Mercedes, Mercedes, everywhere, and I’m driving an Opal Corsa. And these were real Mercedes, not the “I bought a Mercedes medallion on eBay and Krazyglued it to my sedan” Mercedes variety. These were sleek, new well-maintained cars. And there were plenty of BMW’s, too. And the taxis really weren’t so bad. All these beautifully maintained cars meant that there was little chance anyone would steal my Opal Corsa. In fact, it was more likely that we would have to abandon it cliffside for lack of horsepower or because we were attacked by roving gang of goats. Organized crime takes many flavors in Albania, apparently.
I wasn’t the only one who noticed the abundance of high-end automobiles in one of Europe’s poorest countries (Albania has a per capita income of less than $10,000, ahead of Kosovo and behind Serbia). In 2011, Top Gear, the British driving show, filmed an episode on location in Albania. Hosts Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond commented on the high number of high-end automobiles on Albania’s roadways.
“Apparently, what happens is Albanians go to England, get a job, buy a car and then bring it back with them,” Clarkson said. To which Hammond responded, “And it is quite traditional when you bring a car back like that, that you drive it around with the door locks pulled out and sometimes little marks along the back of the door.”
You can read more about the controversy the comments sparked here.
Perhaps it’s pent-up desire to drive (Albanians could not own cars until 1990). Maybe it’s the incredible number of Lavashes (car washes) in Albania. You can get your car washed in every parking lot, gas station, and roadside stand. I think I saw one man carrying a bucket and wearing a Lavash sign around his neck – Liridon’s Mobile Lavash – so that you could get a quick rinse at a stop light. Maybe it’s the fact that Mercedes was the first car company to set up shop in Albania in 1990 and that, allegedly, their cars handle the rough conditions of Albanian roads better than, say, Opal Corsas. (I admit, I almost broke our rental car on an unexpected speedbump. Unexpected because it was on a “highway” while traveling at 90 km/hr. “Dear, God!” I yelled after the gut-wrenching BANG of the car hitting the surge in pavement. “I think I just broke our axle. We’re in the middle of nowhere and haven’t been able to communicate with anyone. I guess we’ll have to survive on uncured olives and goat dung pies!” Thankfully, for all involved parties, the axle was not broken, just very badly bruised.) Or, perhaps it was because, as Clarkson and Hammond suggested and as other sources have noted, organized crime has a very strong hand in the Albanian economy. If I disappear, you’ll know who took me. Leave the Norcini, take the cannolis.
I’m no economics expert, but the only thing I could think when driving around Albania was “this looks like a bubble ready to burst.” I’ve lived through two economic bubbles now, and Albania 2014 looks a lot like Florida in 2006-2007, just without the lawn flamingoes (perhaps they will mark the tipping point in this environment – “the BBC reports that Albanians have taken to attaching lawn flamingoes to the tops of their Mercedes. Initially, some Albanians attached real flamingoes to their cars, but the sheer terror of driving on Albanian roads caused sudden cardiac arrest in many of the birds.” ) and Winn Dixies. Everywhere – and, literally, everywhere – things are under construction. There are roads being paved and expanded, entire beaches vacant since antiquity now being developed at once, and apartment complexes popping up in cities big and small. Virtually every building has rebar sticking out of it, and whether this is done to avoid property taxes or prevent birds from nesting, the image one is left with of an urban landscape growing in every place and direction. Where is all the money coming from in a society still largely based on agriculture and basic materials? Who is buying apartments, building houses, or paying to put gas stations on every kilometer of road? And this is a society that emerged from communism in the early 1990s and suffered a devastating economic earthquake in 1997 when 70% of the population lost its savings in a nation-wide pyramid scheme that resulted in riots and the declaration of a state of emergency (The Lottery Uprising, as it’s known, has to be one of the best-named moments of civil unrest in recent Balkan history. Other contenders: The Bulldozer and Log Revolutions, of Serbia and Croatia, respectively.) Regardless of its source, the change in Albania is happening quickly, and we hit the road in the hope of seeing as much of the country as we could in a week.
After a week on the road in Albania, I’m certain that there is a relationship between the cost of espresso, the total numbers of cups consumed per person, and the dizzying nature of driving in Albania. Add to that the reality that most roads are little more than paved mountain passes, stoplights that are considered recommendations not rules, and roving bands of mountain goats and cows that hover just around blind mountain turns and, well, you have a potent recipe for adventurous driving and carsick passengers. Driving in Albania is, like it is in much of the world outside the United States and Western Europe, an exploration of human instinct and reflexes. Cars passing cars that are passing cars, turns unexpectedly blocked by fallen rock, and sections of road missing altogether – and that’s just a one mile stretch of two-lane road through central Albania. Once we progressed beyond the initial shock of the experience behind the wheel, Jess and I entered a 6-day one-upmanship game of Things Observed on Albanian Roads. We found that making a game out of it took away some of the fear of impending death in an Albanian roadside olive grove ditch that hovered over our every moment on the road. Though newer and better roads are under construction, they are, nonetheless, under construction, and that means gaping holes in the pavement without warning, blinding dust storms, and an additional layer of chaos added to an already exceptionally unpredictable experience.
This is where I nearly met my end in Albania. This one lane road runs through a coastal town. The driver coming the other way into this blind turn decided not to stop at his red light. This was the only stop light we encountered along the 200 km stretch.
If you’re going to see Albania, renting a car is really the only way to do it. Under communism, Albanians were restricted from leaving the country, so with only one airport and no regularly functioning rail system, there are few options outside car travel. There is a system of buses, but no bus stations and schedules are difficult to find, if they exist. Many Albanians rely on an informal system of furgons, or privately owned and operated minibuses that operate in a network outside the comprehension of tourists. Furgons depart when a critical mass of people has formed at an unspecified location. People seeking transport will stop and wait for furgons just about everywhere: sidewalks, the breakdown lanes and medians of highways, in the tall grasses at the edge of a field. If you want to travel by furgon, you look for a group of people standing around who appear interested in doing the same. Does one have to flag a furgon? Or, like driving, is it intuitive? Perhaps a furgon driver can sense my desire to leave this highway median for a downtown nightclub.
One of our favorite driving games was Spot the Bunker. (A close second was “How far do you think the drop is from this point?” but this was not a game that Jess enjoyed playing nearly as much as I did.) Albania, a country the size of Maryland, is dotted with over 100,000 and concrete bunkers and pillboxes (some estimates run as high as one million). Fear of invasion apparently drove Enver Hoxha, longtime communist dictator of Albania, to take measures to protect his people from the Soviets, the Yugoslavians, and the Americans. Between 1948-1952, the US tried several times to force Hoxha from power by launching clandestine raids with CIA-trained Albanian emigres. Unfortunately for the Albanian exiles and the CIA, a double agent was providing Hoxha with advance notice of the time and location of the raids. Apparently, Hoxha’s paranoia was not unfounded. His solution: a national campaign of bunker building so extensive that, when the call to arms came, the Albanian people would have plenty of defensive positions to choose from to protect the homeland. Thankfully for them, the call never came. Nowadays, these bunkers and pillboxes, crumbling reminders of Albania’s communist past, are used as storage sheds by farmers, have been painted bright colors, or stand as lonely sentries on Albanian mountainsides.
Caesar came through the Llogara Pass in 48 BC in his pursuit of Pompey. His armies probably made quicker progress on foot than we did in our Opal Corsa. This stretch of road, one of the most notoriously dangerous roads in Europe, switchbacks up the mountains along the Albanian Riviera coastline. Though the route is marked by frequent reminders of all who have perished traveling the road, many drivers come flying around its hairpin turns in their shiny Mercedes at speeds two or three times the recommended speed limit. Though the views are breathtaking, I spent most of the experience whiteknuckled behind the wheel of Opal Corsa, hoping its motorcycle-sized engine wouldn’t give out at a critical moment. Jess tried her hardest not to look down or make any sudden movements. But when we could stop, we did, and from the Pass, Albania’s rapid and seemingly unbridled growth comes into view. All along the coastline, virtually undeveloped since the time of Caesar, massive hotels and resorts are under construction. Maybe it will work, and maybe it’s not being financed by organized crime.
I had just taken out the camera to take a cliffside picture of with the Riveria at her back when a dust cloud choked me and the view. The source: a white Mercedes furgon, had rolled into this makeshift overlook, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Two people got out, and the furgon continued on down the mountain. A week ago, I would have been surprised by this scene, but a week on Albanian roads had taught me not to be surprised by anything.