Meet Rada the Lada… a trip to Sofia for me and a quiet week on the boat for Karina
Driving back from Sofia alone was interesting. When I came back with Karina a few weeks ago we noticed women standing alone on the side of the road, typically where there were lots of trucks passing through or slower traffic. We weren’t sure but concluded they were most likely prostitutes.
I can now assure you they are most definitely prostitutes. Instead of just staring at your car with a vacant expression as you pass, as soon as they realised it was a single male in the car, they were blowing kisses, simulating a hand job or in one case, pretending to flash their breasts.
It was a very satisfying trip home.
OK, get your mind out of the gutter… that joke was just for Mum who always worries about what I get up to. It was satisfying because Rada the Lada, the car I headed to Sofia to purchase largely behaved itself on the epic 15 hour trip home across the hills and mountains of Serbia back to Montenegro.
The decision to buy a car has been long and complex with a lot of analysis and a large sprinkling of “fuck it”. In the end “fuck it” won out. Yes, it may, or may not make financial sense, but there’s just something satisfying about having a vehicle that we can do what we want with. Specifically we wanted a 4WD which is another part of the equation — renting these is very expensive. However the roads and places that we want to go here in winter make sense with that kind of vehicle and of course rental companies don’t like you driving them to those sorts of places. Problem solved. Also “The Den”, our small plot in Bulgaria tipped the balance, we’ll need a vehicle to get the most out of that and now there’s somewhere to store it too.
Monday morning I woke up early and hopped into the current rental car with Mads, a fellow sailor who kindly offered to come with me and return the rental to Tivat (normally Karina would do this, but she currently doesn’t have a drivers license). I arrived at 8AM, was at the gate by 8.05AM (yes, security was VERY fast here) and then flew to Belgrade, Serbia and then on to a connecting flight to Sofia.
When I entered immigration in Bulgaria the border guard asked me “What is the purpose of your visit”.
“I’m here to buy a Lada Niva and drive it back to Montenegro!” I replied.
She looked at me incredulously and then burst out laughing. “Really? Good luck with that! Welcome to Bulgaria.”
The next morning I met with Ivo, one of the two people who have been helping us with the property purchase and he drove me around to visit a couple of cars we’d lined up. All up he spent three days driving me around, helping with paperwork etc. and when I offered to pay, he refused “Is fine, we help all our clients.” It would have been almost impossible without his help.
I did buy him a bottle of whisky however.
I won’t bore you with the details of the various inspections. Let’s just say that the quality of Ladas, which is arguably questionably at best in the first instance, is highly variable. Some were more rust than vehicle, others had many missing parts. One had broken the handle for the boot release, so the owner had a pair of pliers in there instead to grab the cable and pull. It worked.
It was however love at first sight when I saw Rada the Lada. I know that there was inevitably going to be some things that needed fixing (everything on a Lada needs fixing, you just don’t know it yet — a bit like boats), but the fundamentals were good. There’d been an extensive rebuild of a lot of parts, it started easily from cold and there was little to no rust on the body, a big deal with many of them.
Of course it was at the top end of our budget, but some creative negotiations helped with that. I was able to pay the owner directly in Euros which saved a big fee in exchanging that cash for Lev and the owner said if we used his notary, we could write a lower price on the invoice that saved us around €250 in tax. Yes, we’re living the Balkans life, tax avoidance is just the way it works here.
It always amuses me from a systems point of view — the incentives are all wrong. The notary can only charge a flat fee for the title transfer, so they make the same money no matter what happens. For repeat customers however (and the guy we bought from was a car dealer), the incentive is to “help everyone out” so that the seller keeps using the same notary.
Buying a car as a foreign national
One thing several people have been interested in is the mechanics of car ownership here in Europe as a foreign national. If this is of interest, read on! Otherwise, skip this section.
If you want to OWN a car (as opposed to just using one for an extended period in which case a lease may make a lot more sense), there’s really only one practical way as a Foreign National in Europe. It will vary a little from country to country, but I’ll give you the details for Bulgaria. Regardless the process will be similar — set up a company.
Once you have the company, it can buy and own property (like houses) or cars (like a Lada) and as the owner of the company you can use that property. In Bulgaria it’s fairly cheap to setup and operate a company for this purpose. Ours was around €600 to organise but this was because it was a specific type (aged more than 5 years “off the shelf”) to buy a particular sort of land. A regular new one is under €100.
You might need an EU resident to be a part owner of the company, this is easy enough for us (yay Karina!), but lots of places offer this sort of service too. In Bulgaria the accountant who setup the company can do this. He also files the annual tax return and lets us know of any bills — all for around €60 a year.
Once you have the company you find the vehicle and then proceed with the regular, if tedious, process of registering it but in the name of the company. You obviously also get insurance — in the EU you have to get a special “Green Card” which is basically a third party property insurance for the whole of the EU in order to be able to cross borders (if you knew you only wanted to use the car in Bulgaria then this specific EU wide one isn’t required).
The final “trick” is that you get a Power of Attorney created and signed by a notary. In Bulgaria this was very cheap. The Power of Attorney essentially says that “Person X as manager of company Y grants Tim Bull the right to operate and drive the vehicle anywhere they like.” With this in place, you’re good to go.
The only thing you need to do after that is make sure the car doesn’t spend too long in any other country (usually between 3 to 6 months) or it will legally be required to become registered there. You also need to keep the registration requirements current — for Rada this means a yearly visit to Bulgaria for an MOT test (ensure the car is fit to be on the road).
On Monday we received all the final documentation for our company, which meant that I could execute the transaction. It’s relevant to the story because we chose the name:
ЗОМБИ АПОКАЛИПСИС ПЛАН — “Zombie Apocalypse Plan”
After his visit to sign the documents with the notary (he’s acting as the manager of the company for now), Ivo came out all smiles as several people had congratulated him on the name and found it amusing. It makes us happy too — life is too short to be serious all the time and we love that small things like this spark joy in others.
Once we had visited the notary, the car was delivered to the police station for the plates to be “changed”. I’m not exactly sure what was involved in this, I believe it’s essentially the process of assigning the new owner of the car on the registration, but a brief inspection has to happen. I’m told this typically takes 2–3 days to complete, but fortunately Ivo “knew a guy”. If I understand this correctly, it’s basically an under the table payment for him to push your vehicle to the top of the list. 250 lev later (200 of that for the guy), the car was registered to ЗОМБИ АПОКАЛИПСИС ПЛАН.
Ivo’s English is excellent, but it’s still hard to explain some technical concepts. We had to go get insurance and I asked what it covered, so he said “Must have, for hit person, hit Mercedes”. What we’d call “third-party” insurance in Australia and I think “public liability” in the US.
The work involved in some things is way out of whack with the money charged. Because the car already had Third-Party insurance paid up until the middle of December the insurance agent issued a new slip in the correct company name starting from the 17th, but tried to keep the existing in the name of the previous owner. When I explained that I wanted to drive outside the country the next day, she huffed and puffed and agreed the name on the existing remaining insurance had to be changed too. 30 minutes later, that was completed — charge of around 75 euro cents. No wonder she didn’t want to do it!
In the mean time what was Karina up to
Interlude! While all this was going on, Karina was back aboard Matilda in Porto Montenegro getting regular updates from me about the boredom I was experiencing.
She achieved a few boat jobs (including washing the outside), found that the leaks I’d “repaired” were still leaking and enjoyed some quiet time with Rosie. She‘s also been working on her first puzzle of the winter season and will complete it today.
With the paperwork and insurance done we were able to start driving Rada the Lada around Sofia. Because the first major trip was going to be crossing to Montenegro, it seemed prudent to have a safety check at the mechanics. Finding one with time available was difficult, but eventually we managed to get a Lada dealership (yes, they still make and sell them!) to take a look in their service centre.
They gave the OK for the journey — it wasn’t a comprehensive inspection, but they identified the source of a few noises and rattles, said they needed to be looked at, but were “non critical” and then sold me the parts to repair them (cheap too!). After three days of running around, paperwork and waiting everything was in place and I was ready to head back to Porto Montenegro!
On Saturday I got up early at 5.30AM and headed off in the pitch black. While I expected the dark, I hadn’t counted on the thick fog which was prevalent for the first four or five hours of the journey, it didn’t lift until well after the sun was up.
I was stopped for a random inspection by the Bulgarian police who checked my papers and waved me on. Of course everything was fine, but I also think they saw “Bulgarian car, Australian driver, Montenegro Residence Card and Greek drivers license” and just put me in the too hard basket. They did check the “hit people, hit Mercedes” insurance and were happy with that.
I’m going to have to give up on Google Maps here in the Balkans. I really don’t know what’s going on with it, but man I get sent on some round about routes. After I crossed the border it turned me to the right and sent me up a dirt track that went up above the snow line and deteriorated into something that only a 4WD would handle. Fortunately, I was in a 4WD that did handle this very competently!
All in all, my path between Bulgaria and Montenegro took me up mountains and through the snow on three different occasions. While one was expected and a decent road, the other two times were tiny one way switch backs that were very tiring to drive.
Once again I got delayed with the road works that hit us last time, waiting for an hour for the road to open, but at least this time it was a lot easier driving through as the machinery had left for the day.
I filled with fuel in Serbia at a town where I’m convinced they had very low quality or dirty fuel. After not skipping a beat for 8 hours, all of sudden as I went up hills Rada started to chug and lose power. I pulled to the side of the road and she stalled, but then restarted OK after a couple of goes and then ran fine again.
This went on for the next few hours culminating in what was ironically the scariest part of the journey! I was on the brand new toll way coming down the mountains into Podgorica, a beautiful, straight, mostly down hill highway but as I hit a rising section the stuttering started and I had to pull over to the side and Rada stalled again. I got her going and basically held my breath the rest of the way down the hill — some of the tunnels were 4–5 kilometres long and the thought of stalling in there with traffic whizzing past at 100+ was terrifying.
I made it to Podgorica, filled up with high octane fuel and had no issues the rest of the way back to Porto Montenegro. I’m fairly certain that combined with the fuel consumption which was ATROCIOUS that the fuel injectors need cleaning and maybe the poor quality fuel just tipped it over the edge. For a tiny 1,600cc engine my 17l per 100 km or 13 mpg is not good at all.
Eventually I made it home to Porto Montenegro where Karina and Rosie were waiting to say hi and I’m very pleased to be here. Today it’s recovering from the drive and then packing Matilda for a haul out tomorrow! We’ll get Rada some TLC and a service and then who knows — will depend on a few moving parts (not least how long Matilda needs before she’s back in the water and how long the mechanic needs with Rada before we can drive a decent distance again).
Until next time,
Tim & Karina