The bus was old. It creaked somewhere from underneath as it moved on mountain roads. It had no curtains to block the blazing mid-September sun. The seat cushions were old and dingy. Dirt caked the windows. Twisted, thick wire held a partition in place. The bus driver smoked — inside the bus! And yet, this was one of the best bus trips we’ve taken yet — exactly for all those reasons I’ve just listed.
I mean, really. How could I not not absolutely love the character of this kind of ride? We had seats. We had air conditioning (most of the way). The roadway was paved. I have zero complaints.
We left Kotor, Montenegro, at 8:00 a.m. and the ride to Tirana, Albania, took about 6.5 hours. Tickets cost $27 each. We bought tickets a day in advance of the trip, and our bus was mostly full.
We stopped a few times at other stations before Tirana, including once for 15 minutes about four hours into the trip so the driver could eat. As always, I try not to drink much liquid on trip days. The longest stretch on this ride without a bathroom break was 2.5 hours. And it was the most twisty in the beginning, over the mountains from Kotor to Podgorica.
The scenery was beautiful as the bus crested at 2,100 feet and we saw the sea. I shot these pictures through dirty windows, so they’re not the best, but you’ll get an idea of the experience. (There is a taxi for size reference in the second photo.)
Sometimes stone blockades made of the rock from Montenegro’s mountains were in place of guardrails. Every now and then, we had to slow down for goats.
The border crossing was interesting. We never got off the bus. The driver collected all passports or identification cards, left the bus and had them stamped out of Montenegro.
He returned with the collection and drove to the Albanian entry point, and gave the pile of passports to immigration control on that side. Then he came back on the bus, gave a passenger the collection to pass around so everyone could claim their passport back.
Sadly, we don’t have a stamp into Albania on our passport pages. Perhaps we’ll get one on the way out.
Variations on this kind of lax border crossing has also happened between Bosnia and Croatia, and Croatia to Montenegro through Bosnia on the coast. Seems to be mostly friendly borders in this area of the Balkans.
The European Union flag and signs are at the Albanian border, even though it’s not a member yet. Albania is receiving pre-accession aid and it appears they’ve used some at this border crossing at Hani i Hotit, to the east of Lake Skadar.
The entire process to cross took just under an hour. And this is where we reached into our bags and pulled out the clothes pins we carry, plus a small piece of cloth and one of my husband Tedly’s shirts. He made a make-shift curtain to block the sun from me when the driver turned the bus off — and also the air conditioning.
Another thing we always carry: carabiners. On this particular bus ride, we used it to secure stacked carry-on bags by my legs to keep them from falling over. (In the pic, notice the thick wire that secures the partition I mentioned earlier.)
Once in Albania, it was a pretty straight shot with no more mountain roads. The ride was pleasant and the scenery reminded me somewhat of Guatemala because there was trash along the road in most spots. Poor countries tend to have more litter.
And while Albania is a poor country compared to others — it also seems to be a hopeful country. From my perspective as a short-term visitor — people seem happy and hopeful. It’s such a refreshing change from other European countries where people have somewhat jaded views of the world.
You see, until 27 years ago, Albania was more like North Korea — a secretive, closed communist country. Right now, at this moment in history, capitalism is alive and well; people have modern comforts and can be individuals. Combine this relatively new capitalism with Albania’s promising effort to join the EU, and I sensed hope. Tedly felt it, too.
I’ll write more about that hope in the next post, but for now, that’s the gist of the bus ride from Montenegro to Albania. Don’t let the somewhat rundown looks of the bus fool you– it was one of the best rides of my life.