The family and I spent a couple weeks out and about. It was pretty fun - and a little stressful at a couple points. The stress parts were due to our ignorance mostly.
July 12th we drove from our home near Budapest down to Tetovo, Macedonia where we spent the night. Tetovo was a bigger place than I anticipated and I did not know it's inhabitants are mostly Albanian and Muslim. So when we rolled into town around 9 pm it was super busy as the sun had gone down and folks were out and about. It was a lot of fun. We had a light dinner and crashed as we were hitting the road again the next day.
Oh - when we crossed the border into Serbia they gave us a flyer encouraging us to drive safely. That's the first time I've seen that and I thought it was smart. I don't know if it helps but it seems worth making the effort.
We left Macedonia in the morning, on our way to meet friends in Tirana, Albania. All our driving to this point had been on good motorways. As we got closer to the Albanian border it switched. I was following the GPS and we'd never driven this way before. Our Garmin and my lack of familiarity with driving outside EU/Schengen were about to make the day interesting. The first wrinkle came as we were winding our way through the mountains - I looked at our track and realized we weren't doing what I'd seen when I'd previously looked over the route on google maps. We'd swung north when I thought we'd head south. I called my buddy in Tirana, but just as I started talking to him we rolled into the border crossing. So I got off the phone and told him I'd call him back once we were through into Albania.
The Macedonian border guard took our passports and car papers. He asked for our "green paper" and I said, "You have it there." I thought he meant our vehicle registration. What he actually meant was our insurance paperwork for the car. I had a paper proving I had paid for insurance but the not green paper showing what countries they covered. I had until this point never known we had or would need such a thing. (Being an American with little experience driving about here bites me in the butt on occasion. I'm learning slowly.) He said, "Well, we don't know what we are going to do with you. You should not have been allowed into Macedonia, you shouldn't have been driving around in our country without proper insurance." So it was a little tense for a while as we waited and a few men conferred. This guy was rather imposing and took some time to shout at some Albanians for a while who were coming into Macedonia. Finally he said, "We are just going to let you go. You are leaving, so you can't have problems here now. But this is a once in a lifetime, never again thing. When you get to the Albanian crossing they will make you buy insurance." We were just relieved to get going and we moved ahead to the Albanian side. They didn't ask or say anything about the insurance, so we were good.
Once I got through all that I called my friend back. He said, "You went the wrong way and you need to turn around and go back." I said, "I really don't want to try to go back into Macedonia. I feel fortunate to just have gotten out without any trouble." He said, "Well you are on a bad road and it is going to take you a lot longer."
He was right and it probably added 3 hours or so onto our trip to Tirana. The Garmin didn't have correct data to differentiate between different roads. What we were on was rough but it kept wanting me to turn onto stuff that was completely impassable in our Avensis. So we stopped occasionally to ask for directions. We stopped occasionally for sheep and cows too. The scenery was stunning. We were in the mountains and saw beautiful rivers, farms and lakes. It was just very, very slow.
We made it to Tirana and driving around in that city made me yearn for the country roads. It was an insane free for all of traffic. The city population has outgrown the infrastructure and it was like muscling yourself through a packed crowd in a club - but behind the wheel. Fortunately after meeting our friends and getting a quick lunch we were on our way down to Vlora.
Vlora is south, on the coast. Driving continued to be a bit crazy but when we got to our hotel the scenery was just breathtaking. We loved it. We were there a week, tutoring Albanian students in English. It was a blast. I'm a pretty reserved guy. My wife was thrilled when we learned to dance in traditional Albanian style and danced together for the first time since our wedding. (The first and only time I've ever danced prior to this trip.) The students were mostly university students from the area, with a few highschool students mixed in. They were a blast. When the young guys found out I worked in IT they would always ask me if I "hack". It was pretty funny. They weren't using it in the positive sense at all and I always laughed and told them I spend some amount of time working on not being hacked rather than trying to hack others.
The food was good, the music was good, the scenery was stunning and it was just a super pleasant time. I like the Albanians relaxed take on time. I never felt like I was in a rush. I also had a friend back in Hungary get the insurance papers I needed and he emailed me a copy of them and I printed that out.
When we were done, rather than going home the way we came we took a ferry from Vlora to Brindisi, Italy. We drove from Brindisi to Pompei. It was beautiful countryside and my first visit to Italy. It was amazing and I had to be careful to keep my eyes on the road. We spent the better part of a day touring the ruins of Pompeii. The next day we went to the top of Mount Vesuvius. We went right from there up to Florence. (We didn't have a lot of time before I needed to get back to work.) We didn't scratch the surface of Florence but walked around to a lot of the more popular sites, visited the DaVinci museum and the Academia museum. We were there two nights and then we drove back home. It's about 10 hours from Florence to where we live. How close things are in Europe still blows my mind, especially when I actually experience it.
I don't know if my kids really appreciate how fortunate they are to get to see and experience all of this. My son's favorite part of the whole trip was looking for cool rocks on Mount Vesuvius. I think he gets burned out pretty quickly on looking at old churches and statues. My wife and I though, we were just in awe for almost all the time we were gone.
We were in down town Budapest this last week-end. (Not many people out - maybe because it was crazy hot or maybe everyone was up at the Hungaroring track, either way it was fun to have so few tourists around on a summer day.) And I have to confess, having visited Florence has tempered some of my view of the city. Which bothers me a little. But Florence was just so crazy amazing. And I love Budapest but man. It gives me interesting stuff to think about anyway.
I'm back in my office. We wont go anywhere for a bit. In September I'll be back in Albania but that will be a short trip to train some people. And we have so many, many places we still need to see but a part of me just wants to go back to Italy and see all the other things we haven't seen yet. Though I think our next family trip will be to Germany. We still haven't visited my mother-in-law's home town there. My wife really wants to do that and so do I. And while I love the Mediterranean flare for life and food, I look forward to the German approach to driving.