Our Dacia Logan in front of the Aleksander Nevski Memorial Church in Sofia, Bulgaria.
This is Part 8 of our epic trip in Eastern Europe with the Dacia Logan. You can also read Part 1: Romania, Part 2: Serbia, Part 3: Bosnia & Herzegovina, Part 4: Montenegro, Part 5: Albania, Part 6: North Macedonia and Part 7: Kosovo. After leaving Kosovo to return into North Macedonia, next on the map towards the east is Bulgaria. We’re now stepping out of the Balkans region and with that comes a lot less controversy regarding the countries we now cross, which means I’m probably going to need much less time writing the remaining articles!
Flag of BulgariaOur itinerary in Bulgaria140 km/h speed limit on Bulgarian highways! Swooshing through the country in no time.
We will arrive in Bulgaria from the west, going on a slight detour to visit the #1 attraction in the country: the Rila Monastery. Then it’s off to the capital Sofia, and without further ado on to the next country (Greece) which we will reach particularly fast because all highways in Bulgaria have a generous 140 km/h speed limit, a welcome change from the busy two-way rural roads we’ve had to endure for the vast majority of our itinerary since Bucharest. The Roman Empire conquered the region in AD 45, then an invading Bulgar horde founded the First Bulgarian Empire in 681, got conquered by the Byzantine Empire from 1018 to 1185 when a Second Bulgarian Empire was established, fell under Ottoman rule from 1396 to 1908 when it proclaimed its independence. A communist country from 1946 to 1989, Bulgaria became a parliamentary democracy in 1990, a member of NATO in 2004 and the European Union in 2007. The country is home to just over 7 million inhabitants over 110.994 km2, a population that has been decreasing since the mid-1980s, with over 75% identifying as Eastern Orthodox and 10% as Sunni Muslims. Bulgaria scores high in gender equality with legally mandated equal pay but ranked as the most corrupt country in the European Union in 2018 according to tranparency.org.
Rila Monastery in Bulgaria
Hidden at the end of a twisting road off the highway taking you through agricultural countryside then deep and misty mountains, the Rila Monastery doesn’t disappoint. Credited with safeguarding Bulgarian culture during Ottoman rule and the result of more than a thousand years of uninterrupted spiritual activity, this beautiful and compact monastery remains Bulgaria’s most storied spiritual treasure. Stunning religious paintings pack every cm of exterior wall, no wonder these walls were chosen as the cover of the latest edition of the Lonely Planet Eastern Europe. The apocalyptic frescoes dating from the 19th century are particularly impressive and the detail is simply mind-boggling. Quite refreshingly, even though it was peak touristic season when we visited last August, the place is relaxingly quiet with every respectful visitor pretty much taken in by the beauty of the surroundings.
Dacia Dokker and Russian influence in Bulgaria.
The Rila Monastery detour was a great opportunity to explore a slice of Bulgarian countryside and discover the “real” car landscape of the country. The first observation is that new cars are extremely rare, confirming the large percentage (up to 30%) of re-exports in Bulgarian new car sales statistics. Validating the latest models data available (2017), the Dacia Dokker is indeed the most frequent new car but only in its LCV variant, not PC – although this would ring more true when in Sofia. For now, the Bulgarian countryside car landscape is ripe with remnants of a past Soviet influence, with a couple of UAZ Bukhanka and UAZ Patriots and a good number of Lada sedans spotted.
Great Wall hatches in Sofia, Bulgaria
After the heaven-like experience of Rila, we’re sorry to discover that the country’s capital Sofia could easily qualify as one big eye sore, except of course the neo-Byzantine Orthodox Aleksander Nevski Memorial Church dedicated to the memory of the 200,000 Russian soldiers who died fighting for Bulgaria’s independence in the Russo-Turkish War (1877-78). It is pictured in the hero photo at the start of the article and above. Worse, the few Bulgarians we met in Sofia seem to have no inclination whatsoever to welcome or help us. Finding a place to buy the mandatory highway vignette – something that should be possible at the border but wasn’t – turns into a challenging obstacle course. Service stations: “No idea. Can’t help you. And we don’t take cards”. Our hotel: “A what? A WHAT? vi-what? What’s that? Oh vignette. You can buy it anywhere.” Cue rolling eyes and waving hand. Thankfully we know they’re an exception because some of BSCB’s most dedicated readers and contributors are from Bulgaria (and we did manage to buy the vignette in the end). The one main car observation made in Sofia is the presence of quite a few Great Wall Voleex C10, indeed Bulgaria is for now the only country in the European Union to house an assembly plant for a Chinese brand – Great Wall, even though its local sales figures have rarely risen to the challenge.
Unbelievable but true: a giant 12 hour-traffic jam to cross the Bulgarian border from Turkey. Pictures taken at 3pm, 9pm…
I’ll end this Bulgarian episode with what would remain the most unbelievable experience of the entire trip, and not in a good way. After visiting countries #9 (Greece) and #10 (Turkey) which I will cover next, we had to cross back into Bulgaria then Romania in order to close our loop back to Bucharest. The border between Turkey and Bulgaria is a European Union border so we did expect some delay. But the word “delay” doesn’t quite cut it. Up until now, the longest wait we had to endure at any of the multitude of border crossings we went through was one hour. About to leave Turkey, we hit a traffic jam around 3pm, with no u-turn possible. We would crawl a few meters each hour, but still no border in view and the hours started piling up: 3, 4, 6…8? How is this even possible? As midnight passes, there is still no border at the horizon and no information by any authority. We start imagining a diplomatic incident and the EU border closed as a result – internet connexion was patchy so we were virtually cut from the world.
…2:39am and after the border crossing in the next available rest area.
It turns out this happens every summer as most cars are EU citizens from Turkish origin returning home, and it creates giant, sometime multi-day traffic jams at the Bulgarian border! At around 2:30am, or almost TWELVE HOURS of crawling, we finally see the Turkish section of the border: very organised, the cars divided in 6 separate lanes to use all stations and border officers stamping passports in a frenzy. Next on the Bulgarian side, all cars must get back to one single lane and a lone agent nonchalantly smoking his cigarette handles our passports with one hand and a sceptical look. Is this guy for real? Did we just wait 12 hours for this? At the next station a woman asks me to pay a FEE to enter the country, in Bulgarian, and gets annoyed that I don’t understand. The irony of charging us for the pleasure of waiting 12 hours to enter her country is totally lost: she couldn’t be more serious and after five attempts reluctantly tells me the amount in English. But it wasn’t over…
What to eat after 12 hours crawling to the Bulgarian border? Artificial croissants of course! They were actually alright.
Out of all the cars finally passing through, we are singled out as two blokes with little luggage returning to Bulgaria after just 24h spent in Istanbul – we know, we know, Marijuana Alert, we’ve been through this before. I must drive our faithful Logan to a separate building onto a mechanic lifting bridge where the car is entirely scanned for drugs. It took me and my co-driver – who had just managed the lowest speed average humanely possible in the past 12 hours – all the little remaining energy we had in our bodies to not snap at the two snarky border agents that they could shove their drug scanner where the sun never shines. They were obviously convinced ours was the one drug-infested car that would make them famous in all of Bulgaria, but it just wasn’t meant to be as we’re still not drug dealers. In short, by any possible means do avoid driving through the Edirna – Kapitan Andreevo Turkish-Bulgarian border towards Bulgaria in summer, probably the most inefficient, no-fucks-given border personnel I have ever encountered in all my driving life. Just fly instead! Joke apart, this inefficiency turns out to be extremely dangerous: after 12 hours of having to stay awake to crawl their car along, a lot of frustrated drivers were trying to catch up for lost time, swooshing past us at over 180 km/h in the wee hours of the morning after what in essence was a sleepless night. The wiser ones collapsed asleep on the ground of rest areas. What an adventure.
Next stop: Greece. Stay tuned!