My first online aricle in 2010 - Driving in Albania - an introduction to sheep on motorways, high Mercedes ownership, friendly traffic police and where your car might be.
Imagine a country with the highest per capita ownership of Mercedes in the world, whose roads are populated by the latest luxury cars, and with arguably the most gridlocked capital in Europe. Imagine the same country where herds of sheep are shepherded the wrong way down motorways, where the abundant traffic policemen take an interest in every passing car, and where gypsy children will polish your car at any stationary moment. Merge the two and you have perhaps the most eclectic driving experience left in Europe.
Welcome to Albania!
It is important to dispel some myths. Albania is not the dangerous mafia-infested hotspot that we are led to believe. Numerous visitors have commented that their perceptions of a country have never been so wildly different to the reality in this incredibly friendly country. However, it has had a turbulent recent past and that helps explain the high Mercedes ratio, the majority of which were brought in from abroad, having been expropriated from their erstwhile owners. One aid worker from Luxembourg was astonished to see a truck from his old company abandoned in Gjirokaster. A few weeks later, he came across another car with his native plates, took the number and tracked its owner via some contacts back home. The owner? His local police station! My personal favourite was a rental truck from Nottingham, with the company’s advertising on the side. The Albanian renter had taken the motto of Robinson’s Self-Drive to a new level.
Things have changed and rumours of David Beckham’s X5 being impounded at the border may be an urban myth, but what is true is that the rules for bringing cars into Albania are now much stricter. The regulations for locals driving on foreign plates have also tightened, and they are required to go through an expensive process of registering their vehicle on local plates. Cars on foreign plates therefore attract more attention from the charming traffic police (resplendent in fluorescent green jackets), and are pulled over on a regular basis.
I say charming, as there is no politer or friendlier traffic police force on the planet. If you are a foreigner. Foreign cars are pulled in on the premise that a local must not have registered it, and therefore an easy fine can be imposed. Upon seeing genuine foreigners, to a man they wave you on with a smile, speeding or no speeding. Locals driving foreign cars get a lengthier, more expensive conversation.
Driving in the capital, Tirana, requires a specialist mindset, where indicating is taken as a sign of weakness, especially at roundabouts, where two lanes of traffic can quickly turn into seven. The best advice is to look forward and keep edging ahead, while being aware who is tougher than you. If you are not driving great distances in Tirana, walk. It will take you longer to sit in traffic with the yellow Hummers, Lincolns and Range Rovers, interspersed between the ubiquitous Mercedes, and that is before the search for a non-existent parking spot has begun.
It is outside Tirana, however, where driving in Albania comes into its own. Again, contrary to perception, the roads are excellent, with an impressive expansion of the network in recent years. That does not mean that Albania’s recent history as a European backwater has changed the mindset, and farmers routinely cross busy motorways with their flock, as though out for a Sunday stroll. A personal favourite was being forced out of the fast lane by an elderly villager hobbling towards our car on crutches!
Driving to the virgin beaches on the stretch from Dhermi to Saranda is a reminder how an unspoilt European coastline used to be, but any sightseeing has to be done with an eye in the rear-view mirror, as the Tirana elite compete for personal best times from the capital to Saranda. Overtaking on hairpin bends is de rigeur, but you soon get the hang of things. Beggars abound, particularly in Tirana, where gypsy children compete for your windscreen business at many traffic lights, but there are more enterprising beggars too, such as the legless man who positions himself in the middle of a two lane road close to Fier, and addresses and approaches his clients with remarkable agility. An additional attraction at weekends are the wedding parties cruising the highways, with mandatory video man perched precariously out of a sunroof. Invariably a Mercedes sunroof…
Driving in Albania is exhilarating, hairy and guaranteed to provide you with stories which will keep your friends back home entertained for weeks. It is heartily recommended!
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About Paul Bradbury
Author of Lebanese Nuns Don't Ski, Lavender, Dormice and a Donkey Named Mercedes and the Hvar's first comprehensive guidebook, Hvar: An Insider's Guide to Croatia's Premier Island, I have lived in Dalmatia full time since 2003 and run various tourism information websites about Hvar, Split and Zagora, and am co-author of Split: An Insider's Guide with Mila Hvilshoj.
I also have various blogging clients, including the Central Dalmatia Tourist Board, Restaurant Gariful, Hvar Adventure, Villas Hvar and Andro Tomic Wines, and print clients include Qatar Airways inflight magazine, Out! magazine from New York, and Croatian Hotspots.
I also provide website content services, including Agroturizam Pharos, Toto's Restaurant, European Coastal Airlines, Restaurant Gariful and Divota Aparthotel. Please contact me if you would like help with your website content.
I also write for Google News via Digital Journal - see my range of articles here.
Ongoing writing projects:
A History of Hajduk Split, co-author with Frane Grgurevic
Around the World in 80 Disasters
Total Hvar in the Media:
Interview of the Month, Croatian Embassy in Washington (May 2013)
Special Feature in Globus Magazine (May 2013)
Featured on Croatian TV show, More (2012) - watch the report here.
4-page special in Nedjelji Jutarnji, Croatia's leading paper (August 2014)
Interviews in Slobodna Dalmacija, Dalmacijanews, Radio Split
I am available for writing services. Please contact me on [email protected]
Total Hvar - www.total-hvar.com
Total Split - www.croatia-split.com
Total Inland Dalamtia - www.total-inland-dalmatia.com
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