We weren’t sure what to expect in Albania.
At the end of WWII, Albania became Europe’s equivalent to North Korea; a secretive, closed and isolationist country. Albania spent four decades under the iron grip of paranoid extremist ruler Enver Hoxha. As a communist state, Hoxha aligned Albania first with Russia, then with China, but broke links with both when he deemed their ideologies too lax and airy fairy.
The country only opened up after Hoxha’s death in 1985. In 1989, communist rule in Eastern Europe collapsed, and in the early 1990s, Albania’s government relinquished its monopoly on foreign trade. It also restored some citizens’ rights, such as religious freedom, property ownership, and the ability to travel abroad.
Things were far from stable, though. Thousands of Albanians fled to Greece and sought asylum in Italy. Then, in 1997, Albania’s regime imploded following a corrupt pyramid scheme in which two-thirds of the population lost their life’s savings. It was 1998 before Albania elected its first democratic government.
Most people we’d met advised us against travelling to Albania.
They all had something in common – they’d never been there! There is always a fear of the unknown, although after decades of travel, Mark and I usually find this fear is misplaced. Often, it is driven by rumours, misinformation, and sensationalist media. We know it pays to take care, and we did have a few major concerns – that the Albanian Animal Health Certificates issued by the vet in Matera were not correct. Plus, our UK vehicle insurance did not cover Albania and most of the Balkans.
“You can buy insurance at the border,” we had been told, but had absolutely no idea how to go about getting border insurance, or whether it was worth the paper it was written on.
The veterinary shenanigans had kept us in Matera for three weeks. Although we’d missed out on visiting Alberobello and its amazing beehive-shaped trulli houses, we’d made friends and had to say some sad goodbyes.
Domenico, who had cooked for us, given us wild asparagus, and taken my husband, Mark, shopping. He introduced us to local delicacies and we’d shared wine and laughter. Cara and Cees, the Dutch couple who had been to Mongolia in their Land Cruiser, who left me a bunch of meadow flowers and a lovely note on the day my fifth travel book, It Never Rains But It Paws, launched. Konstantin, the Romanian shepherd, who gave us a bottle of his home-pressed extra virgin olive oil, and a fridge full of speciality cheese from his herd of rare Podolica cattle. This was a real honour. Podolica cheese is highly prized, and we departed Matera with a cheese football, three cheese plaits, and two tubs of fresh cottage cheese.
“It will save you money!” Konstantin said. “All you need is bread and tomatoes, and you have lunch!”
And, of course, the campsite staff, Paolo and Maria. They had infected us with their enthusiasm for the beauty of Matera and been so generous with their time. We would be eternally grateful to Paolo for offering translation and a regular taxi service to the vet for the multitude of visits it took to obtain the paperwork we needed to take The Fab Four into Albania. He told us,
“They discuss Albania a lot on Italian camping forums. It’s up and coming, as it’s beautiful, friendly, and very cheap. National Geographic nominated it as a best destination in 2018.”
Paolo was excited for us. He asked,
“WhatsApp me a photo every now and again!”
We stopped a few times en route to the port at Bari. With the war in Ukraine causing fuel prices to spiral, we spotted diesel for €1.80 per litre. Back in January, that would have been a record high. Now, with prices smashing through the unthinkable £2/€2 barrier, it was ‘cheap’. With our 600 litre tank, it saved us a fortune!
Our compact speaker had broken, which denied us essential amplification of music and BBC political satire sourced through the laptop. As travellers, we need to keep abreast of current affairs, but can only stomach the news through the medium of comedy! On one of his shopping forays with Domenico, Mark treated himself to a new and considerably bigger speaker, which had a built in array of disco effect lighting that lit up like Heathrow’s runway number one. He loved it so much, he set his heart on obtaining a second one, so we could listen to Pink Floyd in stereo, and pretend we were watching them live at Earl’s Court.
As soon as our truck, The Beast, pulled up at the electronics hypermarket, the entire store emptied. We had to open her up to give all the staff and customers a guided tour!
I was unsure about our new mega speakers, but in a lorry, space and weight are less of an issue than they were in our caravan. One German visitor revealed his priorities when we told him that The Beast is 24.5-tonne gross, but converted and fully laden, sits at 16-tonnes,
“So, you have room for 8.5 tonnes of beer!”
As we approached the harbor at Bari, our little red pup Ruby was the first to detect the cool ocean breeze. She leapt on to my lap in the cab, nose twitching like a bunny to sample the briny tang that took over from the early summer scent of thyme and flowers. The screech of gulls replaced the high-pitched squeals of swifts. After weeks of sweltering in temperatures above 30°C (86°F), fresh sea air was a relief.
Bari has two ports. The Old Port mostly hosts fishing vessels, while the New Port has five ferry terminals, and is the gateway to Greece, the Ionian islands, Croatia, Montenegro, and Albania. When we arrived, it was more chaotic than the British government under Captain Chaos himself, Boris Johnson.
Ferry signs pointed us towards the New Port, where legions of men wearing high-visibility overalls puffed away on cigarettes as they leaned nonchalantly against every vertical surface. With his cigarette-bearing hand, one waved us lazily away from the road that led to the check in.
“Park in the lorry park 1 km down there. Walk to check in.”
The white concrete car park shimmered in the heat of a southern Italian May. A long, hot walk revealed that check in was closed until 5 p.m.
It was 2 p.m. We’d hoped that an early arrival might grant a slender window to rectify any issues with our suspect Animal Health Certificates. A 5 p.m. check in removed all hope of sorting out any irregularities. If Albania denied us entry, we would lose the £384 we’d paid for our overnight crossing from Bari to Durrës with the truck, a dog friendly cabin, and four dogs.
Like lorry parks the world over, ours reeked of stale urine. Despite the sea breeze, the temperature was still 31°C (88°F), so we had no option but to keep all the windows open. We spent a worried afternoon in a super-heated space that bore the hallmarks of a Gents’ toilet cubicle after a stag do that had involved 8.5 tonnes of beer.The heat was so stifling that, even though we were not using it, our invertor overheated and set off an alarm. (The invertor converts 12V battery power into 240V mains voltage.) We thought it had burned out, but it came back to life once it cooled down again. We made a mental note to keep it turned off.
At 5 p.m., on foot, we dutifully attended check in once again. The clerk stamped our passports for leaving Schengen, but was not remotely interested in any of the dogs’ paperwork. She didn’t even look at their passports, never mind what may or may not have been their Albanian Animal Health Certificates.
“How will we know when to board?” we asked.
“There will be an announcement. Then go 2 km down there and turn left.”
This was the only instruction we received to board the RO RO ferry, so we got it spectacularly wrong. There was no one directing traffic, and the signage was ‘inadequate’, so we nearly loaded ourselves onto a ferry for Greece! We had to turn back on ourselves to reach the Albanian ferry. Even then, there was no direction until a running man caught us up and demanded a U-turn on the lorry deck of the ship. Here, RO RO meant REVERSE On Roll Off! With The Beast’s 25-metre turning circle, a full volte face was not the easiest, but as you might surmise from the fact we drove on nose first, we didn’t have anyone to copy, so the deck was empty. As huge articulated pantechnicons reversed in neatly to join us, we rookie truckers fled to our cabin.
This lackadaisical attitude saved us a fortune in the end, though. Mark went in search of beer and sustenance. Usually, the vehicle decks are off limits, but when he came back, laden with beer and cheese biscuits for a midnight snack, he told me,
“A small 33 cl bottle of beer cost €4 on board, so I nipped back to the truck and brought these out of the fridge!”
We had a comfy smooth crossing. It was such a delight to have an air conditioned cabin. We couldn’t hear the announcements in the cabin, so from 6 a.m. the following morning, I leapt out of bed to open the door every time I heard voices over the tannoy to see what we were missing.
We took the pups on to the dog exercise deck, which was just the deck. The only bin provided was for recycling plastic. I supposed our poo bag was plastic, although the bin was full of cans, anyway! We met a British couple with their pooch and asked how they got on with sourcing their Albanian Animal Health Certificate. They said they had never heard of such a thing! Perhaps we could have allowed ourselves Alberobello, after all!
The ferry glided into Durrës on a glassy sea, which reflected stacks of rust- and ochre cargo containers, primrose yellow cranes, and ivory-coloured tower blocks on the dockside. At 7 a.m. the sultry heat had already raised a shimmering haze over mountains in the distance.
Scores of young Albanian men made good use of the gigantic mirrors on the ship’s stairwells to check their hair and admire how their sharp black jeans and white T-shirts set off their biceps and tans. Our descent to the vehicle deck felt like a plunge into a well of aftershave.
While we were queueing on the stairs, we met Sahbi, a Tunisian overlander, who made a tremendous fuss of The Pawsome Foursome. He’d seen The Beast and showed us pictures of his rig. Mark and I had concerns about visiting North Africa, but as we chatted, he debunked the myth that Tunisia is not safe to drive through by giving us a peek into the mind of a terrorist.
“They kill rich tourists and hit buses with many different nationalities aboard to get maximum publicity. You will be okay. Although you might want to change the colour of your truck, or add some stickers.”
In some places, a NATO green military lorry is tantamount to having ‘Shoot Me!’ painted on the side.
Durrëss was far more friendly than Bari. A tall gentleman strode over to ask if we’d had a a pleasant crossing. As we exited the ferry (we were last – we’d been tucked in a corner!) another smiling man opened the barrier and beckoned us out of the lengthy queue of lorries. No one seemed to understand our questions about border insurance. Guards checked our passports, our vehicle documents, but not the dogs!
A policeman directed us to a customs shed. As we pulled up, a squad car raced across the concrete towards us with his blue light flashing. When he arrived, he simply waved his hands furiously in a gesture for us to leave the port.
As we approached the exit, a young chap chased us down the road just as I spotted his insurance shed. Siguracione is the word to look out for.
“You ‘ave a beeg truck. Ees best to ‘ave insurance.”
Insurance cost €168 for 45 days, which was the maximum cover they offered. In Albania, cash is king. Few places take cards, including supermarkets and petrol stations – and as we were to discover, away from big cities, ATMs are rare and don’t accept every type of card. We had no Lek (plural Lekë) because the local currency isn’t widely available outside Albania. The exchange rate was approximately150 Lek to the pound. We weren’t sure whether paying in Euros made our insurance more expensive.
The Siguracione also sold Mark a local SIM card with 20GB of data for €20 per month, and directed him to a bank just outside the port to withdraw currency. We thought getting an Albanian SIM so easily was a result until €20 bought him an unlimited data SIM from the same company in the phone shop next to the bank!
There was a queue for tellers, so Mark went to the ATM. It gave him Euros and charged him €6 for the pleasure. Mark said,
“A man told me, ‘That machine, only Euros. This machine, Lek.’”
Mark withdrew some Lek and was charged €6 for that too!
Welcome to Albania!
Between departure delays caused by family illness and COVID restrictions, plus the debacle over doggy paperwork, we’d finally achieved what we thought might never happen. We made it from B to A – from Britain to Albania!
Although we’d only been in the country a few minutes, we’d already learned some valuable lessons.
Lesson One – don’t buy a SIM at the border!
Lesson Two – check your ATM dispenses Lek.
Lesson Three – Tuesday is unlucky in Albania.
I hoped it was not a bad thing that we’d arrived on a Tuesday!
As we left the port, we saw rows of sheds offering Siguracione. Maybe we could have got a better deal, but we would never know. When we also spotted the first of many roadside stalls selling delicious fresh fruit and vegetables, I admitted something to Mark.
“I nearly asked that couple on the ferry where to buy food in Albania, but I’m glad I didn’t!”
“I’m glad you didn’t either!” Mark retorted. He followed up with,
“Jackie, you’re a seasoned world traveller. Where do you think you buy food? At a shop or a market – the same as everywhere else in the world!”
We passed a Co-op, and a grocery store called The Big Market, which I had to pronounce out loud in a Geordie accent. (In Newcastle, The Bigg Market is where everyone goes out drinking on a Friday night! In medieval times, it used to sell a type of barley called bigg.) When you travel, the succession of unfamiliar shops and supermarkets is just one aspect of disorientation. You have no idea where to go to buy anything. At least I was now confident we wouldn’t starve!
A town called Vile pleased me enormously, and Mark promised to take me to Plug if I really wanted to go there. Obviously, the discovery of fuel stations called Kastrati delighted me further. I even spotted a Kastrati Express – for the man who’s in a hurry!
We turned off the main highway and eventually joined a sandy track that snaked through a pine forest to the coast. Buona Vila, a family-run beach bar, had excellent reviews on the Park4Night app. By using the restaurant, we could park for free. Lido greeted us in perfect English and introduced his mum and dad, Ayesha and Spartak, and their two dogs, Cucho and Bala.
“I lived in southeast England for a few years, in a town called Billericay,” Lido told us.
“Mark’s mum came from there!” I replied. On Google Earth, he showed us the very street where he’d lived.
Park4Night Albanian style was on a sandy beach with a view of the Adriatic. We threw open the barn doors at the rear of the truck. The stiff breeze rolling in from the ocean made the heat much more bearable than in Matera. When I checked the phone, Paolo had sent us kisses! I sent him a photo of the Fab Four on the shore with the caption,
“We don’t like Albania.”
I explained it was English humour!
Mark and I followed Ruby, who ran straight down to the waterline. We both agreed. We felt like we’d been parachuted into paradise.
Below, the photo I sent to Paolo of The Fab Four at Buona Vila. Ruby wants to know, “When can I go to the water?”
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