There’s nothing quite like taking a wrong turn in Albania only to have your vehicle surrounded by gypsies trying to crawl in the open windows.
It happened in the spring two years ago when my brother Ryan and I and 5 of our friends were on a road trip through the Balkans, driving a 9-passenger van through countries like Bosnia, Croatia and Montenegro.
We’d already accidentally driven through a Bosnian military encampment, suffered wounds from sea urchins in Croatia, and eaten who knows what in the middle of who knows where, but nothing prepared us for the wild adventures we were about to have in Albania.
Our adventures began at the border between Montenegro and Albania. Thanks to the naughty rental car company we only had a facsimile of our agreement instead of the original. Apparently this is verboten at every border crossing in the Balkans and caused us no end of grief. The Montenegrins didn’t want to let us out because they told us the Albanians would only send us back again.
For two hours we waited as my brother flashed his Cheshire grin and used his halting Russian to try to communicate. Finally they let us through. The Albanians weren’t any happier with the situation, but Stacey, Ryan and I beamed happily at them from the front seat and at long last our passports were stamped and we were in Albania!!!
The moment we crossed the border our GPS ceased to work and our map was in Montenegrin but we didn’t care. We were in Albania!!!
It was dusk and it felt like we had stepped back in time. It seemed everyone was out and about. Old ladies in head to toe black shepherding their cattle, old men in suit jackets and caps strolling along with scythes over their shoulders, and young bucks checking out the girls from their goat carts as they clip-clipped down the street. It was splendid.
(Forgive the blurry shot! Twas a tad difficult to capture clear images whilst careening over potholes.)
Alas, only moments later we missed our first turn and headed straight down a one-way alley filled with gypsy families. The whole crowd burst into laughter pointing back the other way and shouting, “Tiranë! Tiranë!” referring to the capital city.
Hordes of laughing boys swarmed the van trying to climb in the open windows, reaching their scrawny arms in to grab anything that wasn’t nailed down, and hanging on tight for a ride. Stacey, our intrepid driver, muscled her way through the crowd without squashing anyone while Ben leaped to our rescue, prying off clinging fingers and shutting the windows.
The encounter was unsettling and we laughed shakily as we breathed deep to steady our racing hearts. Our fears were forgotten however, replaced by awe as we drove over a rickety bridge and continued our way to Tiranë, delighting in the rugged landscape, fascinating people, and an ancient fortress atop a hill.
I had read somewhere that it was best to arrive in Tiranë before dark since the city’s power supply often quits leaving the city in darkness. Unfortunately our kerfuffle at the border had delayed us two hours and by the time we arrived it was pitch black.
Imagine for a moment a capital city. Instead of paved streets you have dirt ones with potholes so big you can barely drive 15 mph. All the street lamps and traffic lights are out, and there is no illumination from nearby buildings because their power is out as well. There is nary a street sign to be seen, and the road is filled not only with vehicles but sheep, cows, donkeys, carts of every description, and people everywhere. It was sheer glorious madness.
With no street signs to guide us we did the next best thing: stopping at every gas station we could find to ask for help. The Albanians were lovely! They couldn’t speak a lick of English but happily clustered over our map and sent us hither and thither throughout the city, down streets that dead-ended in a crowd of young toughs, through neighborhoods clinging to the hillside, until at last we arrived at our hotel close to midnight.
Our welcome there erased every bit of fear, anxiety and stress that had built up over the last few hours. Beaming smiles and warm hugs from our hosts made us feel like long lost relatives instead of complete strangers.
To this very day, just thinking about our hosts at the Vila Baron brings a smile to our faces and a collective, “Awww, I LOVED them!”.
Next time I’ll tell you all about them. 🙂
How to Road Trip safely through Albania:
- Have original documents for rental vehicle and keep them secure.
- Carry a map AND GPS.
- Have print outs of your hotel addresses so you can show them to someone in case you need directions.
- Drive slowly. The roads can be horrendous.
- Recruit all passengers to help the driver avoid animals, people, and carts in the roadway.
- Choose a hotel with secure parking included.
- When possible drive in day time.
- Carry an Albanian phrase book so you can communicate with the people you meet.
- Stop often to take pictures of this fabulous country.