Article on The Times (2003)

Roused from slumber and ripe for discovery on a day trip from Corfu, Angus Clarke found late starter Albania preparing to embrace tourism

Butrinti Albania

The baptistry’s mosaic floor at Butrint, where archaeological wonders stretch back through 3,000 years. Photo: Butrint Foundation
SO NEAR, and yet for half a century, so far. Albania is barely two kilometres — and about 50 years — from Corfu. You could swim it. In the 1980s a friend, an inept windsurfer, almost sailed there by mistake. He was intercepted by a low, grey Albanian gunboat. He wobbled slowly back into international waters under the attentive gaze of a large machinegun.
Nowadays you can go to Albania on purpose: it is a day trip from Corfu Town to Saranda. To be honest, I had some reservations about the trip because I had been dipping into the Blue Guide to Albania of 1994: travellers, it warns, should prepare as for visiting the poorest Third World countries; real security risks; not recommended for backpackers or women travellers; medieval social infrastructure; armed thieves; lethal traffic; appalling roads; bandits and wolves pursuing implacable vendettas in the mountains. It sounded like the day trip without end.

Well, much has changed in the intervening decade. The Dolphin, the 40-minute hydrofoil from Corfu Town to Saranda, was chockers with daytrippers, oblivious to the dangers that awaited them but by no means indifferent to the charms of the cheap, tax-free shops in Corfu’ s port. My wife Annelies and I went with Ingrid and Soteri, respectively Dutch and Albanian residents in Corfu who run accompanied trips to Albania.

On arrival in Saranda — an austere little town arranged like the seats of an amphitheatre around a sheltered bay strangely devoid of ships — there were some inscrutable immigration formalities. They were made more complex on this occasion because the Albanian officials had run out of visa forms and were writing passport details in longhand on bits of paper. The owners’ names were then called out and that person had to step forward to receive their visa. It was one of those moments when you don’ t want a name like Oughtred or Featherstonehaugh.

Once on the quay, we piled into a 15-year-old Mercedes taxi — all Albanian cars seem to be Mercs — and set off into the unknown. The Albanian highway code, like the highways themselves, is open to interpretation. After about 15 minutes of weaving past potholes, roadworks and eco-doom trucks, each wreathed in its own dense blue cloud of diesel fumes, I asked our driver on which side of the road we were meant to be driving. Conversation was slow because each question and its answer had to be filtered via Dutch, English, Greek and Albanian. (And yes, Albanians tend to drive on the right, usually.)

First stop, half an hour down the road, was Butrint, a coastal stronghold of wistful beauty and one of the Mediterranean’ s premier-league archaeological sites. It holds 3,000 years of filo-pastry history: Trojans, Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Angevins, Ottomans, Venetians — all left their layer of stone and statuary. Much of it is still to be excavated. Here and there Soteri peeled back the protective sheeting to show us gorgeous pink and black mosaic floors, good as new. Butrint vaut le dé tour, big time.

After Butrint we motored inland for half an hour, through unloved farmlands and untidy settlements. As we climbed into the hills, the forest came down to meet us. Our destination was Syri i Kalter, which means “Blue Eye”. Beneath towering plane trees, it is a spring-fed pool of electric turquoise. When it is a sultry 40C down by the seaside, up here it is 15 degrees cooler.

On a shady deck over the rushing din of the stream we ate ultra-fresh trout and drank Terpelene, Albania’ s finest mineral water — “Suffled how it gush from the source of the woods of Terpelena,” the label bubbled. Greek coffee in Albanian is kafe turka.

Lunch for four seemed absurdly cheap at 520 leki — about £2.50 — until Soteri explained you have to add a zero to all prices. Of course.

Southern Albania has a blinking, tousled look, as if it overslept and has just woken to the bright lights of global capitalism. People watch you gravely as you pass. Are they waiting for a bus? Shepherds? Bandits? The men, and some of the women, tend to look like Tommy Lee Jones. There is much rotting Communist-era infrastructure, and new buildings are going up everywhere; all poured concrete, protruding steel reinforcing rods and ramshackle timber scaffolding.

This may be the poorest country in Europe, but it is changing fast. There is perhaps 300km (185 miles) of virgin Mediterranean coastline, and tourism is going to be the country’ s next big earner. Inevitable, when you think that apart from exporting some hydroelectricity, Albania is the world’ s main supplier of briar for pipes.

From the dizzying viewpoint of Ali Pasha’ s citadel on the high hill of Lekürsi, just south of Saranda, you have a fantastic, 360-degree panorama of how it is and will be. The coastal strip looks undeveloped, but in a few years it will likely be an unbroken ribbon of hotels, like so much of eastern Corfu just across the water.

See Albania soon, before it gets its act together. It may be your last chance to share Edward Lear’ s ecstasy about the beauty of 19th-century Corfu: “The blue of the sky and ivory of church and chapel, the violet of mountain rising from peacock-wing hued sea.”

Except that instead of ivory churches Albania boasts the grey concrete domes of the countless bunkers which pustulate every field and hillside. The late unlamented leader Enver Hoxha had more than 70,000 — some say 300,000 — of these indestructible little fortifications built against capitalist invaders. And still they came.

And so we wound back down from Ali Pasha’ s eagle’ s nest to Saranda. We left our driver in altercation with a uniformed man — old totalitarian habits are dying hard here. We strolled back to the port, along the newly paved seaside esplanade. We passed bars — all marble, smoked glass and air conditioning — which would not be out of place on the Côte d’ Azur.

There didn’ t seem to be much in the way of souvenirs, though Ingrid reckons Albanian honey is the best in the world. Entrepreneurs pleaded with us to buy knick-knacks, lace and blood-red T-shirts emblazoned with the bicephalous black eagle of Albania. Forty minutes later we were back in the 21st century.

Not that half a century of running-dog capitalism has left Corfu unscathed. This, it will be remembered, is the island where the enchanting Circe magicked Odysseus’ crew into swine. Something similar still happens in dire resorts such as Sidari in the northwest of the island. Here obese English people with shaven heads and Manchester United shirts size XXL wallow in such Hellenic charms as “full English breakfast all day” and “big screen satellite TV football”.

A British woman — about 8,000 of them live on Corfu — told me of a man in the southern resort of Kavos whose job it is, as the sun moves, to shift the poolside recliners so sleeping Brits get an even tan. But Corfiots are reluctant to work in Kavos because the cheap-package tourists, crazed by alcohol, hormones and sunlight, are so terrifying. Albania, for all its ramshackle poverty, is much less threatening.

Seek, however, and ye shall find. One evening we rambled into the steep hills and ravines where northwestern Corfu cascades into the Ionian Sea, and there on a savage crag we came to the stupendous ruined monastery of Angelokastro. From the Bar Ippos near by, we ate mezedes and drank wine.

“It is my own wine,” said the proprietor, Odysseas. “It is only 12 degrees, but it is much stronger.”

Indeed it was, and as we drank, the sunset painted the cliffs of Corfu vermilion and rose.

On our last day we went to Agni, a hamlet in the ruggedly beautiful northeastern corner of Corfu, for lunch in a beachside taverna. It was one of those hilarious polyglot affairs with a dozen people around a long table, a four-hour succession of delicious mezedes, and children running between the food and the beach.

And there was Albania, just across the water, and somehow much closer, now that we had peeked briefly behind the veil.

Copyright 2006 Times Newspapers Ltd.
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