The road to hell is paved with good intentions… or, our Albania Road Trip
There’s nothing quite like the open road. David and I have self-driven on many of our trips, and it’s always proven to be a great way for us to see exactly what we want to see when we want to see it. There’s a freedom we greatly appreciate from not being beholden to public transportation – the biggest advantage of which is being able to stop at a moment’s notice to take photos of roadside oddities. And the Balkans happen to have a great wealth of these. If you keep your eyes peeled, there are Communist monuments (or spomenik), honey and homemade hooch vendors, and even a ship-shaped building (getting to that in a second). Albania was one of the last corners of the Balkans we’d yet to explore, and with so many hidden treasures, an Albania road trip was a no-brainer.
I’ll admit, we were cocky. Having driven in the Balkans before, as well as many other places in the world, we thought we had it in the bag, no problem. Well, it turns out that much of what people say about Albanian roads online is true. What we felt was surely hyperbole smacked us in the face within thirty minutes of picking up our car. My hope with this post is to build on existing information, hopefully provide some anecdotal chuckles, and good advice on when to and not to follow Google Maps on your Albania road trip.
Upon arriving in Albania, we spent a couple of days acclimating to the time difference in Tirana, and therefore didn’t need a car until we were leaving the city. A great option for those not interested in going back to the airport to rent a car is to rent one in the city. We chose a car with Budget, as they were the only company we found online that allowed for a one way rental with drop off in Ioannina, Greece. Their city location is at the Sheraton Hotel, right south of Mother Teresa Square.
That said, there are numerous options available at the Tirana Airport as well, including your usual suspects of Hertz, Avis, Sixt, Enterprise, and Europcar. For those traveling north from Tirana, this is a convenient option that would also save you from driving the confusing streets of the big city.
Our day of departure went all but swimmingly. We ran into a divider driving off the Sheraton lot, and then had to wait 30 minutes for a replacement car (thankfully, our American Express Platinum car insurance paid off and we didn’t have to relinquish 400EUR to pay for the damage), and then, when trying to get a Green Card (essentially European car insurance to allow for cross border travel) at a local agency, I was met with blank stares and no English. Eventually, maybe two hours later than planned, we trundled out of Tirana on SH1 (or, the only well-surfaced road in Albania, as it turns out) toward Kruja, Shkoder, and finally Montenegro.
It was under these less than auspicious circumstances that we began our Albania road trip.
I’m just going to put this out there: When in Albania, don’t trust Google Maps for a second. All was well in road trip land until we departed Kruja (known for its castle and souvenir market) and headed back toward SH1. Having blind trust in technology allows for increased efficiency in the USA, whereas in Albania, technology is out to trick you into spending hours and hours on potholed dirt and gravel roads and dodging rogue livestock, all the while attempting to not drive off sheer cliffs in the steep Albanian Alps.
I will say, driving such roads provides ample opportunity for photography which will shock and awe less adventurous family members and office cube-mates back home:
Fast forward three hours later, and we’re on a similar road, in the dark, white knuckling it while hoping to make it to our final destination on the Montenegrin shores of scenic Skadar Lake. I have no pictures, mostly because I was in a fear coma. We managed to make it there physically unscathed. Emotionally, well, that’s something for my therapist, not this blog.
Our Albania road trip covered major ground in the southeast Balkans. Our route took us from Tirana to Virpazar, Montengro, via a quick stop in Kruja for shopping, then south to Berat and Gjirokaster via the famous Llogara Pass, then into the Greek mountains of Zagorohoria before ending in Ioannina.
Muriqan, Albania > Sukobin, Montenegro
We entered and exited Montenegro from the quaint (seriously) border on the southwest of Skadar Lake, near Ulcinj. As we didn’t have the proper Green Card for Montenegro yet, we first stopped at a number of stalls leading up to the physical border. These stalls were selling broader insurance packages with broader coverage we didn’t need. So we drove through the border, where the immigration officers instructed us to pay the man in the next booth. Here we paid 15 Euro for Green Card insurance only covering Montenegro that was effective for thirty days.
For the passport stamp collector nerds: They don’t stamp your passport as you enter or exit. But if you’re terrible and wanted the stamps like me and David, you can ask them to stamp it for you. Be forewarned, they will think you are a crazy person.
Kakavia, Albania > Ktismata, Greece
Would you believe that it much more of a pain getting into Greece? Because it was. We figured it was standard procedure to just head through immigration and get your Green Card on the other side (as we had done when entering Montenegro). We made it out of Albania after a difficult discussion regarding the car and how we were going to get it back to Albania, where we had rented it. But after exchanging a few painfully pronounced Albanian words letting them know we were leaving the car in Greece, we received pats on the back and invites back for rakija.
Then we were stamped (luxury!) into Greece…before being promptly told to leave.
Turns out that in Greece, you buy your insurance before you enter (at the insurance kiosks lined up before the border) rather than after, as we had done in Montenegro. So it was another joyful ninety minutes of bureaucracy (re-entering Albania from Greece, purchasing the insurance needed on the Albanian side of the border, then returning to Greece) before we were allowed on our way. Our friends who had the questions about our car the first time around were delighted to see us again so soon.
We purchased our Green Card (eventually) from the cluster of shops in the Albanian border town immediately before the border. This time, we purchased a 40 euro, two week insurance package that was valid throughout the EU. Come to think of it, that’s what we should have got at the Montenegrin border as well. All in the name of research, I suppose.
Choice of Car
We were traveling in January, so figured that there may be snow or ice in places (particularly in mountainous Zagori, Greece). Anticipating at least somewhat shoddy roads led us to rent an all wheel drive vehicle – behold, the luxurious Opel Antara:
And are we sure glad we did. Before we knew to discount the trickster ways of Albanian Google Maps, we were taken down multiple roads (see: next section) that wouldn’t have been fit for a less-hefty vehicle.
However, there are advantages to a smaller car. When you’re trying to get an early start out of Gjirokaster after a nightmarish drive the day before (see: roads to avoid section below), it can be hard to do when your car is both too wide and too tall to navigate cobblestone roads literally built for donkeys. If you’re there in the summer, and armed with the right knowledge about roads to take, I see no problem in renting a smaller car, especially if you’ll be navigating the backstreets of medieval towns like Gjirokaster and Berat.
Roads to Avoid
This road, technically a “shortcut” from Kruja to SH1 if you’re headed north:
Take SH38 instead.
This road, another shortest distance between two points situation, from the Muriqan – Sukobin (Albania – Montenegro) border to Virpazar, Montenegro:
Have your GPS take you via Bar. Excellent roads. The most direct route involves a tunnel with a 2.5EUR toll. We took this road on our way back into Albania and made a wonderful day of it on the Montenegrin coast, stopping at the iconic Sveti Stefan and Stari Bar.
This road, from Sarande to Gjirokaster, though there are some great urbex opportunities on the way:
Take SH99 instead, and you can stop at the famous Blue Eye natural spring.
We paid 700EUR for our 8 day car rental, 250 of which was one way fee, as we were renting in Albania and returning in Greece. It’s expensive, but doesn’t have to be. If we had rented a mid size car, it would have been half as much. If you aren’t covered by your credit card’s rental car insurance, get all the insurance you can. Like, literally everything they offer. It’s also universally more expensive to pick up and drop off a rental car in different countries, so if you’re on a tight budget, try to rent and drop off in the same place.
The main highway in the country, SH1, is well-paved and two lanes for the most part. Albanian drivers will do anything they can to pass you in impossibly small windows, so beware. That said, the aggressive drivers played second fiddle to road quality in terms of frustrations.
When you purchase Green Card insurance (only if you’re crossing borders), try to ask for the 40 Euro, two week all EU pass unless you are only visiting one country. In other parts of Europe, rental agencies tend to not allow driving in Albania and Kosovo, but if you rent originating in one of those two nations, I guess you’re good!
Nearly everyone and their mother speaks some English in Albania – no matter how remote you get. They pump gas for you there – you typically pay a given amount of your choosing, 20 EUR or whatever, rather than have them fill up the tank. Or at least this is what we did every time.
Don’t trust Google Maps, it’s a trap. Ask the folks wherever you are staying what the best routes are for getting from place to place. They’ll tell you what your car can and can’t handle.
Be patient. (Some medicines to aid with…patience and relaxation are over the counter in Albania. Only if you’re not driving.)
Most importantly, this ship-shaped building is on the SH73 near Roskovec (which you’ll take if you’re heading from Berat to the Albanian Riviera).