We are just back from a short round trip through Albania and, although we have crisscrossed the country many times, it was another extraordinary experience.
If you want to visit Albania, you should know that getting around to see this undiscovered tourist destination with its stunning landscape, unspoiled by mass tourism, is not always easy; the transport infrastructure can be challenging and Albania’s drivers have little respect for traffic rules. But don’t let that stop you from exploring this fabulous country, full of contrasts.
Are you an adventurous traveler and do you want to explore Albania off the beaten track – by car or camper van? Then you might need some tips.
- Road Safety
Many roads in Albania are still in poor condition. If you want to enjoy all the breathtaking beauties of the country, you will have to use many different types of roads: modern four-lane motorways, highways, local roads full of potholes and bumps, roads destroyed by landslides, roads “under construction”… Most of the time your speed will not be higher than 50 km/hour. Of course, if you plan to visit the coast and the main cities only, you will have no problems. But is that really what you want?
When driving through the continental part of Albania, you should be aware that some areas lack safety railings and that there are many spots where parts of the road have disappeared due to landslides. Avoid navigating after dark! On all roads, the highways as well as the local ones, you may see cattle, flocks of sheep with their shepherd, villagers on horse carts, people quietly riding donkeys and mules, etc. Just slow down and be careful. Isn’t it nice to see all those relaxed people around you?
- Maps and GPS
Roads can also be poorly marked, and outside of Tirana and off the few main highways, signs may be only in Albanian, or non-existent. Maybe you think that it does not matter, as you have GPS? Well, take my advice, don’t rely on your map or GPS. The situation on the roads changes all the time and your map can never be updated sufficiently to show you the actual road category.
New roads are under construction everywhere, but old roads may be in a very bad shape, as most of them are not maintained any more. If you use GPS navigation, always “plan” your trip to the first town on your route. In case of doubt, just follow the main road, or ask the local people, who are always eager to help you in a very nice and friendly way. And don’t be surprised to find out that GPS sometimes sends you to dirt trails you cannot even pass by car. We have experienced it several times!
- Traffic in urban areas
Maybe you will be astonished to see that the roads through urban areas are often very bad. One of the reasons might be that the inhabitants don’t repair them for their own sake, as it is really impossible to drive fast through an town or village with so many bumps and potholes! There may also be concrete barriers on the streets that slow down the traffic, but you will not see any traffic signs to warn you. Iron manhole covers have often simply disappeared, take care!
By the way, as Albania is a very fast-developing country (4.700,000 tourists in 2016), many boulevards and streets are under construction in the big cities on the coast, e.g. in Vlorë. It was quite a job for us to get through!
- Albanian drivers and traffic rules
Be aware that only 600 cars existed in Albania prior to 1991 and only officials of the Communist Party were allowed to drive them. So, driving is a “newer” phenomenon for people. That is probably the reason that many of them drive pretty crazy. You need to be prepared for very fast and dangerous drivers, for cars to pass you at any time, for drivers who will sometimes act in unpredictable ways.
What could I say about traffic rules? Although there is a lot of police on the roads, nobody seems to respect the rules. People are using their cell phones, they stop wherever they want, and many cars are in a bad shape. But nothing is so dangerous as a round-about: I have got the impression that many Albanians don’t know the rules for passing a round-about, they are just driving ahead. And still, you can’t get angry with them. They are not aggressive, they just don’t know or they don’t care.
- Public transportation: buses and ‘furgons’
Cities in Albania don’t have central bus stations, nor do they have travel agencies that work with the bus companies. But there is an alternative: privately-owned vans called furgons. You will see them everywhere. They operate independently of the bus network, but still don’t have timetables or set fares, you have to negotiate both with the driver. They will even pick you up along the highway, but they are particularly suitable for bad roads in the countryside, as they are fit for traveling under the worst conditions.
Finally, for those who want to see beautiful parts of Albania without taking any risks, I would recommend to take the highways between the big cities, along the coast and also the new road through Kelmend valley, which is an example of good infrastructure!
And for those who are ready for a great adventure: go ahead, discover the hidden places, enjoy the magnificent nature – you will not regret it!