A car trip to Sofia in 2002: Craters, ice and traps

Written by on November 9, 2017 in Leisure - Comments Off on A car trip to Sofia in 2002: Craters, ice and traps

Note: An earlier version of this article was previously published on Foreigners & Friends Magazine, which is now part of The Sofia Globe.

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 Western Europe.

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 become. And hell would freeze over.

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 and rare Funk 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 had noticed when it was already too late, during my first trip. The higher I got this time around, 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, it was freezing. This was like standing on Everest. When they returned my passport to me, it was covered in snow. In spite of the snow and the cold, 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 the icy conditions.

In 2002, the Autoput had not been converted to a motorway yet.

Those 200 highway kilometers to Brno were coming up. By now, temperatures had fallen to minus 20 degrees Centigrade, which is why that stretch became a challenge. 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. Siberia. Antarctica. A freezer. That is what it was.

From there, we would drive 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, 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 would be coming up rather soon.

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 Hungarian-Serbian border, there was a sign, warning me of a construction site ahead. But there was no construction. Construction equipment had been placed some 30 meters away from the road. Another sign gave me the maximum speed on this construction site which was none: 30 km/h.

“To hell with it”, I told myself. Come one, I was alone here, it was after midnight and 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.

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..

Doggy Natalie did not complain much, during that trip.

Serbian highway toilets? That could be an article on its own. I will just say this much: It was all over the walls. No clue how it got there. And I did not want to know.

The sun rose, when we finally reached the motorway intersection next to the town of Niš. 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 the nice Nišava river.

Those tunnels had not been renovated in 2002. 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, several times.

I managed to bypass all of those corrupt police officers in Serbia, this time, by obeying the speed limit rigorously.

The Bulgarian border posed the next challenge. Between the Serbian and the Bulgarian crossing, elderly ladies were busy hiding lots of big cigarette packs under their wide skirts, in order to smuggle them into Bulgaria. At the border post itself, there was a hand-written note, saying everyone had to pay 15 Euro, as an “entry fee”. The Bulgarian guard stuck his head into the window of my car, directly staring at the dog. He probably wanted to provoke her and make her bark or snap at him, in order to have a reason for getting me into trouble.

He asked me why my vehicle was so old. When I told him, my much better one had been stolen by the Mafia in Slanchev Briag, also known as ‘Sunny Beach’, he did what I wanted him to do: He shut up and let me go.

Behind the border, another fee was charged, for the roads. What roads? Even worse than today, this road to Sofia felt like a path from Kandahar to Kabul, which had been bombed for weeks.

The next cop was waiting a few kilometers down that so-called ‘road’. He held a stylish suitcase of the kind businessmen would carry, and he wanted a bribe, even though I had not done anything wrong. 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, which at that point was the highest building in all of Bulgaria, 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.

By Imanuel Marcus

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About the Author

Imanuel Marcus is Associate Editor of The Sofia Globe. He is German and lives in Sofia. Contact: imanuelmarcus (at) gmail.com