A couple of my friends suggested we take a trip through some of the surrounding countries and I thought it sounded like a great idea so we set a date over a weekend. On the eve of departure we filled up several 5 gallon cans of gas in case there were any issues or we were unable to locate an open gas station along the way. We also took along some food and of course international cell phones. If you’ve ever driven in another country you can probably appreciate that as a general rule there are issues that you as a driver need to be aware of and the Balkans are no different.
To begin with the roads are not exactly like what you may be accustomed to in the west and most would be categorized as secondary. Many are paved but they’re definitely not maintained to western standards. The next issue you should be aware of are rest stops, when you travel in the west on major highways or in urban areas there are plenty of gas stations, rest stops, restaurants and places where you can take a break, use the bathroom, get gas or something to eat … well, you get the idea. To travel in the Balkans by car you need to plan and compensate for a different infrastructure.
You may or may not see a gas station for instance and even if you do come upon one, it may not be open or accept credit cards, or the currency you are carrying. As any experienced traveler can tell you, be prepared for a variety of situations. These are some of the reasons we brought along gas, phones and food. So, we’re off quite early in the morning and driving south to the Albanian border. We started out in Pristina, Kosovo and the drive south was scenic and covered with rolling terrain, farmland, mountains and lush vegetation. A relatively new feature in the area of transportation is an up to date freeway from Kosovo to Tirana, Albania which resembles what we are accustomed to seeing in the west.
It made for a pleasant, high speed drive and we were at the border in no time. We handed our passports to the guards and after a quick inspection they were handed back and we were on our way. Shkodër, Albania was the nearest major city we decided to take a quick drive through as it was on the way to our first stop which was Montenegro. Skodra or Shkodër is typical of what I saw during my travels Kosovo and Albania. It was active with pedestrians traffic and despite the cold winter weather people were out shopping and the cafes had people in them having coffee. I enjoyed my trips through Albania and found the people friendly, helpful and accommodating and I would definitely return if given the chance. The economics of the country however are evident everywhere and in the course of meeting the people I learned that jobs are hard to come by and good jobs even harder.
The commercial buildings had that same feel and appearance I encountered when I first traveled to Bulgaria. In Tirana there was quite a bit of color to the buildings but in Shkodër they were for the most part, gray, prefab structures (at least that’s how it appeared). We wound our way through the city taking in the sights and snapping a few photos. One of the guys wanted to stop by an airport due to an interest in aircraft and we all thought it sounded fun so off we went. Back on the highway we were soon at an old airport and driving around the place in search of aircraft but none were apparent.
We eventually stumbled upon a couple guards and managed to convey our desire to see some airplanes and were told they were gone or in storage and that particular airport was no longer in use. So, having given it a try we drove on the runway a few times and noticed that in fact it had probably been quite some time since the thing was used as it was overgrown with vegetation. As we drove on the runway I could see the road we needed to be on and headed in that direction as I could see an access way from the airport to the road. As we approached it however, the lack of maintenance had allowed the road to deteriorate to the point that accessing it was pointless so we retraced our route back out the main gate.
The drive through Albania was quite nice as the country is beautiful, dotted with little villages, farms, rolling terrain and people going about their lives. In no time we were at the border of Albania and Montenegro with passports in hand. They asked the usual questions but also asked to see our auto insurance policy. We showed them the policy but oddly enough it was not the one they were looking for. So, we asked them what was required and were told we needed to purchase an “Montenegro Auto Insurance Policy”. Remember I told you driving in other countries had unique requirements? Well, we debated the issue a bit and it appeared there was no way to win so we asked what the cost was for this “Montenegro Auto Insurance Policy”? The guard told us it costs €10 so we purchased our new policy and after around 20 minutes we had the certificate in hand.
It was in case we get in an accident in Montenegro we were told. When I returned to Kosovo I made some inquiries of the locals who had lived in the Balkans for years and they were for the most part amused. Yes, this is common in the Balkans but forget trying to use it if you’re in an accident as it’s just a way for someone in the government to make money. I took it in stride and have the certificate as a souvenir, a memory of Montenegro. The guards were decent about it we were soon on our way. Photos are at the end