We have now driven Georgie 7,845 miles, (which sound even better as 12,626 km). During that time we’ve seen changes in landscape, signage, and architecture, as we expected. Less predictable was the naked-from-the-waist-down gentleman struggling to get into a wrestler’s jock strap, at a cafe by a shopping mall. Or this rather buxom lady made of concrete, gazing out at us as we stopped to let a build-up of traffic pass by Georgie.
This was me on the walkie-talkie: ‘Did you see her? on the left?’
Steve’s reply: ‘Why do you think I stopped?’
In the middle of nowhere we parked by a cafe, because it was a hot day and Georgie’s brakes needed to cool. Around the corner we found a strange little petting zoo in someone’s front garden. You could wander around the enclosures of kiwis and ostriches, turkeys, goats and pigs, and then leave a donation when you left. It was both sweet and rather sad.
At another roadside coffee stop, a few guys got out of a van and produced a piano accordion. One smiley chap proceeded to play loud, jolly folk songs to the delight of his mates. Other people at the stop were not so pleased and one chap started yelling at him to be quiet. So he played louder. The other chap went up to him and they were nose to nose as he shouted. We thought it was all gonna kick off, but the musician simply raised the accordion and played it very loudly in the man’s face, then started chasing him around with it. Poor guy was furious but I was rather entertained – I’d never seen accordion music used as an offensive weapon before.
One of the van mates had now found a traffic cone and was playing that like a kazoo. The angry man, realising he was both out-numbered and surrounded, backed away pretending that he’d won that round (in the way that cats pretend they meant to fall off that chair). The accordion player finished his songs to much applause, got in the van (with the purloined traffic cone) and off they went.
It was the roads in Montenegro that first induced Steve to utter the advice, ‘patience, wonder and vigilance’ over the walkie-talkie. They were covered in potholes the depth of Ben Nevis, and petered off alarmingly at the edges. It was mountainous, with seemingly endless hairpin bends, around which herds of sheep or cows would suddenly appear.
This phrase was to become less of a mantra and more of a prayer when we entered Albania, five hours later. Steve tells me that there were no cars in Albania until fifteen years ago, which goes some small way to explaining the way they drive.
We arrived just after sunset and no-one, I repeat, no-one had lights on their bicycles and everyone was wearing black. No-one on a motorbike had a helmet either, and most had at least two passengers, one of which was a child (at the front). They often couldn’t be bothered with lights either. There was no right of way, and no road markings apart from the central white line, which they took absolutely no notice of. I was a jibbering wreck by the time we parked up and went to look for something to eat.
Settled in a restaurant, I used Google Translate to work out what the toppings on the pizzas were. I wanted to check Sallam Pikant, which I was fairly sure would turn out to be salami, but as we were in a new country I thought it better not to make assumptions. So I started typing and good old Google started translating ….
s = s
sa = how
sal = sal
sall = hall
salla = Hall
sallam = sausage
sallam p = salve p
sallam pi = I drink more
sallam pik = I have a pic
sallam pika = I give it a point
sallam pikan = I’m gonna drink
sallam pikant = I’m salty
So, sort of salami, then.
Unable to find a single campsite, we woke up the next day to find we’d parked in the school bus stop. As it was practically opposite the pole-dancing club, in a grim little shanty town, circa Morocco in 1986, we’d thought we were tucked away. Not so. We set off, nervous about the driving, but excited to see what Albania looked like in daylight.
First we drove along past slag heaps and rubbish dumps, stay dogs, and titty bars, but then we hit the road to Golem. The buildings now were all variations on a theme, the theme being, ‘what can we do with concrete?’ (We’d already spotted that the Croatians like a bit of concrete too, but there they’ve decided that greige is the new black.) Albanians prefer to use a packet of refreshers as their starting point, and I particularly liked the ever-popular mint and salmon combo.
Then we got onto the motorway. Well, Google Maps called it a motorway, but I called it a fairly crappy, pot-holed dual carriageway. It had a rather variable hard-shoulder which, it turns, is absolutely the place to be. There were lots of loitering men, numerous donkey carts and eleventy billion guys on bicycles, some with as many as ten planks of wood balanced across their handlebars. There were wizened little old ladies, in white headscarves, waiting for lifts, or buses or, possibly, death. There were loose chickens, and cows and goat-herders. Goat-herders! There were men who waved plastic bags of something brown at me, and another who waved flowers. At one junction a man had parked his motorbike in the middle of the road and was standing there, bag on the road, no helmet, just waiting. And there were lots and lots of things like this.
We stopped for coffee and petrol at a garage called Kastrati. Its logo was a petrol pump filling up, um, a UFO? And when we looked to see if they had wifi we found it under ‘Shyti petrol’.
There is simply no explanation for Albania.
The road masquerading as a motorway had two solid white lines painted down the centre which, to the average Albanian, is the thing he likes to drive along best. His favourite place to overtake is, of course, a blind corner.
If he overtakes you, he will drive as far as is feasibly possible on the other side of the road, for as long as he can (even if there is an empty over-taking lane to the left of you). When he sees the on-coming traffic, he will wait until the very last second before skidding in front of you. If you brake and swerve he knows he has done it right.
However, if the vehicle heading straight towards him is wide – a lorry, coach or bus, say – then he will attempt to hold his ground over the central lines and see if he can fit in the gap between the on-coming lorry and you. If he succeeds without killing anyone then he knows he is a God amongst men.
They learn this early on, I think. In one town I witnessed a young lad pushing a baby in a pushchair along the road – and several feet out from a totally empty pavement. He was coming towards me.
As for signage – that was … variable. Off a roundabout in the busy town of Fier, Steve attempted to follow the sat-nav instructions and all the other cars down a turning. Oh no, people said, jumping in the way and signalling to him to back out again. Now, we were already a bit frazzled at this point. Double-parking in single lane roads is a thing here, and manoeuvring Georgie around them had taken every bit of Steve’s considerable driving skill. There were people parked on the sodding roundabout, for God’s sake.
As I drove round and round while I waited to see what Steve was gonna do, I saw people stop their cars halfway around, get out, leaving the door open, buy a coffee, and get back in and drive off. So I pulled in behind Steve while they sorted out getting him to reverse back onto the roundabout. Oh no, no, no, they said, in mad but obvious gestures. I had to reverse back onto the roundabout, with all view of me hidden from oncoming traffic by the idiot white van that had parked there! And I had to do it three times because they kept changing their minds about where they were going to let us go!
Eventually we got into the south of the country and headed off through the mountains towards Greece. Here Albania was beautiful but, it’s got to be said, that it’s Mother Nature that’s done most of the heavy lifting. Where the actual Albanians have been involved…. I’d like to say that it’s merely a bit run down, but I’m not sure if it was ever run up in the first place.
We reached the customs on the border into Greece and, boy, were they thorough. Nibbles is only a tiny car and you can see everything through the windows. It is impossible to smuggle using a Smart car, but those guys took no chances – they even had my carpet up.
There was a family of beggars working the queue of cars. I genuinely had no money on me at all, which really got their goat. They sent in the big guns, by which I mean the little girl. All I had was a banana, which I offered apologetically. They looked disgusted, but took it anyway. The little girl endeavoured (quite successfully) to eat it with as much scornful disdain as she could muster. I wished my car was bigger so I’d have somewhere to hide.
And then we were on our way and driving down the mountains, into Greece and the Shirley Valentine moment I’d been waiting for since 1989. I’ll tell you all about that next time. Until then, thanks for reading, and big hugs to you all. Ciao.