After Papa went back home, I headed down to the Albanian Riviera in the south, the vacation destination of Albania.
2nd Best Road (Albanian Riviera Highway)
The drive down SH8 along the eastern mountains off the Adriatic Coast basically cut into the coast-facing mountains and followed the natural topography of the land. I estimate there were about 30-40 hairpin turns and 200 semi-hairpin turns (of 60 degrees or more) over the 120-kilometer stretch between Vlorë and Sarandë. This nicely slots into the 2nd favorite drive of my life behind Sa Calobra in Mallorca. You could totally see Italy and Greece (Corfu) across the sea. It was so long and so curvy that my head started spinning in the last 30 kilometers. You know when you go on a spin-y carnival ride and it is fun until you reach that point where it stops being fun. That was this.
I’ve lost count of the number of times (about a dozen) the road was blocked by a herd of animals. Mostly cows, but also sheep and goats. Since you start getting paranoid that around every bend that there is going to be a massive cow blocking your path, I started to hear a constant cowbell jingling for the rest of the drive. It turns out that was just the sound of the engine. Yeah I was tired.
Tiny villages dotted the highway (similar to Serra de Tramuntana in Mallorca) and children play soccer on the highway in these villages and would scatter as the car approached. The highway would also narrow to a single lane – barely a car’s width – in these towns with multi-story walls on either side.
Most alarmingly, since the road is built into the side of a mountain range, obviously it takes some engineering to make sure the road is level. That means either cutting into the mountain or adding material. Sometimes, the roadmakers just said “Forget it” and did neither. It’s hard to explain and I don’t have a picture. First, there would be two lanes and a guardrail like normal. Then suddenly, the outer lane would just end – the space for the lane was still there, but instead of a paved road, it was just the natural mountain terrain where the road was – and the guardrail disappears so if a car continued onto that space it would start tumbling down the mountain. This is part of a greater trend of Albanian road issues. I read that the most popular luxury cars here are SUVs for good reason.
Okay, so here’s the deal with Albanian roads. First off, on major roads, you see a memorial on the side of the road on average about every 2-3 kilometers. Not good.
Pedestrians – it’s insane. You have kids walking in the first lane of a four-lane highway to school. Basically, in the same way that Serbs would just use a lane for parking, here they use it to walk right next to the cars screaming by at 100 km per hour. In farming areas or rural towns, they run across the four lanes (or tow something or herd animals etc) to get to the other side. This has led to the building of emergency speed limits and merging in the middle of every town (I’m sure to prevent further fatalities). Many people walk from village to village on the road because many cannot afford a car and there are no sidewalks. We also saw people commuting by walking on active train tracks.
It was weird passing villages. As many as half of the buildings are dilapidated and in ruins. In the towns, there are an unbelievable amount of people just standing around doing nothing. It’s strange. It’s like a third of the town is just there on the side of the road talking, eating, or doing nothing. I’m sure some were waiting for a bus, but I think most were just unemployed and had nothing to do.
So the roads are awful – in a way that again has little comparison to what you can imagine in the US. It’s not just that the road quality is bad (which it is at parts), but it’s that you have no idea where it’ll be bad. You could be flying at 110 km per hour on the brand new interstate which starts in the middle of nowhere outside Fier and then the freeway suddenly ends since that’s as far as they built it and now you are going 5 km per hour navigating potholes and rocky roads. It’s the same route – just every connection between two cities has an unbuilt bottleneck of less than 10 mph. It’s unpredictable where and when they decided to build a smooth road.
The other thing is that they build in the roads in segments – which is fine. Until they finish both segments and then never connect them, You have let’s say a 3 km and 5 km stretch of a smooth road, but instead of paving over the small space between them to make it a 8 km smooth road, they just leave it as a huge ditch between the segments. In the mountain roads, that was the case even when the two segments had an elevation difference of a few feet. You are speeding along and then suddenly there’s a 5 ft patch of unpaved gravel/rock with a 1 ft drop.
I’ve never been to Miami and I sure wasn’t alive in the 70s, but Sarandë felt exactly as I imagine Miami would look in the 70s. It has a distinct look that is really captivating and I’m not quite sure how to describe it.
It really is off-peak. I had booked my hotel room for 18 euros the night before. When I arrived, I was the only person in the entire hotel. Yes, I booked an entire 3-star hotel for myself for 18 euros. There is a front desk person, a chef, a couple bookkeepers, and a cleaning lady and they were all there for me. I felt a little guilty for making them all come to work. The chef was named Leo and we watched the Madrid Champions League Quarterfinals match on a really spotty connection from a Greek station.
The ruins of the ancient Greek and Roman city of Buthrotum. I was one of maybe 10 tourists in the entire ancient city. I met Blake who was a Kosovo native, who fled during the Kosovo War to England, where he has lived for 17 years and now has an intense British accent.
Perhaps the most beautiful place in Albania to Google Image search. It’s a tiny undeveloped beach in southern Albania. It’s known for its four tiny islands, two of which are swimmable from shore. The entire area was barren, so after lunch I stripped down and swam to an island and back.
A natural spring that births a river. The bubbles at the origin makes it look like an eye. Vivid colors.
- In Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, and Montenegro, the natural topography is pretty unreal. At all times, you see mountains or bodies of water in all four directions around you.
- I forgot to mention. Three different black cats crossed our path in Ohrid, Macedonia.
- It’s funny that Corfu, Greece is west of Albania but is an hour ahead.
- I got an email from Queen Mary housing that there was a leak in my building…little do they know that I haven’t been on campus in a month
- After a recent flurry of posts, the blog’s pictures have now used up over two-thirds of the allotted space.
- And this blog has reached 1500 views.
- 19 – UNESCO World Heritage Sites (Westminster, Tower of London, Kew Gardens, Sintra, Tower of Belem, Stonehenge, Bath, Serra de Tramuntana, Sevilla Cathedral and Alcazar, Toledo, Brú na Bóinne, Swiss Alps Jungfrau, Florence, Pisa, Venice, Skocjan Caves, Rila Monastery, Ohrid, Butrint)
- 9 – Personal phone numbers that I’ve used as my primary number on study abroad (+44 7598736659 [UK], +44 7404245455 [UK old], +1 310-809-2668 [USA], a +1 (661) number on Skype, +351 915-406-195 [Portugal], +34 602-695-139 [Spain old], +34 611-291-985 [Spain new], + 41 76-735-8909 [Switzerland], +39 3273549533 [Italy])
- 8 – Football matches (Crystal Palace x2, West Ham, Tottenham, Sporting Lisbon, Arsenal, FC Luzern, England National Team)
- 6 – Airlines flown (United, British Airways x5, Ryan Air x3, Air New Zealand x2, airberlin, Easy Jet)
- 10 – Currencies used (British Pound, Euro, US Dollar, Swiss Franc, Croatian Kuna, Serbian dinar, Romanian leu, Bulgarian lev, Macedonian dinar, Albanian lek)
- 15 – Countries (UK, Portugal, USA [it counts], Spain, Ireland, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania)
- 24 – Times crossing a national border
- 11 of 20 – Passport pages used
- 49 of 111 – Days of study abroad spent outside the UK (through Apr 27)