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A Bulgarian traffic cop depicted on a graffito in Sofia A Bulgarian traffic cop depicted on a graffito in Sofia

Driving becomes major write-home-about experience

Bulgarian drivers and their behaviour on the road are the stuff of urban lore. You will be hearing horror stories about them. Some of those may be true, others may not. Driving in Bulgaria is more dangerous compared to Wyoming, but absolutely a piece of cake if you have survived southern Italy. One thing that cannot be disputed about driving in this country is that it is be a memorable adventure.

Motorways in Bulgaria are being built slowly and often substandardly, and there are just two fully completed high-speed roads, connecting Sofia to Burgas on the Black Sea and to Svilengrad on the border with Turkey and Greece. Most first-class roads are OK, but most secondary roads may be problematic. Streets and pavements in the bigger cities, including Central Sofia, are dire. Anywhere you go, watch out for potholes that tend to appear without warning. The road authorities may take a while to fix them.

Signage, if it exists, is at best misleading. Do pay attention to the signs you pass and you will discover that they often give controversial information about mileage. This is the tip of the iceberg. While driving in Bulgaria, you will see signs that point you into the wrong direction or to no direction at all. You will see Road Under Construction signs, and then there will be no construction on the road – and vice versa. Forget about the numerous well-lit diversion signs on Western motorways that appear miles ahead. In Bulgaria you will be lucky if you see a lamp stuck on a pole just ahead of a deviation.

In such circumstances, asking for directions becomes an integral part of any off-the-beaten-track trip in the country. This, however, brings out new problems. Bulgarians tend to use local toponyms that mean the world to them but are impenetrable to outsiders. One example, taken from real life: "When you reach the old bath house…" Bulgarians also tend to prefer directions involving "up the road" or "down there" rather than "left," "right" and "straight ahead."

Like the Germans, Bulgarian drive fast and aggressively. Unlike the Germans, they will rarely give you way if you are trying to get onto a major road from a small one. The rule of thumb is the flashier the car, the more aggressive the driver. Flashing lights in your rearview mirror means the driver behind you thinks you are too slow and tells you "Get out of my way." Flashing lights in front of you does not mean "I give you way," but "There are cops round the bend."

Traffic cops in Bulgaria are a part of the problem, not of the solution. They lurk under bridges and behind bushes and will give you hell, especially if you drive on foreign number plates. You will never see them cruising around in pursuit of maniacal drivers but you may meet them at service stations having coffee. Cops used to be notoriously corrupt. Truth be told, corruption now seems to have ebbed away.

The residents of Sofia constantly whine about congestion and the rush hour traffic jams. The situation is bad, but if you end up sitting on the road, relax. Sit back and think of the M25 in London.

It is not that there are too many cars or that the roads are too narrow for them. It is a matter of traffic organisation, one of the weakest points of Sofia City Council. You will see that whatever you do your next traffic light will be red. This causes most of the driving trouble in the city, but apparently the City Council people are unable to fathom it.

Again, regardless of the thousands of horror stories about driving in Bulgaria you are unlikely to have an accident if you follow the simply rule: "Drive defensively, defensively, defensively."




America for Bulgaria FoundationHigh Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.

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  • Comment Link David Lewis Nichols Friday, 20 September 2019 11:28 posted by David Lewis Nichols

    I have a question regarding all these new 60 speed limit signs appearing on normally, 90 roads. A local told me there has always been a law that the speed limit past an intersecting village road is 60. Since most people are unaware, they have put up 60 signs whetever a road to a village happens to meet the main road. And this is a great place to put all the new speed cameras!

  • Comment Link Nedko Tuesday, 13 August 2019 06:01 posted by Nedko

    Unfortunately this is true, but it is not the whole truth. I drove to Rome, Naples and Istanbul and the traffic in Bulgaria is no worse. The problem is in the culture of drivers as well as their training. Many of the younger drivers have not received real training due to their poor training system, poorly designed and poorly controlled. Poor traffic management not only applies to traffic lights, but also to the way traffic is directed and distributed. In many major cities, due to the unjustified one-way streets, all traffic is routed along one or two main boulevards, creating additional congestion. With the addition of superfluous road signs, even good drivers are being forced to break the rules, which over the years has become the norm.

  • Comment Link Laurie Dignum Tuesday, 18 June 2019 11:56 posted by Laurie Dignum

    -*Unfortunately all this is true. I'm a migrated Brit 10 years in the country and many Bulgarian drivers seem icapable of driving within the law and are among the most aggresive, unfriendly and unskilled drivers in the world When in Rome drive like an Italian to survive, when in Bulgaria, drive like an idiot with no politeness and give and expect no quarter. Good luck to the uninitiated.

  • Comment Link Daniel Sunday, 11 November 2018 17:30 posted by Daniel

    It was recommended to me to drive as if everyone in a roundabout is trying to kill me.

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