The Once Car-Free Land Where Mercedes is Now King
By Andy Bannister
On my recent visit to the western Balkans I had the opportunity to cross into the mysterious land of Albania, a country where until 1990 ownership of private cars was completely banned.
Alas for Albania, which got the roughest deal of any of the East European states during the painful communist era which started after the Second World War. The country’s paranoid dictator, Enver Hoxha, was so extreme he even cut his countrymen off from contact with countries like Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, which he considered had betrayed the true principles of Marxism-Leninism.
This legacy is immediately evident on crossing the frontier – the otherwise flat road breaks into a series of gentle zig-zags every few yards, as a cunning plan to stop imperialist aircraft landing on the decrepit highways of the workers’ paradise. Dotted everywhere are strange little concrete pill-boxes, which were to be the first line of defence for an invasion.
Hoxha’s rule was absolute law and for a time made Albania into the world’s first officially atheist state – in the city of Shkodra, for example, the Catholic cathedral (now restored) was turned into a volleyball stadium, with religious paintings systematically desecrated and concrete seating installed in the middle of the building.
So little used was it until recently that the road from south west Montenegro into Albania is still little more than a narrow country lane, its most imposing feature being the gleaming frontier post which appears to be the only new building put up in this barren piece of earth for many a long age.
Nearly 20 years have passed since the end of Albania’s dreadful isolation. The deadly electrified fence which straddled mountain tops along the border has long since been dismantled, together with the motion sensors which once prevented any hope of escape via lakes or the sea, but this remains a country which stands apart from the rest of Europe.
Whereas once only the party elite had access to a car, they are now seemingly everywhere, and paradoxically most are of relatively modern origin. Unlike most of the former socialist countries, where for years buyers could choose from a limited range of Eastern Bloc products by the likes of Lada, Zastava, Skoda, Wartburg, Moskvich and the rest, these relics from the Cold War simply don’t exist in Albania.
In the bad old days people needed a permit simply to travel out of their own immediate area, and the regime spent every penny it had on protecting the proletarian fatherland from a largely imaginary enemy, so highway building just wasn’t on the agenda, nor were road signs and traffic control measures.
Nowadays, everyone who can afford a car – by fair means or foul – wants to get on the road. You’d imagine, therefore, that Albania would be fertile ground for those low-cost Chinese imports we used to hear were about to swamp world markets.
Apart from a few oriental vans I spotted, nothing could be further from the truth. An Albanian doesn’t just want any car; it almost inevitably has to be a German one, and the three-pointed star of Mercedes-Benz is by far the national favourite.
Given the fairly dire state of the country’s neglected and inadequate roads, the reputation for indestructibility of the average big Mercedes saloon is one obvious reason for this choice. It must also be down to the car’s image as a symbol of capitalism and economic success.
There’s an old joke circulating in some parts of Europe – “Come on holiday to Albania – your car is already here” and there’s probably some truth in this, or at least there was in the more anarchic days after the end of communism, when stolen cars from places like Germany, Holland and Belgium often took the long route to the Balkans to begin a strange new life.
On a previous visit to the south of Albania a few years ago I vividly remember seeing used but unregistered Mercedes saloons speeding off boats from Italy and taking the road to the hills. Clearly things have moved on since then and today all cars carry proper Albanian registration plates with the black eagle on red background – the country’s distinctive national flag.
There are certainly signs, too, of modern infrastructure being put in place. The road from Montenegro to the Albanian city of Shkodra (known in history to English speakers as Scutari) currently utilises a single-track bridge built by an Austro-Hungarian army way back in 1911, when the city was still a beleaguered outpost of Ottoman Turkey. Downstream, a futuristic new bridge is taking shape, costing some 6 million Euros.
Under the old dictatorship, police were feared and to be avoided at all cost, but today’s Albanian police force are kept busy just dealing with traffic offences.
On the last visit I made, fuel was being sold by the side of the road in decidedly dodgy-looking water bottles, where now there are proper Albanian filling stations with rather odd brand names like Ada and Kastrati, and even convenience stores attached. A common complaint is that diesel fuel in the country is even more expensive than in Western Europe.
Despite this, there are no shortage of big and very obviously gas-guzzling cars – as well as the aforementioned Mercedes, I also clocked some non-German vehicles which are an unusual sight on European roads anywhere, including a full-size GMC Pick-up and even the odd Hummer.
Having thrown off the yoke of dictatorship and survived the last few years, young people in Albania are understandably optimistic about their future, and hope one day to emulate the European Union membership aspirations of the countries of former Yugoslavia.
An awful lot remains to be fixed in this still-broken country, and the gap between rich and poor is more tangible than nearly anywhere I’ve visited before, but in spite of this I came away with the impression that the Albanians are on the road – quite literally – to a brighter future.
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