Traveling by car in Bulgaria, What should you know?. First of all, very calm, we are going to drive in a European country where traffic regulations are harmonized but still each country has its peculiarities when it comes to driving through its streets and highways, and Bulgaria has many, many quirks,… We will try to clarify some of them here so that the traveler who gets at the controls of a car and wants to travel by car in Bulgaria knows what to expect, at least on some key issues:
1) Highway traffic. In Bulgaria the highways have, Like in Spain, the maximum speed limited to 120 km/h. There are no highways, therefore it is not necessary to pay any toll. There is a highway, what is the main, that travels the country from west to east, from the capital Sofia to the Black Sea coast and that forks halfway to reach the border with Turkey, direction Istanbul . It is a well paved and signposted highway, and has traffic but does not suffer from traffic jams, it is not usual for you to suffer retentions such as those that occur on Spanish roads on weekend or holiday departures. There's others 2 highway branches that leave from Sofia, one heading south towards Greece and the other heading north towards Romania, but neither of them reaches the border of those countries, halfway through the highway becomes the national highway of 2 senses.
2) Secondary network. Apart from the highways, there is a whole network of national and regional roads. The state of conservation of these is very variable but in general, especially when we get into the regionals, maintenance is very poor, these roads suffer harsh winters with frost, snow and frequent rains that damage the asphalt easily and there is not enough money to maintain them. It is common to find large holes and potholes that make driving difficult and make journeys uncomfortable. Locals and travelers are always very critical of the state of Bulgarian roads for these “potholes” but in its discharge you have to think, How would the Spanish roads be if one day in and another they also suffered from frost, rain, etc, and so on for weeks?, I guess the same or worse, the ones I know here in Madrid, as soon as it rains a little, its asphalt begins to open as if it were mud, I suppose it is cheap asphalt and the construction companies trust that it rains little here…
Another issue to take into account when traveling by car in Bulgaria is the scarce vertical or horizontal signage, there are few lines marked on the ground and the signs that indicate the maximum speed allowed are scarce, Not even GPS navigators give us information on the speed at which we can circulate because they are roads that do not provide that information to navigators and you have to drive remembering what we learned from the highway code, do you remember?: shoulder of less than 1,5 meters, shoulder of more than 1,5 meters, no hard shoulder, etc. well that, If you are going to travel by car in Bulgaria, study these rules first or you can have a traffic policeman on the lookout to give you a surprise lesson.
3) Bullets. For circulation on many national highways and on all highways in the country it is mandatory that the vehicle has a sticker on the windshield that certifies that it has been paid for the “bullet point” The “vignette” which is like a road tax but is paid by buying this sticker with maximum validity of the current year, in 2019 its price for passenger cars is 80 € the annual, 25 € the month and 15 € the week. If the Traffic Police detect that we do not carry it, they can fine us with 150 € and they detect it in a simple way because if it does not appear stuck on the windshield of the car it is easy to suspect that it has not been paid. If we are going to take a rental car, it is advisable to make sure that it is for the current year.. If we bring our own car you can buy it at the border or at service stations.
4) Dipped headlights. One of the peculiarities of Bulgaria is that recently it has been imposed the obligation to have the dipped headlights on even during the day, either outside or within urban centers. The following are also valid to comply with this standard. “day lights” that incorporate most of the modern passenger cars that are sold today.
5) Merchandise transports. Bulgaria is at a crossroads on the one hand between the Mediterranean and Northern Europe and on the other between Turkey and Central Europe, therefore the traffic of trailer-type trucks is constant, petrol stations abound on the main roads, rest areas and small restaurants where carriers of different nationalities make stops along the way. A common complaint of the locals is that the gutters and said rest areas are always filled with waste and garbage left by these transporters., although I think that the drivers of passenger cars do too, for the bad example that he gives “if there is already garbage, I throw mine too”…
6) Speed controls. In Bulgaria there are fixed radars that monitor speed, both within urban centers and outside. There are also mobile radars carried by the vehicles of the Traffic Police, however these vehicles are not camouflaged, They are cars with the Police's own badges that carry a portable radar and that are sometimes stationed in the gutters. Traffic Police cars are easily distinguishable, white and with large letters on the sides in blue, they are also the same car model in almost all of Bulgaria, an Opel Astra “G” of over 12 years that they should have bought in the same lot and have not renewed yet (not like in Spain where the different police officers change cars every few years because they buy them with everyone's money as if there were no other priorities…, I can't help but make some political criticism from time to time, my apologies, he he).
There will be times when we can think that the radars are not operational because other cars pass under them, breaking the speed limit without caring about their presence., but you have to take for granted that they do work, what happens is that there are drivers who ignore it and trust that if they receive the fine they can avoid paying it (for whatever reasons, which are usually dark,…for example they do not have a fixed address, they are unattachable, have high-level contacts, they are politicians or security bodies, or they simply have lawyers who appeal them and never pay…).
My recomendation, even if we go with a rental car, is to be as strict as possible in compliance with traffic regulations because even if it is a rental car, Within the European Union there are agreements between states to transfer the fine to the driver even if he resides in another country.
7) Circulation in the city. If we travel to Bulgaria, we will inevitably arrive at Sofia airport, therefore when taking a rental car you will always have to pass, little or a lot, around this city. Sofia has a good ring road that completely surrounds it and that hardly suffers from traffic jams although the allowed speed is low. Once we enter the urban nucleus, the circulation becomes somewhat chaotic, yes, even more than in our big cities. The reason is that within the city the lanes are often unmarked or half erased and you have to circulate by intuition or where the one in front goes, which is not very reliable because as I advanced in the previous point, there are many drivers who do not respect the traffic rules.
We also find the handicap that there are tracks for trams that share the road with motor vehicles, therefore there are streets where, for example, the tram travels through the center of the road and cars on the sides, therefore on many occasions you have to make changes of direction with the car that involves passing over the tram tracks, obviously the tram can be seen coming, But in a jammed city it is easy to stand on the tracks and suddenly the tram appears, consequence: whistle of the tram and if a traffic guard sees us there is a risk of a fine because you can pass on the tracks for turns or overtaking, but never stand on them… Another problem is direction changes without traffic lights, that abound in Sofia and are especially dangerous in some streets of up to 3 lanes in each direction because you can see if cars are coming in the opposite direction to ours from the first lane to cross, but what about the second? and the third?… Stops and scares are frequent… Finally do not forget that, even though we are in the city, we will continue to find deteriorated asphalt and holes in the roads, special precaution must be taken for our safety and to avoid damage to the vehicle, It must be borne in mind that the damage caused to the tires or the underside of the vehicle is not covered by the insurance and therefore it will be deducted from the deposit if we have taken a rental vehicle and return it with this type of damage.
8) Traffic accident. What to do if unfortunately we are involved in a traffic accident?. If there is personal injury, obviously it is necessary to notify for an ambulance to come (telephone +359 112 oh +359 150). If it is simply a blow that causes damage to the vehicles, the first action to take is to call the Traffic Police (telephone +359 165, not to be confused with Firefighters who is the 160 or with the Police for security issues that is the 166). In Spain it is enough to take the data and / or make a friendly part, not in bulgaria, There it is necessary the presence of the Traffic Police to make a report of the accident, otherwise, the insurance company could be exempted and the person responsible for paying the damages would become the driver, even not being responsible for the accident, if there is no copy of the police report to deliver to the insurance company, this one doesn't have to believe the driver's version… This is valid for any driver but especially if we have a rental car, It is not necessary to think that because it is for rent we can avoid this procedure because it may have subsequent consequences. On the one hand, this procedure of waiting for the Traffic Police is cumbersome, but on the other, it gives us some confidence and helps when dealing with the driver of another crashed vehicle, whom we do not know at all and quite possibly does not speak a word of English., and let's not say Spanish… Do not hesitate to call 165, many Bulgarians think that this is the main task of the Police, go to make reports, and who rarely act ex officio…
9) Parking in Sofia. Vehicle parking in the center of Sofia is regulated. It is divided into two zones, the Blue Zone and the Green Zone. La Azul occupies the central almond of the city, operates on weekdays from 8:00 a 19:00 hours and Saturdays of 8:00 a 14:00 hours, the maximum time is 2 hours per day and its price of 1 € / hour. For its part, the Green zone is the one that surrounds the Blue zone, operates on weekdays at the same time as the Azul, but it is not active on Saturdays, the maximum parking time in it is 4 hours per day and its price of 0,5 € / hour. Between both areas they occupy practically the entire city so it is impossible to park for free near the center. Payment in both areas is made without parking meters, instead there are two methods: sending an SMS to a traffic phone indicating the vehicle's license plate (for this it is necessary to have a mobile phone that operates with a Bulgarian company) or directly buying the parking cards that can be half an hour, 1 hour or 2 hours to the guards of the regulated area, in cash. There is usually a watchman on the streets but sometimes it is difficult to find them because they are not as numerous as those who watch the streets of Madrid…In some hotels they can also sell us these cards at the Reception or at least tell us which is the closest place to buy them.
In case of parking without having paid or spending the stipulated time we risk the vehicle being immobilized by a “stocks”, as it is, in which case we will have to call the phone number that indicates the notification that the operators will have left on the car's windshield, wait for them to return and pay the corresponding fine (30 levas) to release the immobilized wheel. More to more, if we park in prohibited areas or making traffic difficult, the municipal tow truck can remove the car to the vehicle depot and to collect it will also have to pay an even greater fine (70 levas), in this case call 00359 29836747 to know where they have taken it… We will find out that Sofia is a chaotic city when it comes to parking, We'll find cars on the sidewalks all day, parked in front of fords, etc, as if their owners weren't afraid of fines or the tow truck, It is a risk that they run or trust that the Police have other priorities, but being on vacation, Who wants to waste time on these procedures to save a few euros on those cards?, I recommend not taking risks even if we see that many people violate the rules and that there is little presence and interest of the Municipal Police in ensuring compliance with these rules… You will see very few cars immobilized with traps, but there are, I assure you.
In short, traveling by car in Bulgaria is part of the adventure of the trip itself, gives rise to many anecdotes and if we want it to stay there, in anecdote, and do not get older, extreme caution should be exercised. For a low cost trip, the rental car is a good option that we give you (example of car + hotel trip 8 days), but if you do not find yourself with the courage to face the traffic of an unknown country with a rental car, then we can also offer you the option of having a local guide there who, among other services, is in charge of driving and provides the vehicle for transfers…