Words and Photography by Dalene Heck
“Have you ever seen such crazy traffic and drivers?” he said with a chuckle.Pete and I turned to each other and smiled. Just like every Mediterranean region that argues over who has the best olive oil, for some odd reason so many countrymen seemingly take pride in the level of incompetence of their drivers.
“This isn’t quite the worst,” I said, the first country that sprung to my mind was Bolivia. But then I deferred to Pete when he reminded me of Cambodia. Albania has its share of issues on the roads, but really couldn’t compare to the worst we’ve seen.
Nevertheless, our journey down Albania is still a story worthy of telling.
We arrived at the “bus station” – a title loosely applied to the small patch of gravel branched off of a narrow alley. There is no definitive sign marking it as such, but the number of vehicles crammed in and the men calling out a variety of destinations told us we had made it to the right place. We said one word – Berat – and were escorted to a mid-sized bus (furgon) labeled accordingly.
The seats were of torn fabric but reasonably comfortable (at least, better than we expected). The driver flashed ten fingers at us twice to indicate we were leaving in twenty minutes.
The bus was about a quarter full, so Pete and I spread ourselves and our bags out over two rows of seats.
Punctuality was the last thing we expected, but the driver took his seat and revved the engine to life right on time. And then the great negotiation for space began – it was only about ten meters to the edge of the parking lot, little did we know it would take us almost as many minutes to traverse it. Back, forth, and again, we waited for others to move their vehicles and caused a huge jam on either side of the entrance as we finally made our way through.
We were on our way. The driver placed the bus microphone up to the radio so that we could enjoy the same music he did, although it was often muffled by his shuffling of papers on the dashboard.
Just two streets away we stopped for more passengers. We had taken only a slight turn from the center but noticed a distinct change in scenery with a lot of garbage lining the streets and ditches. Traffic was heavy and the drivers were moving aggressively.
A lesson in Albanian: I deciphered that the word rrugë must mean street because it graced so many signs at intersections. (I learned later that I was correct.)
We finally hit the freeway that would take us out of the city. The attendant began to collect our fares while Stevie Wonder’s I just called to say I love you started to play over the speakers.
The congestion of the city melted away to open space. We witnessed people tending fields and animals, trees were just starting to blossom. The sun occasionally peaked out from behind a thin veil of clouds. We passed the odd enclave of houses or a station or a factory – we were in the countryside but never far from some form of building. Everything appeared to be in a half-finished state of construction but with no one working on it.
I plugged my headphones in. It felt like a Guero by Beck kind of day. Based on reports from others, I was surprised that we were still on smooth tarmac.
We got our first glimpse of the Albanian coastline near Durres. We’re on the correct bus, right? Pete questioned why we’d gone west to Durres when Berat is due south east. We called up the map on his phone to see that there is one main highway to get us there, albeit indirectly. We were on the right (crooked) track.
We hit road construction. We were forced into a bumpy narrow track from the four-lane freeway we had been enjoying.
Pain brewed in my temples and I fished through my purse to find some aspirin. A gentleman across the aisle from me waved for my attention and pointed to his mouth and then his head. He too, was suffering. I gave him the bottle and he shook two into his palm and showed it to me, asking permission. I gestured that it was no problem. He returned the bottle and gave the wordless thank you that we would become quite familiar with while traveling in Albania – one hand over the heart and a gentle nod of the head. He leaned back and closed his eyes for the moment, but would sweetly acknowledge his appreciation again on his departure.
The bus slowed to let off a passenger who literally leaped out of the back door while the bus was still moving.
We were still going slow enough to notice more details on the roadside. The vegetable stands had me salivating.
Without hearing a word I could sense a friendship blossoming beside me between an older lady and the man sitting behind her. She shared her newspaper and they chatted briefly over the headlines. He offered her a piece of the apple he was slicing.
We entered a roundabout and skipped the second exit marked for Berat. It had led to a huge beautiful stretch of pristine highway but was completely barricaded off with large cement pillars. We took the third exit instead.
This was the beginning of tight back roads. We skirted the edges of deep ditches, the driver honked around blind corners. The going was extremely slow as we passed small unkempt towns and several road crews working. Kids played soccer in a garbage strewn field. Old men sat in their suits, drinking tea and smoking outside of spotless cafes with colorful chairs on the patio. We passed a beautiful white mosque on the edge of a town before us.
We were gliding on smooth pavement again. We picked up speed as we headed into the mountains, although let off passengers more frequently as we neared the destination.
I counted that we passed five roadside bunkers in under a minute.
I noticed that the affluence started to pick up as we neared Berat. It was much cleaner and there were fewer buildings in that vacant, half-constructed state. The road was lined by actual sidewalks.
We got our first glimpse of the town of a thousand windows. Minutes later, in the center of town, we were shepherded off the bus. Tourist? Tourist? the attendant called out and waved us towards the exit. We were the only two to get off and the bus continued on without us.
Our 124km route took us just under three hours. Somehow, that was actually better than we expected.
how to do it
Information is scant regarding bus travel in Albania (although check out this Wikitravel page for current info), and departure points in Tirana vary based on destination (sometimes they are just at specific roundabouts). The best way to get the most up-to-date information is just to ask a local when you are actually in the country. We were never steered wrong and even had one hotel receptionist call ahead to a bus driver to let them know to look out for us.