Driving across the border into Albania as independent travellers in your own, British, car

Driving across the border into Albania as independent travellers in your own, British, car was something we had been told was not possible.  Based on people’s concerned comments about our driving in Albania and on our fruitless searches prior to travelling and daring to cross the border into Albania we thought is would be helpful for other independent travellers to tell you what we have found.

Before travelling out of the EU, and into countries not listed on our standard car insurance, we did a lot of internet browsing and made lots of calls to insurance companies in an attempt to either get insurance for travelling through countries such as Bosnia and Albania or have some confirmation that it is possible to buy insurance on arrival in the country.

Our searches were not very fruitful but undeterred, and buoyed on by the confirmation that our VW and AA covered us if we broke down, we set off with a hope to drive through Albania somehow despite the fact that our insurance company was clear we could not get a green card and would not be insured by them.

Apologies no pictures in this blog for obvious reasons….

Our first experience as independent travellers driving across the border into Albania

Our first foray into Albania was after a van camping trip through Italy and across into Greece.  After several days of clear blue Mediterranean sea and flip-flopping in quiet Greek villages we had our fill of Tzatsiki, Greek salads, Tyrokafteri and Retsina and were ready for something different so set off in the direction of the Albanian border.  Approaching early evening and apprehensive we decided to face driving across the border into Albania the following morning.  Wild camping on a beach close to the Greece Albania border we met a British freelance journalist on a break from working in Albania.

Our brief chat was invaluable and allayed our fears as to the ease of travelling independently and driving in Albania.  The top things we learnt from the friendly British journalist:

  • It should be possible to buy insurance at the border (they wouldn’t let you in without it)
  • you may need a ‘fixer’ to get you through the bureaucracy,
  • most roads were not good though once off the main north south road pot holes could slow you down
  • at all times you should watch our for police check points who gave on the spot fines.
  • He recommended Albania as a fascinating country to visit.

Most of this was true and actually even easier than he had suggested.  Here’s what we found or go straight to the summary

Driving towards the Albanian border control a short queue, all Albanian cars, gave us time to assess who was who and what we may need to do.  Just before our turn at the passport control a friendly looking lady approached and started to ask us; where were we from, how long we might stay and did we have insurance already.  She walked alongside the car and we answered guardedly as we approached passport control, a fixer we thought.  When we reached the window and handed over our passports, vehicle V5 and insurance document she appeared in the booth behind the border officer. Strange as fixers ore often stay with you on your side.   We were nervous and wary as they perused our passports and chatted between themselves in Albanian.  Within a minute or so our passports were stamped however the border guard kept hold of them and told us to pull over to one side.  Oh dear.

We needn’t have worried, the lady came over to us, ‘now you need insurance, a green card, for the car and I arrange the insurance, come with me’.  That explained everything!  We followed her to a tiny office, one of several in the shadow of the huge metal framed border gate where house martins swooped into their nests.   Two or three days would suffice for our first adventure in Albanian but the minimum green card duration is two weeks so that was the only option.  With all of the details from our V5 painstakingly entered into her big book of embossed official forms and our €50 safely in her cash box she stamped the form.  ‘Show this to the guard at the next window for customs.  Enjoy your holiday in Albania, good luck!’ she said as she passed the precious document over the large, dusty wooden desk.

We walked across to the customs window she had pointed to where the official seemed to be expecting us and already had our passports.  He reviewed all of our documents entering some information slowly into his archaic looking computer and finally passed everything back through the window. ‘Good luck’ he said.

I hope we don’t need all this luck we said to each other as we walked back across the rows of queuing cars to the van.  Hopefully it’s just a turn of phrase.

It was, our travels in Albania were; fascinating from a cultural and geographical point of view, challenging from a navigation point of view with a completely blank screen on our sat nav system, few road signs and new roads not shown on our paper map sending us in unexpected directions but not particularly arduous and all of the police check points that we passed (carefully at or below the speed limit) simply looked curiously at us, nodded and waved us on.

We drove back across the Albania border at a point in the north into Croatia a few days later having met some very friendly people, seen some beautiful landscapes, intriguing towns and enjoyed lots of delicious food.  The border guard needed to see passports, V5 and green card documents again and we were quickly waved on our way.

Our second experience driving our own British car across the border into Albania

The next time we visited Albania in our camper van was a little different, entering from the north via Croatia (the same border post through which we had left last time) the process was very fast and simple.  Officials in one cabin checked our passports and we moved to the next where they checked our V5 vehicle document and UK car insurance but did not ask for a green card.  We were  wished good luck again and waved on.  We did as we were told and before we knew it we were on the open road in Albania.  We quickly pulled over confused and concerned that something had changed or were we driving in Albania illegally without insurance.

After a little debate I walked back to the border control and, after causing a little disruption, nervously made my way back to the cabin where the border officer had stamped our passports and checked our V5 document.  Surrounded by border police I reached her cabin window and asked her did we need insurance? She had not asked for it but we were sure we needed it. Oh dear I assumed you had it she said.  Yes you definitely need it and must buy it after the border, she pointed to an unassuming looking grey kiosk at the side of the road.

It looked more like a car park attendant’s kiosk than a bureau for car insurance however the man inside was very helpful, had the appropriate embossed official forms and so after parting with our €50 again we were soon handed our green card insurance and could drive on relaxed, legal and insured through Albania.

In summary if you are thinking of going across the border into Albania as an independent traveller and driving your own car:

Driving across the border into Albania with your British vehicle is possible

  • Your are very unlikely to be able to obtain a green card / insurance from a UK insurance company.
  • Don’t forgot to take your vehicle V5 document, your UK car insurance (just in case) and your driving license.
  • If you normally rely on satellite navigation to find your way, don’t in Albania.  Your system is unlikely to have the map installed and if it does is likely to be out of date.  Buy as recent a map as you can before setting off.

At the border:

  • be patient there can sometimes be long queues entering and leaving Albania
  • you will not need a ‘fixer’ though the border guards may look austere everyone tends to be friendly and as helpful as they can be considering they are unlikely to speak English.
  • You should be asked for your green card or told that you need to purchase one there and then at the border.  It is not always obvious where you need to go for what, the border guards will point you to the right door which is likely to have a sleepy and surprised looking insurance official behind a desk (we judge they don’t get many Independent European travellers on a daily basis requiring Green cards) who may dig around to find the official forms and a pen!
  • If you are not obliged by the border guards to buy your green card be sure to buy it from one of the insurance kiosks you are sure to see just after the border crossing.
  • Green card insurance for a British car driving in Albania is for a minimum duration of two weeks and (at time of writing, in summer 2015) costs €50.

Things we discovered when visiting Albania

Reflecting on all of the things that we have discovered when visiting Albania…

Sadly when you tell people you plan to visit Albania the staple answer remains ‘why on earth would you want to do that?’, ‘is it safe?’ or ‘can you take your car/van and drive there?’

Albania had for too long remained an unknown for us and wanting to explore as much of the European continent in our camper van as we can it did not make sense to keep avoiding it. After some fairly fruitless research aiming to answer the questions above we decided to just go there and find out for ourselves.

We thought a summary of the main things we have discovered so far will be useful and perhaps persuade you to visit this intriguing and blossoming (or perhaps more accurately ‘budding’) country.

  1. Independent travel: We always prefer to drive ourselves yourself rather than rely on public transport and this we would certainly recommend is the case in Albania.
    It is possible to drive your own car (from Britain) in Albania.
    We were not able to arrange insurance cover and therefore a green card from the UK but one of the things we discovered was that it is straight forward to buy a green card at the border (€50 for minimum duration of two weeks at time of writing).
    We found that our navigation system did not have any maps of Albania and we have discovered that not many GPS systems do and so you need to, as we did, rely on paper maps.
    A lot of the main roads are new and absolutely fantastic, do take care though as some are not quite finished so you can find a two lane reduce to one lane and change direction with little, or no, warning.  Roads through towns and villages can be a little rough and pot-holed in places but by no means dangerous so just take it easy you’ll want to time to enjoy the scenery anyway.
    Discovering roads in Albania
  2. What we discovered about the capital, Tiranë, is initially intimidating and confusing; multi- lane highways approach busy roundabouts with few meaningful signs to tell you which of the bustling narrow streets is the way you want to go.
    things we discovered in Tirana AlbaniaLarge communist era buildings dominate, some shabby and grey, others amazingly colourful (thanks to artists and Mayor Edi Rama apparently) but still with a more utilitarian and unkempt feel.
    Edi Rama influence of Tirana communist era colourful apartment blocks
    One of the things we discovered however was that, throughout Albania, when you approach a confusing junction or circle a roundabout there is often a helpful and friendly policeman or local to show you the way.We eventually found our way to breath-taking Skanderbeg Square…communist era buildings to discover in Tirana Albania
    When you wander the bustling streets of Tirana you discover a wonderful mix of communist and Ottoman architecture, a thriving cafe and restaurant culture.
    Discover things about thriving Tirana Albania
  3. What we discovered about the people: Albanians seem to be strong, proud, friendly and welcoming.  From 1968 until 1990 for the Albanian people practising of religion was an offence yet now you will see young and old, entering churches throughout the day to pray and you will hear the call to Muslim prayer from the mosques.
    At one of our stop overs we met Tony who has been building his small hotel by Lake Ohrid for over 15 years, spending time in the USA to learn English and earn some money but he told us as he served plentiful dishes of delicious local specialities ‘I always wanted to come home, I love my country, it is a beautiful place for tourists and I want to make it better.  Even if it is just my small part here.’
    Discover camping at lake Ohrid Albania
  4. What we discovered about the language in Albania:
    We found English spoken particularly in the bigger towns and if not then (particularly on the coast) quite a few people speak Italian.  We had a very odd conversation asking directions to a campsite, in a cafe over an espresso, near Vlorë.  The owner spoke Italian and her advice was not to camp at all whilst her son spoke English and thought there may be one at Divjakë Lagoon (over an hour away), his friends seemed to be agreeing with him in Albanian.
    Following their advice and that of two (non-English speaking) night security guards at a bar on the beach we discovered we could camp with our van on the beach of the lagoon – a beautiful place to stay!
    Discover beautiful beach and coast of AlbaniaThe Albanian language doesn’t seem to have much similarity to others even so it’s always nice and welcomed if you try memorising a few important words as at least a few words….Please Ju Lutem, Thank you Faleminderit  for instance.
  5. Things we discovered outside of Tiranë: the landscape is vast and diverse.  In places it shows the scars of having worked very hard with crumbling tin processing plants amongst farmed fields and hillsides ravaged by quarries…
    Communist industrial buildings in Albania
    however it is overall quite stunning
    Discover Albanian landscape around Gjirokasterand the eager and passionate people of Albania are now working hard to make improve this and to ensure their country is more appealing to visitors.Rural Albania working hard
  6. One of the most enjoyable things we discovered when visiting Albania is that local produce and great food is easy to find.Our first experience was in the south of Albania during a slow and fascinating journey through lush and mountainous countryside when around one bend we found a small taverna perched on the hillside. At Taverna Muzina we enjoyed a huge plate of spit-roasted ‘meat’, keci – kid in fact, perfectly seasoned and cooked and absolutely delicious.  discovering great local food spit-roast meat in Albania
    At the time we were unsure of the exchange rate but assumed around 100LEK to the british pound so 1600 LEK for our feast which greedily included an enormous Greek salad, rice AND two local beers seemed about right.  Later we found the exchange rate was around 180LEK per £, it’s easy to see what amazing value this wonderful food was.In Tiranë we wandered off the main Skanderberg square to find highly recommended Sarajet restaurant housed in an Ottoman house hidden behind trees on a quiet back street.  We enjoyed a local breakfast, a timbale or hot rice topped with grated cheese served with thick sour yoghurt, in the tranquil sun-dappled garden but inside we could imagine generations have huddled to discuss politics and business.
    great food in Ottoman building restaurant in Tirana Albania to discover
    At Tony’s place on Lake Ohrid near Pogradec, we slept in our van in his garden looking out to Macedonia and feasted on the local Koran fish caught in the lake and his recommended local speciality Fergese – liver baked in a rich sauce and topped with cheese, sounds odd but is absolutely delicious.  Grilled vegetables, potatoes, Bruschetta and of course just a few beers, enough for a family we thoroughly indulged just the two of us and including our camping (with use of his bathroom in the house) the bill was 5200Lek (around £30).
    Discover Koran fish and local food in Albania
  7. Currency: talking of LEK, you will see that your pounds or dollars will go a long way in Albania.  However take care as you cannot buy or exchange Lek outside of Albania.  So either spend all that you exchange (which is easier said than done given the prices mentioned above) or exchange before you leave the country.  We exchanged our Lek for Euros in a bank in Korçë.
    Discovering great food at great prices in Albania
  8. Historic sites: as well as simply enjoying the scenery, great food and hospitality in Albania there are some wonderful  historic sites to visit and discover.  Two quite different places that we enjoyed were;
    the archeological site at Butrint whose ruins span over 2500 years
    Butrint archaeological historic site Albania
    and approaching from the south you have the added experience of the wooden platformed cable ferry which glides across the Vivari channel towards the ancient city walls and…
    Discover historic Butrint in Albania ferry Vivari channel
    Gjirokastër whose cobbled streets tumbling down the hill from the castle above feels at one moment like a living museum (the town is a UNESCO world heritage site)Gjirokastra unesco world heritage site Albania
    and on the other hand, as you sip an Albanian Korça beer in a local bar, it feels like a very relaxed and charming town.
    Discover local Korca beer in Gjirokastra Albania
  9. One odd thing that we ‘discover’ or at least noticed and cannot explain is an amazing number of car washes by the side of the road in Albania.  At Përrenjas on the way to Lake Ohrid, as we wound our way up the hill through the small town, we counted at least 15 hose pipes spurting water into the road with 1 or 2 men by each one sitting waiting or waving passing motorists in to hand wash their cars.  It is evident that since the ban on privately owned cars was lifted in 1991 the car has become a necessity for many and a status symbol but we just couldn’t figure out the economics or reason for so many car washes!  Does any one have any further insight?
    Discover vast and beautiful Albanian landscapes

Difficult Albania

The only way we can sum up Albania really is ‘difficult’; difficult first of all for us to find a place to stay; we think there are 10 campsites in the whole of Albanian, we’ve visited 6 of and stayed in 1, difficult to make progress with few signs particularly in Tirane (though very helpful policemen one of which flagged us down when he saw us circle a block and kindly pointed us in the direction of Elbasan) and half built new roads abruptly ending and veering back onto country roads.

Interesting roads in Albania

Also, and more importantly, however difficult for the people who live in Albania. The land does not look as fertile as in Croatia, Bosnia and Montenegro somehow, mining has left its scars on the landscape and now, as always I am sure, people work the land amongst these industrial skeletons and in the steep valleys.

industrial albania

rural Albania

Up and over hills towards the Macedonia border and the Lake Ohrid at Pogradec, we hoped it didn’t live up to it’s name (‘Horrid’!).  Our map showed a few campsites scattered along the waters edge on the Albanian side so that was our destination for the evening. There were a few campsites, two of them looking abandoned by the roadside but each with one lonely tent pitched by the lake and with an Albanian car beside.

Stunning Albanian landscape

We choose a large house above the lake which promised restaurant and camping though not a soul in sight. Tentatively we approached and Tony and his son emerged from the terrace. They spoke a little English and I had now figured out please, thank-you, beer and wine in Albanian so between us we figured out a great camping space in his steep, terraced garden with a view out to the lake and Macedonia beyond and that he could provide dinner later too.

Camp site with view in Albanian hills Lake Ohrid

As we had beers watching the sun going down Tony came to chat, he told he had been building this place for 15 years and only just opened the restaurant last year. In between he had lived and worked in the US for a while always with the intention to return to his Albania. He seemed sad and frustrated yet extremely proud of what he has accomplished so far. I do this for me and my family and because I love Albania, I want it to be better, it is a great place for tourists I think. I build this, I earn money without help from the government, I pay my taxes because I know we need roads. But…. he shrugged his shoulders and waved his hands agitatedly at the beautifully smooth tarmac of the half built road passing his restaurant…give me my road!

When we asked how was business he told us that he has many regular customers from Macedonia they come for the day, eat his fish, and enjoy the lake because it is cheap and quiet and then go home again. It’s ok he said.

We ate his fish too, Koran fresh from the lake perfectly seasoned and grilled with other traditional Albanian food from his family recipe book such as local speciality Fergese (a dish of baked liver, tomato and cheese) both were amazing along with home fried potatoes (proper hand cut chips just like our mum’s used to make we said – yum!). I’m pleased to say we were joined by many others who did the same and snook out to enjoy the night sky in the peace and quiet by the van.

Wonderful dinner in Albania

The following morning after a drive through the hills, coffee in Korçë waiting for the banks to open so that we could change our LEK to Euro we were well on the way to Greece by mid morning.

Intriguing Albania

A strange experience at the border; joining the back of a long line of Greek and Albanian cars, we sat patiently, however lots of the others waiting kept gesturing to us ‘England? – shoosh round!’ they said. Embarrassed and feeling exposed I wandered up to the border police office and explained we’d been told we were in the wrong queue, ‘why?’ the policeman asked, because we’re English I said feeling extremely daft, ah yes you need to come to the front (passing at least 30 cars) move the barrier and go round the outside to the empty lane. After an hour long wait at the Bosnian border and several hours drive still ahead we hated ourselves and felt extremely uncomfortable but followed the instructions and flew through the border crossing into Greece in minutes sad and relieved to be leaving Albania behind.

Albanian shepherd