This morning dawned beautifully fine and clear filling us full of good spirit in anticipation of the drive ahead to the border of Albania and beyond to Durres which will be home for the next three nights.
Of all the countries we planned to visit, Albania was the one that had given us the greatest fears of testing our adventurous fortitude. Even though we had read quite a bit about the country that had been in isolation to the rest of the world (not unlike North Korea is today) for 45 years between 1946 when Hoxha, the ‘dictator’ who ran the country until 1991, we were unsure what to expect. Would it be like the other countries we have passed through so far where we have tended to slip seamlessly across borders without noticing too much difference and that included Bosnia where the culture is principally a form of Islam.
However, first we needed to load up Cindy, freshly washed by Saso’s son for us, and find the road to the 13km of beach just south of Ulcinj that runs to the Albanian border as we wanted to see if it equated to the Mount/Papamoa beach strip.
all farewells where you have enjoyed the company and hospitality of the people who have hosted you, saying goodbye to Saso, his sister and mother was a sad affair as we would like to have stayed on but we were sure the BBA V2 would come across more people who would be interested in us and where we came from and share their experiences of getting along in their culture and world with us in a way this family had done.
After topping the tank with diesel (Montenegro has the cheapest prices so far on the BBA V2) and fulfilling Gretchen’s ever present desire for a full tank we found the way to the beach on the smartest looking road we had seen for some time.
That was short lived as there was a truck ahead of us with men erecting what turned out to be a dais with microphones on the stage and a sign with writing we couldn’t understand behind them. We were instructed to turn around and use another adjacent road to the beach.
As we drove back to this road we put two and two together and realised now why there had been
men out trimming the grass on the median strip, the fire brigade was washing down the road and men sweeping the road. This was a new road to the beach and it was to be officially opened sometime soon today and here we were trying to get in on the act before it was opened!
The beach had some comparisons to the Mount/Papamoa strip, the sand was a light grey colour and it stretched for as far as you could see with a gentle waves lapping onto the shore. That was where the comparisons ended!
Behind the dunes at the point we entered onto the beach there was a motor camp and like everywhere else preparations were underway for the summer influx.
On the beach itself it was a different story with rubbish scattered around much of it bleached in the sun and looking like it had belonged to the last of the summer vacationers from 2012.
Where we stood was the Mojito Bar looking in need of renovation before it poured its first drink. It was pretty well much a makeshift shack but it was repeated with similar structures along the beach as far as
we could see.
To East Europeans who were having their vacation at the seaside it may have seemed like a great place to enjoy their two weeks in the sun. But I am afraid it didn’t measure up to most of what we have at home and we can be truly thankful for that.
Driving on towards the border we passed through a small area that touted y way of a sign that it was ‘The Wine Region’. The production here must be a relatively small volume because we were through it and out the other side and into a winding narrow valley with the road barely two lanes wide.
As we did when we left Bosnia we started to think that Montenegro didn’t want to make the first roads Albanians coming across the border too good for them and so had not spent any money on them recently.
That was until we came to major road works with the carriageway being widened and kerb and channelling being installed and this continued all the last 10kms to the border. Perhaps the Montenegrins did want tourists from Albania after all.
One of the first things you
notice ,just to the right and elevated above the shared border control building is a concrete bunker lookout, no longer in use but looking as menacing today as it would have for all those years Albania had closed borders to all but the very few allowed in or out. At the height of Albania’s isolation Hoxha had had built some 750,000 bunkers to keep the world out. That was one bunker for every 4 Albanians at the time.
We had a 20 minute wait in the queue to get through the border but once our turn arrived a guy driving a hotel van pulled into a lane across from us and walked across to the cubicle we were at and effectively pushed in ahead of us. I had to restrain Gretchen who at the best of times does not like to be queue jumped by anyone. However this was an international border and who knows this guy might have had some government connection.
We were soon on our way but without a stamp in the passport which we hope doesn’t give us a problem when we exit Albania into Greece at the end of the week. Nor did
we have to pay the €10 that we had read about which is some kind of road tax. Perhaps the French number plates and Kiwi passports confused them?!
The road after the border was of a good standard and we weren’t dodging potholes like we thought we would after reading guidebooks. The houses looked fairly much the same as in Montenegro but as we were driving across a flat plain there was much more intensive agriculture going on although the machinery of tractors looked pretty primitive. There also appeared to be more motorcycles than cars on the road.
We joined the SH1 which is the main highway from the border as we crossed two substantial rivers near Shkoder, one of the larger cities in Albania after Tirana and Durres.
As we continued south under fine warm conditions and with light traffic we were searching for a pull off with some shade to stop and have a boot lunch.
However the sun being overhead at around midday wasn’t creating any shadows of the few tall trees close to the road and there weren’t any designated stopping areas where there weren’t merchants of some type selling fruit and
veges etc etc,so we kept going.
One thing we were noticing was the large numbers of new buildings both houses and commercial alongside or near the road and in particular petrol stations with small hotels built behind as part of the complex.
For years during Hoxha’s rule, Albanians, did not own motor vehicles unless you were in a government job and the infrastructure supporting travel by road virtually did not exist. How all that has changed around in around 20 years and we must say we were pleasantly surprised and pleased by the state of the roads in general through to Durres except for one small section of a few kilometres where we did have to dodge the broken tar seal with holes deep enough to give the car a good rattling if you hit them at speed.
It seemed as though there is a huge investment going in to improve the housing stock and also for the growing number of private businesses.
Alongside many of the numerous petrol stations were restaurants including one which had a large fish tank outside with a chef who would fish out your selected river fish from the tank and
take it inside to cook for you.
As we travelled along we also noticed a fairly heavy presence of police on the side of the road pulling cars over. This is another feature we had read about and they will usually try to find something deficient about your car,speed or papers and only let you go after a ‘payment’has been made to them.We managed to avoid them all the way down to Durres!
Another noticeable feature on the side of the road are people, often in just one’s or two’s, standing and looking up the roadway. These people are waiting for a ‘furgon’, a minibus that travels between two points, picking up and setting down travellers along the way. They were a bit like an unscheduled bus and apparently a very cheap way of getting medium to long distances.
We plan to travel into Tirana one of the two full days we have in Durres and thought perhaps this might be an option until we saw how loaded with people these minibuses were and that perhaps Mr Southern Cross Insurance might prefer us not to take that option for getting around.
Vodafone signs on little rises
alongside the highway were also a regular feature and we guess they are the major supplier of mobile communications in the country.
The last section of the road into Durres had been dual carriageway with a concrete median and soon the seaside city came into view.
The road to our hotel we knew would be off the road that bypassed the centre of the city and we made good progress actually sighting the hotel which was located on higher ground overlooking the city. We took the turn to the left off the bypass road and almost immediately knew that even though we had spotted the hotel from the bypass, getting to it was going to be another challenge.
Within a couple of hundred metres and a few turns in the road the tar seal ended and the ‘road ‘became what we at home would term a farm track with the only thing missing being the grass you might find growing on it. The GPS sent us left and right and on at least two occasions Gretchen said she wasn’t going to take on a particular turn leaving Vicky to ‘recalculate ‘the way to the hotel.
after finding a ‘track ‘that took us along the ridge above the hotel we turned off to the ‘track ‘that ran down beside the modern looking hotel.
We parked the car in a grassed area that looked like the hotel car park below the infinity swimming pool and marched confidently up the front steps with our passports in hand to be greeted by a smiling young woman(we shall name her ‘Dolores’ for now as she dark brown eyes and seemed suited by that name at least until we find her real name) at the reception desk.
Feeling happy that we had made it by some miracle up the hill from the bypass road I said enthusiastically that ‘we have come to stay 3 nights with you!’She stared pleasantly at me without blinking, but with those smiling dark brown eyes and said nothing. Clearly she hadn’t understood a word I had said.
There was silence for a moment as we tried to figure out what to say next. Looking around there was no one else in sight who we thought might have understood English.
Then suddenly she said ‘304’.We didn’t know whether that was the daily tariff
in local currency or what until she produced a key and escorted us without a further word to the lift. Gretchen wasn’t too keen on the lift idea but was a bit more relaxed when the notice inside said it would carry up to 8 people and there was just the three of us including the young receptionist who was not much taller than 5 feet and probably weighed in under 50kgs.
Our room on the third floor was perfect and of a very good size with modern furnishings and a balcony with an expansive view over the swimming pool to the city and out to the Adriatic.
On returning downstairs to bring our luggage in the young woman handed me her cell phone and the manager of the hotel was on the other end wanting to make sure we were happy with everything, to which I confirmed we most certainly were. This room at €22 per night would equate to the modern one we had way back at the Best Western, Syracuse, Sicily.
After getting in all that we needed we headed down the track towards the seaside where we thought we could change some US
into Leke and get our bearings as well as have an early dinner.
The road ran just back from the beach promenade and after cashing in US100 and getting back Leke10, 800 mostly in Leke1000 bills we took a road through to the beachfront and found a restaurant for a beer and a pizza.
The curve of the beach to the south went on for some distance and all along the way we walked they were preparing for the summer influx(here we go again) putting umbrella stands into the sand and setting up deck chairs.
The beach is not that attractive and for a great part had mounds of ‘furry ‘like balls which were soft and opened up when you pulled them apart.
A guy on a tractor was running a plough through the sand from the promenade down to the current tide mark to make the sand look more inviting and we assume that sometime soon the debris and furry balls will also be removed.
We took more notice of the road as we headed back to the hotel. On the flat back from the beach it was principally tar sealed although this was
broken up in parts requiring vehicles to go slow over these parts. After crossing what looked like a disused rail line(we discovered later it wasn’t disused when a train rumbled by) where the grass almost covered the rails, the road deteriorated into a dirt track with huge potholes so that vehicles had to drive a slalom like course to get through.
Even worse though was the track up to the hotel, after we crossed a wooden bridge with no railings over a small rubbish filled stream, where the ruts in the track really only made driving on it in a four wheel drive the only safe option.
Our day had come to an end and we couldn’t make our minds up about the enigma of modern day Albania but perhaps after the next couple of days we shall understand more about this country and what makes it tick in the 21st
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