Misery deepens in northwest Bulgaria, the EU's poorest region
A local resident cycles through the village of Rasovo, some 150 km north from Bulgarian capital Sofia, on April 29, 2014 - by Nikolay Doychinov
But there is no masking the fact that 25 years since the end of communism and seven years after Bulgaria joined the European Union, life here is bleak -- and getting bleaker.
"They re-did the square, the children's playground, the library and made a new sewage system," local Rosa Ivanova, 78, a retired agronomist told AFP. "But there are no people!"
There are "no jobs whatsoever for the young people... My kids ran away, my house is empty -- only me and three goats left," said retired bus driver Stoyan Naydenov, 62.
"Everyone either left or died."
Under communism more than 4,000 people lived in Rasovo, 140 kilometres (90 miles) north of the capital Sofia, employed by huge cooperative farms and factories.
Now there are fewer than 1,000 residents and those who remain are mostly old, rattling past collapsed buildings along potholed streets in carts pulled by donkeys.
Rasovo's spruced-up playground is devoid of children. Schools in the area have been renovated, but some have been forced to close as there are very few kids.
The situation is not much different in the nearby small town of Brusartsi.
"There are no factories, unemployment is pervasive," retired train driver Zhivko Yordanov, 64, said.
"The only events are funerals."
- Deeper problems -
In the regional centres of Vidin, Montana and Vratsa unemployment last year was between 20-22 percent -- almost twice the national rate of 11 percent and double the rates of seven years ago.
The rural region bordering Serbia and Romania traditionally tops the tables with some of the lowest birth and highest mortality rates in the country.
Economist Yavor Alexiev from the Sofia-based Institute for Market Economics said that much of the EU investment has failed to tackle the deeper problems.
Some measures "improve the environment and the infrastructure, no doubt, but do not influence the standard of living and people's incomes and employment," Alexiev told AFP.
In addition in a country long criticised by Brussels for failing to tackle corruption and organised crime, money earmarked for administrative improvements often gets "syphoned off", he said.
In agriculture, the mainstay of the local economy, the hopes of small farmers for EU aid have been dashed, with government data showing that 80 percent of farming subsidies have gone to six percent of farmers.
"Whoever has some small patch of land has rented it to the big tenant farmers. There's three of them here, farming all the land in Rasovo and getting any subsidies there is to get," retired tractor driver Rangel Dimitrov, 69, said.
Optimism a year ago that an impressive new road-and-rail bridge across the Danube into Romania -- paid for by the EU -- would give the area a shot in the arm has also faded.
"There was a bit of a stir, Romanians coming to shop here during the first month when the crossing was toll-free. Then everything died out," musician Ira Dimcheva, 29, said in Vidin.
Bad roads in the region however have put truckers off. Most of them still prefer to cross over the Danube further east, even if this means waiting for hours at ferryboat ports.
Still, with EU elections set for May 25, most Bulgarians remain pro-European, even if surveys find them unhappy about progress their country has made.
"We want to be in Europe and here we are. But how come the standard of living is so much lower than in other countries?" wonders Dimitrov.