Albania, Beautiful, Exciting, Extreme and Dangerous

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June 29th 2014
Published: June 29th 2014
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Beautiful, Exciting, Extreme and Dangerous to Our Health

Looks like this statement is going to need a bit of explanation. We had never been to Albania and kinda thought we might not get there this time given our change in ferry destination and a desire to go to a national park in Macedonia. All that changed when, after debarkation from the Greece Ferry, we drove for about 2 hours, planning to head for Macedonia, when we both became very sleepy (not much sleep the night on the ferry).

We stopped in a pull over on the road and tried to get a bit of shuteye. After 45 minutes of sleep it became much too hot to stay there and we started to see if we could find a camping area near us on our way north. That is how we ended up getting to Albania after all. The closest camping site was on the coast of Albania…about 2 hours away….we thought. So we back tracked a few kilometers and turned west.

Thus began the Dangerous to health part.

The countryside is mountainous with a number of rivers and lots of deep and steep canyons…hence the almost outrageous curvature of the road to the coast. It is almost a constant switchback for 175 +- kilometers. Average speed was about 45 KPH so 2 hours was out.

The road was also narrow with many portions both rough and too narrow for 2 cars to pass each other. To make things even more challenging (and soon quite dangerous), most of the outside curves had no guardrails next to 500 meter drop-offs. This is not driving for the faint of heart. We decided our driving skills developed in Ethiopia and honed during migrant searches in the Sonoran Desert were about to be tested. And they surely were.

To be sure, the landscape was really beautiful, with solid granite walls falling to verdant green valleys and flowing rivers. Very little population lives along this road, probably because farming etc. is not really possible. About ½ way up a very steep (10% grade) on a very narrow stretch at a really almost 360 degree curve, we almost met our destiny. We have often talked about what might take place if we were somehow killed on one of our crazy adventures but we have never really faced a situation that brought us this close. One more thing about what was to happen. Albanian drivers have learned all they know about it from Italians except that Italians know how to be crazy a bit safely. Albanians treat cars like wild horses bent on winning a race with no skill, no experience and definitely no control. Short version…they may be the most dangerous drivers yet.

We were just about to round the hairpin turn (we are on the outside) when a careening tractor trailer came at us on our side of the road. He braked as hard as he could, Mike wrenched the wheel to our right and the cliff and instinctively ducked his head as the truck mirror took aim at his head. Then we hit a small patch of gravel and Mike wheeled back to the left and we were by the truck. Neither of us could breath and shaking all over was all we could do till we stopped. We still don’t know how we did it and how we are alive to tell about it. Both of us were sure we were gone.

Some of you know that Mike has often said that the turtle is his “Totem” because it is the only animal that must stick its neck out to be able to move forward. Well that morning as we started up the Albanian road, two turtles crossed the road in front of us. At the second one he said “that is a sign of good luck for us and we are kinda in need of one”. Never did we think this was the good luck they passed on to us but we do now.

Now to the beautiful and exciting part of the story. The mountainous coastline with its azure blue inlets and bays and peaks rising 6000 feet out of the sea are breathtaking. We had read about it but no writing can do it justice. It is all just on the verge of discovery and inevitable development (indeed some has already begun in seaports like Serende with its casinos and black tinted window Mercedes Benz/BMW’s full of young men in dark glasses and expensive shirts and gold chains. But some of it like a small village called Hirame are local places with local businesses just now beginning to see tourists. Still fresh and almost virgin, the water and sand/stone beaches are magnificent.

We met some fellow camper folks from Slovenia who were headed south and they told us about Hirame. We found it and stayed 2 nites, just to smell salt water and rest. Camper folks often stop in unknown and seldom traveled places like this to share information so we were grateful to find these guys. The drive to and from Hirame took us from the coast to 2000 meters on switchback roads that often left us breathless…not in fear this time but in wonder of the beauty.

Albanians are not what we expected. We hear in the USA that Albania is the most corrupt nation today (UN analysis) and well dug into the European drug trade as well as Mexican cartel relations. Probably true but that is just the glitz side producing those flashy cars and gold chains. The other folks who live there are fiercely proud of their heritage and looking to take part in their new status as EU candidates. Debates range about the good or bad of that but on their way to it they are. In the meantime the extreme contrasts remain from poor almost destitute folks living in plastic wrap villages in garbage dumps near a city to farmers and wine makers to young and energetic business owners in their second year and hoping to make it. This was the exciting part….to see an old and always overrun country by other more powerful ones trying to break its way out to self-determination.

We did not go to Tirane as we were now on our way to Macedonia, which we would find to be populated mostly by Albanians who fled Kososvo after Serbia attacked. Proud of being Albanian is not even close to what we found. More when we write about Macedonia.

Enjoy the photos and remember the turtles.

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