A Crazy Balkan Roadtrip – Part 2: Albania

After spending a very pleasant day and night exploring Lake Ohrid in Macedonia, we just made the bus to Tirana after a car chase (!) and settled in for what looked like a three hour journey, give or take an hour. We had checked the map before leaving, and it looked like a pretty straightforward route. Due to the unplanned excitement when catching our bus, we had no food or water, and no local currency (the lek). Never a good move when you’re venturing into the unknown – bad travellers. How d’you lek them apples? Or lack of them…

Ohrid to Tirana map

Crossing the border into Albania, tourist fee paid with the last Macedonian denars, I stared out the window, watching the world go by. I like travelling by bus when you’re not in a hurry, and you don’t really know where you’re going. You get to see more fragments of local life. The roads were dusty and twisted and turned through the mountains. There were hand-painted signs everywhere: ‘lavazh’…’lavazh’…’lavazh’ – …carwash…carwash…carwash. Every second home, and business seemed to have a carwash, some just an awning and a hose, others more upmarket. I couldn’t understand it as I couldn’t see that many cars on the road.

The bus had been on the road for what seemed like hours. I was hungry, thirsty and sweaty. When we saw the sea we got a little worried, but we managed to find out that the bus was going along the coast to Durres, and then back to Tirana. Not what we were expecting! But the coastline was beautiful, even with the brutal concrete bunkers that Hoxha ordered built during his regime – all 750,000 of them. We also experienced some interesting roads. I’ll never complain about potholes in Ireland again!

Albania slip road with pot holes!

We eventually arrived in Durres and after a long wait continued on our way. Our three hour journey ended up being almost eight hours, and we arrived in Tirana as the sun was setting. I’d love to say it’s a beautiful city, but that would be a lie. It’s a loud, traffic-jammed, brightly painted concrete jungle but it’s got soul!

We made our way to Blloku (where the cool kids hang) looking for food and lodging. An Irish bar appeared, and against my usual tourist standards we practically stormed the bar looking for some food. They had, er, Heineken, and peanuts in their shells – but at this stage of the day they were like manna from heaven. Once on the wifi I was unstoppable and found a hotel and dinner and we slowly forgot about the length of our journey and chilled out with the locals. The people in Tirana are young and friendly, and it’s a fun place to hang out.

Tirana, AlbaniaTirana, AlbaniaMuseum of National History, Tirana

The next day we had a few hours to look around Tirana. We saw the Natural History Museum, the National Gallery of Arts, and another Hoxha legacy, the pyramid – a concrete carbuncle that is crumbling to pieces. We would have loved more time to get under the skin of the city but the road was calling. What was really amazing are the cars that you see on the streets of Tirana – Mercedes M Class being the favourite, with every make and model of luxury car to be found, and plenty of US number plates. Historically, stolen cars from Europe end up being sold in Albania, although I believe it’s becoming less of a problem. Private ownership of cars was banned until 1991, and people are certainly making up for it now. Explains all the car washes!

After a quick lunch of meatballs and salad, we headed to the bus station where we boarded a minibus bound for Prizren in Kosovo, with absolutely no idea what to expect, and a head filled with preconceptions from reading the news, which turned out to be all wrong. I love travelling because it turns my prejudices on their head and I see that people are the same everywhere in the world – just like you and me.

Read on for Part 3: Kosovo




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