The route from Shkoder, where I was staying, to Komani Lake, reputedly one of the most beautiful areas in Europe, took me to rural parts of northern Albania, through a mountainous area surrounding the river Drin. The further I drove, the scenery became ever more spectacular. It was a narrow, winding and often roughly made road. Every now and then a breathtaking panorama would come into view, and I couldn’t resist pulling to the side of the road, wherever this was wide enough, to take pictures.
Every time I stopped the estimated arrival on my GPS began to approach the 9.30 deadline that I had set for myself. That was half an hour before the start of the trip… still early enough to catch the boat.
At 9.30 I reached Koman. There was a poster advertising the Mario Molla Boat Tours, but no indication of the boat or the jetty where it was berthed. I asked a shrivelled old man next to a snack bar (many bars in Albania are populated almost exclusively by shrivelled old men). In very broken Italian/English/Albanian/sign language I was directed to a suspicious looking road. To get to Mario Molla tours I needed to go through “the tunnel”. Sure enough, the narrow, winding, potholed road led up to the entrance of a tunnel. The minutes were ticking along… 9.35… The tunnel was dark, narrow, wet… midway through after about half a kilometre there were workmen fiddling with some heavy machinery… At 9.40 I finally reached my destination. It was a small parking lot, with slipways for boats, a building with cafeteria/souvenir shop, lots of parked cars and lots of men, including Mario, who I had called the previous evening to ask about the 10 am tour.
The boat had already left!
Loud whistles brought it back from a distance of a good 150 metres. I can’t understand how they heard them on top of the revved up engine. “Leave the car keys with us. I’ll need to move it around during the day as there isn’t any space to park.” I handed over the keys, grabbed my bag, money and the phone and stepped into the boat, where I joined an interesting mix of western European tourists, an Albanian professor and some Albanian students.
We sailed away into an enchanted world.
I think it was the professor who took out a bottle of the traditional Albanian liqueur, raki, and passed it around for all passengers to have a sip. In the picture, I’m looking very carefully at the bottleneck to try and figure out a spot where no one’s lips had touched. In vain, of course, but the raki was delicious!
We disembarked and had lunch at a place that reminded me of pictures that one would more normally associate with the Caribbean.
From my experience, time in Albania is an approximate concept. The boat tour left 20 minutes ahead of schedule. Mario had told me the day before that the round trip would last about 4 hours, i.e. we would be back at 2 pm. In actual fact we came back two hours late, and there I discovered to my shock and dismay that my rented car had a flat tyre.
Instead of a spare wheel, the car was equipped with a can of foam that you spray into the tyre. This I didn’t know how to use, but in the car boot there was also an electric air pump which I used to temporarily reinflate the tyre. I then needed to drive back to the nearest town through 25 km of mountainous, badly made narrow road as fast as possible so the tyre wouldn’t deflate and whichever repair garage I found wouldn’t have shut down for the evening. It was a wild, frantic drive, again through incredible scenery that I was in no mood and had no chance to appreciate. A couple of times I stopped to check if the tyre was still inflated. Luckily, it was, and this helped me to relax a little.
I was so angry at Mario Molla’s men. While in possession of the car keys during my boat trip they must have made extensive use of it, because it was now stinking badly of cigarette smoke on the inside. I later discovered the marks of dried grass on the back seat, indicating that they had used the car to transport some large heavy crate. God only knows on what type of terrain they had driven to cause the puncture.
When I finally arrived in town I had a taste of the positive side of the Albanians. At the first fuel station at the edge of the village, I explained the situation to the station attendant there. He told me there was a tyre repair garage 2 km down the road, on the left. In Albania, fuel stations are really, but really, abundant. I stopped at least in two other stations, each time to be directed further down until I reached what was quite clearly THE tyre repair garage. Huge sigh of relief. The boss was still hard at work and he immediately attended to my problem, but then I suddenly realised that I only had 200 lek on me, the equivalent of €1.50.
“Don’t worry,” he said while continuing with the repair. There were two or three men in the garage. There always are, in any garage, anywhere in the world. They don’t work at the garage. They just spend their time there. I asked one of them for the nearest cash machine. He pointed further down the road to where there was one, but then offered to buy some of my euro cash in exchange for Albanian lek. Now I could pay properly for an excellent and efficient job. How much is it, please? 300 lek, he replied. Three hundred lek! I couldn’t believe it. For the equivalent of €2 he had interrupted whatever he had been doing and attended to my need, there and then. A full wheel removal, repair, inflation and replacement. I hope he lives a long, healthy and happy life.
I finally made it to Kruje late in the evening. The following morning I would wake up to yet another wonderful view from the balcony outside my room…
Note: The group photos are reproduced courtesy of Manja from Germany.