The Madness that is Albania – 17-19/04/11

It’s difficult to know where to start with Albania: a country totally unlike anywhere we’ve been before and in a lot of ways not at all what we had expected.

We spent four days and three nights (TiranĂ«, Berat, HimarĂ«) in Albania and I’m writing this a couple of days later, having crossed into Greece and spent a couple of days doing nothing on a campsite.

Instead of tackling things chronologically, I’ve written down our impressions here in no particular order …

Our First Impressions of Albania

One Lamppost / One Million Cables

One Lamppost / One Million Cables

We entered Albania at a very small border crossing near Lake Skadar, and our original plan was to spend the first night in the town of Shkodër. The place was so awful in almost every respect that we had started to rethink our plans before reaching the city centre.

The road to Shkodër takes you across a one-track bridge, seemingly built of planks of wood and scrap metal. After the bridge, a large and vibrant Roma shanty town.

Iva Loves Camaria

Iva Loves Cameria, Especially Now She's Found Out What Cameria Is

After this a section of the outskirts which was like some sort of industrial ghost town; half-finished buildings, disused factories and (I may be exaggerating here) a petrol refinery.

Then the town itself, which seemed very alive, but absolutely and totally not somewhere even the most intrepid traveller would want to sleep in his car. Shkodër was the grimmest place we have ever seen, by some distance. Although Shkodër turned out to be far from typical, this was our first impression of Albania.

Mercedes Benz and Crazy Driving

Colourful Buildings in Tirana

Colourful Buildings in Tirana

Having travelled through Romania in 2010 we had gotten used to seeing locals driving with foreign plates on their cars as a way of avoiding road tax and insurance. In Albania it’s much the same story, with British, Italian, Swiss and German numberplates pretty much everywhere.

The striking difference in Albania: almost ALL of those cars are Mercedes Benz. On one leg of the journey we counted and more than 60% of the cars we saw were Mercs – and that includes vans, buses, … every type of vehicle on the road.

Gypsy Kings

Gypsy Kings

Apparently there’s an Albanian saying “A Mercedes may get sick, but it can never die”. A bit of online research (here and here) confirms that the majority are stolen in Western Europe as a response to the Albanian appetite for MB.

Fifteen minutes after entering the city limits of TiranĂ« and Iva, who was driving, was sweating and completely frantic. We’d seen bad drivers before, but in Albania EVERYBODY drives like a epileptic lunatic on crack.

A Great Place to Park, Relatively Speaking for Tirana

A Great Place to Park, Relatively Speaking for Tirana

Speed limits, traffic lights and road markings are almost universally ignored. At one major intersection in TiranĂ«, a policemen had been stationed to “direct traffic” for some reason, even though the traffic lights seemed to be working normally.

This gave drivers the chance to ignore his half-hearted waving and the traffic lights in equal measure.

Gypsy Kings, Part Dieux

Gypsy Kings, Part Dieux

After a while, oddly, it becomes quite liberating to ignore everything you’ve ever learned about driving and traffic safety and in fact by day two I shamelessly cut several people off in clear violation of the rules of the road.

It was great fun, and nobody seemed to take it personally.

What else?

Different Types of Bad Roads …

Mind the Gap (or else)

Mind the Gap (or else)

What is impressive about the roads across Albania is not so much their general state of disrepair, but rather the sheer variety of different types of bad roads that we witnessed (and survived):

  • Roads without any markings or lanes whatsoever
  • Planned roads without any surface to drive on. Just dust.
  • Roads with tremendously large holes in them
  • Bridges surfaced with wooden planks, cobbles and random pieces of sheet metal
  • Roads where one lane suddenly disappears without any reasonable explanation
  • Single-track roads without fences and very sizable drops onto unforgiving rocks

… and Trash Everywhere

Define "Road" for Me Again ...?

Define "Road" for Me Again ...?

In the centre of Berat, a town in the south of Albania which actually a few de facto “tourist attractions”, there is a smallish, comparatively pleasant town park. It has a fountain, well-kept grass and some flower beds. Young couples and families with kids come here to stroll, spend time, eat ice cream, and so on.

Iva watched as a man walked into the centre of the park with a plastic bag of trash. He chose a spot, opened the bag, emptied out the trash in a pile and then dropped the empty bag on top. And then left.

A Safety Barrier, Cleverly Built Only of Trash

A Safety Barrier, Cleverly Built Only of Trash

Every five or ten minutes along our journey we came across massive piles of rubbish, which must have accumulated over some time, in the weirdest places. Places where the previous owners of the trash must have gone to quite some effort to transport their rubbish their, and dump it.

In a country where everyday life involves significantly more struggle than we are accustomed to I can understand a lack of sensitivity toward “the evils of littering”, but this was just strange. It makes we wish I spoke Albanian so I could have asked.

But actually, and more importantly, many things about Albania left us with a really positive impression:

TiranĂ« – A Really Interesting City

Tirana, City Centre

Tirana, City Centre

As it often is with capital cities, in some ways Tiranë captures what the rest of the country is about and in other ways is something completely different and individual – an exception to the rule.

Tiranë turned out to be a pleasant and vibrant city to walk around, with a tremendous number of shops, interesting, upbeat bars and restaurants and a lot of noise and chaos.

I can imagine coming back with a bit more time to visit just TiranĂ«, although – valuing our lives – we would definitely fly this time and not drive 🙂

Beautiful Scenery …

Typically Impressive Albanian Scenery

Typically Impressive Albanian Scenery

The only real advantage of driving on the world’s worst roads is that you have plenty of time to enjoy the scenery. And scenery – amazing, epic scenery in great variety – is something that Albania has in spades.

Particularly the frequent views across to the immense, snow-capped Mount Tomor were unlike anything which we had seen before.

… and Very Friendly People

George W. Bush Street: Fittingly, a Bit of a Mess

George W. Bush Street: Fittingly, a Bit of a Mess

At one point we were flagged down by a police patrol. Given the complete absence of roadsigns we had no idea what to expect, but – with a cynicism which I later felt guilty for – I figured the policemen was going shake us down for a few Euros.

In fact, he’d really just stopped us for a chat. He asked us where we were from, where we had been in Albania and then went on to tell us about his own visit to London. Apparently he had eaten at Richard Branson’s restaurant there, which was very nice (but expensive).

Albania presented a very different and foreign environment for both of us, and at times is was pretty confusing, but I can honestly say that every single person we met in Albania, without exception, was friendly and generous and made us feel welcome in their country.

That was why I think that we will both definitely be returning, at some point.

This entry was posted in Camper Trip April 2011 and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Madness that is Albania – 17-19/04/11

  1. joi says:

    Realistic blog. As an expatriate Albanian living abroad I can say that you are a realistic and honest person. Thanks for good words and bad as well. Albania has a long way to go to western standards. Rome wasn’t build in one day. But it is going in the right direction and that is inspiring. I met ones an American woman that had visited Albania. She had ordered in a restaurant a baked ship’s head. When the order was ready the waiter brought the plate. It really was a head with the skin taken off and baked. Everything was there the eyes,the toung, the teeth. She was fainting. Americans never serve a head that way but in Ballkans that is common. She was still shaking when was telling the story. Thanks for the story stranger.

    • jay says:

      Thanks for your feedback and your very funny story, it made us both laugh. Although it does make you wonder what the woman was expecting when she ordered a sheep’s head? 😀 But then I’m a vegetarian, you never get that much of a surprise when you order a salad.

  2. vla says:

    You never know, you can always end up with a screaming tomato with legs that’ll jump out and run for its life, taking 2 salad leaves (its best friends; or maybe blanket surogates) with it. Always leave some place for a surprise, jay :*

  3. Saiyid Sikder says:

    I am a Bangladeshi. Just out of curiosity I have been going through the websites containing Albania’s photographs. Actually, I was interested in the life of the people, the country, the people. I saw many beautiful pictures. Then I come across this writing. First visit, from a rich country, some shocking experience. Specially the piles of garbage, quite common in Bangladesh too…..(hah hah hah….). Then finally found the beauty of the inner side of the people.

    Isn’t it amazing that people of the poor countries are more friendly and generous!

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