Travel Journal

'Road' trip in Albania

(Friday 17 January 2014) by Mariken
Bunker, Tirana
Bunker, Tirana
We are in Albania, until 1991 one of the most isolated countries in Europe. Obviously times have changed and it's completely open to tourists now (communist times are long gone, also here), but the country is not yet entirely up to what we call 'western standards'. That doesn't make it a less interesting country to visit though. To me Albania is a cross-over between Europe and Africa with the occasional wild west scene in traffic. I am never fond of driving, but I am extremely happy Jacco does all the driving in Albania. Hazards include bad roads with major potholes (and potholes in potholes, and sometimes the road completely disappears), drains without drain cover, lack of sign posting (there are signs, but since I - as navigator - solely rely on maps and sign posting, I could do with a bit more...), people constantly crossing streets (even highways!), dogs crossing streets (without looking, they are just like kids), cars parked everywhere, both on the left and right side of the road and sometimes right in the middle, cars just stopping in front of you, or suddenly driving away and kamikaze drivers overtaking left, right, speeding, bumping etc. And all this happens not only on the smaller, less travelled roads, but also on the 'major' highways (in as far as these exist here). One of my former colleagues, who is Albanian, told me that Albanians use a 'customary driving code' next to the official written one (but why bother reading that one anyhow), and so it seems. Jacco tells me that the only way to drive here is to simply set aside all expectations you are accustomed to have in traffic, and just drive with the flow. In any case, driving in Albania is a true adventure!

However, although travelling in Albania requires a bit more energy than travelling in the other countries we came across so far (I am not only talking about driving now, language is a real barrier as well), up until now it is really rewarding. People are really friendly and willing to help, even if they do not understand you. I am trying to speak Albanian, but since it is a very difficult language, I have only managed 'yes', 'hello' and 'thank you' so far. To add to the confusion, people don't nod when they mean 'yes' or shake their head when they mean 'no', but do it the opposite way. I read about it and I am constantly aware of it when talking to locals, and still I am caught off guard every time. Just count for yourself one day how many times you unconsciously nod or shake your head in a conversation... then you know what I mean. But still, everywhere we come we feel welcome, even though I inadvertently must be very impolite from time to time.

Facade of the National Museum of History, Tirana
Facade of the National Museum of History, Tirana
We started in Kruja (Krujë), were we visited the castle, or what is left of it, of Skanderbeg, an Albanian hero who defeated the Turks three times, in 1450, 1466 and 1467. Only after his death, they finally managed to take control of the city (in 1478). Unfortunately the museum was closed (it was Monday), but we enjoyed the stroll through the old city and the bazaar and admired the views. After that we headed for Tirana (Tiranë), the capital of Albania. Although it is not very big, it is a hectic city, at least when you are still in the car. It took a while before we found a hotel, but the one we did find in the end, was very aptly named: Hotel Relax. Just what we needed after driving through Tirana's rush hour. On foot Tirana proved to be far more rewarding, although it can not be called a beautiful city. Too many traces of communist architecture for that. It is still interesting to see though, ugly as it is, it is part of this country's history (and let's face it, there are many, many ugly buildings in the Netherlands too, although we seem to call that 'modern architecture'). The National History Museum was very interesting and it shows one of the more nicer traces of communism still left: a beautiful mosaic on the façade consisting of typical 'strong' art.

Ottoman houses, Berati
Ottoman houses, Berati
And now we are in Berati (Berat) (after a detour to Fier, where we wanted to visit the ruins of Apollonia. Unfortunately we were washed away by heavy rain, so we spend the day in a hotel and left the day after), where, thanks to it being named a 'museum city' it was spared the purges of the cultural revolution of the sixties. That means that instead of concrete square blocks, Berati still has a lot of traditional buildings, white houses stacked on top of each other. Because of its many windows, the city is sometimes called 'the city of a thousand windows' and it sure looks lovely. It is great for strolling around (the weather is beautiful now) and we found a very nice hotel without difficulty. We were served a perfect breakfast this morning with Albanian tea for me and filter coffee for Jacco (the last time he had that was in the Netherlands). It even has a shower curtain (the first one in Albania)!

Tomorrow it's border time again, we will head to Macedonia then.

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