Prologue: On my recent vacation in Bulgaria, I rented a car with manual transmission. Despite having driven a stick shift many times in the past, I couldn't get the car into reverse gear. A driver stopped his car nearby, but he didn't speak English. What was I to do?
Tourists interested in discovering the real Bulgaria should be prepared to leave the bustling cities and venture into the countryside. While train and bus service are readily available, most visitors will prefer the independence of renting a car. Agencies have offices at many locations, including at the international airports in Sofia, Plovdiv, Burgas, and Varna.
Bulgaria is an easily-navigated country and there is much to see. Even so, there are a number of things westerners should know about driving in Bulgaria.
1. Road signs are posted in both Cyrillic and Latin alphabets, making it relatively easy to know if you are in the right place. Sights of interest—museums, monuments, and historic sites—are posted on brown signs.
2. When you get lost, which you invariably will at some point, some of the people you stop on the roads may not speak English. It's good to have a reliable, up-to-date GPS in your vehicle.
3. Distances and speed limits are listed in kilometers. For those more familiar with miles, it is best not to convert but just to get used to driving like the locals.
4. Gasoline (petrol) is unleaded 95. At gas stations, if the attendant does not speak English, just point to the desired pump. An important word to know is "full," when you want to fill your tank. At some outlets, credit cards are not accepted. Payment is usually made at the counter inside the station's convenience store.
5. Super highways connect the major cities and the maximum speed is 140 kph. However, be prepared for road construction and maintenance work which will slow you down.
6. Traffic can be heavy in the cities, especially during rush hours.
7. The best place to use bathrooms is at gas stations. Normal toilets are clearly marked as the WC, or with small figures of a man or a woman. If all else fails, ask for the "toilette". Countryside bathrooms may be of the hit-and-miss hole-in-the-ground variety. Highways do have rest stops; some of them are equipped with McDonalds and Burger King eateries.
8. Pay attention to road conditions, as even the best of highways can be pockmarked with potholes.
9. Keep your eyes off the scenery. Views of mountains, and rivers, and picturesque villages can be quite distracting.
10. Drive with your lights on.
11. Police patrol the roads. Unlike many Bulgarian drivers, who relate to white lines and no-passing zones as suggestions rarely observed, it is best to drive carefully. If police do stop you, you can try feigning innocence as a tourist who doesn't speak Bulgarian.
All of the above is common sense, things you would observe in any case. But for tourists arriving from the west, who are driving in Eastern Europe for the first time, there is one additional tip I can provide, and in fact, this is the first thing you must know about driving in Bulgaria.
12. Be familiar with driving a stick shift. While renting an automatic car is possible, this must be arranged in advance and it will come at a higher cost. Most of the cars on the roads are stick shift. For many, manual transmission control is preferable, especially when climbing into the mountains.
Although getting used to the foot movements necessary to shift gears is a relatively easy skill to acquire there is one other trick that must be learned before driving a stick.
And this is my last word of advice: Know how to shift into reverse gear. This sounds so obvious, yet in different models of cars, shifting into reverse is handled differently.
The car I rented in Sofia required lifting a small round disc on the stick itself. Of course this is how to get into reverse! Yet, I needed the assistance of another driver who only understood my plight after seeing my frantic hand motions.
Once I had mastered this extremely simple task, I was ready to take to the roads of Bulgaria.