Adventures in Balkan Transportation

The day began bright and early; I was in Valbona, a village high in the mountains in the north of Albania. My goal was to reach Kotor, Montenegro, where I  had booked my next hostel. As the crow flies, it’s only about 50 miles, but it is a long 50 miles.

To get into Montenegro, I first had to get to Shkodër, the largest city in northern Albania. I woke up at 5:45 and had breakfast at the guesthouse, then the guesthouse owner, Mark, walked me down to the main road, where the furgon to the city of Bajram Curri picked me up. “What is a furgon?,” you are probably wondering. These privately-owned vehicles (most often a van or minivan) operate as part of the public transportation system, running specific routes on schedules that are based more on demand than on the clock. Generally, the driver will drive the route a few times per day, leaving from the starting point whenever there are enough people in the vehicle. As most cities in Albania do not have bus stations, the furgonat usually pick up on the side of a road or near an important intersection or landmark.

The ride out of  Valbona Valley was comfortable because the road was flat and newly paved. We made our way through the valley by following the Valbona River; at  times, the valley is more like a canyon, with steep  walls on either side and barely enough space for the road between the river and the cliff. After about 45 minutes, we emerged from the valley into a foothills region, and arrived in the town of Bajram Curri.

I hadn’t seen an ATM in a few days, and I wasn’t sure I would have enough Albanian lekë to make it all the way back to Shkodër, so I had the driver stop in front of a bank so that I could get some cash. Then, we drove through the town to a street corner, where the driver stopped and told me to get out and wait there. I confirmed with him that he knew where I was trying to go, and he said the bus I needed would pick me up there. So, I waited at the deserted street corner, where there was not even a sign indicating that it was a bus stop.

I soon found out, though, that the word autobus in Albanian does not necessarily imply a bus of any type. After five or ten minutes of waiting, an old Mercedes sedan pulled up, and the old man driving it got out and asked if I was heading to Fierza. I responded that I was, and he proceeded to show me a 1,000-lekë note, indicating the price of the trip (about $8). I agreed and climbed into the passenger seat, and we began to head out of town, making one more stop to pick up someone else. Along the way, the driver pointed out what I think was his house up on the hillside, while humming something about Fierza the whole time. It was about a half-hour ride to Fierza, where I was dropped off.

There is not much to the town of Fierza; it is just a few houses on the hillside overlooking the dam that separates the Fierza Reservoir from Lake Koman. Both lakes are long, narrow reservoirs occupying the Drin River valley, which were created in the 1970s to provide hydroelectric power to the region. There is no sensible way to drive between Fierza and Shkodër due to the mountains, so the most direct route is to take a ferry down the length of Lake Koman, from Fierza to the town of Koman.

The ferry was due to leave at 9:00, so I waited at the dock and visited with couple from California who were on a two-month motorcycle trip through the Balkans, seeking out the most scenic routes and backroads. When we got on the ferry, we found a table together on the upper deck and talked about our travels.

Over the next two hours, the ferry made its way down Lake Koman. Because the lake is inside a narrow river valley, the mountains often rise straight out of the water, providing some dramatic and beautiful scenery that reminded me of the fjord I visited in Norway. The color of the water is also a powerful shade of turquoise.

Lake Koman, Albania
Lake Koman, Albania

The scenery was complimented by the lively Albanian music that someone started playing on a stereo he had set up on the upper deck. After a while, people started to take notice of the music and eventually, some people got up and began dancing. More and more people joined in until there was a veritable dance party on top of the ferry. Everyone – children, grandparents, and everyone in between – was singing along and having a good time. While the Californians planned out their next route on the map, I walked around the deck to take some photos, enjoying the music and the scenery.

The video linked below will set an authentic tone for the following photos!

Valle Kosovare” – Shpat Kasapi

Cliffs over Lake Koman, Albania
With so many bends, the scenery along Lake Koman is always changing

The ferry arrived at the dam in Koman around 11:00, and we disembarked on a crowded little plaza surrounded by the lake on one side and a cliff on the other side. My new friends from California rode off on their motorcycle, and I got on the furgon that was heading to Shkodër. It was a slow, bumpy ride — the road wound through the foothills of the mountains and was very roughly  paved, and crumbling in many places. What looked like a quick trip on the map actually took several hours.

Albanian Flag over Lake Koman, Albania
Albanian flag over Lake Koman

The driver made many random stops along the way — he got some water at a fountain coming out of the side of the mountain, stopped at a cafe to have an espresso, pulled over to talk to some people he knew, and even stopped at a little roadside market to buy his groceries. We eventually made it to Shkodër, and as I got off at the “bus station” in front of the Xhamia e Madhe (“Big Mosque”) the furgon driver pointed out the bus that would go to Montenegro.

By this time, I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast, and I didn’t know how much longer it would be before I reached Kotor, so I took a walk around the block to grab a byrek me mish (meat pie) for the ride. Though, my Albanian failed me when I tried to also ask for ujë (water), so I let it go and hoped that I still had enough in my backpack. Heading back towards the bus area, I was hurried along by a creepy stray dog that didn’t seem to like me passing by the doorway it was sitting in, and it was just as well, because I got on the bus just as the driver decided it was full enough to leave.

The ride to the city of Ulcinj, Montenegro lasted about an hour, involving an Albanian border control and a Montenegrin border control. From there, I had planned to take a bus to Kotor, but when I heard the distressed cries of a Korean traveler at the ticket counter, I realized that may not be an option. She approached me and asked me in broken English if I was going to Kotor, and when I said I was, she led me over to the ticket counter to talk to the agent. The ticket agent was stubborn at first, saying that it was impossible to go to Kotor until the next day, but I finally managed to find out from her that a bus would leave for Kotor in an hour from Bar, a city a little further up the coast. So, I split a taxi ride to Bar with the Korean girl (about a thirty-minute ride), and we got a place on the bus to Kotor.

After about two and a half hours of driving up the dramatic mountainous (and luxurious) coast of Montenegro, we were nearing Kotor. About five minutes out, however, the suspension on the bus made a loud bang, and we felt the back of the bus nearly dragging on the ground as we pulled to the side of the road. Fortunately, as if this was part of the plan all along, an empty bus happened to be right behind us, so we just had to switch buses for the last few kilometers to the bus station (bus stations exist in Montenegro!).

So finally, after being on the road for twelve hours, in eight different vehicles, I had made it to Kotor. I had dinner in the Kotor Stari Grad (Old Town), called my family, then went on a pub crawl in the Stari Grad arranged by the hostel.

Welcome to public transportation in Albania — it sounds sketchy, but it gets you there!

3 thoughts on “Adventures in Balkan Transportation

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