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The Mountains of Northern Albania

Of the various countries featured on this website, Albania is one of a minority, where at the time of writing, I have not been to the capital city, nor to any of the more (if any are) popular tourist sites (in this case, for example, the historic city of Butrint on a day trip from Corfu). My visit here involved passing through the mountainous Northern areas of the country by car in order to get from the southern end of Montenegro and on into Kosovo. At the time of the visit, it is worth mentioning that the advice of the British and Commonwealth Foreign Office on this particular part of Albania did not entertain with the idea of ‘exercising extreme precaution’ or ‘we advise against all but essential travel’. The advice was put simply as ‘avoid all travel to the area’. This particular behaviour of going somewhere against governmental advice is therefore something I do not in any way recommend to anybody. Do as I say and not as I do and all that.

There have been problems in this area, particularly in the Kosovo border region with carjackings, the odd kidnap, and many other crimes, some not very nice to mention. Land mines are still a major issue off the side of the road. There has been total lack of law enforcement and the mountains are what can only be described as ‘bandit country’. Over 95% of cars driving around are stolen and uninsured. Indeed, whilst there we spotted a British car being looked after by a proud Albanian ‘owner’.

Shortly after entering Albania we passed Rozafa Castle near the city of Shkodër [Photos 2 & 3 in the thumbnail gallery below]. It could be seen on a rocky hill surrounded by the Bojana and Drin rivers. We headed towards Shkodër, an important cultural and economic centre and one of the oldest and most historic places in Albania. There was neither time nor any inclination to stop. The pot holes had some road on them and the traffic was an eclectic mixture of donkeys, cyclists, pedestrians, carts and clapped-out old vehicles. Road signs were nothing short of non-existent and so the direction was largely governed by a few features on a low quality map which had been brought along aided by the Sun for navigation. Once we were satisfied we were heading out from Shkodër in the right direction sans GPS towards the mountain roads [photo 5 onwards] which would lead us towards Kosovo, it was time to reflect on what exactly we were doing here. I still don’t know what I was really doing there to this day. That said, the main route through Northern Albania was very scenic indeed with spectacular panoramic mountain views. As we continued, the road itself was becoming diabolical, though you have to hand it to the Albanians for a clear attempt at improving the road surfaces evident as each km passed slowly. The first visible activity was a small hold up in the road; an old truck heavily laden with hot asphalt, which alas had just caught fire on the underside of the chassis. This required a short, but rapid passing manoeuvre in the hire car. Further up as the mountain climb began, another old lorry heavily laden with hot asphalt was also responsible for disappointing the ever optimistic Albanian road maintenance workers. This time, the lorry was on the road not moving. In fact the whole of the back of the vehicle was clearly skewed sideways at a 45° angle. The rear axle had snapped completely.

Well inside the lawless mountains now, we passed through a town called Puke. Just past the town, surrounded by green mountainside vegetation, a decision was made to stop and get out of the car to pose for photos next to a sign that read ‘Puke’. This seemed like an amusing thing to do. However, the photo shoot came to an abrupt end before I could pose for my own 'selfie' photo. There seemed to be nobody around. The last buildings were well out of sight, there were no other vehicles to be seen or heard and we thought we were alone. A bush rustled and I became rather at unease with the whole situation, feeling it didn’t look safe after previously reading about armed robberies and the like. Something didn’t sit right. A man appeared from under one of the shrubs. He had a gun. He spoke no English. This was of concern. His body language and serious looks were given our full attention. The general gist of it was ‘get in your car, p*** off and don’t stop your car anywhere near here again’. Instructions were obeyed and so we kept driving, still taking in the scenery but relieved that of all the possible encounters with an armed person we could have had that day in the mountains, this one was an undercover officer.

From the mountains, we made it to the border with Kosovo. Nobody else was crossing. The UN official did not seem impressed by our presence and took some time sorting out the paperwork. Instructions were given very specifically on where to go once back inside Kosovo. Certain roads and towns were still not accessible but nonetheless, the entry into a UN-administrated land was a welcoming and comforting feeling.

Note: Apologies for the distorted images; I was living outside my native England at the time and bought a cheap camera for the trip!

Suggested Reading:

The Accursed Mountains: Journeys in Albania by Robert Carver

Albania: A Travel Guide by Philip Ward, Oleander Press (Dec 1982)

Albania (Bradt Travel Guides)

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