The National Museum of History in Tirana, Albania, is a vibrant reminder of the country’s Communist past.
This is Part 5 of our swift adventure with the Dacia Logan, you can see Part 1: Romania, Part 2: Serbia here, Part 3: Bosnia & Herzegovina here and Part 4: Montenegro here. Today we will be attempting to cross two countries in just one day – Albania and North Macedonia – so we catch up with the fact that it’s already Day 6, we only have 4 countries under our belt so far and our challenge is to travel through 10 countries in 10 days… We’ll be (quickly) crossing Albania headed south from the coast on the northwestern side of the country through to the capital Tirana – the only city in the country we will have the time to thoroughly explore – and then east towards Lake Ohrid and the border with North Macedonia.
Flag of AlbaniaOur itinerary across Albania from Montenegro to Northern Macedonia.
While preparing possible itineraries and adding up the countries for this adventure, one of the most intriguing to me was consistently Albania, a country of almost 3 million inhabitants on an area of 28,748 km2. Having grown up in France in the eighties and nineties at a time when this country was as secretive and closed to foreign visitors as today’s North Korea, I found it hard to believe that it would be as easy as it was to just drive into it today. But it was, and off we are into Albania! According to the Lonely Planet, “so backward was Albania when it emerged blinking into the bright light of freedom, that it needed two decades just to catch up with the rest of Eastern Europe”. That’s a little harsh, actually. Originally established in 1272 as the Kingdom of Albania, the country was under Ottoman rule between 1431 and virtually up to 1912 when it declared its independence. It was then invaded by Italy in 1939, became a Nazi German protectorate in 1943 and was under Communist rule up until 1991, most of time being spent under the leadership of Enver Hoxha. To his credit, under his 40-year rule the adult literacy rate was raised from 5% to 98%, but brutal repressions and an almost complete isolation from the rest of the world despite being a stone’s throw away from Italy understandably bruised the population.
The only impression we have time to register on our way to Tirana is that reckless driving is back in a big way, after a pause in Bosnia (which cost us a speeding fine) and in Montenegro where busy coastal roads made it difficult. But back we are surrounded with suicidal drivers that wait for the most dangerous timing to overtake… for thrills? There won’t be any updates on the Logan this time as we leave our faithful companion in an underground parking lot located just below the main square in town, Sheshi Skënderbej – a great shortcut to tick most attraction boxes in the city. It indeed houses the Et’hem Bey Mosque, the equestrian statue of Skënderbej who rebelled against the Ottoman rule in 1443, and the 1981 National Museum of History which features a very impressive Communist-era fresco reminiscent of Soviet artwork, captured in the hero picture of this article. It strikingly sets the tone for the rest of the dusty city now enveloped with brash consumerism but a breeze to wander around thanks to numerous green parks. One spot also worth checking out is Bunker 1944, as its name gives it away it’s a former underground bunker transformed into a very cool bar full of communist-era furniture and antiques. Cue very low ceilings and a claustrophobic vibe quickly waved away by very friendly, English-speaking staff. Street art in Tirana is omnipresent and ever thought-provoking, including one depicting the Albanian-Kosovar friendship as pictured above. A very gracious waiter in one of the best local restaurants in Tirana managed to voraciously rip us off even though the food was glorious, and attempting to pay in Euros when leaving the car park resulted in quite an incident complete with raised voices on each side, both events telling us that it was time to move on to the next country.
Albania’s old (above) and new (below) license plate formats
But we’re here to talk about cars aren’t we? The first, nerdy, element to notice in Albania is two different license plate formats, one dating back to 1993 featuring a red Albanian flag and starting with a two-letter abbreviation of an Albanian district name, followed by a serial four-digit number and one letter. While the old 1993 format remained valid, a new format similar to the post-1994 Italian and post-2009 French plate designs was introduced in 2011. Seemingly mimicking European Union plates (Albania applied for membership in 2009), it starts with a blue strip with the abbreviation AL, 2 serial letters, 3 digits and 2 serial letters. The most advanced series I spotted when there (August 2018) was AA 000 UV. Yes, following the progression of number plates used to be a childhood hobby of mine and I still get flashes of interest sometimes…
Tirana car and taxi landscape
The second immediate observation when looking the car landscape in Albania in general and in Tirana in particular is the absolute rarity of new cars. Albania is the kingdom of used cars and has garnered the dubious reputation of stolen car paradise of Europe, with many cars stolen in Western Europe finding their way into the country. I wrote an update roughly a year ago estimating the best-sellers in Albania in 2017 which placed the VW Golf on top. Having been able to observe the car landscape with my own eyes and in relative detail I have to modify this estimate, but there is still no official published data about Albanian new car sales. Based on my observations in Tirana in August last year I would say the Fiat Tipo is the best-seller for 2018 helped by a healthy taxi fleet, followed by the Hyundai Tucson, Skoda Fabia and Ford Fiesta. The Seat Arona and Mercedes A-Class were also notable. The most popular pickup is the Mitsubishi L200, but mostly as second-hand.
A flood of second-hand Mercedes – and sheep – in countryside Albania
Although I was a little surprised by the small amount of second-hand Mercedes in Tirana, they came back with a vengeance as soon as we entered the countryside west of town towards North Macedonia. In Elbasan notably (pictures above), I spotted not a single new car. Albania has actually become famous worldwide – at least for carspotters – for its love of all things Mercedes, so much so that the company itself chose the country as the location for one of the 2018 TV adverts for the new GLE SUV. Some unofficial figures go as far as saying that Mercedes sedans represent an astonishing 3 in 5 vehicles in circulation in the country. That may have been true a decade ago but it does seem like the car landscape has modernised somewhat since, and I’d say perhaps 1 in 3 is more in order. The most popular nameplates are the 200/300 and E-Class, but the 190 and its descendant the C-Class are also strong.
It was a quick dash through Albania but we still managed to get a good feel of the country and its cars, so this is mission accomplished indeed. Country #6 (and it’s still Day 6!) is the Republic of Macedonia, or at least that’s what it was called when we visited last year, but it is now to be referred to as North Macedonia.