Driving, Albanian Style

March 26 2011

Driving, Albanian Style

On my flight over to Europe last week, I watched Season 16, Episode 3 of BBC's Top Gear, "The one with Big Albanian road trip". The premise is to help a member of the Albanian mafia decide what kind of new car to get - a Rolls-Royce Ghost, a Bentley, or a Mercedes S65 AMG. This was timely viewing for me, as my road trip last weekend included two passes through Albania, and I wanted to know what Lewis and I were in for.

As I watched the show (first 15 minutes here), I was somewhat frightened. The roads looked pretty unsafe, and the "ferry" they used to cross a river at one point downright scary. I reassured myself that since we would be driving main roads, we'd be fine; that the show had deliberately sought out the toughest roads, and of course, if a Mercedes and a Rolls survived the Top Gear filming, we'd certainly be OK.

I was generally wrong in several dimensions.

First, our Garmin GPS really didn't know the Albanian roads that well. It certainly didn't know the new motorway from the Kosovan border towards Tiranë, and it didn't know the route to the border with Montenegro. That lead to one major wrong turn en route, and many thanks expressed for having multiple GPS devices with us.

Second, while the primary roads were generally in good shape, there were still surprises. That new motorway -- so new that the Google maps satellite images don't show any road there -- has one very unique characteristic. Most of the bridges were only built two lanes wide. That means that on every bridge approach, the roadway narrows from four lanes -- except that there is NO BARRIER at the bridge where the additional lanes drop off. They literally drop off -- and a careless driver could simply go over the cliff.

Third, that one wrong turn was quite an oops. I took one conference call during our first evening's drive, and as such, we couldn't use the Blackberry during that time to navigate. Lewis did the right thing following what looked like the main route through Shkoder, but suddenly, the road became a one-lane mix of gravel, sand, and potholes. The Garmin was sure that this was the route to Bar, Montenegro, but something didn't look right. When we came to the one-lane bridge with the 10 km/h sign, and found that the bridge decking was made simply of plywood planking, we knew this couldn't be the right route. At the next gas station (which looked suspiciously like a BP station, but clearly wasn't), I wrapped up my call and reactivated the Blackberry's GPS. We were indeed on a road towards Montenegro, but towards the capital, Podgorica, as opposed to the seaside town of Bar. Back over the scary bridge, through the potholes and rain, and over another one-lane wooden-decking bridge (this one much longer!), and we were on the right road towards Bar. Not a single sign anywhere in Shkoder indicated either route to Montenegro. It was as if the two countries couldn't be bothered by the fact that they were next to each other; even the border crossing station was a quiet affair.

On the return trip back through Shkoder, that one-lane bridge was the site of our only unsafe moment of the trip. A child of no more than 11 approached our car and tried to open the doors, in theory pointing to a can of potato crisps as what he wanted. Smartly, we realized any door or window open would have made us much more vulnerable, but we were trapped waiting to cross the bridge. Eventually, he left us to try the next car stopped in queue. I was definitely unnerved by the experience.

Fourth, the shortest distance between two points isn't always the fastest. Leaving Tiranë for Ohrid, Macedonia, we made the simple assumption that the route southeast through Elbesan was the only approach. That road -- only about 25 miles as the crow flies -- was some of the scariest driving I've ever experienced. It climbed quickly high into the mountains, with what would have been breathtaking views on a clear day. On this day, though, my main concern was the lack of crash barriers on the side of the road -- especially when we were at the summit, driving a two-lane road which had sheer drops on either side of it. Lewis was a master behind the wheel, keeping me looking straight ahead most of the time, and ignoring the numerous road-side grave markers where clearly cars had gone off the side.

On my flight out of Pristina on Monday, I sat next to a kind Kosovan man, who laughed as I told him about this driving experience. He said he had driven that road once, but never again. He noted that there is a valley route, driving west from Tiranë to the sea at Durres, south from there, and then east to Elbasan. Maybe it would have added an hour or two to the drive, and we would have missed those vistas, but we also would have kept our blood pressure intact and our hearts out of our throats.

Fifth, Top Gear was right, driving in Albania was different. There was the Mercedes factor -- about 60% of the cars we saw were Mercedes-Benz. It was as if every Merc dealer in the world sends their used car inventory off to Albania, never to be seen again (in some cases, the cars still had license plates from the UK, US, or elsewhere - it seemed highly unlikely that the cars were actually currently licensed in those places). There was also the number of filling stations, extremely disproportionate to the number of cars. On the road between Tiranë and Montenegro, there was a station every km or so, sometimes more than one, right next to each other. I have seen gas station density in places here - the entrance to the Holland Tunnel in New Jersey, for example -- but never so consistently for such a long stretch. While none of them were western brands, they were all as glitzy as the typical station here. Some things were missing, though - while most had a small building capable of serving as a mini-mart, inevitably, those buildings were empty. It was as if someone had stolen blueprints to build western-style gas stations, and just went ahead with the whole thing regardless of actual plans.

The weekend adventure will live on with many memories, and perhaps with future editions of the same kind of adventure, but the memories of driving through Albania will remain as some of the most intense moments of the trip. And to think that I was originally contemplating visiting Albania by myself.

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