Car Trips to Sofia: When Hell Actually Froze Over

Written by on August 18, 2016 in Bulgaria, Expat Stories, People - No comments

Driving from Western Europe to Sofia? I don’t do this stuff anymore. But I did, back then. A lot. I guess, many have, both expats in Bulgaria and Bulgarian expats in Germany or elsewhere.

In 2002, everything was different and far more chaotic. But I needed to see my daughter in Sofia, at least once a month. So, I squeezed a lot of stuff into my old Audi in Berlin and took off, for a long ride, 1,630 kilometers, to be exact. The closer I would get to Sofia, the more adventurous this trip would be. Yes, Hell would freeze over, indeed.

Leaving Berlin at around noon would give me enough time to get to southern Hungary, where I would sleep for a few hours, in the car. Sleeping in Serbia was not an option. So, I hit the German highway, down to Dresden. It was snowing, but they had sprayed salt all over the road. No problem here.

While listening to uplifting funky tunes recorded in the late 1970-s, I left Dresden behind me and made the Diesel climb that hill, towards the Czech border. There was no highway here, back then. Every single village on the way had installed radar traps. That was something I noticed when it was already too late. So, the police would probably mail me soon. The higher I got, the more snow would cover the road. My late dog Natalie, a corgi-mix I had found years before, during the war in Croatia, was sitting next to me, eager to be walked. She loved snow.

By the time I reached the German side of the border crossing, hell had actually frozen over. This was like standing on Everest, as a huge load of snow came down. When they returned my passport to me, it was covered in snow. In spite of all the white and cold stuff, lots of prostitutes where standing next to the road, around the Czech town of Teplice, as always. They were jumping up and down, in unsuccessful attempts to keep warm. The 90 kilometers to Prague took long, due to snow and ice.

The most monotonous part of the trip was coming up, the 200 highway kilometers to Brno. That is what I thought. But, by now, temperatures had fallen to minus 20 degrees Celsius, which is why that stretch became a challenge, with all the ice. Doggy Natalie really had to be walked, so I stopped at some gas station. The dog did not seem to mind much, but it was so cold, my teeth started rattling. Hell! Why was I even here, at this godforsaken gas station? The Diesel was running even during the break, since I was not entirely sure that damned engine would ignite again. This was like Siberia.

From there, we would go towards Bratislava and hit a border crossing, which had not been there 10 years earlier. Crossing Slovakia, a tiny country, would not take long. In about half an hour, I spotted the next border crossing, into Hungary. Györ was not that far away anymore. So, we had another 286 kilometers to go, until we would reach the Serbian border, south of Szeged. The further Natalie and me went south, the warmer it got and the less snow there was. I wasn’t aware of the fact that the “highlight” of this trip was coming up.

It was early in the morning, absolutely nobody was in sight, when I raced along a sort of narrow country road. Just some 5 kilometers north of the border, there was a sign, warning me of a construction site ahead. But there was no construction. Construction equipment had been placed several meters away from the road. Another sign gave me the maximum speed on this construction site, which was none: 30 km/h. “F*** it”, I told myself. Come one, I was alone here, there was no construction, no nothing. So I took it at 120 km/h. That turned out to be a big mistake. After 30 seconds, I was stopped by two corrupt cops, who had been waiting behind some bushes, for an idiot like me. They wanted 200 Euro, or I would have to wait here until Monday, when the court in Szeged would open. Hell.

After that scene, I was so upset that I wouldn’t be able to sleep anyway. So, why not hit Serbian turf at night? There we were, on the old “Autoput”, the notorious land road with three lanes. Lots of crashes happened here, all the time. But we were alone, at 03:00 a.m..

Serbian highway toilets? That could be an article on its own. I will just say this much: There was stuff, all over the walls. No clue how it got there. And it did not smell too good.

There was daylight, when we reached the motorway intersection next to the town of Nis. Now we turned towards Kalotina, the Bulgarian border town. I always liked this part of the journey, due to the beauty of the countryside. We drove up the mountains, following a nice river. Those tunnels had not been renovated. They were absolutely dark and full of huge potholes. If a big truck would come towards you in one of those so-called tunnels, which were actually caves, you would have to back up and get the hell out of there. That is exactly what happened.

I managed to bypass all those corrupt police officers on the way, this time around, by obeying the speed limit rigorously. But, the most corrupt officers were still to come: Bulgarian border guards. This was in 2002, but it does not seem to have changed much, since there are media reports about entire shifts of border guards being arrested for corruption, every few weeks. Anyway: Between the Serbian and the Bulgarian border crossing, elderly ladies were busy hiding lots of cigarette packs under their wide skirts, in order to smuggle them into Bulgaria. At the border post, there was a hand-written note, saying everyone had to pay 15 Euro, as an “entry fee”. Behind the border, another fee was charged, for the roads. What roads? Even worse than today, this road to Sofia looked and felt like the road from Kandahar to Kabul.

The next corrupt cop was waiting a few kilometers down that shitty “road”. In this case, I got out of the situation by telling him “Imam bulgarska zhena”. Then, after well over 20 hours, it came up: My new home. Sofia. Once I spotted Hotel Rodina, I knew where to go. Then, I would be able to embrace my daughter, who was one and a half years old at the time. Reunited. Finally.

By Imanuel Marcus

Hell. It was freezing on that Czech highway.
Hell. It was freezing on that Czech highway.
The "Autoput" was not nearly as modern, back then.
The “Autoput” was not nearly as modern, back then.
Doggy Natalie did not complain much, during that trip.
Doggy Natalie did not complain much, during that trip.
Belgrade. I had been here before, a lot, during the war.
Belgrade. I had been here before, a lot, during the war.

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