Monday, August 29, 2011


Now that we have settled into our new Albanian routine, we're trying to get out and explore the country by taking a day trip each weekend.  We've been to the mountains a couple of times so this past weekend we decided to head south and explore the southern Adriatic coast.  For this week's excursion we picked Vlore, a medium sized city (by Albanian standards) that is located along the "Albanian Rivera" and had recently been profiled in the Frugal Traveler section of the New York Times.

Road trips here are fun. You never know what you will see or encounter along the way but an adventure is always guaranteed.  With this in mind, we set out with a bag of snacks (a necessity with a 21 month old), and a map.  When Glenn told me that it would take about three hours to get there I laughed since we were traveling just over 70 miles.  Albania is not a large country- roughly the size of Maryland- yet due to its road conditions, going even the shortest distance can take some time.  The distance is made even greater since there are so few roads in the country.  An updated road map of Albania shows four major roads in the country and a handful of "unimproved" roads.  Since we would be traveling on an improved road- the main north-south through fare for the country I thought we'd be able to zip right along.

Yes, this is a mule in the median of the improved main highway
Not so.   While portions of the highway resembled a four lane, paved interstate without lane markings, a median, or shoulder, other sections were gravel and dirt.  On the improved sections of the road we were continually speeding up then slowing down as we approached an underpass where the pavement mysteriously ended.  Entire lanes of the highway were closed for no apparent reason.  Along rougher sections, the road narrowed to pothole filled lanes.  In better marked areas the potholes were surrounded by caution cones but this wasn't always the case. I quickly figured out why the trip would take three hours.

We also had to slow down to keep from hitting the numerous donkeys and cows that meandered into our travel lanes.  (A fun fact for you Jeopardy fans out there - Albania has more donkeys per capita than any other country in the Balkans or Europe).  We did have one very close call when a cow literally walked right into the road in front of us (I don't know what it is about me and cows in this country), but fortunately for us and the cow, we were already going slow so the crisis was adverted.  

The drive wasn't scenic in the conventional sense of the word but it did provide us with a broad overview of the varied geography that makes up Albania.  Leaving Tirana we headed due west towards Durres passing strip malls, car lots and the Albanian version of suburban sprawl.  In Durres we headed south, not along the Adriatic but inland through the plains.  We passed olive groves and what could have been fertile fields had the land not been so dry that dust permeated the air around us.  Along the road we saw farmers selling their harvests, families awaiting the furgon (Albania's answer to public transportation- local mini buses that travel from city to city and stop where ever people happen to be standing along the roadside), and donkeys. Did we ever see donkeys.  Some were pulling carts while others were laden down with packs and a few lucky ones were grazing on the remnants of the parched August grass.

At last we arrived in Vlore and we finally saw the scenic vistas I had imagined.  With a local Albanian family who had spent time in America serving as our guides, we had coffee (a pre-requisit before any event in Albania- including lunch) overlooking the city then had lunch at a little restaurant by the beach where a platter of fresh, whole fish was brought to the table so we could select which ones we wanted to eat.  

As the afternoon drew to a close we retraced our path (and I do mean path) glad that we had explored a new part of Albania and eager to come back and further explore what the southern part of Albania has to offer.

The scenic part of the drive

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