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Albania: 5 Journeys PDF Printable Version E-mail

 

FIVE JOURNEYS BY ROAD THROUGH ALBANIA

The following five accounts summarise journeys by road through one of the least known and least travelled countries in Europe: Albania, which has only 16,000 British visitors each year! All five journeys were made by couples, the first four in 2006 - two of them by motorhome, one in a 4WD vehicle (by a couple who missed their motorhome) and one on bicycles. The fifth journey was made by 2 Dutch cyclists in 1994 and is included for the contrast in style and the changing conditions of the country.

These accounts could be read in conjunction with our other articles:

Albania: General Information     Albania: FCO Advice     Albania: Roads & Distances

Barry and Margaret Williamson

December 2006

 

JOURNEY ONE: By 4WD from Croatia to Greece via Montenegro, Macedonia (almost) and Albania

Will Blanford, September 2006

In 2005 we undertook a journey into the Balkans in a gorgeous Bessacarr 445 motorhome. However, as it turns out 'Bess' would have struggled with some of the demands which this year's journey imposed. We decided that this time, using a tent and 4WD Land Rover and without the weight and manoeuvrability restrictions of a motorhome, we would go overland all the way to Greece via Albania instead of making the usual ferry crossing from Italy. An interesting proposition we felt. We were not to be disappointed.

An uneventful beginning ensued, through France via Dover/Dunkirk with Norfolk Line (who we cannot praise too highly for comfort, value and - joy of joys - being completely smoke free), then Belgium, Germany, Austria, Slovenia and Croatia. So far so good. We had visited Slovenia and Croatia last year in our motorhome and were suitably impressed by the ease of travel and general road conditions. Also in terms of border crossings: we sailed through without so much as a glance at our documents. Even Croatia involved nothing but a cursory glance at our passports and the tiny section of Bosnia/Herzegovina north of Dubrovnik was hardly noticeable.

Slovenia is very beautiful. A little jewel of a country and the Julian Alps that house the Triglav National Park are a walker's paradise. It's a safe, clean and thoroughly welcoming place and with Bled and Bohinj to take in too, it's tempting to linger on. Again the roads are good (care needed through mountain passes of course within the National Park) but the motorways are efficient and toll-free.

We crossed the Slovenia/Croatia border at Rupa and, although the road from here to Rijeka is slow, the motorway from Rijeka to Split is now completed and was all but empty. Driving conditions and road surfaces etc are excellent. This new section negates having to use the coastal road, which if time allows we would still highly recommend, from having done so last year. The views across to the various islands (Krk, Rab, Pag etc) are quite breathtaking and many enforced coffee breaks to admire the scenery will occur!

We picked up the coast road this time from Split, as currently this is where the motorway ends. Off-season (late September) this section was also a pleasure. Conditions were still good and more stunning views - this time the islands of Brac, Korcula and Mljet - hove into view. Dubrovnik is a must to visit if at all possible and the road leading south out of the city has many pull-over spots, to view the old city from high above. In the height of the season, however, this non-motorway section is a bit of a nightmare. Because there are so many beaches all the way down the coast, with the road being only two narrow lanes, delays are inevitable. Needless to say, impatience also leads to stupidity in some drivers and you need to be extra vigilant for motorcyclists with a death wish!

Our entry into Montenegro from Croatia was again without incident. A quick look at passports and we were on our way. We were expecting a little more fuss, but nothing of the sort. We hugged the coastal road once more, traversing the huge inlet of water that encloses Risan, Perast and Dobrota to name but a few. It is one of those tantalising roads, where you can see the end of your journey but know it will take an age to reach it. The other side of the shore looked touchable and had we taken the ferry from one side to the other our journey time would have been much reduced. However, time being on our side we enjoyed the ride and the opportunity of passing through some interesting places en route.

Eventually the coast road turns inland and we headed for the Montenegro/Albania border at Hani i Hotit. Here we were asked to produce our documents and we handed over passports, green card, insurance document and photocopy of vehicle registration document. Now call us naïve, ill-prepared or just stupid, but the photocopy was in view of the fact that the car in which we travelled belonged to my brother. He had kindly agreed to lend it to us and arranged insurance in our name, etc. Therefore he retained the original document in the UK. Moreover, throughout our 4-month trip last year, not once were we asked for any documents relating to our motorhome, despite the fact that we had on that occasion taken all the originals.

Anyway – for our entry into Albania this did not present a problem. The police stamped our passports (vital by the way, as in Montenegro, to prove you have entered via an official border crossing). With a little friendly banter in broken English about the officers' experiences of Nottingham and the 'awful English food', off we went to Customs. Documents were handed over, including the photocopy of the registration document, much filling in of paperwork ensued, the official customs certificate was handed to us, and away we went.

Albania is not for the faint-hearted! Had we taken our motorhome it would have been a very unpleasant experience indeed. When people say the roads are dreadful, they have to be seen to be believed. Our main observation of Montenegro was that the roads were very reasonable and easily accessible to most vehicles, but with an overwhelming traffic police presence requiring careful compliance with speed limits. Our main observation of Albanian roads was a series of expletives! Almost as soon as we entered the country, the road became littered with potholes, piles of rubbish and roaming animals. We consider ourselves reasonably well travelled but this rivalled anywhere we had visited so far. It was made even more shocking, we felt, as it is geographically, if not politically, part of Europe.

From the point of view of driving, we have the following suggestions:

1. Think twice about doing this in anything less than a very robust vehicle with a confident driver. We felt that a camper van, not carrying too much weight and with little rear overhang, would probably be OK - just. We were however very pleased to be in a 4WD.

2. Make sure you travel by daylight so that you have at least some chance of manoeuvring round the worst holes in the road.

3. Be prepared for some pretty depressing sights involving sadly both people and animals.

4. There are few road signs anywhere and amazingly none in the capital, Tirana.

We did observe plenty of huge articulated lorries somehow traversing the towns and villages but they must have had nerves of steel and suspension of jelly! The countryside seemed attractive enough but the litter was ghastly and the necessity for both driver and passenger to keep their eyes out on stalks really spoilt any chance of enjoying the views. We spent one day travelling from the border to the beach resort of Durres, where our border policeman had suggested a campsite. We never found it (even if it existed) and quite honestly did not relish pitching our tent. On this note we are unaware of any campsite in Albania and personally would not have felt comfortable about wild camping, even in a camper van. We resorted to a hotel that was adequate for the night.

We then continued, planning to pass through Macedonia round Lake Ohrid before entering Greece. The Lake sounded interesting and we had located a campsite right on the shore, which we intended to stop at. Helpfully, signposting was now clear as we neared the border at Qafa e Thanes (Cafasan): Greece turn right – Macedonia straight on. Ignoring the temptation to follow the signs to our final destination, we ploughed on.

Passports and the documentation shown at the border on entering Albania were handed over at Albanian Customs and, after a slight delay, we passed into no-man's land ready for entry into Macedonia. So back to that bit about being stupid… No original registration document - No Macedonia! After an initial attempt at negotiating with the officials to allow us through, we realised the futility of it all. The only thing for it was to re-enter Albania and go straight into Greece via the border crossing at Kapshtica on the Korce/Florina road. A detour, extra journey time and sadly no Lake Ohrid but we were hardly in a position to argue.

Turning round in a queue of lorries and other assorted vehicles to retrace our footsteps within no-man's land is not an experience we had had before, at any border crossing. We felt the eyes of the lorry drivers on us as we drove back towards the Albanian border post with our tail between our legs. Dutifully we once more produced our passports and vehicle documents. The Albanian Police stamped our passports – again – and off we went to Customs. Customs between Macedonia and Albania are evidently not as lenient as they are between Montenegro and Albania - this time they demanded our original documentation for the vehicle registration. Advising them that it was in the UK, they refused us re-entry into Albania and told us we would have to go through Macedonia!

We explained that Macedonia would not allow us through, for the same reason, and that Albania had allowed us to come in the day before through Montenegro. We were sure this would be a minor blip, cleared up as soon as we proved our arrival by means of showing the stamp in our passports at Hani i Hotit. No such luck! We were told to remove our vehicle from the queue and to come back when the original document was available. The awful thought that we might actually have to spend the rest of our lives living between the borders of Albania and Macedonia was becoming increasingly real. The Customs officers were having none of our pleas and ignoring our request to be reasonable. It would appear that Customs officials at the Montenegro border had different entry requirements to those at the Macedonian border.

What followed was a strange and unnerving series of events. In short, we were approached by a chap who we first thought was a lorry driver. He spoke some English and saw our desperation. He also seemed to know how to play the game. He suggested we would probably have to wait until a change in shift and hope the next officer would be more lenient. He could not tell us how long this might be. He also tried to get the Police to negotiate with Customs on our behalf and, despite some half-hearted attempts, this failed pretty early on.

A couple of hours passed and we were getting nowhere except going round in the same ghastly circle. We could not seem to make Customs understand our rationale, that if we had been legally allowed in the day before, how could they possibly refuse us today? By this time, everyone involved was becoming bored of us, our car and our situation and they took to completely ignoring us and our plight. My wife was close to tears by now and we were seriously considering our next move – make a run for it, phone the British Embassy, put the kettle on – none a particularly viable option, especially the latter in view of having sold the motorhome!

Just as we were eyeing up suitable pitches in no-man's land for the tent, we were approached by a short bespectacled man who took my wife to one side. I was restrained, gently but firmly, by the 'lorry driver' who told me to stay with him. My wife disappeared off across the tarmac to a shed with the short man. She told me afterwards that desperation and faith in the humanity of mankind in general outweighed any other concerns she might have had. Some time later she returned with passports and the photocopy of documentation in hand, along with duplicate photocopies of everything. These she (correctly) assumed, despite lack of instruction from the short man, were now to be given to Customs.

Our obstructive Nemesis snatched them away and, with some words from the 'lorry driver' (who had now released me), he broke into a broad smile and completed the necessary paper work in order for us to go back into Albania. So there we were, the shortest (almost) visit to Macedonia and the most bizarre three hours stuck in borderland before returning to the place we had left! Needless to say, we didn't hang around. We flew through the potholes and managed to enter Greece about three hours later. No trouble there, as the Green Card was all that was required. We have never been so pleased to leave anywhere, finally, as Albania.

It was a shame not to have visited Lake Ohrid, although we did follow the western shore on the Albanian side as we made our way to our second choice of border crossing. It did look lovely and vast! One day perhaps we will return and do it properly. As soon as we entered Greece the road conditions improved dramatically and, despite spending the next few hours looking over our shoulders in case the Albanian Customs had changed their minds and come after us, we felt that we were back on safe ground.

So ended our little adventure through Albania. In hindsight we were a bit silly (stupid!) not to have taken the original documents but actually we would not have missed the journey for all the world. Travelling by air and just gazing down on countries as you fly over them cannot possibly be a substitute for the real thrill of travelling overland. It seemed impossible to imagine that 5 days previously we were passing through smart (somewhat sterile in comparison) France, Belgium, Germany and Austria. Then, as the miles passed and we entered less familiar Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro, everything began to feel less and less European and we had to remind ourselves that we were still on the same land mass. We were tantalisingly close to Macedonia but, no matter, we made it to our destination and as always Greece did not disappoint.

So here's to next summer and more adventures, we hope. This time though we will check our documents – just in case we are not so lucky!

The Blanfords sent us the following email when they eventually arrived home:

Just to let you know that the Blanfords are returned to the UK. Not that we are exactly jumping up and down but work calls and the tent is wet! We had an amazing trip and we want to thank you once again for your kind advice before we went (thank you for the most recent email concerning insurance). We would be delighted to update you on our outward journey, with tales of terror in Albania if you are interested.

I'm afraid that we didn't make Bulgaria/Hungary on our way back and resorted to the Igoumenista/Ancona ferry, the main reasons being that we were flooded out in Greece and we ran out of time. Late autumn, Eastern Europe and a soggy tent do not make for good bedfellows, we decided. We feel sorry not to have made that trip this time but there's always next year. We missed our motorhome more than we could have imagined (no surprises there) but did feel somewhat heroic, being the only campers on a site running with mud and water. We could 'only have been English' as one German couple fondly announced to us!

With very best wishes, Will and Fleur Blanford

 

JOURNEY TWO: By Motorhome from Greece to Croatia via Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro

Andy Clarke, Spring 2006

Andy Clarke, owner of the website 'Motorhome List' (www.motorhome-list.org.uk), returned to England from Turkey this year via Albania. Don Madge, MMM Travel Consultant and doyen of several motorhome forums, was with Andy in Turkey for the Solar Eclipse in March and later contacted him on our behalf concerning his route. This was Andy's reply.

Our Green Card was from the Caravan Club. The border post expected us to buy insurance and were surprised to see that our Green Card did in fact include Albania.

Barry & Margaret will be going the opposite way to us, do you know which route they are taking?

We went: Thessaloniki - Bitola - Ohrid - Durres – Shkoder, then south of Lake Shkoder out to the coast at Bar, then to Dubrovnik via the coast road.

Some of the roads are very good but there is a lot of road building/upgrading going on and some of the new roads are not shown on the maps. In some places 'upgrading' consists of demolishing the old road into a rock and rubble strewn track and just leaving the traffic to get on with it. The road north of Tirana was like that for about 12 km.

If we go back again we would take the coast road south of Durres down to Vlora and on to Saranda. I hear that the road isn't too bad and it's reported to be the best bit of Albanian coastline. Our map doesn't show a border crossing at Konispoli/Sagiada but I think I read somewhere that you can in fact cross there and it's shown as a crossing point on Multimap - otherwise it's a trip inland to cross at Kakavi.

As far as tips go, what can I say, we were only there a couple of days. We found everyone friendly. The Euro is widely accepted, in fact where we filled up with fuel the chap preferred Euros to the Albanian Lek. The only place we used Leks was in small shops to buy provisions. We saw Autogas for sale on the outskirts of Durres so it's available, but I don't know how widely - we didn't need any at the time.

If they want somewhere to stop overnight they could try the restaurant we stayed at, just south of Shkodra, near Berdica. It's called Gledis and the owner, Albert, speaks very good English. There are a number of riverside restaurants close together there. We picked Albert's because it had the longest drive (look for the lights lining the drive) and a reasonably sized parking area; it was a bonus that he spoke English! I couldn't say that the restaurant itself was wonderful, but the food was cheap and it was nice to have somewhere to park and to get to talk to a local.

What else ... credit cards are not widely accepted for purchases, ATMs are available in towns. Watch out for the police speed traps - we saw a lot of police with radar guns at the sides of the roads.

Hope that helps them a bit! All the best, Andy

And it does! Thanks to Andy and Don.

 

JOURNEY THREE: By Motorhome from Croatia to Greece via Montenegro and Albania

Mike Vere, March 2006

We received the following note from Mike Vere, who we met while he and Christine were waiting for the coastal ferry near Kirkenes in the far north-east of Norway. This was near the end of their epic journey in a Hobby motorhome, which had included driving from Croatia into Greece via Montenegro and Albania in March 2006. Mike writes:

If Croatia was charming in its light sophistication and suavity, with Montenegro's bottle-bank nature park a rude awakening, then Albania was distinctly hallucinatory. We did the Podgorica - Shkoder road (there are only 2 north side border crossings and the Kosovo one is not recommended!)

The ca 40 km from the border (1 hour wait) to Shkoder took us about 2 hours on a straight track, peppered with potholes. The coast road from Vore (near Tirane) via Durres was fine and the mountain pass ditto as far as the summit. From Dhermi to Sarande you have great scenery but it's SLOW going. We struggled with our little Hobby. I'd allow 2 days for this stretch with your beastie.

From Sarande into Greece it's motorway standard and your reward is the lovely Zagoria region and the Vikos Gorge.

Enjoy but take great care!

PS: We never felt threatened.

 

JOURNEY FOUR: By Bicycle from Macedonia to Greece via Albania

Erika Bird and Robin Searle, 2006

The following account is taken from the travel 'blog' of this young Scottish couple. The style is more self-centred and detailed than the ones given above, drawing attention to problems, personalities and challenges, and seems to us typical of the many travel blogs maintained by younger people, travelling with little money.

To read a full account of their journey, click: Travel Blog Albania.

Well finally the time came and we could not put off leaving Ohrid any longer, nice though the lake may be. Before leaving we had purchased a small, very cheap gas stove and a couple of spare cartridges, as our trusty MSR had once again decided it needed a rest - the pump has given up completely as we knew it probably would, we just hoped it would last to Istanbul. (It was damaged during an attempted mutiny by Erika way back in Slovakia, when she lit the thing having failed to notice a rather large fuel leak). We had also purchased some Euros as we had heard there may be border taxes at the Albanian frontier and our reserve had no doubt long been spent by light-fingered Romanian types.

So to Albania we went - a country most Europeans no doubt have all sorts of ideas and judgements about, but which are based on what exactly? The more I tried to think of something I actually knew about the place, the more I realised how little we do know and this just made it much more intriguing. Apart from having a name very similar to Scotland (in Gaelic language Scotland is called Alba, in Welsh it is Alban), I realised I knew practically nothing. Time to find out.

We had been looking at the country for days at the far end of the lake, and so set off expecting an easy ride along the western shores of the lake to the border and then on to Pogradec, the Albanian town at the southern tip of the lake. It started out promisingly with a flat road right by the lakeside and even a nice cooling breeze to stave off the blistering sun. We passed beaches along the lake and had to focus hard on the road ahead and not that lovely, cool, clear blue water. This problem evaporated when the road took a sudden turn inland and upwards into the hills, however. We slogged on for a few kms, to reappear annoyingly back by the lake again. This repeated itself most of the way south; at one point the road went high into the hills with a good view down to the lake.

On our descent we watched 2 paragliders cruise off the hillside and circle round before making a very fast and dramatic 'plummet' from the sky, as they were in danger of crossing illegally into Albanian airspace! The Macedonian border post was very formal, with smart uniforms and buildings. There were actually some Customs here and I was worried when they asked us specifically if we had any 'audio-visual equipment' to declare. As we had made no declaration on our entry, it was possible they could have tried to argue that our camera had been purchased inside Macedonia and needed export duty paying or something. Fortunately searching us was clearly way too much like working, so we were waved through. The passport guy asked us sternly for our bicycle papers. We looked at each other worryingly and asked what papers he needed, but he could contain himself no longer and burst out laughing - cheeky B! Had us worried for a moment though!

By contrast the Albanian checkpoint was casual - a random collection of huts and portacabins beside the road, many of which seemingly had no purpose and had simply been driven to the edge of the country and dumped - at least that's what it looked like. We were waved past most of them by guys in no uniforms who just seemed to be hanging around, eventually finding a hut marked Passport Control and a guy with a uniform. He looked at our passports and seemed delighted we were British, as this meant he could charge us the border tax (ironically the visa is free.). He was very keen to show us the chart listing the various border taxes for different nationalities - after clearly showing us Britain was 10 Euro he eagerly showed us all of the other prices.

Most European countries were also 10 Euro, except Poland which got in free - must have done something nice - and Malta, who have to pay 30 Euro and have clearly annoyed Albania at some point. Bizarrely, nationals of Iran, Columbia, Paraguay, Cuba, Libya and Palestine all get in for free - he was particularly keen to point this out to us (must be hundreds of Cuban visitors to Albania every year!). While Palestinians can get in free of charge, Israelis must pay the maximum of 30 Euro! Our friendly border guard asked about our route and I tried my best to explain we were going to Greece. He grabbed a pen and paper and started to sketch a map for us to show the main roads we needed, the big towns along the way and the distances between them all! And thus armed we set off towards Pogradec.

I had heard and expected Albanian roads would be bad. Very bad. In Ukraine someone had boldly told us that western Ukraine has the worst roads in Europe. Then they paused: no maybe Albania is worse they thought. Well, we stuck to the main roads after our experiences in Macedonia and they were great - some of the best we have been on since Germany - no kidding. The signs informing us of the recent refurbishment, courtesy of German funding, might have the answer to that one. I had also heard and expected Albanian driving standards to be bad. Very bad. Whilst I would certainly not rank them the safest in Europe, again we were surprised and I never felt in danger here. Perhaps months on the road in Poland and everywhere since has made us grow accustomed to such excellent practices as overtaking regardless of whether you can see ahead or not and a complete failure to register cyclists as road traffic at all.

There are 2 key differences with driving styles in Albania however - firstly nearly everyone is driving a Mercedes, and secondly most of them have their hand glued to the horn. Yes, while Ceska has its Skodas, Russia the Lada and Romania the Dacia, the state car of Albania is the Mercedes Benz. At least 80% of the cars here are Mercs, with the few that are not being flashy BMW's, Volkswagens or some big 4x4/SUV thing. Judging by style of car alone, Albania must be one of the wealthiest countries in Europe; whilst many are old 1960's or 70's models still hanging on, around half of these cars are very flashy new models. Some are so new you can still see the stickers from the dealerships in Italy or Germany, from where their original owners purchased them. Erika was convinced that the middle-aged guys with slicked back hair driving these cars were all mafia gangsters or something. I accused her of stereotyping the 'normal Albanian business look'.

Where was I? Oh yes driving standards. Well in a place with so many Mercs, they were never going to be good, now were they? In all the places we have been so far the worst drivers are usually in a Merc or BMW, with the exception of buses and taxis who are just as bad if not worse. Well, maybe Albania is the exception that proves the rule as most drivers were reasonable by the standards we have become accustomed to. All the taxis and buses here are Mercs but even they weren't too bad. I had some weird idea that they drove on the left in Albania - they actually drive on the right but most of the time it is pretty hard to tell. Brakes and indicators are optional extras here too - why use such things when you have a horn? Thus Albanian roads were definitely the noisiest.

After all the Mercedes on the road, the second thing you can't fail to notice in Albania are the bunkers. Bunkers everywhere. Well not quite, sometimes you can go a km or two without seeing a single one, but then you will find a whole field packed full of the things. The official story is that Albania's madcap dictator, Enver Hoxha (who ruled for c 50 years), was very, very paranoid. He had few friends. He was mates with Stalin for a bit and Albania enjoyed trade relations with the Soviet Union. Then in a rare moment of common sense he realised Stalin was a nutter and broke off relations, trying instead to be pals with Mao and the Chinese. He needed a buddy somewhere to protect him and to trade with, after all. But things didn't work out here either and Albania was soon left completely closed to the rest of the world with no (official) trade in or out and no defence pacts with anyone.

Now a land as rich as Albania would clearly be high on any leaders list of 'countries to invade when bored' and so Hoxha rightly feared foreign invasion. With no big friends to rally to his aid, he set out to make sure Albania would be a hard nut to crack and commissioned the design of a bombproof defensive bunker. The story has it that when the engineer came up with the prototype, Hoxha ordered him inside it and had it bombarded with tank fire for several minutes as the ultimate test of his workmanship!. He survived though and as a result, the things were built everywhere. As they are so indestructible, they are still everywhere now, probably outnumbering the Mercedes even.

I also heard a tale that Hoxha hated golfers - perhaps his only redeeming feature - and was paranoid that one day Albania would be invaded by the PGA and turned into a luxury golf resort. Thus he came up with the perfect solution to both fears - cover the place with bunkers to keep them out!

And so we arrived in Pogradec without being maimed by any passing Mercedes and set about trying to shift our leftover Macedonian Dinars into Albanian Lekke. The banks were closed as it was Saturday. We found a Western Union exchange but they wouldn't take dinars of course. Everyone directed us to a change office up a street on the left, so off we went. We went up the street and back down it and then up it again. We could see no change office. We asked some guys outside a cafe and they pointed to a clothes shop across the way and told us there was the 'change'. We looked confused and tried to ask 'is that not a clothes shop?' in our pathetic attempts at Albanian language. We then realised they were pointing at the man holding a carrier bag who was quickly making his way towards us. The carrier bag was full of cash and out came the calculator. Five confused minutes later we had swapped our money at a reasonable rate and learned to expect any random number of zeros to be quoted on any prices here. My first Albanian lesson left me more confused than before and with the firm conviction that this was one language I was not going to get the hang of, especially in only a day or two. We had lunch by the lake and made our way out of the chaos that is Pogradec. Along the lakefront it's quite posh, behind is not so and has lots of building going on. On the surface though it didn't look so different to any of the towns in Macedonia or Bulgaria. The road out of town climbed steeply up the hills away from the lake in a series of hairpins, and we marvelled at the Mercedes overtaking on blind hairpins with only their horn blaring for safety.

Once away from the lake the countryside became very arid. Not like the yellow dryness of Macedonia: here the vegetation and earth was a mosaic of reds, oranges, browns and blacks. Most of the hillsides have been badly deforested, with only patchy scrub here and there and some geography textbook style examples of erosion gullies and the like. It gets cold here in winter and, what with no fuel imports for a long time under Hoxha, I guess firewood was in short supply. The fields in the valleys had all been harvested and most had either been burnt off and/or ploughed back in already, thus leaving a patchwork of red soil, brown stubble or black scorch marks. The terrain was flat though and the road fast and we made good time to Körce, our halfway point according to the 'map' from the border guard.

We purchased food here and some Albanian beer (it rivals Ukrainian stuff for quality) and then headed out of town looking for a campsite. We had to ride further than expected but at a narrow point between two hills we found a track leading off past two super-bunkers and up the hillside to a really nice quiet flat grassy patch and here we spent the night under the stars. Our new gas stove worked a treat and we were glad we did not have to endure cold food and no coffee all the way to Istanbul.

The next day dawned bright and we set off on the road to Greece. There was even a sign on it telling us it went to Greece. Along with Mercedes and bunkers there is one other thing no traveller to Albania can fail to encounter in large numbers - car washes. Yes, after stealing - sorry trading - foreign luxury cars, the main source of income in Albania seems to come from washing them. 'Lavazhjos' are everywhere and usually consist of a small concrete pad, a jet hose and anything from 3 to 10 or more guys to work it. They are not limited to towns and villages but are liberally spread along the roadside in the middle of nowhere too. Clearly, your Mercedes must be clean and shiny at all times and in such a dusty landscape this means serious business can be made. Either that, or lots of people are very unimaginative in the 'front' businesses they open to disguise their real incomes. Either way their numbers increased towards the Greek border - it is especially important to have a clean car to show off to the rest of the world!

My limited knowledge of Albanian had caused amusement the previous day, when we began to notice signs saying 'Shitet' stuck on particularly old cars and graffiti'd onto the sides of equally shoddy looking buildings. 'Fair Point' I thought each time I cycled past such a sign, though was confused why Albanians would write such cheeky graffiti in English and why they all had the same poor habit of sticking an extra letter 't' onto the word. I was about to enquire about this when I noticed similar signs on recently finished buildings and on the odd flashy car - along with phone numbers and prices, indicating Shitet is actually Albanian for 'for sale'. It will always mean something else to me.

The Albanian language is like no other in Europe, and is apparently one of the oldest Indo-European languages still being spoken. The answer to the riddle of why Albania is named so closely to Scotland/Alba was not to be found here however. In the Albanian language they call themselves Shqiperia, or the Republic of Shqiperia to be precise. My one and only lesson in the language involved me trying to get an old guy to teach me how to pronounce this name and I failed badly. I'm sure he was saying something different every time, but this did at least answer why the outside world calls it something different. No idea why they settled on 'Albania' though.

The ride to the border was fairly uneventful, through dry arid scenery similar to the previous day. Bunkers increased along with car washes as we approached and one enterprising soul had built a roadside cafe modelled on an enormous bunker and called it Kafe Bunkeri. This amused us only because Banchory - where we started this journey from - sounds like Bunkeri when pronounced in the correct Doric dialect of NE Scotland. This border post was a bit more impressive, in that it actually had some permanent buildings. We were fast tracked past the lines of Albanian men trying to get out and nobody asked us for a border tax. We certainly weren't going to mention it either and so we entered Greece 20 Euro richer than expected.

We were sad to leave Albania though, as we had been there for less than 24 hours in total and this seemed way too short a time to spend in such an interesting country. I hear they have the best and least visited beaches in the Adriatic, possibly the whole Mediterranean, so maybe we will venture back here one day to check them out - before the luxury golf courses arrive.

 

JOURNEY FIVE: By Bicycle from Greece into Albania

Robert van Weperen, 1994

This extract from an account of a Dutch cycle ride from Thessaloniki in Greece to Tirana in Albania, over a decade ago, is said to be 'for devotees and the experienced only'. It was originally translated from the Dutch story 'Verpletterend mooi Albanië' with the help of Nick Collins.

THESSALONIKI TO TIRANA

As the crow flies it's around 200 miles, but measured in time the distance seems more like four centuries. An odyssey over land and through time on a mountain bike, from an adorable Greece to an incredible Albania.

Kastoria, Greece. The nearer we get to the border with Albania the more negatively the Greeks speak about the place. Mostly disdainful, occasionally downright discriminatory, they express their discontent to us about the large numbers of Albanians that have crossed the border in recent years. Whilst some of these immigrants have entered the country legally most, they complain, have not. And as such are subject to the usual abuse that is heaped upon such peoples wherever they are found. When we express our intentions to take a little look at this former socialist republic, their faces register looks ranging from amazement to pity: we are clearly quite insane. In their eyes only thieves and murderers live in this neighbouring country and only the clinically mad would want to join them. For us however the appeal of Albania gets stronger by the minute. Every mile we get closer to the border the landscape gets wilder and the roads become tougher, demanding more and more from our 'all terrain' cycling skills and the Grip Shifts. We pass through fewer villages and the sounds and smells of nature drown out those from the ever more scattered civilisation.

Bilishti, the first Albanian village after the border. Roads are unpaved and potholed. Houses are made from wood, loam or turf. There is no sewer and the filth is drained straight into the roadside gutter. It feels like a medieval film set. Locals watch us with distrust. Or are they just curious? I see a man eating from a bunch of juicy grapes and ask him - with a little hesitation - where I can buy those. He looks as if he does not understand me. I repeat my question, show some money and point at the grapes. Then a big smile appears on his weathered face and he gestures to follow him. We walk alongside the backyard of some ramshackle wooden houses. No pavement, just sand that will turn into mud after the first drop of rain. When we arrive at his house he picks the biggest bunch out of the grapevine and gracefully hands it over to us. Only after protesting will he accept our money. Albanians are very hospital, their grapes delicious.

Maliq near Korce. Our host Elgert Bregu advises with great emphasis against the route through the Devoll (Devil ?) valley. They say it is very much impassable and unsafe too. Since it is the Albanians themselves who proffer this advice, we hesitate for a while. But the other road, via Pogradec, we would have to share with wrecked Opel and VW diesel cars and their drivers, who bought their licences two weeks ago. Faced with the prospect of playing chicken with these rolling wrecks, we opt for the impassable and unsafe route. At least it will be quiet. We are rewarded for doing so with 50 miles of the most incredible tracks in Europe. Rough mountains, black forests, bold rocks and crystal clear water splashing over them. The vista is beyond imagination.

Gramsh. According to the receptionist of the one and only hotel in this small town, all rooms are booked. Luckily one of our 'new friends' - an intoxicated but nice Chief of Police - manages to secure us a room. Price for the room for one night: 1 US Dollar, payable in advance, cash! We should be grateful, but it is filthy. The toilets are literally full of shit. The room is pretty worn out and there is no running water after 7.00 pm. We brush our teeth with the water from our canteens and barricade the door with the wardrobe. Foregoing the grimy sheets, we sleep in our smelly sleeping bags with the premise that our sweat is preferable to somebody else's. But after such an amazing day, really we don't care.

GENERAL INFORMATION

A special country For sure, you will meet with some inconveniences, but most of the people are very nice and most of the country is extremely beautiful (except for some badly damaged industrial areas). The food is getting better by the day and hopefully the roads will stay as unpaved as they are now. This makes this country a perfect spot for walking and cycling.

Tirana, the capital, is interesting too. It's crowded with cars and people trying to make money with small businesses. Though hectic it has a very good atmosphere. The people here are very motivated to improve their lives and although they may seem to be more self-centred than in the country, you can still easily get into contact with nice people.

Documentation Albania map Ravenstein, 1 cm = 400.000 km, edition 1992.

Visa Once you arrive in Albania you have to buy a visa for $5.00. Cross the border at Konispol, Kakavija or Bilishti.

How to get there By train to Brindisi, Italy and then by boat to Durres. Or take a plane to Corfu, where a daily boat sails you to Sarande. If you don't bring your own bike, visit the 'Dutch Bicycle Company' in Agios Ioannis, phone 0030 661 52 410. Here you can rent a pretty good Giant trekking bike.

Season May, June, September and October are the best months for cycling. Temperatures are nice and the light is beautiful.

Money Bring dollars or DM, and rather 10 notes of $1 than 1 note of $10. Only in Tirana you can use Travellers Cheques. Prices are low for local products. If you take a taxi, fix a price in advance.

Safety Take care of your luggage. But despite all the anti-propaganda it is no worse than Amsterdam Central Station. The people are poor, so you would expect a higher motivation to steal, but this is not the case. Many people are most willing to share their belongings, food and hospitality with you.

Water & Food Do not drink water from a tap. It is deadly! Buy water in plastic or drink it - if necessary - from the mountains. Food is not a problem in bigger villages. If you travel remotely, you have to ask the locals to bake you extra bread.

Accommodation You can sleep in very cheap state-run hotels ($1 pp) or private hotels. Tirana is much more expensive: $30 or more. When you stay in a rural area you can try to stay the night with a family. Just ask, most people are willing to help you.

Transport There are a few trains in Albania. Buy a ticket and take your bike on the train. It is great fun to experience.

Hot Spots Girokaster and Berat (old cities); Korce-Maliq-Gramsh-Tirana through the Devoll Valley (extremely beautiful); Tirana; and Vlore-Sarande (alongside the coast).