With a bit of know-how and plenty of luck getting to places in a car can be a fascinating experience
Bulgarian drivers, pedestrians, and on-lookers are forever moaning about congestion, haphazardly parked cars, lack of parking facilities, potholes, corrupt cops and so on and so forth. As at some stage you are bound to get yourself involved in the traffic, here is some essential advice on rules, regulations and customs, as well as a a bagful of tips and tricks.
Sofia and the big cities
Local drivers detest what they call "downtown traffic jams," but they’ve never been to Naples or seen the M25.
That said, parking spaces are indeed scarce and parking is difficult and unpredictable.
You will find many pavements crammed with parked cars. Clampers and tow trucks are in operation, but they tend to work selectively, picking up the cheaper and more middle-class vehicles, while leaving expensive German cars undisturbed.
As the economic crisis is biting deeper, fewer people are driving their cars in Sofia, so the parking situation has improved somewhat. The Sofia City Council has introduced a two-tier payment system for parking in Central Sofia: the so-called Blue Zone and the Green Zone. Sounds complicated, but it is not very: there are signs all over the place telling you whether you are in the Green or in the Blue zones. The easiest way to pay for your parking is if you have a Bulgarian mobile phone. Just send a text message to either 1302 or 1303 (for Blue and Green zones respectively) with your number plate in the text field, and wait for the confirmation. This usually works. If it doesn't, a parking assistant wearing an electric-green bib will show up. Buy your parking slip from them.
If you park somewhere and return to find your vehicle missing, there are two possibilities. First you will think it has been stolen. To verify this, call 983 6747 (in Sofia) and you are likely to find it has been towed away by a truck referred to by Sofianites as a "spider." If this is the case you have to get yourself into a cab and go to one of the three "penalty parks" in Sofia, where your vehicle will be released on payment of a fine of 29 leva plus a parking fee, 1.20 leva per hour, which some official has termed "Evacuation Service Fee." As in any other dealings with the police, do not hand over any cash unless you are sure of getting a proper receipt.
You will see some enthusiasts trying to swerve and keep their balance on the jagged pavements in Sofia, but unless you feel very confident on two wheels, you'd better not attempt it. Most people, including ourselves, consider cycling in Sofia and the big cities to be a suicidal activity.
Don't expect anything like bike lanes.
The biggest problem for cyclists is motorists. Few of them are used to having bicycles on the road, and most will consider anyone attempting the sport a nuisance. Consequently, no one will give way to you.
By contrast, cycling in the countryside can be a fantastic experience. Mountain bikes will be seen as a novelty by people in remote areas, and some may want you to let them inspect them.
If you do bring a bicycle to Bulgaria, make sure you don't leave it chained to a lamp post. Take it inside and keep it locked indoors.
Whenever Bulgarian pavements are unoccupied by parked cars you will see holes, misplaced paving stones, wires, plumbing and other objects jutting out for no apparent reason. The condition of pavements is dire, and many streets, especially out of town centres, are badly lit. There are few if any facilities for baby buggies and the same applies to wheelchair access. Ramps are few and far between, even if you do manage to squeeze past the cars. Many Bulgarians simply walk on the roads. When crossing the road exercise extra caution, especially on zebra crossings where many drivers will feel they, not you, have the right of way.
You are bound to experience some confusion in finding your way around Bulgarian cities. The names of Communist-era heroes such as Lenin, Georgi Dimitrov and Vasil Kolarov have largely disappeared, but not quite: there is still a town called Dimitrovgrad and many smaller towns and villages will have their main street called "Georgi Dimitrov," Bulgaria's Stalinist leader. These days the biggest source of frustration will be the lack of any proper signs, or signs in Cyrillic only. In rural areas signage is patchy – sometimes there are signs, sometimes there aren't.
Red Light District
No, this is not about prostitution. Owing to some whim of Sofia traffic officials, the whole of Sofia is generally a "red light" district. In the West, whenever you start at a traffic lights, provided you maintain a reasonable speed of about 40 km/h, you are likely to find the next traffic lights green. Things work the opposite way in Bulgaria. The moment you reach your next traffic light, it will likely be red. Along with the general disarray and lack of parking facilities in Sofia, this accounts for the huge congestion in Sofia.
How to survive and have fun on the roads
The above said, we do think, however, that Bulgaria can be a pleasant place to drive. For one, it is a lot less congested than anywhere in the West. And as it is not very large, you are unlikely to find any stretch beyond your day-trip capabilities. Keep three things in mind, and (with a little luck) you should be fine.
1. Drive defensively, defensively, defensively.
2. Try to work out your route before you leave, or you may have to do lots of U-turns along the way.
3. Watch out for cops. They are often a part of the problem, not of the solution.
Here is one particularly dangerous point while driving on motorways. A Bulgarian motorway will have an emergency lane, but it will not mean what it is supposed to mean. In case of congestion you will see maniacal drivers overtaking in the emergency lane, even at night. You will often see huge trucks driving in the emergency lane for no apparent reason at all. There have been some very bad accidents (with casualties) as a result of this type of completely unacceptable behaviour.
If you want to be on the safe side, take all precautions if you have to pull up in an emergency lane – leave your lights flashing, put up your warning triangle, use your now mandatory reflective safety vest and do not linger any longer than necessary.
Out of town and motorways
Bulgaria has just about 500 kilometres of proper motorway. Most major roads have now been resurfaced and few will have major potholes, but it is always a possibility. Keep an eye on the car in front of you and if it starts weaving from side to side it probably doesn’t mean the driver is drunk – merely that they are avoiding some axle-breaking hole.
Strangely enough, the situation tends to worsen within cities and villages, where some roads appear to have been bombed during the Second World War and never repaired. The explanation officials will give has to do with national versus local budgets. Secondary roads will probably be very bad.
Motorways will never be lit, not even at major intersections. Prepare yourself for a pitch-dark exit to Plovdiv. On your way back to Sofia you will be entering a very, very dark Balkan capital: the only bright light will be that next to the cops' hut where you have to slow down because otherwise they will flag you down.
You can decipher the meaning of flashing lights depending on the kind of car that does it. If it is an expensive, Western car, flashing does not mean "I am prepared to give way" but "Get the hell out of my way." If a more moderate make of car flashes its lights at you, it means: "Watch out, there are cops around the bend."
If existent, signs will sometimes mean exactly the opposite of what they say, or nothing at all. This applies to traffic signs as well.
You will often see shops with an “Open” sign on the door, but the shop will be closed. In resort areas you will see "Free Rooms” signs, but there will be no free rooms, or "Full" signs hung in front of half-empty hotels. Shops that say "Fish" may sell chocolates, and in central Sofia you can still see signs dating back to the 1970s.
On roads you can see "Work in Progress" signs, but you can never be sure there will be work in progress – the work might have been completed a long time ago, with having forgotten to take down the sign.
The really bad thing is on motorways, especially at night. Your lane may end at very short and badly lit notice. Do not expect flashing warning signs for miles ahead the type you see in the UK or elsewhere in the West.