Driving licenses, road pricing & condition of roads
Driving in Bulgaria is not for the faint-hearted and finding your way is often difficult or next-to-impossible, as most road signs are in Cyrillic script.
If you plan to drive to Bulgaria you will need an International Driving Permit (as well as your national licence) and an international Green Card from your insurance company. If you will be driving through the countries of the former Yugoslavia you will have to pay for a local insurance policy at the border.
Getting to Bulgaria by car
Be aware of high motorway tolls in France and Switzerland; travelling via Germany is toll-free. If you don’t travel through Switzerland, there are no border checks or formalities until you reach Bulgaria.
The recommended route from Vienna is via Budapest and Belgrade to Sofia. It will take around three days to drive the approximately 2,300km (1,400mi) from London to Sofia. A longer, but more enjoyable, journey is through Italy to catch a ferry to Greece, then drive on to Sofia. There are ferries throughout the year to Greek destinations departing from Venice, Ancona and Brindisi.
Years of underinvestment have also left many roads in a poor state, and there’s only one motorway-quality road, running from Sofia to the border with Turkey. Bulgaria’s mountainous terrain and harsh winter conditions leave most roads potholed and dangerous and some impassable.
Bulgarian roads have a reputation for being potholed tracks frequented by farm animals and agricultural machinery. For the most part, that’s correct. There are only four major sections of dual-carriageway in the country. Otherwise even main roads are often narrow, with long stretches of damaged tarmac. In rural areas and in the mountains there are numerous hairpin bends and wandering livestock to negotiate.
There are only four major sections of dual-carriageway in the country: from Sofia to Plovdiv, from Harmanli to the Turkish border, from Varna to Novi Pazar, and between Sofia and Jablanica (on the way to Pleven), only the first two of which are of motorway standard. The section of the A1/E80 between Plovdiv and Harmanli is under construction; when completed, there will be a dual-carriageway ‘motorway’ all the way from Sofia to the Turkish border, which should reduce some of the heavy, constant freight traffic on local roads between Plovdiv and Turkey.
The Bulgarian government signed a contract early in 2005 for a private company to build a motorway running from the Serbian border in the west to Sofia and on to Varna; when complete, this road will have a user-pays toll. There are currently no other toll roads in Bulgaria, as the vignette system (see above) functions as a road toll for all drivers.
The Bulgarian government is working to bring the main roads linking cities up to European standards. These are designated ‘E’ roads and are being slowly improved with EU funding. While some are in reasonable condition, be prepared to dodge potholes and to be stuck behind slow-moving HGVs en-route to western Europe for long periods.
Common hazards on Bulgarian roads include cars driving at night with damaged or no headlights, slow-moving or stationary livestock and farm machinery, people driving erratically (e.g. changing lanes with no indication and stopping suddenly for no apparent reason) and pedestrians. It’s usually recommended not to drive after dark in rural areas.
Bulgaria recently introduced a user-pays system for all roads. If you drive to Bulgaria, you will need to purchase a ‘vignette’, available at the border when you enter the country. Vignettes for a passenger car cost €59 for a year, €10 for a month or €4 for a week and cover you for travel on all roads. Police check vignettes and issue an on-the-spot fine of 1,000 lev (€500) for vehicles without one or with a vignette that has expired.
Speed limits are 60kph (35mph) in built-up areas and either 80kph (50mph) or 120kph (75mph) on main roads; speed limit signs are in Roman numerals. If you commit a traffic offence, the police are authorised only to issue you with a ticket (citation) and there are no on-the-spot fines, yet drivers of cars with foreign registration plates are sometimes stopped and ‘fined’ for minor (or non-existent) breaches of road rules. It is, however, compulsory for all vehicle occupants to wear seatbelts, and talking on a mobile phone while driving is illegal.