Day 5: Croatia - Montenegro - Albania
You may want to get a cup of tea or a coffee and sit comfortably for this one, I feel it is going to go on a bit, especially once we get to Albania...
On the stereo:
- Manic Street Preachers
- The Gentle Good
- Radio 4 News quiz - several, and you'll see why
- Much American tech podcasts
- Old Crow Medicine Show
Today was a day I've been really looking forwards to as Croatia and Austria are spectacular countryside, but Montenegro and Albania offer a bit of non-European driving excitement. And I got it.
The day started near Dubrovnik and then heading south towards Montenegro, on a nice sunny day with a bit of Merry Hell on the stereo, lovely, and it's about 20 minutes or so to the border.
To enter Montenegro with a car you have to have insurance. Nobody in the UK sells insurance for Montenegro but they have this covered at the border and it all works, if in a happily chaotic way. You drive up to the first border police barrier and he asks for your passport, V5 registration document and Green Card for insurance (but not driving licence I note!). You tell him you don't have the insurance yet and need to buy it, so he keeps your passport, tells you to drive through the customs point, park, go and buy it, then bring him the certificate. Dead easy. I drove past the customs man who waved me through without slowing down, parked and walked over the road to a building, gave a random chap who may or may not have been just hanging around outside it 15 Euros and he gave me a bit of hand-written paper. This is where it then departs from the expected slick operation as I then just walked back up the middle of the six lane road, straight through customs again along the road and up to the Border Police barrier. He handed me my passport back then I walked back down to the customs gate, where the chap lowered the barrier and said "anything to declare?". He'd let me drive through without a word, then stopped me when I was walking through! He looked so forlorn in his little booth that I very apologetically said "no, sorry". He shrugged, looked down and said sadly "they never do".
Apologies for the quality of the photo but it was a sneaky shot from the back of the car of the Montenegro side of the border.
The northern end of Montenegro continues the same landscape as Croatia
But you don't want photos of pretty landscapes do you? What you need is photos of their roadside school signs which had me laughing so hard I had to stop and take a photo:
Surely it's not just me? This does say "warning - dirty old men chasing children" doesn't it?
This is the first country where driving rules have become a bit more liberal and after an hour or so I'd worked out the basics:
- If you approach any junction with two lanes and both lanes are occupied, feel free to start your own 3rd lane, or even fourth. Wherever it looks like a car may fit.
- Mercedes have right of way.
- If you are stopped at a red traffic light and feel that you have been waiting too long it is well within your rights to think 'sod it' and just go anyway.
To those of us vaguely interested in cars it's an interesting place, packed with big Mercs which have clearly been around the clock several times, but also loads of commie-era Skodas and even the odd Lada.
Here's one more photo of a nice town in Montenegro again. Enjoy it, it's the last nice place for a while.
The more southern towns aren't quite so attractive and Budvar looks like it was a 60s communist resort and hasn't seen a lick of paint since.
And then you get to Albania...
Ah, Albania. I tried so hard to give you the benefit of the doubt. I convinced myself that our views of you were stereotypical and you would turn out to be a hidden gem of the Med. I looked forwards to staying overnight and sampling your food and scenic views. But you let me down. Badly.
It didn't start off too well as I was back on map-based navigation and arrived at the wrong border crossing. There are two borders from Montenegro, the main one on the big popular road where most people cross which is down by the coast, and the remote border crossing up in the hills used by drug smugglers, arms traders and people traffickers. Guess which border I ended up at? Put it this way, no way was I taking a photograph of this border!
The guard was what I jokingly said I wanted to see in Germany, except this one's only words in English genuinely were a very stern 'passport' and 'v5'. (Although fair play, 'V5' is a fairly specific English term to be familiar with). Again, I couldn't buy car insurance for Albania when back in the UK so I was waiting for him to ask for insurance documents, but he said nothing, so I thought I'd just buy it at one of the shops selling it just inside Albania which I had read about, but it turned out that this was at the other Albanian border. At this border, I left the border control, drove onto a single-carriageway road, went around a corner and nearly ploughed into a heard of goats and sheep which were just meandering along the road. I had joked for weeks about Albanian goat farming and within 500 yards I'd almost collided with my first herd (flock?) of goats. There was however no sign of a single establishment selling insurance, or anything else for that matter. So that was it, I was going to have to cross Albania with no insurance of any kind, so better not hit anything.
Unfortunately, my plan of 'keep your head down and don't hit anything and the insurance thing will all be ok' was scuppered slightly by police and army roadblocks and with British number plates you stand out like a sore thumb. During my time in Albania I must have passed through 25 or 30 roadblocks and you have to admit, police and army roadblocks are up there alongside photos of the President being displayed in every bar, hotel and restaurant as a good sign of the country not being a totally modern or democratic one.
I was expecting Albania to be a bit poorer than the rest of southern Europe, basically to be like Greece from 50 or so years ago. No. It is not like Greece 50 or so years ago. It is like Greece before the Greeks woke up and built the Parthenon and Acropolis. I expect it is more like Greece was at the time of the Minoan civilisation. After the Great Minoan Recession. If you want to experience Albania for yourself, go and stand on a council rubbish dump, ensure there is a lot of rubble strewn about, set fire to some of the rubbish, then have someone point an industrial space heater at you. That's almost it. But the rubbish dump is still nicer than Albania.
To be fair, the natural landscape of Albania is very very dramatic - it's all high mountains and deep valleys but any area which has then been built on by the Albanians is a post-apocalyptic hell-hole. And I am restraining myself here.
Albania is an applicant country for the European Union but it needs more than a bit of spit and polish to get it up to European standards. It is poor, startlingly so. They commonly cut hay with scythes and there are donkeys and carts still used on the roads. It's worth stressing that the bridge in the photo below is not some rural backwater but is the link between two of the main routes just outside the capital of Tirana. The maximum speed over it was 5mph tops and the metal joining sections move up and down every time the vehicle in front goes over it. There was another bridge nearby but that one had fallen down.
Driving rules make Montenegro look sane and if your side of the road is busy, no problem, just use the other side. If that side is busy already no problem, just use the shoulder area. If all that is busy no problem, use the pavement. If you are in a rush you have priority at every junction and if it's quicker to go the wrong way around the roundabout to your exit then feel free to take the short-cut. Is it any wonder that in probably nine hours of driving across Albania I came across three serious accidents that had just happened a few minutes previously. A message for the Daily Mail - you don't have to worry about hoards of Albanians coming over if they join the EU. They will get in their cars and a good 40% of them will die on the German autobahn, and then I guarantee all rest will be dead in car crashes before they have done half a lap of the M25.
As a charmingly quaint addition to the roads, dead dogs can be frequently found in the middle of the road; I came across several big ex-dogs during my own short journey and it's clearly too much bother to move them off the road. After all, driving over a dead German Shepherd sized dog is actually a smaller bump than most of the ruts and potholes on the road anyway.
Eventually I came to a motorway / dual carriageway - at last sanity would prevail. Multiple lanes all going in the same direction - time to relax at last. Apart from the 'everyone go in the same direction' only applies to cars, so donkeys and carts and motorbikes still head up the wrong lane towards you, there are still pedestrians wandering down the road, people stopping randomly to buy melons from a chap sitting on the kerb, blokes selling rabbits, and even sodding chickens pecking their way down the motorway. And a chap walking his cow.
Eventually at about 5pm I came to my hotel... Yes, the small cream bit in this photo was my bed for the night...
That was the breaking point and I became firm in my growing belief that there is no reason on earth for anyone to remain stationary in Albania for any time period longer than a red traffic light. I've been to very poor places before and happily trudged around next to tips, wandered down dusty streets, driven in chaotic places, but they all had charm and the people have been, well, just normal people really - friendly and welcoming to visitors. Albania is simply grim and smiling is clearly illegal. I think the word 'Albania' actually translates as "Satan's Armpit".
A radical course of action was decided upon. The next day was supposed to be from Albania to Parga in Greece, staying at a small family-owned hotel where we have been before on holiday, so I telephoned them to say 'help, I need a room tonight as well'. I don't know if you are aware of the general view that Greeks have of the Albanians, but a guaranteed way of getting sympathy is to say "Dimitris, it's Adam, I am in Albania - do you have a room for tonight as Albania is, well, shit, to be honest". Cue much laughing and the fine chap that he is, he found me a room, told me he would leave the key in the room door if I arrived after the staff had left for the night, and wished me good luck. Star man!
So, no stopping in Albania, and onwards towards Greece and a return to the present centrury. Just as I had made this decision and carried on down the main road, my luck ran out and I got stopped at one of the checkpoints. Being rather concerned about a massive fine for driving with no insurance I decided to take what I will call the 'Empire Approach', which is to stop, wind the passenger side window down, and speak to the policeman loudly in one's best Queen's English, "Good evening, and how are you". It worked! He just looked irritated and waved me on, the perfect get-out-of-jail-free weapon actually worked!
Now I had a choice. The one consistent piece of advice from sensible people such as the RAC was not to go into rural areas if you can help it, and definitely not to go into rural areas after dark. I had a choice of two routes, one along the coast which was very much the long way around and would take about 8 hours to get to Parga, or the shorter way which would only take about 5 1/2 hours to Parga, but was on a main road going right up through the mountains in about as rural and remote Albania as you can get. By now it was 6pm and would go dark in about two hours. I reckoned I could make it to the border before dark if I chanced it and went the shorter route, and as it was a main road it must be safe and bandit-free, so took off that way.
About half an hour in I began to regret this decision. There is remote, then there is 'oh my God this is proper bandit territory' remote. And the road... The road was one of Albania's main routes, the SH4, and some parts of it have been paid for by the European Union to link Greece to Croatia and look like this:
Some parts of the road though have not been paid for by Europe and are built to Albanian standards so you go around a corner and it looks like this:
In my planning for getting to the border, I hadn't counted on a maximum speed in the single digits. The road was like this for a good half an hour. Then it got worse.
Anything that didn't have the ground clearance of a 4x4 would have been stuck there. As it was there was a constant series of wince-inducing bangs from underneath the car.
It was around here that all the warnings about not being outside of urban areas after dark started getting a little worrying, along with the chance of punctures and breaking suspension on some very alarming and steep pits in the road. I also have to say that you start doubting your map-reading skills around this point and do entertain the possibility you may be totally lost on a dirt track somewhere as this can't possibly be a main road. It didn't get much more rural than this and it was getting towards dusk. To counter this feeling of impending doom I listened to four successive episodes of the News Quiz as there's nothing like a bit of Radio 4 to stiffen the spine and make you sit up properly!
Albania has many wild dogs and just to reach a new low, it was seconds after stopping and taking the previous picture that two lurched out of the bushes behind me snarling and barking and proceeded to chase me down the road. I couldn't drive too fast on that road as I would have broken the car so the chase did go on for longer than probably both I and the dogs were expecting, before they finally gave up.
Eventually I got to the border just before dark, and this was my last worry about the insurance. If they asked me for it here I was properly screwed and had read the fine is around 300 Euros or so, and can be more depending on how grumpy they are feeling. The first border police chap stopped me and asked for my passport and vehicle registration document but not the insurance! I'd made it!. I drove forwards towards the Greek border but then another guard stepped off the pavement and stopped me. He asked for my passport again and decided to search the car. Again, no insurance was mentioned so I was home free! Then his boss came over and told me to stand where I was and asked for my passport again. He asked how long I'd been in Albania and which border I had entered through. I thought that this was it - the insurance question is coming. He stared at me and then said "why do you English have the wheel on the wrong side?"! I told them it was because the French used to be on the opposite to us, and the Americans chose to go on the French side to annoy their former colonial masters. And we British just like to be different. He finally cracked a smile, laughed and sent me on towards Greece. He was the only person I saw smile in Albania. Probably because he was near Greece.
Believe it or not, the Greek border was the hardest one of the lot to get through. The chap took my V5 registration document and passport and driving licence, then shouted a superior over as he wasn't happy with the registration document. The car is owned by my company so is in the name of HSMC, and the address doesn't match my driving licence. No other border had questioned it but the Greek chap had noticed it. Thinking this may have been a problem I had drawn up a letter before I left saying I was authorised to drive it, translated it into several languages including Greek on Google Translate, printed it and got Good Lady Wife #1 to sign it. He looked at that document, said 'OK then, welcome to Greece' and sent me on my way!
I have to say, insurance aside, I really enjoyed the day of actual driving - mad chaotic cities and towns, remote dirt tracks in the mountains, goats, dogs, sheep and everything in between. But I have nothing positive to say about Albania I'm afraid. It's a charmless dump, pure and simple.
Greece has never looked so welcoming, and I got to the Alfa hotel before the staff had gone home so an ice cold beer was well deserved and waiting.
As I have arrived in Parga early I'm just going to have to relax here for a bit, tough life!