Shqipëria, or Albania, has only seen an influx of vehicles in the last 15+ years. In the communist days, cars were a rarity. Driving around the country, you can’t help but notice how many large Mercs there are – obviously well suited to the terrible roads with their tank-like build.
But something else is at play too – cars are clearly a big status symbol for the up-and-coming Albanian. Mercs are so popular that you are warned about the high rate of theft of Mercs on entry to the country, and we had surprisingly frequent sightings of sports cars: bravely negotiating the pot holes on their low suspension!
With this new-found car mania has sprung up a number of allied businesses. I’m truly not kidding when I say that car washes (Lavazho in Albanian) are 3 per suburban block, and barely thin out even in the countryside. Petrol stations are almost as populous, with their Benzine signs for all sorts of brands I’ve never seen elsewhere. Tyre sales & repair shops come in a remote third place.
Driving in Albania is just crazy. There are constant road works (the pot holes are still winning) and many single lane stretches. Albanian drivers careen along at breakneck speeds, only just missing oncoming traffic, with wild swerves and blind overtaking, yet it all seems to work. We saw no accidents during our +-500kms of driving, but there were too many close shaves for my liking.
Aidan and I took our bicycles for a short ride, but in general, I think cycling in Albania is a high risk activity and I wouldn’t recommend it. Pity, as the countryside is very pretty, and cycling in Albania would be fun if it weren’t so life threatening.
By comparison, Greece (Hellas) is a lot more orderly, but also worthy of some raised eyebrows. My favourites are the scooter riders with their coffee frappes in one hand, no helmet, and one to two pillion passengers along too. The penchant for not wearing a helmet means that plenty of scooter riders are also chatting on cell phones as they zip in and out of traffic.
Beware the driver who does something stupid – horns and raised voices are commonplace, but despite the noise and apparent anger, Greek driving is not truly aggressive like South African driving.
Our own driving in Europe is probably hilarious too – Kris has a “keep right, drive right” mantra that he mutters to cope with driving on the “wrong” side of the road! Aidan and I are getting more settled on the right, but we still occasionally find ourselves on the left of the road on our bicycles, making some poor local very confused. I do know who will be confused soon – us, when we return to SA and have to swap back to the left!