Cat fights, rummaging cows and Roman ruins

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September 28th 2010
Published: September 30th 2010
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From Berat I took a bus southwards to Saranda a port city on Albania’s Ionian Sea coast. We passed some pretty mountain scenery interspersed with some of the 600,000 concrete bunkers that were built during Hoxha’s communist dictatorship (enough for a family in each) to survive a nuclear attack (I’m guessing here). It got more interesting however when during the four hour journey, a number of pensioner ladies got on and a prolonged shouting match ensued with the driver - who was giving as much as he got. From what I could deduce he’d sped past them at an earlier town and now that they had caught up on another bus they were very angry with him. With them on board there were now not enough seats for everybody - but let this get in the way? The plastic chairs were got out and placed in the aisles - it was a bit tight but I was glad of my single seat by the window.

Once in Saranda I used a flier for the quirkily named hostel the Hairy Lemon which gave overly-detailed directions which meant that I was pretty much lost once I missed the first of many business signs. So, I headed for the sea front and asked local shop owners who stared at the map a very long time; they seemed confounded and the name didn't help.

All was revealed however The Hairy Lemon hostel was in the arse end of the city surrounded by - how can I describe it without using hackneyed expressions like ‘shit hole’, ‘third-world’, maybe ‘Albanian’ will suffice? As I slowly made my way through the unlit and pot holed streets, past the stray dogs who looked at me and decided to have a go, overflowing dumpsters with strewn rubbish and the bizarre sight of dozens of incomplete construction sites for apartment blocks that would never be built; it was like Beirut but at least they have street names - so many developments had run out of money that they were not even allocated one - which explained why the map mystified people.

I entered an apartment block and squeezed myself and my bags into the tiny lift, ascended to the eighth floor, carried down a hallway passing doors of neighbours’ apartments and knocked on the last door on the left.

The Hairy Lemon hostel was in fact someone’s flat - an absent Irish one at that - and whilst cosy was a bit of a stretch to be described as a hostel. Kelsey the American lass I’d gone to dinner with back in Tirana was there and we were again sharing a room - a pair of three bed bunks.

The next morning I took advantage of the balcony which looked out onto the Ionian Sea and the Greek island of Corfu. One of the lasses running the place was a twenty six year old from Luton - she’d fallen in love with Albania having fallen in and out of love with a local lad - and her mother was also staying with her on holiday; but she’d been doing the job for a long time already and was clearly bored with backpackers and the predictable conversations of where, going, did, visited, etcetera. As I looked out to Corfu I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do next; head on over to Corfu - top up the tan or to just spend a few days in Saranda and head back up the coast towards Montenegro and Croatia.

The rest of the morning I spent with an Aussie fella working there from near Melbourne - a country and western fan with a penchant for Wu-Tang Clan - so we spent a few hours heading bopping and sitting in the sun. We watched two cats howling at each other over a rubbish dump down below - and then have a great cat fight - jumping legs and rolling around the floor - real tourism. Then we heard the cow bells, the locals cattle came walking down to stick their heads into the dumpsters and chuck rubbish bags around and have a snack; and thi was where I was staying! I headed on down to the water and went to look for somewhere to eat; the Albanina manager of the local hotel had lived in Leighton Buzzard for a few years and he directed me to a restaurant that was beside the marina where the fishing boats came in. I walked through the post-apocalyptic scene and ended up at the place that didn’t have a menu but only freshly caught fish, crab, prawns and squid - I had a huge plate of delicious prawns along with a Greek salad. I then spent the rest of the day on a sun bed by the sea - the holidaymakers had gone a few days’ earlier - the end of the peak season had begun.

The next day I caught a bus to a beautiful place called Tsmili - a sort of beach with an island that you can swim across to. Along for the ride was the aloof and opinionated Aussie chick I’d met briefly in the Berat hostel (she strangely claimed she’d been travelling for 2 years when in reality she’d simply been living in the UK - oh and you clearly can’t claim you’ve ‘been everywhere in the UK’ when you haven’t even heard of the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands - both unique islands - Celtic and French respectively); oh, and a university student at Aberystwyth. The day was spent sunning ourselves, jumping into the sea, swimming and drinking coffee as well as trying my best to finish an awful book about Karakatoa which I found impossible to not finish.

The Welsh bloke had been backpacking for a few weeks around the Balkans - I was interested in what he thought of Bulgaria - seeing as nearly everyone said it was either horrible or ‘alright’ grimace) - in contrast to my own experience. Unfortunately, whilst in Varna something horrible had happened; his drink had been spiked in a bar and he next woke up on the beach the next morning with a man trying to rape him; luckily he managed to get away but the police put him in a cell and took away his driving licence until he signed a false account detailing a bullshit story. He actually ran away a few times but they simply captured him again (even from the hostel) and made him sign it; Incredible. Cvetko had warned me about how corrupt the police were in Bulgaria, insisting I carry a copy of my passport with me every time we went out.

That evening a bunch of us fellas went out to dinner along the waterfront - strolling along the promenade along with everybody else. Along the way w became fixated with the old-school sexist advertising hoarding for the local Tirana Beer which linked the beer with a well-endowed bikini-clad local beauty on all fours - on a beach. The most interesting person amongst our group was Nate - an American who had lived in Warsaw
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Aussie Steve, Nate, Me and Malaysian Jon
for the past 16 years as a journalist. He had hired a car and if any of us wanted to join him on a trip he’d be happy to have us. A few of us jumped at the chance, seeing as I had not intended to visit any places and was in fact stuck in a hole of indecision about where I should go next on my trip. Corfu looked so tempting from that balcony.

So the next day Nate, myself and 47 year old Steve from Aus (although living in Clapham for twenty years and with the resultant confused accent) drove to a place called Gjirokastra which was about 70 kilometres away inland. Nate was brave not only in hiring a car but also driving - the roads were pretty bad and Albanians didn’t indicate. However we got to the city in good stead and Nate’s contact in the British Council in Albania had sorted us out with a local guy who worked at an NGO and would be our guide for a few hours .The city itself is perched in the mountains and has lovely old Ottoman era houses and one of them is where Albanian dictator
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Starring Aussie Steve's finger
of 41 years, Enver Hoxha was born.

We walked up to the second biggest fortress in the Balkans (after Belgrade) and had a look around. Inside was a military museum which included a tonne of military hardware from the Great War such as artillery pieces, Italian tanks, German helmets, even Sten guns that were dropped by British Special Operations Executive (SOE) to the Albanian Communist resistance. From 1943 when the Germans took over from the surrendering Italians the Gestapo used the fortress to imprison and torture local resistance fighters - the cells looked the same as they had done seventy years earlier and it was an eerie atmosphere as we looked at the torture cells and even the cell that the Germans used to hang partisans. Eerie.

We had lunch outside at a restaurant and more of a wander around the city, including to the platform where a colossal statue of Hoxha used to be placed. Our return journey took in the Syri i Katterc or the Blue Eye Spring which is deep blue water and because of the constant bubbles from the depths has yet to be measured. All three of us braved the freezing waters and had a brief dip which was mightily refreshing - Steve causing instant envy with his underwater camera case.

The following day Nate drove us and a bunch of other peeps southwards to Butrint - a Roman ruined town (Buthrotum) based on a lagoon. If you’ve seen one too many Roman ruins then sadly they all look similar after a while - but this place was interesting enough to walk around for three hours or so - taking in baths, the Greek theatre, a Christian basilica and the acropolis which housed the museum.

Nate returned the car by the afternoon back in Saranda and we all went for a late lunch on the promenade - then the rain came and the whole city took on a sad seaside atmosphere. That evening we all went out to dinner and two German chicks from Hamburg joined us - the same chicks I had got talking to back in Tirana and who had made us all God-awful vegetarian ‘something’. We went to the only bar that was still partially alive; played a few games of mixed pool, ping-pong and avoiding the toilet upstairs. I’d made the mistake of trying to get into it, I was shooed away by around twenty or so young lads who were sitting around the tables looking a bit, well, sheepish followed by giggles. I didn’t’ think much of it as in my experience Albania is a country of numberless unemployed men sitting at cafe tables nursing espressos. However, Jon from Malaysia later enlightened me of what was ‘occurring’ - he’d seen a haggard-looking peroxide blonde woman in the bathroom and receiving a lad in and a lad out. The fact that I looked as if I was ‘jumping the queue’ to the toilet had clearly caused anxious faces. My mistake.

The next day Nate was catching the ferry to Corfu and his flight back to Poland, Steve was hanging around for another day or two before also going to Corfu. Jon from Malaysia was heading up the coast, he seemed to have a plan of action for his three and half week holiday, and this was his fourth trip to the region. So, the decision was made for me in the end - Jon and I decide to head up the Albanian coast together. I said my goodbyes to Nate and Steve and receiving an invitation from Nate to visit Warsaw.

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