What struck me at first was how very normal Lazarat, Albania seemed. A gas station, a couple of cafes. School kids waiting for the bus. We didn’t know where to go, so I just kept driving. Slowly, I drove up into the hills. And then quickly, Lazarat became very, very, abnormal. At first, is was just a whiff. The aroma was familiar. Unlike President Barrack “Choomwagon” Obama, I’m not going to lie, it’s true I may have indulged once or twice in the past. It’s true, I used to smoke marijuana. But I’ll tell you something, I would only smoke it in the late evening.
Oh, occasionally the early evening, but usually the late evening. Or the mid-evening. Just the early evening, mid-evening and late evening. Occasionally, early afternoon, early mid-afternoon, or perhaps the late-mid-afternoon. Oh, sometimes the early-mid-late-early morning. But never at dusk! Never at dusk, I would never do that. In any case, the smell enveloping Lazarat was somewhat familiar. Sweet, enticing, cannabis sativa. The Chronic. Back Yard Boogie. Cheeba. Mary Jane, Skunk, Weed, Cannabis, Hash, Snickle-Fritz – whatever your friendly street corner hook-up calls it, the point is – we could smell that dank. Everywhere.
Lazarat is not on the tourist map. For good reason. Unusually, I had actually done a small amount of research before heading into what is undeniably the illegal drug capital of Europe. The internet is filled with stories about SWAT teams, machine gun fire, drug lords, Albanian mafia, and vast, enormous, mind blowing, quantities of Marijuana. Just yesterday, I’d personally been told “Nate, it’s not smart to visit Lazarat”, and then “Nate, things in Lazarat are very… unpredictable…they really don’t like outsiders poking around”. Advice I would take on board, and respectfully ignore. I mean, what’s the worse that could happen?
It’s estimated that Lazarat, a tiny town in the South of Albania, may produce as much as 6 billion dollars worth of marijuana, every year. To put that in perspective, the annual gross domestic product of the entire Albanian economy is about 13 billion. And in Albania, marijuana is illegal. Especially growing Marijuana in quantities that would even raise Bob Marley’s eyebrow. In Lazarat, the mafia maintains a presence. The locals are keen to keep a low profile. Tourism? Not a chance. But, I decided to take a drive and see what Lazarat was like, up close.
Lazarat Albania – The Plan To Infiltrate Europe’s Biggest Drug Plantation
We had a cunning plan. The four of us, two couples, were going to just drive in to Lazarat, take a look, and play the dumb tourist card, and “see what happens”. We were all in agreement. As the designated driver, I thought that my Netherlands license plates may help – given the reputation of the civilised Dutch and their attitudes to Marijuana. Any country that habitually combines marijuana and coffee can’t be all that bad, and I thought the Lazarat locals would have some kind of mutual brotherhood, perhaps team spirit, with the fine people of the Netherlands.
Despite all this, we didn’t even know whether we would be allowed to enter the village. The plan would be to drive from Sarande (our base on the Albanian Riviera) to Lazarat. Worse case scenario – if we got in, and things went bad, we get the hell out, fast. That was the extent of the entire plan. We would fill in the fine grain details, once we reached the home turf of the Albanian mafia.
From the main road, state highway four, we spotted the Lazarat sign post. The town sits close to the highway, and reaches high up in the mountains. We drove in, and their were cautious smiles from the front and back seats. Perhaps it was a contact high, but we were giggling, and I desperately wanted a packet of crisps. Or maybe some salty peanuts. Still, as we drove further into the village, and further away from the highway, I felt some trepidation.
Our Albanian friend, sitting next to me in the front seat, said it best. “ooohhhh myyyyy goddddd. Can you smell that?” Within moments, the stank filled the car like a dutch oven. Intense. Still driving up the hill, the plants started to appear. Everywhere. We had timed our run to Lazarat perfectly – it was time for business. Marijuana plants, in peak harvest season. Concrete block walls protected many fields, about 8 feet tall, but no barbed wire. The walls ran right along side the road, and the biggest “flowers” were poking out over the top. The yards of houses were full of lush pine-green plantations, front and back. And we started noticing something else – everyone was looking at us.
Which, when you think about it, is hardly surprising. We could not be more out of place if we tried. In hindsight, what the fuck were we thinking? A bunch of foreigners, just driving in to the middle of the largest illegal crop of Marijuana anywhere in Europe? Around us, on the road, deals were being made. Bags and boxes were being passed through car windows and loaded into vans and trucks. Cash was being exchanged. A large truck drove right past us, it’s tray overflowing with Marijuana. Things were getting surreal.
The stares were intensifying the further we got into the village. I took a right turn, and something inside me said “no, don’t go down this road”. We had just passed what looked like a restaurant, and we mutually decided to turn around, park, and go inside, and “see what happens”.
Parking was a small ordeal. At the first spot I looked at to park, a bunch of people were manicuring and drying the Marijuana, ready for sale. Better pop Nancy into reverse, and park across the street. I squeezed into a spot between two big black Mercedes. Typical for Lazarat, both had tinted front windscreens and no license plates. Four guys, dark sun-glass types, eyeballed us as we jumped out of the car. They chatted among themselves. Our Albanian friend soon told me that they were saying “so, are these guys cops or what?” We walked into the restaurant, the same place the four guys were going to.
The first thing you notice, sitting at a restaurant elevated from street level in Lazarat, is Marijuana. Everywhere. This was the first real panoramic overview we had of Lazarat. It was astonishing. Looking through the window, I could see a couple of people harvesting the buds. Each bud looked to be the size of a man’s thigh. That, let me assure you, is some big buds. Behind us, inside, a few old men were chatting “…we are a state, within a state. Oh yes, we have a lot of money…”. At the table to my right, a few young men were enjoying a hearty, healthy lunch. Harvest weed all morning, tuck in to a hearty lunch, and then it was back to work. There’s a harvestin’ to be done, boys. The bumper crop of lush pine-green Marijuana fields that surrounded us weren’t going to pick themselves.
After a few minutes, the other diners stopped paying us any attention. I guess we had played the “dumb tourist” role pretty convincingly. Except, there are no tourists here in Lazarat. It was time to work on the fine details of our plan, now that we were sitting, enjoying lunch, in the middle of what we had dubbed “Drug City”. Over a delicious, long, lunch – including some great carbonara, some wine, a glass of Raki (local spirit), and a perfect macchiato – we decided what to do next. It would go like this. First, we would tell the owner how good his food is. Then, maybe order a couple more drinks. The Albanian member of our crew could casually mention that he is touring us dumb tourists around Albania, to see the sites. Only after he had gained some trust, would he then ask if it was cool to take a few photos of Lazarat, looking out the window at the sea of weed that surrounded us.
We relaxed, and tried not to be too obvious in staring out the windows. I savoured the pasta, it was fantastic. As was the Raki. I looked out at the fields, and watched the water trucks continually driving up and down the road. Along with the many, many Mercedes. And the people carrying unmarked boxes and bags. With utter disbelief, I kept looking at the fields. But not too much, I didn’t want to arise any suspicion. We were just here for the food. Dumb tourists, who somehow ended up in Lazarat, Albania.
Patience. Soon, it would be time. Time to ask for permission to take a quick holiday snap. I had my camera settings all worked out, but didn’t want to grab my camera from the backpack under the table. The sun was in the right place. Maybe I would drop down 1/3 of a stop on the exposure. F8 and be there – I wanted all the details of Lazarat’s finest. Then, I’d click like crazy until I’m told to stop. Hopefully, politely. I’d checked out the other diners, examining their clothes for tell-tale signs of gun straps. Nope. I was pretty sure nobody was packing heat.
And then the conversation started, in Albanian. The thing about Albanians, is they nod up and down for “no”, and shake their head side to side for “yes”. For the first few days in Albania, I always thought that everyone was pissed off about everything. Always shaking their heads. Then, I realised they’re actually saying yes, shaking in agreement. They’re quite a happy bunch, given the decades of brutal communism they so recently endured. But the head shaking, it’s impossible to get used to. I watched as the conversation continued. There were smiles being exchanged between my Albanian friend and the Lazarat restaurant owner, but the body language was indecipherable. I’ve picked up a few words in Albanian, but the conversation was revealing nothing to me. The owner was smiling a lot. Big, genuine smiles. I hoped for the best.
The conversation ended, and the owner walked away, back to the bar.
I turned to my friend, and whispered.
“Soooo….what did he say… can we take photos?”
He whispered back.
“Well, he said that he advised us against taking any photos, anywhere in Lazarat. That people would get really, really annoyed. They don’t want the photos ending up on the internet. If we were to take photos, things could change, the situation could get very bad within seconds. People would be angry. Anything could happen.”
“Hmm. So, does that mean no photos?”
“No photos, Nate.”
And, he was nodding his head.
That means no, in Albanian. I told you, it’s hard to get used to.
I looked at my Albanian friends wife, she was sitting on the other side of the table.
“So…the ladies toilet. Are there any windows?”
“Yes, one, but it’s quite high up.”
“Hmm. Did you take a photo out of the window?”
So that was the only solution. In a restaurant situated in the middle of an Albanian mafia stronghold, in a lawless state within a state, where I had been explicitly told not to take photos, the only option seemed to be to slyly grab my backpack that had my camera inside, walk past the old guys sitting behind us, in front of the owner standing at the bar, the young guys sitting at the table, the other group of men that had recently walked in, and carry my backpack into the ladies toilets. I would then lock the door, pull the camera out, and snap away.
Which is what I did.
Hey, better than nothing.
I did notice that the ladies toilets had an overpowering smell, of freshly harvested Marijuana.
I’m pretty sure that’s not normal. But nothing about Lazarat is particularly normal.
Personally, I think it’s one of the most magical places I have ever visited – and a highlight of my 400+ days on the road.
I wish the citizens of Lazarat all the best of luck, and I apologise in advance for repeatedly ignoring the advice I was given.
PS, here’s a couple of tourists that also were crazy enough to check out Lazarat, Albania, up close:
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