A Brief Outline of Public Transport in Albania

Albania has many wonderful things to offer the traveler—fascinating people, remote mountain valleys, unspoiled beaches, delicious food—but a sane public transport system is ruefully not amongst these things. By far the easiest1 way to explore Albania is with your own car, but this isn’t an option for everyone. For those setting off without their own locomotion, there are three ways of getting around: furgons (minibuses), buses, and trains.

Furgons

Furgons are small, privately operated minibuses, usually carrying between 8 and 20 passengers.2— they can be thought of as long-distance group taxis. They offer nothing in the way of a schedule, organization, comfort, or safety. But they happen to be the most commonly used, fastest, and generally most convenient way of making your way around the country.

The most difficult part of riding a furgon is deciding where to find one. Furgons departing from one city to another typically have a set gathering location on a certain street corner or intersection. Unfortunately for you, these locations are a secret bit of vernacular knowledge on which it is exceedingly difficult to obtain reliable information. In general, furgons tend to depart from the outskirts of a city on the road leading towards the destination city. In smaller cities, many furgons will cluster together in a market square. In Tiranë, there are scores of furgon departure locations. A user-curated list of furgon departures is located here; if this doesn’t work, you can try asking a local Ku niset furgoni për [destination city]? or, barring this, say ‘furgon’ and your destination city and make the universal gesture of confused enquiry. If they fail to answer, it may not be because of your poor language—they may have no idea of the answer.3 If they do know where to find them, chances are they’ll insist on taking you there personally. The majority of furgons advertise their destination with a marquee in the windshield. Furgons also stop anywhere and everywhere between their origin and destination. So, for example, if you want to go to Pogradec, you can get on a Korçë-bound furgon, and ask to get off as it passes through Pogradec.

Like departure locations, schedules are also difficult to come by. Generally, the earlier you start, the more luck you’ll have. Long-distance trips, like those between Tiranë and Bajram Curri, generally begin at 5 or 6 in the morning and have all departed by 10. Outside of the most major routes, very few furgons depart after 2 or 3 in the afternoon. And even the Durrës-Tiranë route is generally finished by 9 in the evening.

Once you find the specified location, it’s time to shift into strategic mode. For major routes, you’ll find a gaggle of furgons at various stages of departure. Drivers usually refuse to leave until their furgon is full, and so as soon as they see a foreigner with a backpack, they will all try to escort you to their vehicle. Resist! Pretend you’re on the phone, ignore them, and otherwise stall until you can figure out which furgon is the closest to being full, and get on that one. If you don’t, you may end up waiting several hours for an empty furgon to fill up. You can also be choosy about which furgons look comfortable or have drivers who aren’t visibly lacquered off of their morning raki. It’s also worth checking to see if the furgon bears the government vignette in the windshield.

You don’t pay for a furgon until you get off, but it’s worth asking for the price ahead of time. If you’re uncomfortable with the language, have them write it down for you. While Albanians are by-and-large honest dealers with tourists, furgon drivers have a tendency towards unscrupulousness. If they quote a price which is absurdly above those listed on the spreadsheet, refuse to pay it.

My preference for seating on a furgon has always been wherever I can get closest to the middle, so that if the driver plows into a bridge pylon, donkey, another fugon, or 100-meter-deep ravine, I can maximize my chances of escaping unscathed. Others prefer the window to ameliorate the scent of the more malodorous fellow-travelers. If you are on a longer journey, you will almost certainly make a ‘pilaf stop’4 at a roadside restaurant where you can buy food, snacks, use the bathroom, and contemplate how long it would take your home embassy to find you if the furgon plunged off the cliff that drops off immediately from the road’s edge.

If you are planning to get off before the final destination, tell the driver Unë dua të zbres këtu when you arrive at your intended stop.5 Pay the driver and leave. If you are staying with the furgon until its end, you may find that in larger cities it stops once at the outskirts and then again closer to the center. A good technique to avoid being taken advantage of is to watch closely what others are paying, and make sure you pay the same as them. If you have exact change, hand it over, and leave before you can be extorted.

Buses

Buses are essentially bigger, slower, cheaper, and slightly more reliable furgons. They leave according to a schedule—though what exactly constitutes this schedule can be a mystery. Buses leaving from Tiranë invariably stop every 100 meters on the road out of the city to pick up villagers. The only procedural difference from a furgon is that on buses, you typically pay en route. Someone will come up the aisles; tell them your destination and pay them. It’s worth listening and watching to what others are paying.

Trains

Guidebooks and locals have many colorful stories to tell about the novelty that is Hekurudha Shqiptarë (Albanian Railways). Contrary to some of the most prohibitive warnings, the train system is not dangerous, nor is it packed with criminals.6 In fact, some of the cars are quite comfortable in a nineteenth-century sort of way, replete with old pen-and-ink drawings of local attractions. The system is, however, unbearably slow and infrequent. It is to be used only by those for whom the eccentricities of Europe’s strangest rail system offer a bizarre charm. A system map may be found here.

Other modes of transport

Some intrepid folks have taken bicycle journeys in Albania; I can say nothing on the matter other than I imagine it to be a strange mix of beauty and personal hazard. Of hitch-hiking, however, I can say more positive things, and indeed it became my major method of getting around in the latter half of my stay. Albanians tend to be amused and perplexed by foreigners walking on highways with backpacks, and generally want to pick them up. However, I would suggest against hitch-hiking unless you have a working knowledge of the Albanian language.



Notes

1 It is easiest insofar as you can go where and when you want, but your car’s shock absorbers and tires will probably find the parlous Albanian road network anything but easy.

2 Note that the number of seats physically available on a furgon is rarely the same as the number of passengers actually taken on; profit-maximizing furgon drivers have a miraculous ability of berthing passengers on stools, in cargo areas, on laps, and hanging off fenders.

3 Locals will typically know the departing locations for furgons to the major cities, as well as the two or three cities where they have close relatives, and absolutely no others.

4 Or two, or three, or four.

5 Flailing your arms and shouting “stop!” works, too.

6 The biggest threat is from local children hurling rocks at the passing train cars.

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