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My spring trip in 2007 was to Albania, an unusual but not entirely new destination for paddlers. We hired a guide from Gent Mati at Outdoor Albania, who did not paddle but knew how to reach the relevant parts of the rivers. Several other groups of kayakers have gone this way in recent years. Most rivers as well as much of the landscape are completely untouched by man (at least if you steer clear of the wild rubbish dumps), making Albania a decidedly recommended if remote travel destination.
The two rivers in the south which we did first are easy to run (up to class 3), but flow through spectacular canyons. Their names are Osum and Lenghticës. The put-in of Lenghticës can only be reached by mule track (in two hours), which the local mule herders seem to have turned into a neat little racket. The price rose from "not much, a couple of Euros" the previous day via four Euros per person in the morning to 60 Euros for nine persons/kayaks when we arrived, which we beat down to 50. The last part of the way up to the put-in is actually a driveway, so it might be worthwhile investigating where it comes from and in what state it is.
Vjosa, the lower part of the Greek Aoos, is a big river with the occasional rapid. At higher water levels, one is well advised not to go through their centre with the main stream of water. The fourth river we did in the south, Lumi i Suhës near Gjirokastër, is more difficult, and at our time was rather rocky due to a mild winter. After that, we spent two days on Devoll in central Albania, which has class 4 rapids and a stretch which is 5 and above.
Our remaining three days were spent in the north, on the rivers Kir and Valbonë. Kir is a small river with many low canyons, the entries to which are often extreme. Though quite close to Shkodër, the Kir valley seems stuck in the past, with small old houses and people tending small plots of land. (So is the road.) We did Valbonë last, which is best reached by ferry on the Drin reservoir. When all is said and done, Valbonë is my favourite. Its lower part is easy and runs in relatively open country, but sometimes with spectacular rock walls to be seen from the river. The upper part, upstream of an innavigable canyon, runs in alpine surroundings and goes up to class 5, with a stretch above. Between paddling, bouldering and hiking in the mountains over 2500 metres in height, one could easily spend a week or two there.
Albania is a country without long, boring road trips. All long road trips in Albania are extremely interesting. However, it would not be fair to say that I have no photo of a good Albanian road because I was too busy dodging potholes. The main road from Shkodër to Tiranë and the south is on a par with a German Federal Road, and the main hazard on the short stretch of motorway connecting the harbour city of Durrës to Tiranë is not the road surface, but pedestrians running across it occasionally...
Leave the main north-south axis, however, and the better roads are patchwork tarmac with holes, and the worse ones gravel, dust or — after rains — mud. The Toyota Landcruiser we had rented along with our guide was in its element, but also the Volkswagen van driven by one of us managed to keep up. A sedan or even a small car would probably require very skilful driving.
Still, Albanian roads are being maintained and built. The northern entry to Shkodër, which had been a craterscape when we arrived, was much better when we left, the gravel having apparently been flattened. Parts of the dual carriageways through Shkodër (centre image) and Tiranë are in the process of being rebuilt — search for the best route, be aware that you may be overtaken on the right, and watch out for missing manhole covers. On our way through Korcë, we must have missed an unobtrusive indication of roadworks and ended up facing piles of gravel and concrete blocks. We managed to squeeze through between the left block and a street lamp.
The three pictures below show the three stages of Albanian living: On the left an old Soviet-style block of flats. The middle picture shows a new house next to the Soviet blocks in the left picture, painted in the brightest colours as is the rule there. What looks like a designer scarecrow is an especially well-dressed example of a strung-up puppet which is supposed to scare away evil spirits. The stage of Albanian living shown on the right is one it fortunately never came to: The thousands of bunkers which dot the land, in which the population was to take refuge in the case of an invasion and defend their country. (Albania used to be surrounded by enemies; dictators always are.) The Albanian government is said to be selling the bunkers at a rate of 500 Euros for one of the small ones shown, and is apparently just learning about the law of supply and demand.
The most prevalent type of car seen in the countryside is the Mercedes limousine (of a variety of models and ages), not just because of its availability to compatriots working in Germany, but because it is said to be the only car able to endure Albanian roads. In Tiranë and other cities, the brands of car to be seen are more diverse. The less fortunate still use horse carriages for personal transport. Those can appear very very rapidly out of the twilight when you are driving at dusk, even on good main roads.
Public transport in Albania is dominated by the minibus, quite often still bearing the advertisements of its previous German owner. When people are standing by the roadside or on crossroads in villages, they are likely to be waiting for one. (The minibus stops are not indicated by signs; where they are is local knowledge.) Mercedes taxis also exist, but are rare. Full-sized buses are also rare, but they are sure impressive when you meet them on a dirt track coming in the opposite direction.
The middle one of the three reservoirs on the river Drin comes with its very own public transport system. Passenger ferries run between the two ends of the long narrow reservoir, lovingly outfitted with a lorry's cab or a whole bus's body. When they arrive at the south-western end, large minibuses stand ready to take their passengers, and depart with much jostling and tooting of horns. The car ferry which we used is an antique mainly held together by rust. (The other car ferry, with which it alternates weekly, is in slightly better repair.)
As is common in poor countries, much of the technology is improvised. Next to the river Kir, we saw a water pump running on 220 volts, with the power wires twisted together without insulation, less than a metre from the water (photo by V. Gärtner). The captain of the Drin reservoir ferry uses a piece of wood to fix the throttle lever of the right engine. And a hard winter a few years ago felled most of the electricity pylons in upper Valbonë valley, leaving some of them partly blocking the road. In a bridge over Vjosa, rotting planks have been partly covered by metal plates welded together. Some of the plates have ripped apart, a real tyre killer.
After crossing the border from Montenegro, I am getting the hang of dodging potholes and at the same time taking care to observe the speed limit within towns to avoid getting us into trouble. Driving into the first village, sure enough, a policeman stands by the kerbside, the first of many. As we pass, he salutes.
After taking a wrong turn in a small town and not wanting to back with a trailer, our guide asks the locals for "Asfalti?" (how to get back to the tarmac). An elderly man nonchalantly points him up the street next to his house, which would count as a wide but rather steep footpath in western Europe. Its lower part is made up of coarse cobbles, the upper portion consists of slanted ribs of bare rock, wet with rain. Halfway up, even the Landcruiser loses traction. I point out to Clyde the guide that he has not engaged the four-wheel drive and the reduction gear yet. He does, and up we go, past locals who must be rather surprised but look on tolerantly.
Clyde, our guide and driver, toots his horn at a pedestrian crossing the road and speeds by without slowing. Looking out the side windows, we see from the insignia on the pedestrian's shoulder that he is in fact a policeman. Clyde replies, unfazed, "A policeman without his cap is no policeman."
Before leaving the country, we use up our last local currency (Lek) to fill up the tank. When the tank is full, I hand over the money and ask "Mirë?" (Good?). The previously dour pump attendant nods, grins, gives a Mao salute and says "Bye!"
On entering Albania, the border police requires your passport and the green card (insurance certificate) for your car. The customs bureau needs the car's registration papers. You have to pay an entry fee of 10€ per person to the police, which is independent of the length of your stay and for which a receipt is issued. From the customs office you receive a document recording the type and registration number of your car and the date of entry, which you should take care not to lose.
When you leave Albania by car, you pay a road tax proportional to the number of days spent in the country, for which you also receive a receipt. The amount depends on the type of car and entry date recorded on the customs form you receive on entry. Cars are 1€ per day, vans approximately 2€, trucks about 4€ (I paid 25€ for twelve days, a "rounding error"?). When our friends had to pay 45€ for eleven days for their van, we protested, but it turned out to be correct (within the "rounding precision"). Their van is registered as a light truck to save tax in Germany, and was classified as such when they entered Albania. An English-speaking policeman called in to interpret explained that they could not do anything about it now, as they themselves had to pay the determined amount to the government. So if your van is registered as a truck, the time to try to get it classified as a van is when entering the country. The customs document for a van is written in blue script, the one for a truck in brown, so you might want to watch out which you receive. When I mimed to the elderly customs official that we had understood, he smiled, visibly relieved that we didn't think him a bad guy. A customs official with a heart – what a country!
The most detailed map of Albania we could find (scale 1:220 000) is made by Reise Know-How, ISBN 3-8317-7119-7. A street map of Tirana is available from Freytag&Berndt. It looks amusing – most of the smaller streets have no names.
Among foreign languages spoken by local Albanians, German seems to be more prevalent than English. A fair portion of the population appears to have spent time working in Germany. For communicating with locals who know no foreign language, an image dictionary like PointIt may be useful. (Though I had one with me, I never used it as our guide translated for us.) The Albanian language is unrelated to other European languages, due to the Illyrian origin of the Albanian people. Albanians tend to be pleasantly surprised if you know a few words. Here is a tiny vocabulary:
|good||mirë (silent ë; frequently used as OK, fine, ...)|
|yes||po (pronounced like "paw", but short)|
|no||jo (like "yaw" but short)|
|thank you||faleminderit (literally, "I give you honour"; sincere and infrequently used)|
|hello||mirëdita (silent ë)|
Long-distance communication home, via cellphone, works in principle but can be problematic. The prevalent wireless network in the country is Vodafone. Despite being a Vodafone customer myself, a text message I sent home failed to arrive (possibly the plus sign is not supported as a country code prefix). Friends who are with Deutsche Telekom could only use their phone via callback. Yet another reported echos when calling home.
To reach the city of Bajram Curri and the more remote north-east of the country, notably the beautiful upper Valbonë valley, you have two options: You can drive there along a long and winding mountain road, or you can take the ferry on the middle one of the three reservoirs of the river Drin. Though admittedly we never tried the road, and even though you still have to drive past the lowest reservoir, the ferry is probably the less stressful option.
The ferry runs once a day in each direction (I am not sure about weekends). It leaves the upper terminus close to Bajram Curri at seven in the morning, takes about two hours, and leaves again when it has been newly loaded (loading starts at around 9:30). The ferry is always full. To be sure to get on board, one should be in the queue one hour ahead of the departure (or loading) time. At the lower end, the queue is formed in the town next to the power station, Komani, and is watched by a policeman who will only let it proceed when the traffic coming from the ferry has passed. The road up to the ferry terminal is narrow, and the last part is a tunnel. It provides a perfect opportunity to sink your car if you do not slow down very very rapidly when emerging from the tunnel — it leads directly onto the pier. If you arrive in the evening, you can jump the queue by camping on the pier, or on a gravel site between the road and the dam right before the tunnel.
As we paid a total sum of 81€ for two cars, a trailer and ten people, I can only give approximate prices for the ferry from what our guide told me and some arithmetic. Apparently people were ≈4€ each, and small cars or trailers 12€. The van cost more than a car, and the Landcruiser still more due to its length (over 5 metres?). So one should probably expect 15-20€ for a van or large car. The fares can of course be paid in the local currency, Lek, for which the going rate is 120 Leks to the Euro. Being short of Lek, we chose to pay in Euros, which are also accepted. I do not know the fares and schedules of the passenger-only ferries. I seem to remember that some of them remained at the south-western terminus when the car ferry left, so they may provide a means of returning to Bajram Curri later in the day if you are on foot.
If you are new to Albania, you may prefer to travel in the company of a guide, as we did. The hiring of our guide was arranged by e-mail with Gent Mati of Outdoor Albania. He is well organised and keeps contact with his guides via phone during trips. Our guide spoke English, German and Italian. Outdoor Albania can also provide cars with sufficient ground clearance to handle the smaller Albanian roads. We paid 150€ per day for the guide plus the Landcruiser (nobody remembers how much was for which).
Besides trips aimed at kayakers, Outdoor Albania also offers tours for other outdoor enthusiasts as well as tourists. Have a look at their website if you are interested.