One of the reasons Bulgaria has been so phenomenally successful at attracting visitors is because the country’s four international airports are all served by a number of international airlines. This despite the fact Bulgaria’s own once prominent airline, Balkan Bulgarian, went out of business more than 15 years ago. Founded in 1947, Balkan became a significant European airline during the 1970s, and was responsible for bringing in almost all of the hundreds of thousands of package tourists who flocked to Bulgaria for extraordinarily cheap holidays. Like many national carriers in emerging Europe however, it struggled to cope with the instability caused by the fall of communism – the airline was a constant source of dispute amongst warring political factions – and after several failed attempts at privatisation it was liquidated in December 2002.
Its successor, Bulgaria Air – owned by Chimimport, a large holding company listed on the Sofia Stock Exchange – is currently the second-largest airline in Bulgaria: Wizz Air is the largest. In 2016, the airline saw a small drop in passenger numbers, down 2 per cent to 1,246,350 million. In 2017 the airline – officially now the national flag carrier – accounted for 15.4 per cent of all traffic from Sofia Airport, the country’s busiest. Wizz Air flew more than 31.5 per cent of Sofia’s passengers, Ryanair 22.2 per cent. Bulgaria Air’s revenue in 2016 totalled 147.6 million euros, and the company made a loss of 3.6 million euros.
Bulgaria Air serves 22 major cities in Europe and the Middle East from Sofia, as well as domestic flights to Varna and Burgas. Wizz Air serves 30 destinations from Sofia – including Brussels, Budapest, Geneva, Lisbon, London, Madrid, Paris and Rome, as well as offering nine more routes from Varna and four from Burgas, both on the Black Sea coast. The next biggest player on the market is Ryanair, which flies to nine countries from Sofia, four from Plovdiv, seven from Burgas and one from Varna.
Sofia Airport has seen much development in recent times but remains something of an enigma, and the overall experience depends very much on what terminal is used. The small Terminal 1, first built before World War II, primarily serves low-cost and charter flights. Terminal 2, opened in 2006, is much more modern and far larger, and yet endless delays in finding a company to run it have meant that it lacks a number of services. Since 2015, Sofia Airport has been linked to the city centre by a direct metro connection. The airport saw a 7.8 per cent year-on-year increase in passenger numbers in March 2018, (556,088 versus 515,857 in the third month of last year), including a steep hike in domestic passenger numbers, which increased 62 per cent. The amount of cargo handled by the airport also grew, by 8.5 per cent year-on-year, to 1890 tonnes.
Many visitors – from neighbouring countries especially – choose to drive to Bulgaria. The country’s roads are improving, but some routes remain congested, especially on single-carriageway sections (much of the route from Ruse and the Romanian border to Sofia is single-carriageway). The A1 motorway, which links Sofia to Burgas, and the A4, which links Sofia to Erdine on the Turkish border, have sped things up: Sofia to Istanbul is now just a six-hour drive. The A3, heading south from Sofia, currently goes as far as Blagoevgrad. Only short sections of the A2, which should connect Sofia with Varna, have so far been opened.
From continental Europe, the principal train routes to Bulgaria are Vienna to Sofia via Zagreb and Belgrade, and Budapest to Sofia via Belgrade or Bucharest. Sleeping cars are usually available on these services. Approaching Bulgaria from the south, there are direct trains to Sofia from Istanbul, and from Thessaloniki, Greece. Be warned however that despite some improvements in the country’s railway infrastructure, journey times remain far longer than they ought to be. Travelling by train in Bulgaria is for those who have a love of trains and are not in too much of a hurry to reach their destination. •