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We drive to Skhöder in the north of Albania

Home -> Europe -> Albania -> Travelogue Albania -> 10 September 2007

Monday 10 September, we drive to Skhöder in the north of Albania

Horse transport near Podgorica Adriatic coast near PetrovacAfter breakfast that is disrupted by dozens of wasps, we set off. We take the same road in the direction of Podgorica which quickly brings us up high so that we have a beautiful view of the sea. There is more wind today, but it is warmer.
Border at Hani i HotitAfter an hour we are already at the border post Hani i Hotet and it is quite exciting. Until 15 years ago, this country was closed for tourists and more Stalinist than Stalin itself, the North Korea of Europe. We also have no idea what to expect because we had no plans to go here beforehand. We are therefore completely unprepared. More than the travel advice on the site of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs we have not read: do not drive in the dark, do not go off the main roads and watch out for mines, criminals and alco-drivers ... Also the stories that you pick up here and there do not put Albania in an all too favorable light. Exciting!
But while we are waiting behind a truck, we are called in English to continue to the customs booth. A super-friendly customs officer helps us with the formalities, explains that we have to buy a visa (€ 10 p.p.) and that we get a form for the car. On the way back we will have to pay an amount for the number of days we have taken the car. He apologizes in advance for the bad roads that we will find and he is very courteous and helpful. All in all, we are within fifteen minutes in Albania and we are completely surprised by the friendly mentality at the border, that is quite different at some other borders. When we are back home we read more travel stories of others who have visited Albania through this border post and talk about a very friendly, somewhat English-speaking customs officer. That can only be our friend!
Shepherdess, AlbaniaAfter this, unexpectedly friendly, arrival we quickly see that the roads are indeed very bad, as we have not experienced in any other country. But we are not here for the roads. 50 is the fastest we can actually drive and then very careful because of the deep holes in the road. Along the way we see a shepherdess with a herd of goats or sheep. The landscape is arid with mainly low vegetation and does not seem suitable for agriculture.
Trash along the road, Bajze Trash along the road, Bajze Albania In addition to the holes in the road, there are mountains of rubbish, as if the roadside is a large rubbish dump. Later we hear that there is no garbage collection service, not even in the capital Tirana and that more and more waste is produced because the prosperity has increased over the past 15 years and many more products are for sale. Children sometimes search the garbage for useful items.
Concrete dome shelter at Bajze Concrete dome shelter, AlbaniaAlong a large part of the road we see fields with domes, like bunkers. It turns out to be 'foxholes' (that is the only translation we could find for these pits where a gunmen could lie down and wait for the enemy) of which about a million were built on orders of the dictator Hoxha. Here one could hide from a foreign attack and defend the country. According to Hoxha this was necessary to stop all those foreigners who so eagerly wanted to go to the 'prosperous' Albania, and the entire border area was also cleared for security's sake. The domes are made of strong concrete and it seems to be very difficult to destroy them.
House construction, Bajze A new and large houseAlbania poor? It still seems to be one of the poorest countries in Europe, but where do all those big new houses come from? And they are everywhere! A lot of money earned in Albania comes from crime, so we hear, and here in the north people (some) got rich from smuggling petrol and diesel to Serbia and Kosovo during the Kosovo war. The border with Kosovo runs through a wild mountainous area, ideal for smugglers.
New churchWe also see new churches and mosques. In 1976, the then new constitution stated that Albania is the only atheist state in the world. For years, any religious display was forbidden, even church or mosque attendance was punishable. And yet the ministry of justice was also abolished by Hoxha because there was no crime in his socialist state. Who then picked up all those people who were in prisons and concentration camps?
Shkodër ShkodërThe 35 kilometers to Shkodër cost us a lot of time and when we see the flooded road towards Tirana we decide to stay here. Tirana is 120 kilometers to the south and there should be a highway, but probably it will be a long drive and that is something we have already exprerienced in Bosnia. And on these roads we really do not want to drive in the dark.
Shkodër Modern times in AlbaniaShkodër is a lively town with about 80,000 inhabitants. It is chaotic lively on the streets. Old and new buildings are also criss-cross, I do not think they work with building plans here. And you can always get building permits for the right amount of bribes. Corruption is a big problem here, with less than € 350 per month anyone can use some extra income.
Woman on a balcony, Shkodër Fashion shopAs we walk through the streets, we try to photograph as many people as possible but inconspicuously. On a balcony, a veiled woman attentively observes the street scene, while in a modern fashion store a woman fits new clothes. The difference between rich and poor is clearly visible and distressing.
An old machineAfter the 'fall' of communism, the economy deteriorated considerably in the 1990s, in 1997 there was even a short civil war because all kinds of pyramid funds suddenly collapsed and the local savers lost 2 billion euros, a huge amount for a poor country like Albania. Now there is not even enough money left to revive old industry, while Albania has a lot of natural resources such as oil, gas and valuable minerals.
Statue in ShkodërA large roundabout in the center is decorated by a huge, socialist statue. In the background you can see the imposing mountains of Northern Albania, the area where criminal gangs would be in charge. But all our prejudices about Albania are gone, wherever we come we are greeted in a friendly way, but nobody is obtrusive.
Mosque and statue in Shkoder Sheik Zamil Abdullah Al-Zamil Mosque Official figures say that 70% of Albanians are Muslim and there are several mosques in the city. In reality, there is only a very small part of the population that is actually actively believing.
It is now oppressively hot and we are looking for a money exchange office where we exchange 20 euros, the minimum amount. Then we can at least have a coffee and recover a bit from our first walk through town.
Monday, bingo-dayNear a building where the bingo is held today, we find a terrace. Again, everyone is very friendly and despite the fact that they do not speak a foreign word, we get exactly what we want. Normally we never enter a country without knowing a word, so we asked the friendly customs officer the most important word: thank you. In Albanian it is 'vellimenderie' (at least that's how you pronounce it) and the waiter smiles when we say that to him.
Mud on the streets Mud on the streetsAfter this break we walk through the side streets and soon the roads become impassable. The asphalt is broken everywhere or is no longer there at all and many streets are flooded. There seems to be a plan to refurbish the entire infrastructure in the country, but due to a lack of funding this may still take some time. But we can forget a further trip to Tirana, we can not make it to Tirana and back in 1 day.
Modern buildings, Shkodër More rubbish on the streetHere, too, the garbage lies on the street, while the new houses look well cared for and often look very colorful. It is a city (and country) full of contrasts and it looks more Turkish than European.
Loading the new tv Cycling in ShkodërNormally we never pay attention to cars but today even we can not overlook it: more than 90% of the cars driving around here are Mercedes, sometimes with a German license plate. Both old bricks and brand new mercedes wherever you look. They will have them because of the good suspension that you definitely need on these roads.
Time for smalltalk Vendors on the streetDespite the chaos, there is a relaxed atmosphere and we see nice street scenes. Old females offer bales of tobacco per kilo, the shops are busy and we walk there undisturbed and being greeted friendly by many people. We notice that we do not see any beggars and only a few other tourists: a French couple who are also with their own car and 4 Americans. In the future there will probably be a lot more, especially if one realizes that Albania is not just a dangerous country. Albania has an extensive coastline, a nice climate so all possibilities to become a new riviera are there.
Shopping with grandmaGranddaughter shopping with grandmother, so we call this picture. Grandma is crooked and very slow and we regularly meet them in the long main street again. Grandma does the groceries and the girl wears them. It is from those moments that you want to tap on someone's shoulder and say: wait, I'll also help. But until now we have not met anyone in the city who understands German or English.
While we are doing our best to spend our money (go to another terrace, order a piece of pizza) we meet a few men who can speak German fairly well. He invites us to come and eat at his house tonight and tomorrow he wants to show us around the city and he is a little disappointed when we say that we are leaving this afternoon already. One of the men has worked in Germany for years to send money to his family. Now he has a small grocery shop with his brother and we buy a cigarette box (7 euros for 200 cigarettes).
The mountains of Albania Mercedes versus 1 pkAt the end of the afternoon we search for the car and drive back to the north. Now we also see that the mercedes can drive faster than we do, indeed a better suspension. The mountainous landscape is impressive and inviting but we do not drive closer because we do not have a good map and there are no traffic signs. We don't want to get lost again, as we almost did in Bosnia.
Left petrol station, northern Albanian Petrol stationAnother thing that strikes us: there are many petrol stations along the way; half of them have been abandoned and half are broken down, but there are also still enough to use. And there is LPG for sale! Where in Germany we sometimes have to look for hours to find a LPG station that later no longer appears to exist, we meet everywhere in countries such as Bosnia and Albania. Probably because it is cheaper.
Shepherd on the railroadCloser to the border crossing the road gets quieter and before we know it we are out of the country again. We pay 1 euro for the car (for being 1 day in the country) after we have handed in the official papers to a small office and the friendly customs officer waves jovially after us. We raise our thumb to him and say that we have had a too short, but fantastic time in his country. And it is true, we are completely surprised by what we have seen, and can only recommend anyone with a sense of adventure to go there. There will undoubtedly be unsafe places, but where those places are everywhere in the world.
It is still crowded on the beach of Petrovac Crowded beachAt dusk we are back in Petrovac where the beach is still full of tourists. Will the Albanian coast look like this in 10 or 20 years? Of course, it would be good for the economy of the country, but we found it very nice to be away from mass tourism, even if only for a day.
The sea at PetrovacFrom a terrace we watch the sun dive into the sea and we are glad that we have visited Albania, another special experience! If we ever come around again, we will definitely go a bit longer.


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