In Albania, some things are approximate. Time schedules are approximate. Maps are approximate and therefore also addresses. I carefully re-programmed my faithful GPS to include the Balkans so I could find my way around when I got there. I had rented an Airbnb in Shkoder, northern Albania, not far from the border with Montenegro where my Ryanair flight would land mid-afternoon. I had booked a rent a car from Podgorica airport, 90 minutes or so away from Shkoder, so I should be in ample time to enjoy my first evening in Albania.
Little did I know…
I had left out of my calculation a one and a half hour’s agonizing wait standing on two injured legs in front of the Sixt office at Podgorica airport. They apologized for the slow service, which was due, they said, to a malfunction of their printer. Finally it was my turn and I was offered, instead of a small car to carry just me and my hand luggage, a huge black Mazda sedan. An “upgrade” by two levels, at the same cost, they said. I should have been grateful for this, I suppose, but I was far from happy with this upgrade that I hadn’t requested. The car was cumbersome to manoeuvre and parking would be much more difficult. The bonnet was so large I couldn’t see the ground in front of the car. But I couldn’t do anything about it. I had already paid with my booking and it was getting late, so I just took the giant Mazda and drove off towards Albania.
Sixt. Keep the name in mind if you rent a car from Podgorica airport in Montenegro.
Once I took the road I was immediately reminded of the picturesque beauty of this country. It was sunny and the road passed next to Shkodra lake with a spectacular backdrop of mountains. Impressive.
Then I reached the border with Albania. Another wait of one hour. At the border control I had a scare because I couldn’t produce a vehicle document required to cross the border. The border official informed me that I had to go back to the car rental to ask for it. This trip was turning into a nightmare. I made a U-turn back to Montenegro… and saw the missing card on the passenger seat! What a relief.
Finally! I entered Albania. In my research I had read that the roads there are rather… wild. But I’m used to driving in Malta and both road conditions and driving standards made me feel like I was at home. The only startling difference, but I had been warned to expect this, was that it’s normal to encounter animals on the motorway. In fact, on my way to Shkoder two cows and a farmer sprang out of nowhere and crossed nonchalantly in front of my speeding car. I would later that week encounter bicycles and motorcycles travelling against the direction of traffic, witness a car crashing into and overturning a motorbike in the city centre – there were angry looks but luckily no injuries – and on a memorable trip to Komani Lake I encountered on the road:
- a cow
- a herd of goats
- a donkey
- horses, and…
- (I kid you not) tortoises
The long delays at the airport and at the border meant that by the time I arrived in Shkoder it was fast becoming dark. As mentioned earlier, maps and addresses in Albania are not very accurate and soon I was lost. I asked around a bit, but no one had an idea where the address I had on a printout was situated. Luckily, I had had the foresight back in Belgium to message the owner of the Airbnb for the GPS coordinates. It was this that saved my day (or, by that stage, the evening) for me. The coordinates were perfectly accurate, for a change, and outside the house where I was booked an elderly couple, the owner’s parents, were patiently waiting for me. I wonder how long they had been waiting there, considering that I had arrived almost 3 hours late. I apologized profusely. To no avail. They do not speak English, or Italian, or French, or Maltese, or any one word which is not in their native Albanian!
Ah, yes, and the WiFi password didn’t work. Big, big problem.
I left my things in my room and went out to look for a bite to eat and a WiFi connection. But where? The kind, elderly parents could be of no help. I saw a car entering a driveway into a villa, a young couple came out of the car and I approached them, asking for the direction to the city centre. Not only do they understand both English and Italian, but they offered to take me there in their car! They went back in, reversed into the road and drove me to a traditional Albanian grill, risking a police fine for double parking in a busy road while checking for me if there was a table available. It was my first experience of Albanians’ hospitality and willingness to help visitors. Really, really appreciated.
It was at the Qebaptore Peja grill that, after a long and intense day, I could finally relax with a beer and some bread and sausages, connect to the rest of the world and inform my nearest and dearest that I had arrived safely in Albania.