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Albania, different sides
Párga (Greece), November 4th 2011 

Albania was always one of the least known destinations in Europe for us. It is not often in the news, so it is difficult to get a idea of this small Balkan country. So, we went without any idea what to expect or what to see.

The border crossing between Montenegro and Albania was a relaxed one. No difficult questions were asked and within minutes all formalities were finished. Soon after, we drove over a nice highway, which connects the north of the country with the capital city Tirana. There were no ATM or exchange facilities at the border, which meant that we had to wait till Tirana to obtain the local currency; the Albanian Lek. The road took us through a valley. On both the left and right side of the valley, rough mountains appeared. Our plan was to set up camp in the city of Elbasan, centrally located in the country. From here we undertook some daytrips, to both the capital city Tirana and the huge Ohridsko Lake, on the border with Macedonia. It didn’t take long before we concluded that Albania’s landscape is very beautiful. The mountains aren’t spectacular high, but they are rough and scenic. The mountain road from Tirana to Elbasan is a beauty.

Reconstruction activities on the central square of Tirana

We have to admit that we got mixed feelings about the country. As mentioned before, Albania has an outstanding scenic beauty. It also has some kind of a Mediterranean atmosphere. There are terraces everywhere, where mainly men are drinking Espressos and alcoholic drinks. But the country has also an other side of the medal. It makes sometimes a shady and dusty impression. It still has a high Soviet feeling, with old and bad maintained houses and infrastructure. Everywhere is visible that the country has no money to upgrade its cities, villages and infrastructure. There are parks in the cities, but they are overgrown, not only with vegetation, but also with old car wrecks and fairground installations. There isn’t also a lot of colour in the streets. Albanian love dark coloured cloths, and that isn’t an improvement. Add to that the fact that Albanians don’t like to smile a lot, which can you an overall depressed feeling.

It is still a riddle to us how the economy functions. There are no big scale activities visible in the country. There are of course shops, restaurants, hotels and an inexplicable number of petrol stations, but no big factories where real products are produced. Most products that you find in the stores are imported from Italy. It seems that Albania prefers to consume in stead of to produce. The infrastructure is in many parts of the country disastrous. The good roads that are available are paid for by the Americans or the Europeans. The central square of Tirana for example, gets currently a facelift, but also these activities are paid by foreigners. Some country in the Middle East decided to finance it. We heard from an Albanian guy at whose place we camped for a couple of days, that not many Albanians pay taxes. He for himself for example, pays a fix fee of 350 Euros per year, independent of his actual profit or turn over. A very low amount in his opinion.

The beautiful coastal road in Southern Albania
Despite the fact that the country is poor and doesn’t earn a lot of money, there is an exceptional amount of very expensive cars. Especially Mercedes and BMW are popular with the Mafiosi looking Albanians. A quick search on the internet learned us that up to 90% of the expensive cars on the Albanian roads are stolen in Europe. That means almost every car! (see also our column: we don’t steal cars here). It is for us a riddle how these cars can reach Albania so easily. There is only one option: corruption. Both the customs at the border as the traffic police, who is abundant in Albania, refuses to undertake action. They are probably paid by the criminals to keep a hand before their eyes when a thief or receiver is passing by. The illegal import of stolen cars is big business in Albania and a lot of people are making money out of it. It is also very strange to see that there are no car dealers available in Albania. The import of cars is run by the mafia, and they do not accept any intruders. And the official Mercedes and BMW brands? They probably sell not one car in the country for the going legal price. We heard that a stolen luxury car brings in around fifteen to twenty thousand Euros for the thief. A bargain for the buyer, but you still must have the money, especially in a country like Albania which makes a poor impression.

We spent also some days in the remote parts of Albania. We drove for example with our jeep over rocky paths through the mountains around Berat. And there you will find a different Albania, far away from the Cowboy practices of the bigger cities. The landscape is dotted with small settlements where local people try to make a living by keeping sheep and goats, or by undertaking small agricultural activities. Albania has also some picturesque medieval little towns left, like Berat and Gjirokaster. It is great to wander through these small towns and get the feeling that you are back in the middle Ages. Many of these towns are still operational. Also beach lovers will find some great spots in Albania. Especially the part south of the city of Vlore is scenic. The coastal road is spectacular and the beaches are empty and beautiful.

Overall we can conclude that Albania is a country with more than one face. The country is undisputable beautiful, but it can be a little bit shady for the non prepared visitor. It is a country with a beautiful core, but some rough edges on the outside. For the adventurous traveller? … probably one of the most interesting destinations left in Europe.

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