The wheels of the bus squeak as the bus slows down, and the engine sputters to a halt on the side of the road. The driver rolls down the passenger side window, and a man walks up and starts talking to the co-pilot.
After a few seconds of muffled talking and hand gesturing, the door opens, and the man climbs on board. He's holding a blue duffel bag, the top unzipped and slightly ajar, and three giant plastic jugs containing some opaque liquid are visible.
Before the man finds a seat, the bus door closes, and the engine starts growling again as it makes its way south toward Gjirokaster.
This happens again.
Albania is a relatively small country, the 18th smallest in Europe, according to some website called worlddata.info. But the country's landmass is roughly 75% mountains and has about 269 kilometers of coastline along the Adriatic and Ionian Seas.
That is to say, Albania is dramatically beautiful.
But unlike most of Europe, Albania doesn't have a central rail system to whisk you from place to place. So how is one to get around this stunning country? Sure, you could rent a car. But before you do, just remember that Albania has a significant Italian and Greek influence - the handling of motorized vehicles is no exception.
So that leaves buses.
At first, the bus system in Albania may seem daunting. You will find very little information online about bus stations, routes, or timetables across the country. If anything, you'll find some old blogs and tour websites that might be helpful but won't quite give you the information you're looking for. And you can forget about using any apps or websites to book a ticket.
Adding to the confusion, each city has its own flavor of what a bus station looks like.
In Tirana, there are a few, but the central bus station is less of a bus station and more of an enormous parking lot full of varying-sized buses. Each bus displays a small paper sign on the front of the windshield with big, bold letters letting you know where they're headed. Berat? Durrës? Gjirokaster? Shkodër? Wherever you're going in Albania, there's a bus for you.
But that is the Tirana bus station, which is, by most measures, the most organized in Albania. In Shkodër, the buses line up on various streets throughout the city, depending on where you're going - you just have to know where to find them. In Berat, there is a small parking lot outside the city. In Gjirokaster, the buses line up near gas stations at the bottom of the hill, quite far from the old town.
Your best bet is to ask your hotel/hostel/Airbnb host if they know when and where the buses leave from. Even then, they might respond with a shrug.
Normally once you're on the bus, you'd assume the journey would start. But that's not always the case. Sometimes if the bus isn't full, they'll delay until enough people are on board, ostensibly tilting the cost equation more in their favor. So even if you find some timetables somewhere, they're often merely approximations.
But eventually the bus does start, and you're on your way.
Within a few minutes on the bus, you'll quickly realize just how informal Albania's economy is. Remember the duffel bag man from the beginning? Yeah, let me tell you, it's pretty damn informal.
Every few minutes, men and women will flag down the bus and hop on board bearing goods like jugs of olive oil, wine, or packages clearly being transported for some commercial purposes. Occasionally, the driver will just be handed parcels through the window that you can only assume are drugs. The buses in Albania act as a tourist shuttle, a local shuttle, and a courier service.
At first, it's easy to get frustrated by the frequent roadside rendevous to pick up the bus driver's cousin Mateo. Your very formalized western inclinations are to say, "hey, I paid for this bus ticket to get me to Berat, let's fucking get there!"
But if you look closer, there is an efficiency to the system. Sure, the duffel bag man was picked up in the middle of a busy road, and who knows where he came from, but from when it took for the bus to drop and start up again, maybe 30 seconds went by?
Oh, and if along the way, the bus driver picks up more passersby than seats available on the bus, they're more than happy to whip out some plastic stools for folks to sit on in the middle of the aisle.
The informality can also work in your favor. Say you're on a three-hour drive from Tirana to Berat, and halfway through you need a bathroom. One quick conversation through Google Translate, and the bus driver is more than happy to pull over at the nearest gas station and let you out. This is, of course, purely hypothetical and definitely not from personal experience.
In any case, self-serving inclinations quickly disappear as you drive through the beautiful countryside. After a few minutes of peering out the window at snow-capped mountains and milky blue rivers, you settle into the cacophony of the Albanian bus ride. You start to feel the rhythm and appreciate the smell of stale cigarette smoke baked into 30-year-old polyester upholstery.
To know the Albanian bus system is to know Albania. Are there problems? Most definitely. But there's also a soul, an unspoiled charm and romanticism that is too often disregarded for a false sense of efficiency or progress.
At some point, this bus system is going to be more digital. It's inevitable. The writing is on the wall. The impending tourism boom will all but demand an app or the ability to book a ticket on some platform like Omio. When that time comes, I will lament it. We'll have lost something.
Are the trains and various transportation systems found in most of Western Europe more efficient and easier to navigate? Is booking a ticket online and downloading it on your phone easier? Is knowing precisely when and where to catch your bus more convenient? Absolutely. But where's the fun in that?
I'll admit that this sentiment is probably some wistful naivety of someone becoming more curmudgeonly with each passing day. But in the chaotic journey that is an Albania bus ride, there's something worth holding on to.
Some Useful Information
Since I doubt you wanted 1,000 words on the Albanian bus system, I figured I'd leave you with some moderately helpful information if you feel inspired to take a trip to Albania.
The prices for various bus trips across Albania in January 2023 were:
- Tirana - Shkodër: 500 Lek
- Tirana - Berat: 800 Lek
- Berat - Gjirokaster: 1200 Lek
- Gjirokaster - Tirana: 1200 Lek
And always keep cash on hand.