We’ve spent a few weeks in the Balkans, and bus travel has, surprisingly, been a predictable, enjoyable and affordable affair. That’s exactly what you want to hear when you’re travelling in countries where you don’t speak the local language. Even if there is some conflicting information about a timetable, or you’re attempting to make an irregular connection (like getting to mountain-top Macedonian Krusevo from Lake Ohrid), a short trip to the bus station and chatting to the youngest clerk will have you sorted in no time.
Unless the journey you’re trying to make involves Albania.
Albania is a notorious black-hole of public transport knowledge. Perhaps as a result of being a fiercely inward-focused nation for decades, and only opening up to the outside world since the mid 1990’s, the transport industry is shambolic by the standards of many other nations.
We approached a travel agent who offered us a clean, modern mini-van for €35 per person, leaving Ohrid at the ghastly hour of 5am. €35 is pretty much what we spent on public buses for the Balkan leg of our trip so far. Besides, no one wants to get up before 5am (definitely no Macedonian’s we had met) so we figured there must be a better way.
Step 1: Ohrid to Struga, Cost: 40MKD (€0.60)
The buses leave every 15 minutes from Ohrid to Struga, and takes about 20 minutes. It leaves diagonally opposite from the main bank in the centre. They’re public mini-buses who stop when you wave them down. The route is in the windscreen and written in Cyrillic, but it’s easy to figure out - enough letters are shared with English.
The bus stops frequently through Ohrid, even going past the main bus station (but not inside), picking up and dropping off middle-aged women looking their finest, ready for their big day out. We got on one around 8am to make a 9:30am connection in Struga. You’ll know when you have arrived in Struga - it’s much more dilapidated than pretty little Ohrid. We got off at the canal - this isn’t where the bus terminates, but it seemed closest on the map as to where to go next.
Now it’s about a 5-10 minute walk to Struga bus terminal itself. It’s behind the industrial area, and yes, you’ll have to walk along the highway (good practice for your time in Albania). Keep going - it really is a bus terminal and not a wrecking yard/industrial waste disposal area/Berlin-style nightclub.
You’ll even go past a bunch of taxi-drivers. Wave hello and say 'Moeto letačko vozilo e polno so jaguli'.
Step 2: From Struga to Tirana
Walk up to the youngest person at the counter and order your ticket. Just don’t ask her too many questions (she’ll have a little plastic window that she’ll shut to let you know you’re asking too many damn questions!)
The bus leaves at 9:30am and 12:30pm and costs 660MKD (€10.70) per person. It comes from Shkup beforehand, and may be delayed - ours arrived about 10am, and left from Platform 2, which you get to from inside the ticket building.
There is a lot of information online about how horrible this road was, but it’s fine now - it’s very windy, but newly paved and very scenic. Particularly nice is just after the border crossing into Albania - there are a plethora of bunkers guarding the top, and the views into the valley below are beautiful. The route will go via Elbasan (where lots of tourists got off), Durres (where no one got off) and Tirana (where we got off) and continues onward. We stopped twice for food/toilet breaks, and the journey took us 5 and a half hours.
You’ll get dropped off somewhere in Tirana, probably near the main square. It’s about 3:30pm now. Good work. You’re ready for Step 3.
Step 3: From Tirana to Vlore
Welcome to Tirana. There isn’t a main bus station. There aren’t regular bus routes. There may be a schedule online somewhere, but it’ll be loosely interpreted (like a piece of modern art). There IS a main bus station being built, but we were told it may be completed some time in 2017. ‘May be’ being key takeaway here.
This is the way it works - mini-buses (furgon) wait in a side-street off a main road (usually near bigger intersections), and have a destination in mind. They wait until the mini-bus has enough people, and they head off. There is usually a fat man standing on the main road, who’ll probably point at you and shout ‘tourist!’ - that’s how you’ll know a mini-bus is lurking around the corner.
So how do you know which mini bus goes where? And where to find the one you want? Chat to any mini-bus - they have mobile phones and all know each other. We lucked out and had two amazingly helpful local guys actually take 2 bus routes with us to get us to our mini-bus.
The mini-bus drivers probably won’t speak English, but the non-schedule is a part of Albanian culture which everyone knows is confusing, so find a local to help you out - or ask in a hotel if you find one.
Our mini-bus was filled in about 30 minutes, and I suspect these drivers have their fingers in many pies. Ours involved a trip through an industrial lot to pickup an air conditioning unit. We amused ourselves for 30 minutes as the driver kept trying to fit as many things under the seats as possible. Later on, we took another detour through a small town to drop some money and a mobile phone to a teenage boy who ran up to drivers side window. Rightio.
But we made it in the end - we were dropped off in Vlore, by the main Mosque in the middle of town. The journey took about 2 hours, and cost 700ALL, or €4.9 per person.
So we could of had a private mini-bus the whole way for €35, but for €16.20 we had a far more enjoyable adventure, catching a slice of Albanian (and Macedonian) life in all its unpredictability. Most importantly though, it forced us to chat to Albanian people, to find out how things worked. Each person was warm, friendly, and eager to help. From the lady who left her paying customer at the counter, to walk onto the street and point us in the right direction, to the two guys who travelled with us on the bus and then hung around until our mini-bus departed, travelling thorough the Balkans has been an awesome experience so far.
EMMA & PETE
We're just two Aussie's who met in London, married in Prague and travelled overland back to Australia.