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Croatia to Albania Overland

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Rebekah Joy
Rebekah Joy

Whilst bored and poor in London (frequently poor not often bored), I planned a trip to the continent. This working holiday maker was running out of time. How could I do the most possible for the least amount of money? I trawled the net, scoured the travel shops and finally came up with a rough plan. Using I found a flight from London Stansted to Zadar (Croatia) for 15 pounds including taxes. Brilliant, bargain...getting there was no problem, the train to Stansted was more than the flight to Croatia but that’s British public transport for you. My problem was how to get from Croatia to anywhere else? The internet had very limited information when it came to border crossings in Eastern Europe. Was it possible to go Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, Greece, Turkey and finally Bulgaria? The Lonely Planet had nothing and library books were patchy, was it possible to just go and risk it?

It was, we did it and here is how.
After exploring Croatia from top to bottom (one of the most beautiful place in the world) we took the bus over the boarder to Montenegro. Don’t ask the Croatians about it, there’s some bad blood there. From the boarder the bus winds its way through beautiful countryside to the ancient walled city of Kotor. Play your cards right and you could stop here for a few hours before catching the next bus to Budva. Kotor is UNESCO protected and located beneath the foothills of Mt. Lovcen. Surrounded by the southernmost fjord in Europe it was built between the 12th and 14th centuries. It’s something worth seeing (before you get tired of stunning ancient walled cities), and its very different from Eketahuna or Ashburton.  Choose to stay the night or catch the next bus to Budva, (not to be confused with Budvar beer). We took the later and went to Budva.
Budva is a beautiful, almost comical, ancient walled city that juts out into the stunning Mediterranean. The architecture is splendid, the people a mixture of big hair and hot pants…this is an ancient civilization stuck in a bad disco. We passed a souvenir stall of china cats and nick knacks made from seashells, ate cheap hotdogs and watched men in tight Speedos strutting their stuff. Budva is really worth seeing for the juxtaposition of old and new. Ramble about the walled city, eat a pizza, listen to loud disco music reverberating from the walls. We found it slightly more expensive than Croatia, probably because there are less tourists. Because we were on a budget and had a tent (bad idea camping in Eastern Europe really, it’s much cheaper and way more interesting to stay in peoples house or SOBE) we decided to camp.
At the first camping spot we went to (as discovered in the lonely planet) we found the manager waxing his handlebar moustache. He had just shot a blackbird from a tree. It lay bleeding at our feet as we enquired about the prices. There was nobody else staying there, the grass grew thigh high. We managed to find another camping spot in-between some roadwork’s and the beach. The other campers consisted of a local family in caravans with no wheels. I slept with a knife beneath my pillow.
Now the Brits rave about Montenegro, think its fabulous...maybe its because they are on the pound and staying at nice resorts (of which there are supposed to be quite a few).....we got to see a strange side of it and I don’t mind admitting, I didn’t get much sleep. Dont get me wrong, it is beautiful, but maybe not the best place for camping. We headed out the next day from the bus stop to the border town of Ulchinj.  This is where it starts getting patchy. There is (or was two years ago) no information for the boarder crossing. Some people shrug their shoulders and walk away, some say there is a bus, some say you have to go by taxi. Either way you got to stay a night in Ulchinj, which also has a walled city perched on a dramatic cliff face. Just pound the streets with your backpack, look lost and confused and somebody will ask you to come and stay at their house for a small fee. I think we paid about 7 euros for two at a nice families house. At 6am the next morning we took a mini-van from Ulchinj to the border town of Albania. Could we cross? Who knew. Did we need visas? Didn’t know. But we’d come this far, our sense of adventure was strong, we had to give it a try.
In the end the border crossing was relatively simple. Pass your passport over at the checkpoint (be prepared for some head scratching at a New Zealand passport) have your vehicle searched and pay over the visa fee. At 7.30am we were allowed to stretch our legs. Montenegro was to the left of us, Albania to the right. My boyfriend smoked a cigarette in the middle while we watched a bunch of donkeys. We are then allowed to pass through to the boarder town of Shkoder on the Albanian side. If you haven’t guessed already, Albania is the last frontier of undiscovered Europe. It was full of donkeys, carts, dirt roads and old cars. This was once communist Europe. They used to make you shave at the boarder before entering. Albanians casually strolled by beneath the morning sun, some rode bicycles, farmers worked their fields with hand tools. There weren’t many other cars around. We barely had time to stretch our legs before we were ushered onto a bus to the capital of Tirana. There weren’t enough seats on the bus, so we had to sit on plastic stools on the isle. The usher wanted to charge us extra for being foreigners, but we pretended not to understand. Two snickering nomad-types spied my purse and started a weird gibberish. My boyfriend glared at them and they lost interest.
We finally got to Tirana, with two heavy bags and not half a clue. We read the brief bit of information about the place in the Lonely Planet. It gave directions to the bus stop. We trekked across the hot dusty city for 90 minutes to find the buses that leave south. Old men played chess in the street, people eyed us curiously. There were supposedly two stations, one for south bound, one for north.  Somebody told us the southern bound bus station no longer existed. We sunk down outside a laundrette and played cards, the proprietor bought us water. The people seemed friendly, but shy. The proprietor wanted to learn English but didn’t know how. We found an Albanian policeman. He told us he couldn’t read maps, nowhere accepted our Euros. Somebody found us who could speak English and directed us to a street with no signs, no terminals, no people. But we could catch a bus there. Any bus would do, they were all heading south. We took one as far as it went, a town called Gjirokastër.
All along the winding mountains we saw half built buildings, deserted bunkers and women selling cherries.  This was scenery unlike no other. The bus eventually broke down on top of a dusty peak. The bus driver arranged for a pink Mercedes to come and pick us up free of charge. All the locals were left on the mountain. We indicated to the driver that we wanted some accommodation. He asked a stranger in the town if we could stay at his house. We ended up eating pizza and staying the night in a ghetto full of fireflies. The pizza there was fantastic and cheap. The next day we took another bus to the seaside town of Saranda 61km south-west from Gjirokastër. There was a ferry leaving for Corfu with our names on it. We went to the office to ask about times and prices.
As it turns out, there were no official timetables, but we were told they generally leave between 8 am and 10 am daily and between 2 pm and 4 pm in the afternoon if the weather was fine. We were told that the journey takes about 1 hour and 40 minutes. A single ticket cost about €15. We waited until our names were called. The official Albanian customs officer eyed us suspiciously. You are supposed to pay an exit fee of €10 but he forgot to ask and it didn’t matter. I wished we could have longer in Albania, the country is interesting, but at the time there wasn’t much information and time was running out, we were on our way to Greece.

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