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Adventures in Albania


When I set foot on the poverty-stricken shores of Albania in the summer of 1996, it was arguably my first ever dose of “real” travelling, (whatever that may mean). I’d partially chosen to holiday in Corfu that year because of the opportunity of catching the boat across to Albania and the experience was not one that I’ll ever forget. Whilst Corfu itself led to greater things for myself, picking it because of its quirky neighbour was not a bad choice at all. And so, after paying an exorbitant fee, (including £20 for a non-existent visa), I took the boat from Corfu town across the narrow Corfu Channel to the mysterious secret land of Enver Hoxha and Skanderbeg.

There are surely few places on earth where two places exist side-by-side and yet are as totally different as Greek Corfu and Albanian Sarandë in 1996. Of course there is the obvious – Corfu, tourist-rich, part of the successful EU, whilst Albania, half a decade out of the harshest form of communism, economically on its knees, but there is more than that. For starters there is the geography – Corfu is lush and green whilst the hills of Albania are stony and arid – and the unhealthy pallor of the land seemed to reflect the state of the country. Of course all of post-communist Eastern Europe was in an almighty economic mess in 1996, (not that I had any other experiences to compare with then), but Albania truly had suffered more than most under the paranoid Stalinist, Enver Hoxha. I’d read all about the isolationist Albanian regime, doused in fear and with not a friend in the world after Mao Tse Tung died, but even so, I was not prepared for the rusting docks that looked like they hadn’t changed since the fifties, the decaying grey apartment blocks and the hundreds of concrete pillboxes that lined the shore facing Greece.

We were on a group trip of course, one that took us through the seaside resort of Sarandë into the countryside towards the ancient Greek ruins of Butrint. I remember vividly the awful potholed road, (the worst that I’d ever travelled along at that time), that made any speed over 20km/h an impossibility; an ageing truck overflowing with swarthy peasants; an abandoned minerals plant; a lake where shellfish farming took place and a surreal village that consisted of naught but a squat, crumbling tower block in the middle of nowhere. This was the Third World and yet it was in Europe and what’s more, it wasn’t standard Third World but instead something a little more screwed-up, a planned disaster somehow. For me though, it was all the more scary as I’d just finished reading Orwell’s 1984 and so my young impressionable mind was already full of Big Brother, the Thought Police, rapid paranoia and double-think and terminal decline. Before I’d seen Sarandë though, I’d thought it all well-written but a nightmare that could never come true. Here I was though, in a country that had only just woken up from over five decades of it.

Butrint was an impressive set of ruins in better condition than most, but I had not come to explore the ancient world, rather the modern. Even here though, that other, sadder and newer world invaded. The guidebook was so poorly printed as to be almost illegible and it was evident that little was done in the way of upkeep or tourist management. At the entrance I met a man, Andrian Shori, who wished to become a pen pal. Such interest in foreigners was unknown across the water in Greece where they are, of course, ten a penny.

It was back in Sarandë however, that the real Albania hit me again. After a meal in a tourist trap with a faux folk dance troupe performing for us, I wandered about the city with a Netherlander called Paul, an anaesthetist from Utrecht with the typical Dutch dry sense of humour and excellent command of English. Stepping over broken paving slabs and circumnavigating a burnt-out bus that had been left on the town’s main promenade, we were stunned. This was a city with its soul ripped out; empty streets, broken windows and seemingly derelict houses and apartments. The only signs of life were the omnipresent graffiti (most of it political) and the Greek Orthodox church under construction in the city centre (under Hoxha, religion had been banned and all churches and mosques either demolished or converted for more socialist uses). The place was miserable and dirty and yet what made it all the more tragic was that Lucy, our tour guide, had proudly informed us that Sarandë was Albania’s number one holiday resort and a favourite for honeymooning couples. I could imagine nowhere worse to start a marriage.

I remember also the money, dirty and tattered, from another age with grinning workers building apartment blocks or being educated. My favourite was the 50 lek note, red in colour, which celebrated the Albanian People’s Army. “Look at the communist heroes march!” Paul said dryly. ‘March to where?’ thought I, but kept the note for the memory.

In 1997 Albania hit the international news for possibly the first time in her history. The government’s pyramid savings scheme spectacularly collapsed and the majority of the population lost their life savings, an unimaginable blow for a country as poor as Albania. I was in Israel at the time where I eagerly collected every relevant clipping from the Jerusalem Post.

When I got to Corfu I dearly wished to go over again but now the boat no longer sailed. The reason why was obvious. From the sun-lounger crowded Sidari beach we could hear the rattle of Kalashnikovs and at night the fires of burning buildings could be seen blazing on the hills across the channel. Once again, the difference between Corfiot and Albanian reality was unreal. I remember asking Alexis, a Greek friend, how things were in Sarandë these days to which he quipped, “Saranda? No, you are wrong; is not Saranda these days, now is Trianda, maybe tomorrow Icosi, next week Theka…” Reports of Albanian coming across in the night in speedboats and stealing things became commonplace, as too did the sight of dishevelled migrant workers.

In 1999 however, I did manage to return, well… almost. There were no group tours running that year but the ferry had recommenced its daily service across the channel. I boarded at Corfu Town and fell into chatting with a very friendly young migrant worker who’d been employed in agriculture on the Greek mainland, near to Igoumenitsa. He was happy to be returning home but was fully aware of the situation that his country was in, made no easier of course, by the war in Kosova with thousands of refugees flooding across the border from the former Yugoslavia.

In the intervening years I too had changed. Whilst studying politics at university I’d delved deeply into Albania’s history and geography and my heart quickened as the ramshackle apartments of Sarandë came into view.

Things however, did not go as smoothly as I’d hoped. Upon arrival I was ushered into the customs office and ordered to pay a US$50 entry fee (about £30). These days I was a more experienced traveller and knew full well when I was being had, particularly as I’d asked at the port office in Corfu and been told there was no fee for entering Albania, and so I refused. And besides, I only had 5000 drachma (about £16) on me in cash. For once though, the customs official was not simply trying to line his own pockets. He brought in another man who spoke English and explained – backed up with official documentation – that this was a new law, passed just a month or so before, and it was now mandatory to cough up $50 for the privilege of entering the Republic of Albania.

And so I could not and did not enter that said republic, and instead had to sit on the dock for a couple of hours until the boat returned back to Greece. My friend from the boat who’d stayed to help was most apologetic, as too were the customs official and the English speaker, (who turned out to be the owner of the town’s only tourist agency), for all felt angry with their government for introducing what was a very stupid law. “This law is terrible!” railed the tourist agent. “It has destroyed the whole tourist industry for Sarandë. Before we had many tourists come across for day trips from Corfu but now they are like you; when they come and find that they have to pay $50 they just go back, because who will pay $50 for a week, let alone one day?!” I told him that I had been before on a tour in 1996 and his eyes grew misty. “Oh 1996, before the troubles,” he said. “That was the golden year for tourism in Sarandë! So many tourists we had that year; when I look now I cannot believe it.” I thought back to the small group that I was with who had spent little, struggling to find any souvenirs to buy and shuddered. Nowhere else would describe that as a ‘golden year’.

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