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Published: August 23rd 2013
Boxy, apartment blocks above the port.
We're here and we are chugging along quite nicely.
Leaving Corfu was a breeze. Up early, grabbed a taxi to the new port with our tickets in hand, through passport control and onto the ferry. The boat was a hydrofoil, I think that's what it's called, and it raced across the short channel between Corfu and Sarande in no time - about 30 minutes. Our first view of Albania at Sarande was of a bland townscape, many low multi storey and apartment blocks over looking the port and climbing the hills behind the port. The usual "don't mess with me" types walking the wharf. Port workers seem meaner somehow but I am a bit of a wuss.
We could see our van on the other side of fence. We had to go through passport control again which took no time at all and then we were officially on Albanian soil. I think, me anyway, felt such a sense of anticipation for this because of the secretive history of Albania during the Hoxha years. He was a dictator in the Stalin mold and ran the country with his secret police terrorising the populace, as any very minor "infraction" could be
Balkan Road Trip
Loaded and ready for flag fall
reason for the Sugurimi to pick you up, detain, torture and worse. A dictator who was welded to the classic Marx, Engels, Lenin model and because of his perverted views, ran the country into the ground. But, you can look it all up if you're keen.
Our van load consisted of: Aussies Jono and Jessie, both living in London. He a history teacher working in in one of London's tough Somali refugee schools, she a journalist; Aussies Rebecca and Wayne. He a teacher aide and she a supply teacher in London; Emma, a young Aussie travelling alone, her partner back in London trying to find them some new digs. Ashley, a young Aussie woman alone travelling all over the place. Jonathan, an Irishman and Maria his Spanish partner, on a couple of weeks holiday. It turned out they were a good bunch and we enjoyed each other's company a lot. Our tour guide was Claudi, an Albanian, and the driver was Zimi, also Albanian.
So off from Sarande we went, slowly, the traffic jam was funereal. The first stop was at Butrint, an ancient Roman site which is extensive but suffering, like so many other archeological sites, from
a lack of funding. It was actually too hot to really enjoy and take in all the info But an interesting place. I reckon Costia Antica out of Roma is a better site and easy to get to by local train but for me the geographical extent of Roman rule makes Butrint fascinating. Just do it in the cool.
Then it was on to narrow, winding roads to Mar Del Bay for a swimming and lunch. The beach is carpeted with umbrellas and cabana loungers. We stayed in the restaurant area and swam and had lunch from that base. It was a long sandy beach, jam packed and slightly cooler water than Greece which was refreshing. And on..... Up a steep, Tour de France type of road which seemed never ending as it wound its way up a mountain side. I mean it was really long and steep with those hairpin bends you see on the TDF. All I wanted to do was ride it but our guide reckoned I couldn't do it, "no one could!" which meant I really wanted to have a crack.
The trip was one constant intake of breath all day as Albanian drivers
One of the good ones in Albania.
seem to have a collective death wish. This is not an exaggeration. Blind bend, no problem. 50 metres to pass, no problem. Cut us off, no problem. Traffic hold up, up the wrong side of the road to get to the front, no problem. And so on. I Jedi you not. (that's a suggestion made by the iPad for a word I misspelt but I left it in because it looks quite good. As you have guessed, it was "I kid ....). Fortunately for us all this was happening around us, not driven by us, as our driver Zimi, was a marvel. He never lost his cool although I couldn't tell what he was saying in Albanian. Whatever it was he said it softly. Once at the top of the mountain we were down the other side for a 3 hour drive to Berat.
The roads got progressively worse - think of Tim's farm race, but sealed, mostly, and that's what it was like. Narrow, rough, potholed to the max and winding. In fact Tim's farm race is better. Add to that the aforementioned driving habits of your average Albanian and you may appreciate it was a long 3
Had lunch and swim here.
hours. We arrived in the old city of Berat at 7.15pm ready for anything except driving.
Our accommodation was much better than we had expected so all good and we all went out for a meal to a place Claudi had jacked up. He suggested we try the local brew, Raki, a 45% proof spirit distilled from grapes. To my amazement Lyn said she would, and she did. Those of you who know Lyn will know that she whooped and hollered and exclaimed how good it was (pleasing the hosts), so much that they bought her another one........which I had to drink. I don't have to clean my teeth anymore because the enamal's been stripped. And so to bed.
Next day, up to explore the Berat castle. Hot again, walking up hill. The castle has been designated a UNESCO site and it has centuries of history clinging to it but like so much of Albania there's not enough money sloshing around to do the work needed to maintain it. I found it a sad place as there are poor families living in the castle on this high hill, eking out a living by trying to sell souvenirs to
tourists. So the castle has many rough and ready stalls with the locals, passively, hoping you'll buy something. Lyn and Heather did, and I bought some postcards. We also paid to go into the Iconography museum displaying icons painted by Albania's most noted icon artist. Our guide was knowledgable and enthusiastic about the icons but the religious symbolism and the type of art didn't do much for us philistines so it wasn't a highlight (speaking for Lyn and I).
Following which we on the road to Albania's capital, Tirana and, as it's late, I'm going to do that bit tomorrow.
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