The final stretch of road from Montenegro to the border was terrible. It was a narrow twisting section of road, realistically only 1.5 lanes wide, yet people were treating it like a dual lane road. Making things worse, there seemed to be huge sections of unfinished, and unmonitored road works, leaving the cars to fend for themselves to negotiate. This is all fine in sunny weather in a small car you don’t care about. But, the sun had set, and it was the dying light of twilight – and we were in a wide van that we very much cared about. It felt like a game of chicken, and we spent a large portion half on the soft shoulder.
I was ecstatic when we finally made it onto the bitumen, only to have that joy turn to ash when I saw the huge trail of tail lights that stretched off around the corner, over the hill and beyond sight. We were now in a 90-minute long queue to cross into Albania. It soon became three lanes wide and hundreds of meters long, but at least we could now see the border. The waiting was tolerable, mostly because we had a bathroom and food. It was less tolerable when you watched a steady stream of cars driving up the wrong side of the road around the queue. The only pleasure from it came when they (infrequently) encountered an oncoming car (or even better, bus/truck) on the narrow, single vehicle road, which again turned into a game of chicken.
Our turn eventually came. They had a quick look at our documents at the single checkpoint and waved us through. After all this waiting, I was expecting something far more thorough. There was no mention of the insurance either. I think we accidentally drove past some of the small offices selling insurance, however, they were on the wrong side of the road and the lights weren’t completely on.
Once again we were in a new country, Albania #29, after dark, rapidly trying to come to terms with the way of driving, and the roads. It was once again nerve wracking, and by the time I made it to our park for the night, I was mentally exhausted.
We parked by a small mosque by a Lake Skadar. On the way to the campsite, we passed through several small towns. As we drove past, everyone seemed to stop what they were doing to stare at us, which did nothing for our sense of security and confidence.
I’d read in the review of the campsite that, being next to a mosque, there was a very early wake up with the call to prayer. It was indeed quite early, and very, very loud.
We finally woke for real, and stepped outside for our first view of Albania. After wiping the sleep from my eyes, and stepping over the dumped garbage and broken glass, I was greeted with an enormous panorama of the snowy Accursed Mountains, behind layers and layers of other dry and desolate mountains. I’d wanted to go hiking in those distant mountains, from Theth, however we’d arrived at the wrong time of year.
As we drove back towards Shkoder, we passed through what looked like a large slum. There were people sitting out on the road, washing clothes in the street with water from the lake. Their houses looked like open single room buildings, much like a carport. It was a shocking first glimpse of Albania. I knew it was likely to be the poorest of the countries that we visited, but I didn’t think it would be quite this poor.
Just before visiting the town of Shkoder, we went to visit this unmissable hilltop fortress. It was huge, and stood out on a large and isolated hill. We parked as best we could, then made our way through the street dogs. They might not have been particularly clean and healthy, but the puppies are still super cute and friendly.
Being a hilltop fortress, we had to make our way up the hill. At the gate we found a man collecting entrance fees. As we’d only just arrived in the country, we hadn’t had an opportunity to withdraw any local currency, though thankfully they accepted Euros – and even luckier, we had some small coins in Euro. It was a bargain price of €1.5 each to enter.
Our timing couldn’t have been worse, we seemed to have arrived midway between two tour bus groups. The enormous complex was empty, apart from where we were. We tried our best to go in opposite directions to them, but somehow, it was proving difficult to escape.
Instead of fighting, I decided to wait them out. It was a sunny day, and the views of the river plains below were phenomenal. I felt like we were back in the wilderness again. There was pollution, and plenty of signs of heavy industry, but somehow the land seemed to look less manicured, and more natural.
If we turned to face the other direction though, the concrete sprawl of Shkoder spread out below us.
The fortress itself was in pretty poor state, with severe degradation to the exterior walls, and an almost complete lack of interior buildings beyond their foundations.
There was a small museum inside the fortress, which was an additional €1.5 entrance fee, and housed relics from different occupants over the millennia. It’s amazing to see the marks of these cultures that we’ve visited, like the Soviets, the Turkish, the Austrians, or the Venetians and the Romans. I covered everything from Bronze Age, to Middle Age, to Soviet Era, where it was used as a military barracks.
And, when the history got too boring, and the sights lost their novelty, there was the endlessly entertaining goats to watch. And, chief goat-stalker did a good job following their moves.
I was starting to realise just how chaotic driving in Albania was. I take back every bad thing I have said about the drivers in the Baltics and Eastern Europe. This was by far the worst I’ve ever experienced – though, I’m sure there is still plenty of room for usurpers to this crown. After a little more driving, I started to adjust to the chaos. It appeared to have some form of organisation, with people just flowing and moving out of the way, like pedestrians on a footpath – albeit at higher speeds. We just kept to the side of the road, and let people make their way around us if they wanted.
I thought it was going to be impossible to find a park, but once we’d started to make our way to the other side of the ‘CBD’, we found plenty of on-street parking.
We were hungry. However, first step would be getting money. We were basically out of our Euros, and the struggle to find an ATM was real. Even worse, the ATMs were not accepting my Master Card – they only accepted Visa… It was right now that I realised that all of my cards are Master Card, though I’d never had a problem before. We remained persistent (not much choice when you’re hungry) and found an ATM that accepted our cards.
As we walked through town, looking for an ATM, we came across all sorts of sights that were so different to the rest of Europe. We saw groups of old men cycling with scythes in their hands. It was like a modern version of the Grim Reaper. There were also countless dogs, mostly lying all over the footpath in the sunshine, and the kind of electrical work that gives me nightmares.
We walked the length of one of the main eating districts in town, filled with young people drinking coffee and watching everyone walk by. Risa wasn’t interested in these main street options, but instead wanted to find something from a market somewhere. Every corner seemed to have someone selling skinless sausages roasted over coals, but that was all we could find. Risa though wasn’t quite so interested in these (rather average) sausages, so continued with her search.
We made our way past countless small shops, selling all sorts of clothes, most with questionable authenticity. Taking a turn from these retailers, we found the side streets having even more interesting things for sale. The clothing here was purchased by weight, rather than buy item. It’s logical enough, but I’d never considered it something that happens. There were old men walking around with wheelbarrows filled with clothing, dropping them at shops with equally large piles of fabric. Everyone liked to wave, and say hello, and we stuck our head in many of the shops – I’m still hoping to find a nice three-stripe tracksuit. Risa had more luck, finding a great pair of second hand Nike high tops, for the grand total of €8. They were in nearly new condition, too. Sadly, nothing in my size…
We’d been a little distracted from our mission to find food, but our stomachs soon reminded us. As we continued to walk, we were still seeing the same little barbeques grilling skinless sausages over coals, so we continued to walk. We had reached the end of the market area, and were entering a residential district, so we gave up, and were going to return to the main entertainment strip. As is usually the case, now that we’d given up on the search, she found something she wanted to eat. Instead of the usual sausages being grilled, one shop had some fish on the coals. Risa pointed and gestured to the fish, wanting to order some of her own, only to be told no.
But, this story had a happy ending. The customers that had ordered this fish (I’m still not sure if they brought it to the café themselves) invited us to sit and dine with them, and share the fish. English was pretty limited (and I was still struggling to remember how to say Thank-you – falemenderit) and with our phones offline in this non EU/EEA country, we had no way of communicating on a deeper level. We joined them for some fire water, grilled fish, bread, beer and some local cheese and amazing tomatoes and capsicum. We gestured as best we could, between their broken English, and our very, very limited Italian.
The main instigator, Fatmir, wouldn’t take no for an answer. He ordered more drinks, and food, and once we’d ate and drank all we could, he disappeared. Moments later he returned with two traditional string instruments from a gift shop – complete with their price tags. He sat down with the café owner and proceeded to serenade us with some fantastic local music.
It got a little bit weirder afterwards, with Fatmir wanting to be Risa’s blood relative, insisting that they prick their fingers with a needle, and mix their blood. He became quite offended that we weren’t keen to do this, but eventually we managed to steer the topic in another direction.
A little later they pulled in a young man that was sitting outside chain smoking. Francesc turned out to speak quite good English, so he became our new translator. He also turned out to be 16, which actually really meant that he was going to be 16 in a few months.
We’d been invited to spend the evening with our friends from lunch, but we were uncertain how much we could enjoy it with neither groups speaking the other’s language. We honestly felt guilty that we’d just be eating their food, without having much to give in return. The original trio left the café, and we believed we were going to meet up later to watch the Albania vs Italy football match.
We left the café with Francesc, thinking that we’d look around the town a little, instead, we ended up at his family’s house, just on the outskirts of town. He walked inside, told his mum that we’re joining them for dinner, then told us to sit down! We thought that we were going to meet the other guys, but he insisted that they were drunk, and that it was OK. In the most minor of ways, we felt like we’d been deceived, and now trapped to stay with his family. In many ways, it was much better for us, as we were able to communicate – and vice versa from his family to us – but it felt like we’d made a promise, and unintentionally broken it.
They lived on a small farm, so we went for a quick walk around, looking at the pigs and chickens. Our dinner was almost completely sourced from their own ingredients. It was their bacon, their cheese, their vegetables, their raki/wine. His mum made the bread, but bought the pasta. It made me feel so completely pathetic, that I wouldn’t be able to survive if the shops stopped selling food!
Dinner was simple, but delicious. After dinner, we sat down to watch Albania play Italy. The game was actually taking place here in Shkoder, and we could hear the roaring and the glow from the stadium lights from their house.
Francesc’s siblings were pretty excited, and we all painted our faces in the Albanian colours to watch the game. But, this didn’t help, and Albania lost the match 0:1 to Italy. Risa even had her hair braided, which looked hilarious the next morning once she’d released it and it had turned into frizz!
It was 11PM by the time the game finished, thanks to overtime. We had parked our van in their yard, where it was OK to sleep for the night, so at least we didn’t have far to go this evening to go to bed.
Francesc and his family were starting early the next morning, so we wanted the opportunity to say good-bye. This meant a painful 7AM alarm, waking to a cool morning and a sun that had barely risen. It was lucky that we did set the alarm, as they were just about to head off to school when we saw them.
We drove back to the café we’d eaten at yesterday, hoping to catch Fatmir and his friends to say thank-you and sorry – but they weren’t in. We grabbed a quick coffee and picked up some byreks from a street food vendor, said our good-byes to the café owner, and made our way out of town.
It was a new record for us. On the road by 7:30AM! The celebrations didn’t last long though. The town was unthinkably busy. It was truly chaotic on the roads. The cafes on the sidewalks were all full of older men, smoking and drinking coffee. We couldn’t believe it.
With patience and caution, we managed to make our way out of town without incident. But, it was way too early to celebrate. The roads were narrow, and as with before, the oncoming traffic isn’t interested in slowing down, nor giving you any additional space. The first 10-or-so km out of town had me gritting my teeth in anticipation and bracing for impact every time a truck flew towards us.
Things did quieten down, and it was nearly 90km of twisting, winding, and climbing on narrow mountain roads. When we cleared the forests, the views were truly amazing. Once again, it felt like we were alive and in the wilderness.
We continued on until Puka, where we had views of the distant snowy peaks of the Accursed Mountains. We drove a little closer, but not right up to them, as it seemed a little too late to be hiking there, now that the new season’s snow had already arrived.
It reminded us of being in Bishkek, with the towering snowy mountains in the distance, the Muslim call to prayer, and the roasting heat. There was very little out here, and you could certainly feel that it was a hard life for the people that lived out here.
We now turned back towards Tirana, which started as some amazing brand new tarmac that followed the contours of a steep valley. I knew that this couldn’t last, but while it did, it was two lanes of bliss. As I had guessed, the road kept getting newer and newer, and eventually we had caught up with the road works team that were laying the fresh bitumen. We now had more than 20km of partial torn up roads, and other roads littered with a sea of potholes. The smooth relaxing driving was over, now it was an exercise in patience and tolerance. At least the views down into the valley continued to be stunning. The road brought us back to a dual-carriageway motorway, cruising again at 90kph in comfort and ease.
I’d read nothing but bad things about the traffic in Tirana, and I would say after driving in it for nearly an hour, it was not an exaggeration. The lanes were fluid, the traffic was like gridlock, and to make things worse, cars would just stop in their lanes and put their hazards on, and run off somewhere, forcing the traffic behind to try and avoid them. When the traffic was flowing, there was a 30kph limit, which seemed to be more of a casual suggestion, than something enforceable.
Then, to really leave a sour memory in our minds, as we were approaching an intersection, a man was standing in the middle of the lane. We thought nothing of it, as there had been plenty of beggars and window washers at other intersections. Instead, as we drive past him, he takes a look at the back of our now stationary van, he walked over, ripped our pink flamingo mascot from the rear of the van and then just casually walked away.
I started beeping in frustration, and attempted to reverse as much as I could in the space I had, but there was no reaction from the man. I considered my actions, but I thought approaching this man, calming walking through traffic in his long black trench coat with our flamingo under his arm, could be dangerous. The other drivers didn’t seem to react, nor care, so I didn’t expect any help. It wasn’t worth any possible injury for a piece of pink plastic – which I technically took from my old job anyway. Domingo the Flamingo, as he was known to us, had been with us since we left London, and the view from the rear window didn’t look quite the same with him gone. We felt like such victims, which was probably the worst part.
We found a cheap park that allowed motorhomes to spend the night. It wasn’t exciting, nor particularly quiet, but it was convenient enough to the sights we wanted to see.
We walked through the park into town, past a fountain that was neither small, nor large. Once again, looking at the lake, I realised just how undeveloped it was. The shore of the lake looked unmanicured and natural.
Outside of the park, we followed the enormous boulevard towards the main square. It wasn’t particularly pretty, but it was long, and wide. For the most part, the buildings in town were forgettable, however, we couldn’t pass this semi-abandoned pyramid that was designed by the former dictator’s daughter. It had fallen into disrepair, but is now being used as a performance space – they were busy rehearsing when we tried to step inside.
It was a considerable walk to reach the main square, with the scale of the road skewing the perceived distance. Once we’d finally made it, we’d realised that there wasn’t a great deal there to see… There was an old mosque, which was more culturally important, rather than interesting to look at. There were several Soviet styled buildings, and a whole lot of marble and empty space. It kind of reminded us of the enormous square in Ulaanbaatar, though there were no bikes for rent here.
I’d tried to find things to see in town, but I’d really come up short. We walked through some of tourist streets, and made our way to the entertainment area in Blloku, just south of the river. Of course there were probably many things to see and do, but nothing took our interest.
We’d followed the recommendation of our guidebook, and went to dinner at Era. It sounded small and cosy, but turned out to be brightly lit, and like a diner. Still, the menu looked interesting and the food was definitely above average – and coming to a total of €15.
After dinner, we grabbed a coffee, some local cakes, and went to a late night screening of Blade Runner 2049! Tickets were only €4.5, and it turned out to be a very nice modern cinema inside. The lights dimmed, and we weren’t disturbed once during the duration of the film. Nobody playing with phones, talking, or otherwise being annoying. I don’t think I’ve seen a single film in the UK that I could say the same thing. Also, I loved the movie, and am looking forward to seeing it again at home one day.
The movie didn’t finish until just before midnight, and rather than walk back through the empty streets and dark park, we opted for a taxi – which came to €3 anyway.
We were still a little groggy after yet another late night. Thankfully leaving Tirana was much calmer and simpler than it had been to arrive. Now, we head onwards towards South Albania and Berat, the town of 1000 Windows.