An ambitious new road building plan will open up the country, not just to the rest of Europe, but also to the Bulgarians themselves.
The timing could hardly be better. Instead of sweltering in huge traffic jams on their way to the seaside this summer, for the first time residents of the Bulgarian capital can speed there in maybe three hours (at the national speed limit of 140kph).
The Trakia Highway, under construction for nearly forty years, finally opened yesterday afternoon at 14:00. The 360km road connects Sofia with the fourth biggest city Burgas on the Black Sea.
Despite all that, it seems the Bulgarians now have the bit between their teeth. According to President Plevneliev, who cut the ribbon on Trakia, by 2020 the country will have seven completed highways.
‘The direction is clear, the priorities are visible. We need results,’ he said.
Next on the list is the Maritsa Highway, linking the Turkish border – and the E70 direct to Istanbul – with Trakia at Chirpan. Already under construction it will open in mid-2014.
After that is the Struma Highway, south from Sofia to the Greek border along the route of E79. With three of four sections under construction it will open in 2015 if technical issues involved in crossing the Kresna Gorge can be solved.
Focus then switches to the north of Bulgaria, its poorest region, and the Hemus Highway. This is another cross country motorway, from Sofia to the third largest city Varna, also on the Black Sea. Sections at either end are complete, and open, with just the central 150km section left to build.
The Sofia leg of Hemus currently finishes at Blagevgrad from where another important road will stretch north west to the Romanian border and the other major piece of infrastructure to open in Bulgaria this year, the Danube 2 bridge (aka the New Europe Bridge) at Vidin.
Most strategic, and the shortest, is Boulevard Bulgaria, 50km west from Sofia to the Serbian border at Dimitrovgrad. The Serbs are currently building a 100km motorway from there to their second city Nis. When complete, Sofia and the Black Sea will be directly linked to the western European motorway network. Serbia is not currently a member of the EU, but it already recognises member state driving licences and is included on many EU insurance policies too.
Symbolically at least, the most important new road stretches between two of its most historic cities, Veliko Tarnovo and Stara Zagora. The road between them will connect via a tunnel under the famous Shipka Peak, scene of four desperate battles with the Ottoman Empire during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, after which Bulgaria gained its independence.
Not only will Bulgaria’s road building programme provide thousands of jobs, and open up the country for the first time – to the outside world and to the Bulgarians themselves – but, hopefully, it’s a project around which the whole country can unite.