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Thursday, 21 July 2011

Albania - Not as Scary as They Say (Part 1)

When we were doing our tour of Europe (and a little bit of Asia) three years ago, we wanted to visit Albania but the reports we received, mainly that the roads wouldn't be suitable for our mobile home, led us to drive round it instead. So, when we set out for Greece and the Special Olympics World Games, we thought we might give Albania another try on the way back, as we expected that our car would be better able to cope with bad roads.

The advice we got wasn't encouraging. The Foreign Office Advice to Travellers said that 3/4 of Albanian road users carried firearms and warned of 100.000 tonnes of ordnance being buried around the country. The Lonely Planet guide said that "only the foolhardy" would drive there and that it's "a really, really hard place to drive". As we thought we were "the foolhardy", we took that as a green light. A person in Athens told us that Albania was perfectly safe if you never let your car out of your sight. This might have made going to bed difficult, unless you slept in a garage. In Ioannina, on the Greek side of the border we were told not to worry. So we didn't, we decided to pop into southern Albania, drive over the mountains to the coast and, if that was OK, to carry on; if not we could turn round and catch a ferry to Italy from Greece.

Before crossing the border, we filled up with diesel. This was a mistake since fuel was easily available in Albania and cheaper than in Greece (or anywhere else, if it came to that). The filling station was a unique experience. The man running it had no arms. When I asked him which was the diesel pump, he pointed with his foot. To pay, since he obviously couldn't operate a credit card machine, cash was the method. I gave him a €50 note and he invited me to help myself to change from the till.

This is a lot of words. Here's a picture taken from our room at Ksamili.

Saranda, a place described in the guidebook as a fishing village, was filled with high-rise (but cheap) hotels, so we drove on 10 miles to Ksamili, a village with only a few hotels but with many collapsed buildings, e.g.:-

Our first guess (and fear) was "earthquake", but no, it was something more uniquely Albanian. After the collapse of communism a lot of speculative building had been carried out, much without official approval. Rather than embark upon expensive and time-consuming (or "chronophage", as the French say) litigation, the Albanian government went for the quick option - collapse the buildings. We saw more than 30 in a similar state around Ksamili.