Prior to 1992, it was illegal to own a car in Albania. There were, of course, a few automobiles running around but these were either driven by high communist officials or municipal employees doing their job. No one actually owned the wheels they were driving.
In March 1992, a new democratic government was elected and the universal right to own a car was one of the many benefits which quickly emerged with the fall of communism. Or so you’d think. The problem was that after 52 years of outlawing car ownership, Albania had no traffic laws, no traffic lights, very few paved roads, and no system to issue drivers licenses. The country also had very corrupt border officials. Cars stolen in Western Europe were smuggled en mass across the border to feed the ravenous appetite Albanians suddenly displayed for a set of wheels. The result was chaos, if not predictable. It was as if 20,000 16-year olds were all given a pair of keys without any instruction whatsoever. From March to September of 1992, Tirana alone had 208 traffic fatalities, quickly bumping it up to the highest per capita in all of Europe.
Albania ranks pretty high on the Mercedes per capita list as well. The entire country is crawling with the German car–more so than anywhere I’ve ever seen in Germany. Of course, that may simply be due to the fact that an estimated 80-90% of the cars on the road in Albania were stolen. Most, probably from Germany.
It took many years to develop a traffic infrastructure and for drivers to begin to settle down. They’re not there yet. My travels in Albania were peppered with mad drivers who swerved all over the roads, pounded through potholes and otherwise made me slightly nervous. Every time I passed a junkyard–and there were dozens of them just off the road crammed with every imaginable type of destroyed automobile–I felt the ominous presence of foreshadowing. If this were a movie, the ending would have involved a fiery crash and a shot of a junkyard as the credits roll.
I was one of the lucky ones, however. I had debated renting a car, but wisely chose to travel by public transport instead–leaving my life in the hands of those more experienced in the art of defensive Albanian driving. I’d still look out the window at recently totaled autos that were just pushed off the road and abandoned and get worried, but everything worked out fine in the end; there was no rolling of credits whatsoever.
Despite such worries, getting around Albania is surprisingly simple. Every city has an area reserved for minivans, or furgons. The furgon is the lifeblood of Albania, crisscrossing the country in every which direction. The destination is always written on a large placard sitting on the front window. If you can’t find a card with the place you’re looking for, just ask around. Everyone was always very happy to help me out in such situations.
The problem, however, is that the minivans usually don’t depart until they are full. If you’re the first to sit down, it might take a few hours before the driver has enough passengers to make the trip worthwhile. Occasionally, there are actual departure times as well. If such departures were too many hours away and I wasn’t traveling very far, I could usually find a taxi to take me. I could travel 1-2 hours for 15-20 euros. The minivans, on the other hand, ran about $1 per hour of travel.
The minivans are surprisingly comfortable. They’re certainly not luxurious, but they were efficient, cheap, and a great opportunity to meet the locals. On longer trips, the minivan will usually pull over and stop for a meal at a local café. Passengers tend to sit together at the same table so this is a great time to meet the other people in your van–the ones who shot the look-at-the-foreigner glances in your direction when you first climbed on board.
One of my more memorable experiences was sitting with five people in a café in the middle of nowhere on the way to Northern Albania, chowing down on warm soup, bread and cheese and trying to communicate with my new friends. I had gone from the odd foreigner sitting quietly in the back of the van to the center of an animated discussion which ended in some type of marriage proposal, I think, from a middle-aged woman in her fifties.
Did I already mention that traveling in Albania is fraught with danger?