Dubrovnik to Tirana
I know my education was lacking in many areas, but in this instance I felt that I wasn’t alone, but where precisely is Albania, what is the culture there and, importantly for me, how is their driving? I don’t even know anybody that has visited the country.
As I have now found Albania is actually a small country on the Adriatic coast sandwiched between Montenegro, in the north, and Greece, to the south. Across the Adriatic, it is more or less opposite the heel of Italy’s boot. It shares an inland border with North Macedonia. It gained independence in 1912 from the Ottoman Empire and since the second World War has been governed by a succession of ‘appointed’ Presidents until 1991. Then the first democratically elected President took office. The country was effectively controlled by Russia from 1945 until 1991.
I was initially wary on the drive from Dubrovnik, because standards were dropping the further south I was travelling. From my home to the Croatian border with Montenegro everything was fine, but on the first day in Montenegro I had two close call incidents with cars pulling out, the number of vehicles on the wrong side of the road (I know from the English perspective they were all on the wrong side) was somewhat alarming and I saw no less than three accidents. I made a two night stopover in Petrovac, Montenegro before starting out to Albania. I was understandably anxious as I approached the Albanian border post.
The first surprise was the Albanian border guards greeting. The approach to the post had been laborious with each vehicle taking several minutes to process, then it was my turn. I offered up my passport and held my vehicle documents at the ready. The border official smiled, refused the passport and said “Nice car, enjoy your visit”, then waived me on!
On the other side of the border post I was then stopped by a bevy of Vodafone ‘dollies’ (I’m sure that’s not PC). One let out a short scream (honest I didn’t touch her, I just sat in the car, yer Honour) which demanded the attention of more people and Bridget was quickly surrounded. The promotion girls initially tried to sell me Vodafone prepay cards, then one hit on the idea of asking for a lift to “where are you going?”, ah yes Tirana. The girls English was excellent and it was all, as Kenny Everett would have said, “In the best possible taste”.
We, that’s Bridget and I, drove on to Tirana without further incident, although we had ventured into another country where we are chased by other cars whose occupants want to take photos.
I managed to get hopelessly lost in Tirana and eventually pulled the old taxi trick of getting one to drive to the hotel I was looking for and I followed him. The fare was only 500 Leks, about 5 Euros.
Hotels in Albania are very inexpensive, as they are in Montenegro. Driving around the suburbs of the city and seeing the slightly shabby state of the buildings I thought the hotel was going to be similar to some of those I experienced in the Middle East. So I was very pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be a first rate 4* hotel, as clean as any in Western Europe, and with the most helpful and friendly staff.
I spent the whole of the following day learning about the history of Albania, their national hero, Skanderbeg, also confusingly referred to as Alexander the Great! He successfully fought against the Ottoman Empire all his life and Albania only came under their rule a few years after Skanderbeg died. The National Albanian Museum has a host of information from 40,000BC up to the present day. The Albanians are fully prepared to talk about their experience under Soviet domination and their hopes for better times once they join the EU. They are also aware that the reputation of Albania abroad is of drug dealing and theft. They accept that although it is not a fair reflection it will take them some years to convince some people of the injustice of that stereotype.
So, my take on Albania is, a country with some fantastic scenery, interesting history, a culture with strong influences from Turkey, Greece and Italy, especially in the food, and a population struggling to move their country and its economy from a 1960’s Soviet state into a 21st century EU state. I sincerely hope they succeed.