Danube. Abandoning the car in Kalofer, our party of four set off with roughly 20kg of laden Bergens full of food, water, thick clothing, medical and survival kit towards the first destination on what was to be the first leg of the hike Raiskoto Pruskalo waterfall and the Rai Lodge (Paradise Lodge).

At 124.5m, Raiskoto Pruskalo is the highest permanent waterfall in Southeastern Europe. Walking through fields, interspersed with scattered forests, we encountered farm animals, serenity and beauty, then embarked on a poorly maintained dirt road which eventually revealed the fearsome Southern Djendem gorge and the summit of Botev in the distance itself, with the silver waterfall visible from miles.

Make sure you are driving a Land Rover or something similar if you attempt going there with a vehicle. Alternatively, your city car will be disemboweled, battered and left for the scrap yard. Reaching a beautiful natural terrace overlooking the gorge and the towering summit ahead, we halted for a quick brew and realised that here, not even a third in hike, the road ends. From there on, its a mountain path, slicing through the ancient forest the only route by which Rai is accessible. Several horses and mules, laden with food, drinks and other provisions were supplied by an army truck while we were having our brew, setting off for the lodge before us.

The Balkan Mountain Range, or Stara planina in Bulgarian, extends for more than 580km from the Vrshka Chuka Peak on the border between Bulgaria and eastern Serbia, then running eastward, slicing Bulgaria in half, reaching the shores of the Black Sea at Cape Emine. The highest peaks of the Stara Planina are all centred in central Bulgaria, the highest of which is Botev at 2376m, dead in the middle of the Central Balkan National Park, and, of course, the main objective of this three-day expedition. It is flanked by Triglav (Three Heads) to the west and Vejen, to the east. The mountain range itself, instrumental and symbolic with the history and culture of Bulgaria, has a very prominent stature in the national consciousness of all Bulgarians, and subsequently has lent its name to the entire Balkan Peninsula.

Established in 1991 to conserve the unique natural scenery and heritage of the area, and protect the customs and livelihood of the local population, it is governed by the Park Directorate, a regional body of the Ministry of the Environment and Waters that manages the Park. The Directorate employs local organisations and engages volunteers and mountain climbers in preserving the habitat. We climbed the steep path towards Rai Lodge, passing primal forests, several hundred year old trees, rivers, small waterfalls, negotiating the path covered with piles of horse and mule excrement deposited from the caravan ahead. "Dont worry, its only five turns to the ridge which overlooks the lodge," said our companion Dobrin Minkov. Right, mate! Multiply that by a factor of 10 and you are getting closer to the actual turns the path makes to the ridge. Every once in a while we would find a white metal box with a red cross nailed to a tree a pharmacy, fully stocked with just about anything you can imagine. "Help yourself but dont over supply" was written on the case.

Remarkable and renowned for its flora and fauna, it accommodates centuries-old forests of beech, spruce, fir, hornbeam, and durmast. More than half the flora of Bulgaria has been identified within the park, and of these, 10 species and two subspecies are endemic, which means they are found nowhere else in the world. It boasts more than 130 higher plants and animal species which are included in the Bulgarian and the World Red Book of Endangered Species. The beautiful, extremely rare and iconic Edelweiss grows there in the region of Kozyata Stena (Goats Wall) and the flower can also be found in Pirins Koncheto Ridge. Most of Europes largest mammal species can be found there, including the brown bear, wolf, boar, chamois, deer and others.

Once you leave the small gorge behind and climb onto the ridge, the waterfall becomes audible, as its glory is presented on a silver plate before your eyes with the summit of Botev on top and the Djendem gorge to the right. Djendema means "hell" and it applies to the south face of the summit. Djendema encompasses 42.2 sq km, the largest reserve in the mountain and the second largest reserve in Bulgaria. It is centered on a granite extrusion combined with limestone outcroppings to form a labyrinth of steep slopes; deep, narrow gorges, massive rock cliffs, and towering waterfalls. It shelters beech and fir forests and large meadows with unique sub-alpine grassy species and communities. Because of its specific geological and climatic conditions, the area is rich in endemic species and rare plants. One could take several days to cross Djendema but it is said that no one, not even professional alpinists, were able to scale the hellish gorge Bear Grylls, come and try it if you dare.

One thing you may do is turn left and climb the Kupena peak which offers a spectacular view of everything around or head towards the lodge, about 30 minutes away from the ridge, about five hours into the hike. The aptly named Paradise lodge is simply breathtaking. If you can imagine a high meadow, a deep gorge on one side, imposing cliffs on the other, the waterfall in between them and the summit of Botev lurking above, with heavy forests and a dozen wild horses running all over the perimeter, then you are almost getting there. The staff is friendly, the rooms are clean, accommodation at 10.30 leva a night insultingly cheap, and the food is decent. Most importantly, there are clean showers with hot water in bountiful supply. In summer, the spacious meadow can accommodate dozens of tents, and the atmosphere at night is unforgettable.

We were hit by high winds and heavy, sustained rain early next morning which jeopardised the climb. We were poised to reshuffle the programme, when suddenly at 9am the rain stopped and the skies cleared. Almost two hours behind schedule, the assault on the summit commenced, the path going up towards and near the waterfall, then slicing ever upwards reaching the impending vertical cliffs. This is the beginning of the so called Tarzan Path, an epic route, which is for the most part rigged with a steel cable to ease climbers. Beautiful and stunning, the Tarzan Path lives up to its reputation, although one can negotiate it even without the cable, and only on very few occasions the cable was actually necessary certainly not as dangerous as Koncheto Ridge in Pirin.

However, while you climb the Tarzan, the beauty and the adrenaline of the climb pour into your bloodstream and you keep going, not noting the fatigue. It is when the Tarzan ends and you reach the col of the mountain and the final gruelling stretch to Botev summit that you will get completely knackered. The nature of the mountain on that face is such, that the summit is invisible, which means you climb, and climb, not knowing how far you have to go, draining you physically and mentally. Add to that the sustained, strong wind battering us straight in the face, obstructing our advance; we were at our chin strap towards the end.

We spent more than an hour at the summit, sheltered in the meteorological station in a clean compound, furnished with a table and beds. A large kettle full of tea, more than two litres of it for a laughable two leva. Wolfing down the grub, taking an aspirin where necessary, we recharged and made some photos outside the station with the friendly station keeper whose name, sadly, I cant recall. Perhaps one of the most memorable parts of the three-day hike was here, descending from the summit on the second day, heading towards the lodge of Tuja. For nearly three hours we walked along the ridge of Stara Planina, Bulgarias spine. Glancing left, one would see most of northern Bulgaria, and looking to the south, eyes are cast upon the remainder. Botev is also close to the geographical centre of the country, which is in Lozana.

The descent was picturesque and beautiful, lasting a little more than four hours, only marred by speculation and fear that there might be no beer at the lodge, which might seem funny now, but I can assure you, the possibility of not being able to down a pint after a long day in the mountain was simply sadistic. There is a certain inter-lodge rivalry going on in every mountain, embellished and armoured with a fair amount of defamation and disinformation, fed to tourists to discourage them from going to a certain lodge, with some particular cases being more extreme than others, and this being no exception. To an extent Tuja lived up to its reputation, it was beautifully perched next to a river, the staff were pleasant and welcoming.

It was a lodge still in the process of reconstruction and refurbishment, there was beer and alcohol, as well as food, but they were severely lacking in salads. Sleeping arrangements were also substantially inferior to Rai, with us being packed in a room with about 20 other people, each one of them snoring at a different pitch and frequency, making for a delightful concert it made me wish I carried my tent to no end. Regardless of it all, however, it was not enough to dent the experience of Stara Planina. Highly recommended for anyone with a desire for adventure and an unforgettable weekend.

451. Hewlett Packard Bulgaria opens biggest training centre in Balkans

Sofia Echo: 2009-07-02

Hewlett Packard has opened in Bulgaria its largest training facility in Southeastern Europe, the Hewlitt Packard Education Center, the company said in a statement.

The new training facility is on the ground floor of the HP Business Centre in the Kambanite business centre. It has six halls, three of which have been equipped with the latest state of the art HP technology, and the other three are designated for lectures and conferences. The programmes on offer are HP-UX, HP StorageWorks, HP ProLiant & HP BladeSystem, Vmware, Linux, ITIL/ITSM, Project Management, Business Analysis and Microsoft Training.

Trainees will be given HP Education Certificate diplomas, guaranteeing the quality of education received. The lecturers are both foreign and Bulgarian and the education process "maintains the highest educational standards developed over the years by HP Education Programme, in cooperation with the best technologies around the world", the statement said.

The services of the education centre can be used by both HP partners as well as any specialist or company interested.

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