Wednesday, October 9, 2013


Disclaimer: I'm warning you now that almost all the photos in this post are taken through the car window. They aren't my finest photos. There's a good reason for that, which I'll get to in a bit.

We had outlined a whirlwind day for Albania. The plan was to drive west from Lake Ohrid towards the Adriatic, but then head southeast to Berat, the main attraction (at least for us) in Albania.  We had a guide planned for the morning and a trip to Kruje planned for the afternoon, and then we were going to drive north towards our hotel near Tirana, the capital of the country. It's about 85 miles from Ohrid to Berat, and we allowed a generous two hours for the drive.


I think this was by far the most stressful driving day of the entire trip. Yes, even worse than approaching Sarajevo from the northern border of Bosnia rather than from the more common southern direction. Much worse.

Everything started off just fine. We had an easy border crossing and stopped to exchange money and get gas.  Gas, by the way, was $1.70/liter, or about $6.50/gallon. Yikes.  Who can afford that in a country where the average monthly income is about $335? Anyway, right away we could see that language was going to be a problem. No one, I mean NO ONE, spoke English. We had better luck speaking to these two cute bunnies at the gas station (probably destined for someone's dinner) than we did communicating with the Albanians.

No worries. The scenery, as usual in the Balkans, was lovely, and the distance wasn't that far.  We didn't have GPS, but we had a really good map.

The first major city we came to was Elbasan, one of the largest cities in Albania with a population of almost 80,000.
Detail from the map we had in the car with us
Although we were on surface streets (nothing resembling a freeway here), everything seemed fine. We watched for signs and/or highway markers that might tell us if we needed to turn off the main street going through the city, or what we THOUGHT was the main street going through the city, but if there were any, we missed them.
Like any large European city, there are a lot of one-way streets. Unlike most large cities, there are numerous horse-drawn wagons sharing the road with the cars and trucks. We must have seen about twenty between Ohrid and Elbasan.
Before long we realized that we had no idea how to find the road leading out of Elbasan in the direction we wanted to go. We weren't exactly going around in circles, but we got a good view of the old city walls from several angles,
. . . and what apparently is Elbasan's famous clock tower:
There were some memorial statues:
. . . and some other kinds of art:
Lots of people of all ages rode their bikes next to us. THEY all seemed to know where they were going.
Eventually Bob got out of the car and tried to find someone who could give us directions. As noted earlier, no one spoke our language, and so there was an awful lot of pointing and gesturing and talking really loudly:
It seemed like we would be lost for half an hour, then get reoriented for 10 to 15 minutes, then be lost again. It was insane. We eventually got out of the city and on our way, but we have one piece of advice for anyone planning on traveling to and driving in Albania: DO NOT GO UNLESS YOU HAVE A GUIDE, A TRANSLATOR, OR A WORKING GPS!
We were relieved to finally get out of the maze of city streets and back on one simple, straight road.

Unfortunately, we repeated this scenario to a lesser extent in a few more cities on our way to Berat. However, if we hadn't been trying to get to Berat by 10:00 for an appointment with a tour guide, I think we would have enjoyed the drive a little more.  It was a bit like driving through Mexico, except we felt a lot safer than I think we would feel in Mexico these days.

For example, these are typical houses. They always looked only half built. Someone told me that there aren't really mortgages, so people move in while they are building, and building can take many years.

Note the upturned Chinese/Japanese roofs on the house below:

There were dozens of these small fruit and vegetable stands along the way, the richly-colored abundance such a contrast to everything else we were seeing. After almost four hours on the road, we were beginning to wonder if these farm stands would provide us with not only lunch, but with our dinner as well.

Along with the unfamiliar there were plenty of familiar things, including advertising for the Swiss companies of Nescafe and Nestle:

Pepsi definitely is winning the cola wars in the Balkans:

After such a long time on the road, it was time to find a Ladies' Room. Actually, it had been time for quite a while and I was getting desperate. These "facilities" at a gas station were the only option I had. I had previously used a "squat" toilet in China, but it was quite a bit cleaner than this one, which didn't have either toilet paper or a sink. I had to pretend I was out in the woods, which never makes me happy. Unlike the woods, however, I felt like I couldn't touch anything.  TMI, I know.
I was so glad to get out of there.

While some parts of our drive were quite scenic (like the bathroom above, right?), other sections of the highway reflected the desperate economic situation in the country:
After returning home, I was surprised to learn that Albania has only 14% unemployment, as compared to 35% in Kosovo and 45% in Bosnia. Both of those countries seemed way more "put together" than Albania.  However, the government site I looked at said the rate in Albania could be as high as 30% if one takes into account the subsistence-level farming, and as noted above, the average income is desperately low.

Besides the lack of signs, our inability to communicate, and the farm animals we shared the roads with, the final thing that significantly slowed us down were the roads themselves. They were almost all this bad or worse:

In the end, we had to pull out my phone and use some expensive international minutes to call our guide and explain our predicament. We were scheduled for a 10:00 tour, but we arrived in Berat around 12:30. Our intended guide had another tour scheduled for the afternoon. However, he was kind enough to find a substitute guide for us, whom I'll discuss in the next post.

It was not a particularly good introduction to a state just a bit smaller than Maryland. It's hard to believe it took us more than four hours to go 85 miles. Luckily, our experience in Berat, once we finally got there, was a vast improvement over our very long drive.


  1. The problem was that our internet computer generated map had us going down roads that were not built yet, roads that were more direct and which would have saved us a lot of time - if they were built. This was actually one of my favorite parts of our trip. It was a little stressful, but it was a genuine adventure. We literally had no clue where we were at times, just following peoples directions down small country roads. True exploration. I would love to have several days just driving around Albania.

  2. That bathroom convinces me I never need to go to Albania. I think that's one place I'll just experience through your blog.

  3. I think you would flush the toilet by use of the green hose somehow? Quite an interesting travel experience, and yet you made it to your destination with a minimum of frazzled brains. Going on these byways, as Bob notes, really does give you an idea of how the country is faring, economically speaking. But you did get some interesting photos, nonetheless.