Day 72 : Montenegro & Albania

Have I mentioned that we don’t have any insurance cover for Kaya for these countries?  As they’re not in the EU, our existing insurance isn’t valid for them.  We’ve debated the issue over a couple of weeks and the choices are (1) backtrack the l-o-n-g way round through Croatia to get back to Hungary and then drive through a big loop via Romania and Bulgaria to Greece or (2) continue in a southerly & much shorter direction straight through Montenegro and Albania to Greece.  Greece is our turn-around point in our journey but also the country that is very dear to us and that we love – we have been so looking forward to getting there.

2 considerations.

We are fully of the opinion that going backwards is not for us.  We are also very familiar with “The savages over the hill” syndrome that plagues many countries.  We first experienced this on our trip down Africa.  As we left Egypt to enter Sudan (Oh my god, you’re going to Sudan, our friends would gasp????), the Egyptians (never having travelled there themselves!) would suck their teeth, click their tongue and slowly shaking their heads, ask us why on earth we would want to go to Sudan?  Didn’t we know we would get raped and pillaged by those terrible people there?  At the very least, robbed at gunpoint to have all our worldly possessions stolen by those thieves?  With slightly heavy hearts the first time this happened, we pushed on forward to enter Sudan.  As they, never having travelled would suck their teeth, click their tongue and slowly shaking their heads, ask us why on earth we would have wanted to go to Egypt?  Weren’t we raped and pillaged there?  At the very least, didn’t we get robbed at gunpoint to have all our worldly possessions stolen by those thieves?

And gradually the mist started to rise for us.

We listen to other travellers, we hear their experiences and swap them with ours.  We try to dispel the myths on the other side and spread the word that those “savages” are just like them, living their lives, sending their kids to school and trying to work to put food on the the table.  Ordinary, kind, considerate, happy people just like you and me.

So with that behind us, the next consideration.  Insurance, or rather the lack thereof and travelling under the Green Card Scheme.  We are firmly of the opinion that shit can happen anywhere and life is full of risk – this is a risk we are willing to take.  We decided that we would buy Green Card cover at the borders and cross under it allowing us to follow route option 2.  We did 18 months & drove 22000 miles under the scheme when we travelled through the Middle East and down East Africa to South Africa in 2009/2010 in our landie, Sully  (www.gapyear4x4.com if you want to have a peep), so we are happy that it would be good enough for us for 2 days in Kaya.  Basically Green Card is a 3rd party insurance and just stops you from losing your house in a claim if you have an accident (they claim against the Green Card scheme).  Of course, in that same accident there’s no-one paying for your repairs – that’s for you to do and therein lies the risk.  The final help in making this decision is that we’re covered in both countries for vehicle recovery (and incidentally for travel & health for us) so in the awful event that something bad happened, we would be able to get us all out.

Decision made.  Woohoo!!!!  Greece, here we come!

We have decided to stick to the coastal route to make our way south to allow us to stay on mainly main roads or motorways, to reduce our border crossings (not having to go in and out of Bosnia again even though that route is faster) and again, we are of the opinion, that border crossings at less used crossings are always much less stressful or difficult.  So we rose with the sun on Friday morning (we try and avoid border crossings on Sundays) and set off for the next part of our trip – we could almost smell Greece from here! – as we made our way towards the Croatian-Montenegran border post slipping passed the rugged coastline and glittering Adriatic Sea.

Montenegro

We arrived at the Croatian side of the border crossing and pulled up into the queue, moving forward quite quickly towards the front.  This is going to be a breeze, 10 minutes at the most.  Suddenly all cars stopped.  Oh no, what now?  Down the queue came the message, border control computer systems have crashed and they’re having to re-boot it.  1st world problems, hey????  But 35 minutes later we were on our way as they quickly processed our passports at the window.  This is always the weirdest bit as you drive through “no man’s land” to the next border control in Montenegro.  Down the hill to the window and we are second in the queue.

“Passports and vehicle papers, please.”  We hand them over without insurance papers, “We need a Green Card, please.”

“No problem.  I keep your passports.  Park on the left and go to the white building on the right.  Bring the Green Card back, you can go.”

Duly done, as we hand over our €18 cash and get our Green Card Insurance (which is a white piece of paper! valid for 2 weeks only in Montenegro) and we are on our way.  Border crossing 1 down, 1 more to go today.

We had made sure that we had filled up with diesel and LPG before leaving Croatia so there was no need to stop for fuel.   The difference between Croatia and Montenegro……nothing! Great roads (ok, in some places they aren’t but that’s the same in every country!), fuel stations at regular intervals and in all cities, towns and beach resorts that we drove through (some cheaper, some more expensive) sticking to the main motorway heading south.  Best thing, no tolls to pay!  Towns and cities look the same as people bustle about everywhere and despite it being passed season end, it is still very busy with tourists.

And even though Montenegro is not in the EU, the official currency…. you guessed it, the Euro!  ATMs are also readily available in resorts, towns and villages as are supermarkets (some real Waitrose types and regular day-to-day ones).  Our card that we use is due to expire at the end of September (DOH! one thing I forgot to check!) and we want to stock up on euros, so we pull in at an ATM to draw.  We’re issued with €400 in €100 notes so pop into the bank where they happily exchange them for smaller ones.

Next decision: Kamenari-Lepetane ferry across the inlet or around the inlet.  €9 for the ferry or an additional 1.5hrs drive around  Thinking smile.  Of course, all the usual things go through your mind in a new country…will the ferry work, will it be safe, will it be a long wait, will language be a problem????  You know what I mean.  But we decided that €9 was worth the time saving and avoiding the extra stress of the gorgeous Mr T being having to drive the extra time in this long day, so ferry it was.  Great decision!!!  Queue in an orderly fashion, whilst you’re in the queue waiting for the next ferry (2 ferrys running so you never wait longer than 15minutes), buy a ticket (language not an issue because everyone speaks English), onto the ferry directed by the stevedores, cross in under 10 minutes, depart in an orderly fashion, job done!  Oh, and I forgot, take some great pics!

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Off the ferry the other side, and after driving through the last holiday resort that line the inlet, we’re on our way again stopping 10 minutes beyond Kotor to top up on groceries (got to buy local food!!)……. at a Waitrose type hypermarket.  Now that’s a surprise – it’s very European …… and we’re almost a little disappointed that it’s not vastly different from Croatia; that it’s not some wild country that people don’t want to visit.  Cheaper than Croatia from the little that we saw in the hypermarket, the same Adriatic blue sea, the same resorts with loungers lined up on the pebble beaches with bright yellow and blue umbrellas and, although we can’t speak to the quality of camping stops because we didn’t use them, we suspect that they are no different from Croatia.  We will be back for another visit and longer next time than this.

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Albania

The other thing I forgot to mention is that we try and avoid crossing borders at lunch time as well… in our experience it all slows down to a crawl between 12noon and 2pm.  But, against our better judgement, we arrive at just after 12….and wait…..and wait…and wait in an ever growing queue as vehicles slowly leak through the border control.

Everything looks quite different here and things have changed.  No longer clean streets but litter everywhere, beggars in the queues working the cars up and down knocking on windows asking for food and money – children mostly, in bare feet and knotted hair as their parents stand back waiting to be handed any money.  The car ahead of us gives them some sandwiches, crisps and sweets but the sandwiches get tossed aside on the street in front of the kind person in favour of the crisps and sweets as they scrap and argue for the best bits, the dominant young girl winning, as she carelessly tosses the papers and crisp packet on the road.

Finally after 2.5 hours we inch forward to the front of the queue and hand our passports over through the window to the man in the booth as he checks us out of Montenegro.  He then hands our passports through a window to another border official who processes it again.  What we didn’t realise at the time, there is no “no man’s land” between Montenegro and Albania (but we soon find out!!!) as the passport handover is from Montenegro to Albania.  So we set off, commenting on the makeshift “offices” alongside the road selling travel insurance (no mention of Green Card) and we drive through what we’re expecting to be empty land.  But houses are dotted about and people and animals are walking in the roads. We’re a bit puzzled when 5 minutes later we haven’t hit the Albanian border control.  So we pull into a ramshackled service station and ask where the Albanian border is as we want to buy green card insurance.  He speaks English (but I don’t know why we are surprised)! And he carefully directs us back to the “offices” just beyond the border control and explains patiently (we think may have done this once or twice before!) that there is no “no man’s land” and that the border controls are back to back.  So we turn around and head back to buy our insurance.

Stop at the first office and ask if he sell Green Card insurance – yes.  How much is it please – €49.  We only want it for 2 days, can we not buy for less time.  No – €49 for 2 weeks.  But we’re only passing though. It’s €49 for 2 weeks and that is the cheapest.  Pah, I suspect a rip off, so onto the next one.  Nope, the first guy’s right, €49 for 2 weeks or, with a shrug of his shoulders, drive back to Montenegro.  Harumph, we feel a bit captive audience as everyone is, so I grumpily hand over the cash for our very official document, pink this time with an embossed hologram seal and which I just managed to stop him from printing the first time as nearly every bit of information was either wrong or mis-spelt.  Finally, clutching our papers with all the correct information on, we’re back to Kaya, ignoring the begging woman and the man in the wheelchair careering up and down the middle of the road trying to stop people who all drive round him and onward towards their destinations.

Our first impressions are that we have crossed the border into a very different country.  This reminds us so much of Syria where dust abounds, poverty is rife and visible everywhere, where litter lines the streets, where people and animals walk in the streets because there are no pavements and less things to walk around and where roads are not well maintained. But maybe this is just the border?  So we press on ever southwards to our next destination, our campsite in Shkodër.

As we drive away from the border we start winding our way up hills and mountains.  The views are gorgeous but still so much litter. But finally, after following Google Maps (we should have listened and read the directions on the website!!!!), and winding our way down some very narrow streets (very narrow with deep ditches on either side!!!) we arrive into an oasis at Camping Albania.  I can’t describe what it is like to be driving on a dusty, arid road lined with people, litter, cars, noise, hooting & shouting, to drive into a beautifully manicured, quiet, peaceful garden (behind a high fence and locked gate) with verdant green grass springy underfoot, a glittering pool with loungers and umbrellas, walking through a twee, country-styled restaurant with professional bakery and patisserie (!!!!) to a cool air-conditioned reception with a warm Dutch greeting.  Boom!  mind blown!

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Just a quick reminder that you can click on any photo to enlarge it for better viewing.

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So we settled in, off to the pool for a dip and a snooze in the sun and then on to watching the gorgeous sunset with a G&T in our hands and settling in for the night.  Breaking it only for a roasting hot, quite fabulous shower and a very European meal in the restaurant. A beautiful campsite that we can highly recommend but can only describe the experience as totally w-e-i-r-d and slightly disjointed.

Just as an aside: We’ve seen loads of Dutch and German motorhomes travelling through Albania so can only suspect that (1) they know something that we don’t, (2) their insurances cover them for Albania or (3) they’re just a bit more adventurous than the rest of us Europeans.

Up early the next day for the long drive down Albania to our next border crossing.  It’s common to see very old farm machinery driving on the roads (an Albanian combine harvester below), donkeys pulling carts, people bent over toiling manually in field,

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and we passed several concrete “mushrooms” dotted about everywhere when you look for them – built for shelter against any land invasions… never used.

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We don’t have much to report on any other campsites and things to do and see as this was just a quick transit for us.  So back off again and to our surprise, the cost of fuel and LPG is cheap – cheaper than all the other countries we have been through, except if you fill up on a “motorway” services; then it’s the same as any other country, much more expensive but even this was still only £1.08/litre with LPG at a low, low 37p/l.

Onward ever southward.

And as we reached the motorway, we hit Albanian driving.  It is something to behold.  Double white line on a blind rise?  No problem, plenty of room to overtake us having not a clue (and not caring) whether there’s room in front of us to pull in in an emergency.  Single lane carriageways become double ….each side! Overtaking 5 cars in a row, no problem!  Overtaking multiple cars on a double white line, on a blind rise, pish-posh, easy peasy.  But it’s a case of just holding your nerve, continue at your speed, keep right, without braking or speeding up.  Stay where you are, don’t anticipate their next move – you don’t have a bloody clue!!!  They will move quite happily around you making room for each other.  “Our Father, who art in heaven…….”!!!!! as you swing in through a town and now it’s helmet-less scooters, hooting, shouting (just talking to each other across the street), delivery trucks, buses and millions of pedestrians (sorry, that may be an hyperbole!) to deal with in this complex mayhem……that miraculously works.  No-one is cross, no-one is angry, there’s no fists in the air or swearing or red faces, no-one gives way, pushing in is a way of life.  There are no bumps or scrapes, no-one knocked over, no accidents (that we saw, although we believe the stats are awful), just smiling, happy people getting on with their lives, moving forward to their destination.  All I can say is: Thank god for our (when I say “our”, I, of course, mean the gorgeous Mr T!!) training ground of driving in Istanbul and Cairo!!  This is on a par but on a slightly smaller scale.

There is a high police presence in Albania but rather than un-nerve us, this is a comfort.  Although you, as a visitor/tourist, are completely ignored as they randomly and often, pull over Albanian cars and drivers. And so many Mercedes and not one but 2 brand new Lamborghinis!!  New models as well – most of them.  In such a poor country, where is all the money coming from?  Probably best not to dwell on this question. And with this many cars, a car wash on every corner…and sometimes 2….or 3.  Each country has it’s little quirky characteristic, Albania’s is car washes like the plethora of pharmacies in Greece!

As we get further south in Albania we turn away from the coast and enter the mountains with beautiful sweeping vistas.  But look a little closer at the murky river compared to the clarity of water in Slovenia (second to none!) and Croatia and this may explain why the sea along the Albanian coast that we drove is no longer the clear, sparkling Adriatic that we have been used to.  Sparkling, yes, but that’s where it stops.

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Winding our way through the mountains we finally spot a restaurant deep in the hills, not a tourist in sight, which is where we prefer to eat.  Pull off the road and park up.

OH Surprised smile, they’ve just slaughtered a goat!  Blood running down the path, a wheelbarrow filled with the skin and mama wide-legged on a small stool in front of a plastic basin rinsing chunks of raw meat in water might be a big clue.  This land not for the feint-hearted!

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Yup, goat chops for the gorgeous Mr T for lunch (luckily we aren’t squeamish!) and a local goat meat soup for me.  And there it is.  We’ve left behind the Dalmatian influence in the food and from here on in it’s Greek all the way.  Well, Albanian, but so close to Greek cooking that you couldn’t slide a cigarette paper between the 2.

And a note on eating food “like this”: Yup, there may be some lurgies on the meat in it’s raw state (from the rinsing in the plastic basin for example) but don’t be put off as we have found that, despite a lack of our stringent food safety, the food is cooked through (without being dried out) so the cooking has pasteurised it and the lurgies are dead.  Village food is simple but, oh so tasty and we have never been sick off freshly prepared food from street vendors, restaurants or mud huts – on the other hand hotel food sitting in a warm, tepid environment for hours is an absolute no-no for us.  So you have to be brave and push your comfort zones way out – sometimes, way, WAY out – for a fabulous experience.

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With bellies full and thirsts quenched with several bottles of Fanta Orange, we’re on our way again heading ever closer to Greece.

And there in the distance, the border post, passing quickly through the Albanian side to drive over “no man’s land” to the Greek side.

“Kalimera. Ti kanete?” to a very surprised border official who is neither expecting a British registered vehicle to cross that day… nor for the occupants to be able to speak Greek!  But I think he wanted to practice his English so we dropped back as we spent the next few minutes debating Brexit, the weather, Manchester City’s performance and our trip in Greece as he checked our passports and wished us a friendly “kalo taxithi” as he waved us goodbye.

Finally we have arrived.

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2 Comments

  • Jeanne

    27 January , 2018 at 22:43 Reply

    I’m heading on a similar route this summer and would love to stay at the campsite you referred to in Albania. Please could you tell me the name of the campsite and where it was. Thanks!

    • JanR

      28 January , 2018 at 09:46 Reply

      Hi Jeanne

      We stayed at CAMPING ALBANIA PARADISE: http://camping-albania.eu

      Highly recommended and a wonderful place.

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