How to use the public transport system in Sofia and beyond
You don't have to live in Bulgaria for long to notice that unlike London, Berlin and Tokyo, people in business suits rarely use public transport. The reason? With the exception of a couple of privately-run lines, municipal buses, trams and trolleybuses are old and hence slow, particularly at rush hour - not to mention overcrowded and dirty. Unfortunately, the clean and efficient underground, already a decade old, still operates in a very limited area. Therefore, the only well-heeled people you'll see on board a bus are people who are too young to drive or whose cars are being repaired at the moment.
The public transport network covers the entire city of Sofia and nearby villages, with services running from 5 am until 11:30 pm. Schedules vary but generally you can catch a ride every 10 minutes during rush hour and every 20 minutes during the rest of the day. Not only are the vehicles slow and decrepit, it is also difficult to get information about their routes. Any details you may come across at stops in the city centre are in Cyrillic, so if you can't read it you will either have to ask friends, buy a map with the public transport routes on it or simply experiment.
The underground - complete with easily decipherable maps - connects the city centre to the western suburb of Lyulin, an area foreigners rarely visit unless they happen to live there. Plans to extend the metro's single line are behind a number of construction sites throughout the city centre, but it will be another year before the southeastern leg, reaching the suburb of Iztok, is launched.
In Sofia tickets are sold at news stands and kiosks at major stops. A ticket for a single journey on a bus, trolley or tram currently costs 0.70 leva - although a rise is expected soon. Also, you can buy a talon, or book of 10, for six leva. These tickets are numbered and can be used by one person only. Use them in sequence and remember to keep the last one to validate those numbered one nine.
To buy a ticket from the driver, board the bus and approach him before he has departed the stop. This ticket costs 0.80 leva - and you must have the exact amount of stotinki, as he won't give change. Note that drivers - normally chain-smoking, chalga-listening individuals who take pride in their reckless driving habits - often run out of tickets, yet inspectors will still hold you responsible for not having one.
Only kiosks at main stops in the city centre sell passes. A karta za edin den, or one-day pass, is three leva and a karta za pet dni, or a five-day pass, costs 12 leva.
Don't forget to validate your ticket as soon as you board. To do so, insert the ticket into one of the primitive machines perched over the seats or near the doors and lift up the handle to punch it. In case they are nowhere near the doors or the vehicle is overcrowded, you can ask someone to do it for you by passing your ticket and practising your Bulgarian with mozhe li da mi perforirate biletcheto, molya.
Punching your ticket cleanly with the beat-up machines is often difficult - but whatever the result, do not try it twice! Inspectors check the holes (or dents) in your ticket - if they notice any extra ones, they'll suspect you of re-using your ticket and charge you seven leva. If you refuse to pay, you'll be thrown off.
Note that you are expected to punch an extra ticket for each large item of luggage measuring more than 40 by 40 by 60 cm, or 16 by 16 by 24 inches. While this requirement is rarely indicated on the bus and at bus stops, inspectors enforce it quite strictly. They reportedly take particular delight in fining unwary passengers travelling to and from the airport or locals travelling to and from the central railway and bus stations.
The kontrolyori, or inspectors, are not easy to spot. They often work in groups of two, three or even four, each using a different door to board the vehicle. They usually pretend to be ordinary passengers until everyone has got on and the bus has started off. Then they show their dark blue vests and go around asking for tickets and passes. They rarely know any English except for "tickets, please" and normally insist on speaking to bewildered foreigners in Bulgarian - loudly and slowly. The inspector will rip one half of your ticket off and give you the perforated part back for the rest of your journey. If you happen to be fined, insist on getting a ticket with the price of seven leva on it. Inspectors may "forget" to issue it and simply pocket the fine - they get no bonuses for the penalties they file. Generally uninterested in foreigners since they cannot negotiate the fine, inspectors are notorious for their rude and rough behaviour to locals which was taken to extremes in a number of recent cases. Although they are no longer the blood-thirsty bouncers they once were, controllers are still openly detested by the majority of Bulgarians, especially those who have suffered from or witnessed them "in action".
This is one reason behind the ubiquitous stickers in trams, buses and trolleybuses urging passengers not to pay for public transport. While it is unclear how many people share this view, many of them engage daily in a rare display of mutual solidarity. Upon getting off the bus or tram, they give away their ticket to a stranger, or leave it on a seat so that someone else can use it - a practice unfamiliar in most of Europe.
Passengers on public transport in Bulgaria also show their team spirit in one other instance - whenever pickpockets are on board. Regular riders have developed a sixth sense and can spot would-be thieves instantly, so they either warn everyone else or start reprimanding them loudly. Of course, you shouldn't rely solely on this early warning system, but should clutch your bag every time you get on a tram or bus, particularly when crowded. The same is true for the underground.
Tickets for the underground cost 0.70 leva, but differ from the others in that they can only be bought from ticket counters in the subterranean stations themselves. You can also buy a single ticket that covers two journeys - one on the underground and the other valid for the rest of the public transport system - for 1.10 leva.
Marshrutki, or shared taxis are Bulgaria's equivalent to Turkey's dolmush. They follow a designated route, are abundant - and notorious for their would-be-Formula-1 drivers. Numbered and covering the entire city and the suburbs, they are in cutthroat competition with public transport and all the other vehicles on the road, thanks to the strict schedules they have to stick to. Seasoned passengers are used to the driving habits of the minibus jockeys, but newcomers will find them perilous, to say the least, given the lack of handholds and the drivers' obsession with getting to the last stop on time. That being said, there's no denying that minibuses are often the fastest means of transport in Sofia. To get on one, flag it down as you would a taxi at any point along its route. Pay the driver 1.50 leva, wait for your change, but don't expect a ticket unless you ask for one. Minibuses are crowded as a rule, so often you will have to stand, which can be challenging at sharp corners and is of course illegal. You will be dropped off wherever you want along the route, just tell the driver in advance.
In many cities, towns and resorts, tickets are sold by an onboard conductor and cost anything from 0.40 leva upwards. Such fleets are invariably outdated, slow, and reek of exhaust fumes, yet they operate at regular intervals.
Intercity buses are the preferred form of transport for many Bulgarians as they are generally newer vehicles and offer a good choice of routes and flexible departure times. The only trick is buying a ticket. You have to go to the right desk at the bus stations and they rarely have English-language timetables. Remember that when you buy a ticket for a journey it's for a specific coach, so if you miss it your ticket is not transferable to the next one.
Right next to the bus depot you'll find Sofia's Central Railway Station, where you can catch a number of lines across the country. Unfortunately, Bulgarian trains are for the most part painfully slow and embarrassingly outdated. Still, the railways can take you to a number of places that you can otherwise only reach by car. To check the timetables, log on to www.bdz.bg. Bon voyage!