Nelson's Balkan Campaign: Athens to TiranaS

For once on the Gumball, I woke up in a bed. After a long day's journey into night and Athens, Herr Roy decided he wanted to be as close as possible to the M5 and booked a block of rooms at the Sofitel in Athens, rather than taking his room at the Hilton. A French cameraman was booked into the M5 for the day, riding rear-seat shotgun next to a spare wheel and Ross and Roy's excess baggage. Alex texted me to invite me down for breakfast with Fly and Jarod DeAnda. The morning was quiet and jovial, highlighted by Alex and I engaging in an impromptu game of Star Wars trivia one-upmanship that left Fly and Jarod gobsmacked at the sheer geekery. Then the text came in: the cars were ready to go.


We bolted for the rooms to pack. Alex had been requested to take Julie D., the on-the-ground French go-to girl to Tirana for a meeting with the Albanian president, who was reportedly hopping mad about the rally's delay. Then word came down that there was only one sheet of paper to get the non-EU cars out of Greece and into Macedonia. Julie was shuffled into another car. I ended up in a Sharan for the second day in a row. Most of the cars had fled the parking lot by the time we figured out how to divide up all of the gear in the Sharans to accomodate the necessary five passengers in each vehicle. I ended up with a snowboard for an armrest.

Meanwhile, a lone F430 sat in the parking lot, having been offloaded from the Antonov and parked, but missing its crew. They showed up right as we departed and followed us to the nearest Shell station, where we loaded up on goods and engaged in the first battle of what became known as Crewball 3000, making sure we found and pulled into the first diesel pump available.

At the fuel stop, I got to know the crew, headed by Nelson, a level-headed, no-bullshit Kiwi who'd owned multiple Mitsubishi Evos. We quickly dubbed the rest of the guys in the car Mandela, Ricky and Lord, while I ended up with the appelation of Horatio. Little did we know that a few hours later, our Crewball successes would be rendered as unfortunate as the Battle of Trafalgar was for the famed British Admiral.

With the Fezza guys in tow, we promptly got lost on our way to the tollway, but eventually figured out what we thought was roughly the right direction to Tirana. Meanwhile, the Ferrari guys had decided we were complete tools and went their own way. Pulling up a tollboth, we asked the super-pretty attendant with the tiny little diamond stud in her nose and the bright blue eyes how to get to Albania. She told us Exit 8 was the way to go, and we put our faith in that hottest toll attendant in recorded history. She did us proud, and once out of Athens we pushed the Sharan to 1.23 Fly, marvelling at the rolling, well-maintained roads with long sweepers, gradual-but-dramatic elevation changes, and simply brain-melting scenery. We all remarked that it was absolute supercar heaven; the perfect place to wring out an SLR or a Ford GT.

A couple of hours out of Athens, Nelson called out "Chivvy!" I didn't get what he was talking about. "The orange Chivvy!" he repeated. We'd come up on the '55 Chevrolet rolling on meth-addled Center Lines. We went by them as they cruised at a steady 80, taking it easy due to cooling problems. Just ahead, we pulled up behind a Mercedes SLR and a Carrera GT that would suffer an untimely end on the road to Bratislava. We relieved ourselves on the side of the road, shared some smokes and in due time, a certained mid-engined child of Enzo rolled up. The look on their faces was crestfallen. They couldn't believe that a Volkswagen people-carrier built in Portugal, loaded down with five corndogs and a ton of gear could have possibly been ahead of their Maranello-crafted machine of the highest order.

We, on the other hand, couldn't believe those schmoes were so entirely inept at navigation. Team Polizei, for example, was already in Albania before we left the Athens city limits. Giggles ensued in a bit of class-warrish smugness. Nelson climbed a wire fence with bare feet.

After making it to Larissa, which we all agreed is a hot girl's name, as well as a very neat town, we crossed up into the hills of Greek Macedonia on our way to the former Yugoslavian republic of the same name. Nelson mentioned that the landscape reminded him of New Zealand. Hobbit jokes flew. Regardless, it was the prettiest thing we'd seen yet, even trumping the coast of the Agean Sea, where in 334 BC, Alexander the Great utterly beat the armies of Persia.

We rounded a bend and were confronted with exposed male asses and a Honda Civic Type R with a camera rig mounted in the back. We stopped and conferred with the crew, had a few smokes and admired the view. Suddenly, someone spotted the Sharan that was supposedly a half-hour back coming toward us. We made with the rapid muster and piled back into the van, narrowly getting out of the turnout and up to speed on the two-lane road before they would've been able to get passed us. Dan, of Istanbul-to-Athens fame rocked a sublime pass, stranding us behind a truck. In the distance, we saw blue lights and prayed it wasn't the camera crew in tandem with wishes that the Greek police had hauled in the other Sharan. A couple of minutes later, we spottedn their Sharan on the side of the road, watching the flashing blue lights in the distance. We pulled up and blocked their exit. After a bit of chat, a group photo was called for.

Ricky did a runner. I followed. The rest followed me. In order for Mandela to get into the third row, Ricky ended up sitting on top of his folded-down seat for a harrowing minute or so. Then the message came in. Either the Chevy or the Escalade had crashed. Everything was confusing. The 'Slade ended up being okay. We decided one of the vans should go back for the Chevy guys, 45 miles behind us. But our vans were overloaded. Nelson argued that Gumball should have somebody there, even if we couldn't give them a ride. Then The Call came. Nelson ordered (as much as he had authority to order) the other van back to the Chevy boys, saying, "We've got another assignment. It sounds pretty bad." Within the next 45 minutes, I began to get sick. We grabbed dinner at a gas station near the Macedonian border. Old men sat around smoking in the mini-mart. We wondered why we couldn't get oregano-flavored chips at home. Nelson derided Red Bull as poison. I smoked nervously.

Eventually, after hearing that the other van had made it into Macedonia without incident, we gave it a shot. Somewhere in the night, we picked up the Kuwaiti Murcie, who'd been diverted to Thessaloniki due to some goof with their CoPilot GPS system. We also ended up with a Porsche 911 in Ivy Hotel livery from California. We passed a Maser with a tire problem that we couldn't help. We stopped for gas and saw footage of Morley's accident on TV at the gas station. We decided that the faster we got out of the country, the better.

Arriving at the Albanian border, we were informed that the UN escort we were promised to Tirana was done for the the night. Instead, we were to be led to the Albanian capital by a hyperserious off-road dedicated Land Cruiser and a VW Bora police car. While we were waiting at the border, the Turkish Taxi pulled up. We assumed that the convoy would be headed up front and rear by a police car. And in the spirit of the Gumball, we took up the rear position behind the Turkish Taxi, a vehicle that could take 45mph corners at roughly a third of that speed. Black humor crackled throughout the Volkswagen. One bridge was identified as leading to the Death Prison; distinct from the one leading to the mere Rape Prison. The darkness, the fact that we were supposed to be escorted by the military and instead got something that wouldn't have looked out of place at the Great Southern Crawl and the fact that we were stuck behind this great lumbering beast of a minibus while the rest of the pack had long-since pulled away started to eat at us. Then we got lost.

Somehow, somewhere, in some city, the Land Cruiser and the Polica Rrugorre Bora found us. The pretty, weathered, curly-haired Albanian woman asked if anyone needed a smoke. Having lost my pack of Davidoffs, I replied in the affirmative and she tossed a box of 18 Marlboro Lights through the window. We took off before I could hand them back to her, following the police car, leaving Kamal and Alikanur with the 4x4. We hit Tirana around 4am, having missed Prime Minister's proclaimation, "No guest is ever late in an Albanian house." Instead, I slept on a makeshift terrycloth mattress. The next morning's shower was a luxury I forced myself to indulge in.

Related:
The Inverse of Alexander: Istanbul to Athens; Travels With Commander Kokolari; More Gumball 3000 [Internal]