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Driving in Bulgaria ... only for the brave!

Driving in Bulgaria ... nothing is more of a challenge here. Not mastering the language. Not trying to tell your 90 year old neighbour that your house just caught fire from your log burner. Not filling in you tax returns. Not even tackling a bear. Oh no…. nothing holds a candle to the challenge of seizing the steering wheel and setting off into the potholed sunrise.

A Quest Bulgaria member shares her own views on her driving experiences...

The first job on setting off is to dodge the unrestricted farmyard that is the road out of our village - Toby, our neighbour’s dog will trumpet our departure with a rabid bark to alert the entire village of my imminent drive through. His harem of cats and chickens in the yard ogle me as I wiggle wobble up the road in reverse, life in one hand, steering wheel in other.

Past the old lady’s pig on the left and puppy population taken up kennel in the disused long drop hut on the right and out onto the main road. On the main ‘highway’ I can always guarantee a horse or a cow meandering down from the mountains. Moving at a rather less leisurely pace are the locals’ cars which are like bullets fired out from the mountain peaks.

The next hazard is the turkey family that hangs out at the major junction at the bottom of the road. Leaving them safely behind me, and escaping the junction with my life if I’m lucky (it doesn’t always happen that way) I will be rolling along down through the village to the next handful of houses.

It’s the goats that do it every time - how anyone can keep an eye on the road ahead with a herd of goats alongside for entertainment, is beyond me, just what they can get up to, and how they can hang from a tree is beyond belief, and far more interesting than dodging the potholes.

After sifting my way through a final expansive cow herd I’m away from the village and out into the open mountains - horses chomping roadside. A stray dog will throw a suicide dash across my path every so often, and a logging truck will charge past me hurtling towards the mountains leaving me gasping for air.
Intensive research has shown that when stepping into a car :

  • 20% of Bulgarian drivers are training for the Grand Prix. This is a government sponsored programme which nets the traffic police 168,000,000 leva per year and leads to record breaking speeds and phenomenal overtaking techniques
  • 20% of Bulgarians aren’t entirely sure if their dinasauric Lada will make the next 20 kms - so they hit the gas as hard as possible, close their eyes, light a cigarette, and hope that the car doesn’t disintegrate en-route
  • 20% of Bulgarians are driving a Triple Long Vehicle sized truck at 5 km/hr, loaded with logs. This will be on a precarious bendy mountain road necessitating annihilistic overtaking. It must be noted that these logs are never actually dropped off anywhere, they just circumnavigate the country on the windiest, most mountainous roads
  • The rest are drunk

As for the roads themselves, they have been built most purposefully. The government is concerned that on joining the EU, Bulgaria will see a massive increase in foreign traffic. Where will it all park? A bit of forward planning from the municipality has taken care of this nicely … it’s easy - wherever you like! There are voluminous potholes strategically placed across the country to ensure a safe parking spot for even the most extravagantly sized Hummer.

Then the car documents. In order to drive a car there are certain documents that you will need to carry at all times. These include:

  • Your driving licence (if you have one)
  • Your residency permit (if you managed to survive the Immigration Police office and fill the form out in fluent Bulgarian)
  • Your passport (ok … don't believe the 'residence card' means you don't need to carry this ... but you’ll be surprised)
  • Your car’s registration papers
  • Your insurance papers
  • our insurance claim form … just in case (beware … this is NOT a receipt for your insurance payment as I imagined it was and handed over to my accountant … nor is it a TV licence application form … if you are in a crash, and I speak from great experience, this has to be filled out on the spot)
  • Your vignette (kind of like road tax, but that would be quite an exaggeration, a pothole maintenance fee)
  • The instructions for your microwave
  • A generous wedge of 20 leva bills

And probably a trailer of course to transport all of this palaver with you at all times.

There are certain other things to bear in mind when packing for your journey:

  • Always carry a warning triangle for the crash on the bend that has something to do with the circumnavigating long log truck, the Grand Prix trainee, and the precarious mountain road
  • Always carry a mineral water bottle filled with rakia (I think this is law)
  • Always carry an arctic exploration jacket, camera and kit … when you are manoeuvred off the windy mountain road it always pays to enjoy the new over-the-edge scenery
  • Always carry a passenger with you to share the experiences with - no one would ever, ever believe you otherwise

Signs are a bit different over here … and so are a few other things. Take manhole covers for example. These are actually large stotinkis. And if the government will be reckless enough to cover drains with them, what can some of the population do except steal them to exchange for bread? What would you do?

Villagers tend to replace these large stotinkis by planting a tree branch in the exposed drain and decorate it with a carrier bag.

The only problem with this wonderful warning system is the fact that it fails to light up at night - having said that though, neither do horse and carts, or cows, or goats, or the majority of cars.

On the upside, 90% of signs are in Cyrillic. 40% of them face the wrong way. 30% are so corroded they are illegible. But there are actually only 2 signs in the country and these are in the middle of Sofia when you actually know where you are for once. Outside of this stretch of road, you are on your own. Well, not strictly speaking, just cows and all, but they do give more straightforward directions than most.

Most Bulgarian cars have just the one obligatory light working. It could be left or right, back or front. So, all you need to do is borrow one of these cars and life will improve enormously. You will have the opportunity to down a few rakia's before you set off, then tootle along blissfully unaware of the low lying cow languishing in the pothole as you breeze over it, oblivious to the crazy English guy who lost the right side of his beautifully lit hire car in the open drain, and when you do finally plough into the crossing pig it makes mighty fine bacon. Something that's very difficult to buy out here. Bonus!