Free Wheeling Through Albania
As we were planning our Albania trip, the first question that popped up was “How will we get around?” Private transportation for two weeks was too expensive, while public transportation was too inconvenient for our overbooked itinerary. The only viable option was renting a car. But I had my doubts whether driving in Albania was a good idea. Would I be able to manage the narrow and steep streets of a foreign country?
I consider myself a good driver. I do not attribute my driving skills to some inane ability, but rather to my circumstances. While in college and law school, I was so broke that I had no option but to drive an old, squeaky Honda Civic that was only slightly younger than me. I had to learn to drive that rust bucket rather carefully, so it did not fall apart on a highway. Also, because the horn never worked, I had no way of expressing my anger and frustration with other drivers on the road. If someone brazenly cut me off or I was stuck behind a slowly moving car, there was nothing I could do to change the situation, so I learned to let it go. It was a humbling experience to drive an old car, learning to remain zen and calm regardless of the circumstances. But besides being a good driver in the U.S., I have through the years accumulated a wealth of experiences driving in extreme circumstances in foreign countries. I rammed a small van through potholes and washed-out roads of the rugged landscapes of Iceland, bounced a tiny car through the jungles of Mexico, and drove on the wrong side of the road in England (which was also the right side of the road). Yet, as we were planning our trip, I was feeling mighty apprehensive about driving in Albania. In no small part adding to my anxiety was the fact that I would be driving with my mom in the backseat, who was not at all an adventurous traveler.
Examining the map, my next biggest worry were the unpaved and narrow mountain roads in the north. Were these roads like the ones in Georgia, where precipitous cliffs threatened our lives at each turn? We did not dare to drive in Georgia relying instead on a local driver. Or are they more like an infamous Ruta Panoramica, a treacherous mountain road that cuts through Puerto Rico, and driving through which was a harrowing 40-minute nightmare? My aunt Irina, who had lived in Albania for several years, tried to calm me down by telling me that her husband did not have any issues driving in the north. Yet, somehow, I was not persuaded because her husband was a local and knew these perilous Albanian roads since he was a child.
As we made our way to Albania, the first surprise awaited us on arrival at the car rental office. After filling out multiple forms and signing various waivers, we were finally presented with the keys to our white SUV Opel Mokka and asked to examine the car. This was not an unusual request for car rental agencies routinely ask to examine a rental vehicle to make sure that the driver is aware of any existing damage. In the last 15 years of driving car rentals in the U.S. and abroad, I’ve found maybe two scratches. At first glance, this car looked no different. But then, upon closer inspection, I realized that the entire car was scuffed: multiple scratches on both wings, several dents on both bumpers, a blemish mark on the trunk, and so many chips on the hood. This was incredibly bizarre. Yet, the car rental representative was unfazed while methodically documenting all damages on the car. As we were uneasily taking pictures and videos of the damage, I started to wonder whether it was the right decision to rent a car at all. If our car rental full of scratches and dents reflected the driving reality of Albania, then we were in trouble. But at this point, we had no other choice, and so I gingerly drove the car out of the parking lot.
A few days later, I exited the car and nearly fainted: a giant dent above the left front tire was gaping at me.
“Oh my God! Did someone hit our car while it was parked?” I panicked inside.
I have been driving very carefully and did not remember bumping or hitting the car. Upon reviewing our video recordings from the airport, I was relieved to see the dent was there when we received the car.
Spoiler alert: We did not contribute any more damage to the car. The number of scratches and dents at the time of return matched the number of scratches and dents at the time of pickup. Upon returning home, I found an extra 26$ charge on my credit card statement for a parking ticket in Tirana, but no charges for any damage to the car.
Speaking of parking, generally, there is no problem with parking in Albania. During the Communism era, owning a car was prohibited and even to this day, Albanian roads are not badly congested and there is plenty of parking, especially outside of the capital. However, we did manage to get a parking ticket in Tirana. When we parked two blocks from the Skanderbeg Square on the first evening in the city, we closely examined the street signs, and there were none prohibiting or limiting parking or even requiring a payment. Yet, when we returned later that evening, we found a ticket waiting for us on the windshield of our car. As we were trying to figure out what exactly we did wrong, a bystander explained that we parked in a spot belonging to the owner of the nearby barbershop. There were no signs that the spot was reserved or belonged to the barbershop, but it was an unwritten understanding among the locals that you were not supposed to park there. To avoid any additional fines for breaking some unwritten rules, we chose to park in a paid garage the following day.
The tricky part of driving in Albania for which I was completely unprepared, was that the distance on the map did not at all match the reality. On the map, everything looked right next to each other! But two points separated by less than a mile between them would often be on peaks of separate mountains, requiring an exhausting weaving drive up and down two mountain peaks. Even when Google estimated the length of our drives, it still felt deceptive. I was initially optimistic: a 40-minute drive here, a 1-hour drive there. That did not sound too bad. However, it is one thing to drive an hour from the Chicago suburbs to Milwaukee on an even pancake surface of an asphalted highway, and a vastly different experience to drive for an hour on a potholed and barely asphalted zigzagging mountain road. Although I tried to limit my driving in Albania to no more than 2-3 hours a day, I often felt exhausted and wiped out by the end of the drive.
Driving in the north was not easy, but nowhere nearly as bad as I imagined. Interestingly, the main challenge was not the condition of the roads; rather, with so many dramatic vistas, curves, and turns, we at times suffered from the motion sickness and were throwing back Dramamine as if we were at rough sea. The mountain road from Shkodra to Koman was probably the worst. The roadside monuments dedicated to people who perished in car accidents served as a somber reminder to hold the steering wheel tight and pay attention to each turn. But as Irina explained, these mountain roads got better with certain improvements made and safety measures installed in the last couple of years. We left the north unscathed.
The most challenging part of driving in Albania, however, was not in the north but in the picturesque UNESCO towns of Berat and Gjirokastra. Both towns are historic Ottoman towns nestling in the hills with a fortress at the top of the hill. The old, narrow streets of these two towns that are nearly vertical do not provide a lot of space for maneuvering. At times, Julia would have to jump out of the car to run ahead to tell me whether I could proceed with driving any further. We simply could not afford a mistake of making a wrong turn because… well … there was not enough space to turn around. This problem was especially exacerbated in Berat, where the street leading up to the castle was one-lane not even allowing two cars to pass each other. I barely drove in these two towns. After parking our SUV at the Airbnb, we mostly walked and relied on some occasional taxis to get around.
Leaving Berat and Gjirokastra and heading to the coast, I encountered another challenge as a driver – the absolute beauty of the Albanian Riviera. The landscapes of Albania were breathtaking everywhere. But driving along the Albanian Riviera was especially tricky. Gorgeous stony beaches meeting the cobalt blue waters of the Ionian Sea tempted me to take my eyes off the road and look around. I had to constantly remind myself not to get distracted and relied on Julia to describe the surroundings. We also made frequent stops to admire the views.
In the end, we concluded that renting the car was in fact the right decision for us. We were lucky to get out with no damage except a single parking ticket and enjoyed the freedom of going anywhere we wanted to, making multiple stops along the way, being flexible with our itinerary, and never having to worry about the logistics of transportation. While I would hesitate to recommend braving Albanian roads to a less experienced traveler, I am now more confident in my ability to drive in other countries. Except, of course, in India. No one should ever drive in India.