We set off from Croatia early(ish) on Saturday, both really looking forward to Montenegro as we had heard really good things about it. The border crossing was pretty painless, but after driving for about twenty minutes we found ourselves stuck in heavy traffic along the coast, with huge storm clouds brewing over the mountains. Added to this, the road surface was fairly awful in places.
We crawled along the coast road, observing that the driving standards had taken a definite dive since crossing the border! We had thought it was bad in Bosnia, but this was something else. People either drove like they had sat on a wasp, or dangerously slow and erratic. Once we got out of the traffic, the roads were generally pretty fast, and snaked around the edge of the mountains with huge drops to the edge. At one point, we came around a blind bend to see somebody merrily doing a u-turn...
As we approached Kotor Bay, the aforementioned storm clouds broke spectacularly, pelting us with rain, which did not exactly show the area at its best! Added to this, we were stuck behind an old Sprinter van, which spewed diesel fumes at us every time it changed gear. The setting of Kotor was stunning, but for us, we felt you had to look through too much rubbish to appreciate it. Apparently Montenegro was a big tourist destination in the 1980s, but the wars in the region in the 90s caused tourism to plunge. It is on the up, but recovery seems slow and there are a lot of buildings and old hotels which look like they have totally gone to seed. To be fair though, we were only there for a day, in bad weather, and have probably not given it enough of a chance. There were some lovely bits of Kotor and other parts of the coastline, and with a little more time to explore and better weather, it might have been a different story. We had gone to Montenegro with really high expectations, and it left us both a little disappointed.
Things looked up in the evening, as we arrived at our apartment (£17 per night!), and were greeted by our friendly host. He didn't speak much English but had good German, so he and Oli were able to have quite a nice chat. Before we had even got our things to our room, he beckoned us into the kitchen, and gave us shots of home-made schnapps. I'm not much good at strong alcohol, so had half of mine and sneakily gave the rest to Oli. The schnapps bottle came out again at breakfast (this time we declined), which might have explained a lot of the driving we had seen!
We explained to our hosts we were off to Albania, and were a little alarmed when they warned us about the standard of driving there (we thought Montenegro was bad enough!). They waved us off with their three year old grand daughter, who looked absolutely terrified of us once we put our helmets on, and off we went to Albania. Although we had not appreciated Montenegro scenery wise, everyone we met there was helpful, welcoming and friendly, so we definitely don't want to judge it too harshly after so little time there.
We arrived at the border to a huge queue. It was semi-organised chaos. Every now and then, a car would drive up the wrong side of the road and start beeping to be let into the queue ahead. Oli and I just took the relaxed approach, and giggled at the scenes unfolding in front of us. As we neared the front of the queue, one of the guards waved us over to another window. “Brilliant”, we thought, but there was nobody there, and the guy serving the opposite side let through about three cars before acknowledging our presence. Eventually, we got through, and were on our way. In Albania, things just take as long as they take, so you might as well just accept it.
The countryside after the border was beautiful and incredibly rural. At first, the driving didn't seem any worse than Montenegro, but as we approached Tirana the roads got busier and more difficult. The road surfaces are terrible in Albania, and it is not at all unusual to have to avoid huge potholes on the main roads. Occasionally, we would ride good stretches of motorway, but these often had no road markings, and would frequently end with no warning, becoming gravel roads or more heavily potholed stretches. We saw too many amusing / dangerous things on the roads to list them all , but here are some of our highlights:
- Cars stopped in the fast lane dropping people off.
- People cycling on the motorway.
- People driving up the hard shoulder, the wrong way.
- Somebody having filled in the ditch separating the two directions, so he could drive straight across from one side to his house.
- Two cars driving along the two lane highway side by side at abouut 25 mph, having a chat and blocking the entire road.
Now, finding cash machines in Albania is not easy, and they don't really seem to exist outside of the major towns. With this in mind, we pulled off into a large town near Durres, and luckily found an ATM. As we drove back out of the town to the main road, I was about to point out somebody walking a huge dog, but as we got closer we realised it was in fact a bear. Not something you see every day.
The scenery between Durres and Vlore isn't the best, and the sea between Durres and Fier is too polluted for swimming. When we got towards Vlore however, the road starts to follow some beautiful coastline. This part of the country is known as the Albanian Riviera, and it really is spectacular as well as being largely undeveloped. We were aiming for the large village of Dhermi, which was just over the mountain. The tiny road carved through rocky forest, in places giving way to short gravel stretches. It also looked like there were frequently small landslides and rockfalls in the area, which made the roads even more challenging, but it was all worth it when we reached the top. At the peak, we were higher than the distant clouds, and had the most amazing view over the sea.
The descent was hair raising but incredible; hairpin bends, sharp drops, rocks in the road, and beautiful views. We had been hoping to camp for the evening, but hadn't seen any signs nearby. We ended up getting a cabin about 20m from the beach for about 25 euro, which was not too bad. The guy proudly showed us the tv, fridge, aircon, before announcing that the power in the village cuts off at 7 p.m. We also had to keep reminding ourselves that you cannot drink the tap water in Albania (apparently it is jokingly known locally as Hoxha's Revenge).
We ate that night at the restaurant, the guy who had shown us to our cabin offered to translate the menu, and then just read it all to us in Albanian. We sat on the terrace overlooking the sunset, drinking beer and putting the world to rights. Later in the evening, they told us the generator wasn't working, so gave us candles. We went to sleep relaxed and happy.
It would have been easy to stay another night, but Greece was calling and we were keen to get going. We decided to get to the border via the back roads, so weren't entirely sure how long it would take us, or even if the border would be open.The drive was as spectacular as the previous day, and the roads mercifully quieter, which made things a lot easier (less of a problem veering onto the other side of the road to avoid mega potholes!). We saw a lot of bunkers left over from the 700,000 that were built during Hoxha's rule, several of which had been blown up. I guess they are unpleasant reminders of a difficult time.
After Sarande, the road became even smaller. Things were going well, until it ran out entirely at a river (there was no clue this might happen on the map), and some locals were operating a chain ferry. This was pretty much just an old wooden platform mounted on oil drums, but it got us and another car over just fine, and we continued down mainly gravelly roads to the border.
The crossing leaving Albania was a lot quicker than entering, as we were the only people there. As we handed over the V5 document, the Greek border guard asked us if we had ridden from the UK. When we said yes, he smiled, shook his head, and said “Bravo”.
The roads in Greece are almost instantly better, and we covered what would what have taken us ages in Albania in almost no time at all. We were sad to leave Albania, but also excited to get to Greece. I would definitely recommend a visit to Albania, and whilst I wouldn't say it is unspoiled, I would certainly say it is un-touristy, and a beautifully surprising and adventurous place to go. We both hope to return at some point in the future.
The drive from Igoumenitsa was lovely, and we drove through and above a vast wetland, where storks nested on telegraph poles. We are now camping in Greece near Parga. Our tent is only a few metres from the beach, and we are camped in an olive grove. I am currently writing this on the beach, and it is so lovely here that we are going to stay for a few days. Oli is pretty concerned about the situation in Turkey at the moment, and is keen to get home, so we have changed our route to go through Northern Greece instead of heading South. Hopefully things start to be resolved soon, but for now, we are concentrating on enjoying our remaining time in Greece.