Article on The Times (2006)

Greece and the Balkans all in a day

Mike Gerrard takes time out from Corfu for a day trip to Albania

Liston CorfuWE HAVE come to one of the most mysterious countries in Europe, and someone walks off the boat in front of me with a Morrison’s carrier bag. Just add it to the strangeness of a land where a shake of the head means yes and dolls dangle from new houses to ward off evil spirits.

“This terminal building wasn’t here ten years ago,” my wife says, having made the trip from Corfu once before. “It wasn’t here three weeks ago,” our guide replies.

A decade ago, Albania was a popular day trip from Corfu, but then the Balkans went to war and the drawbridge was pulled up, although Albania was never directly involved. But for those who want an easy taste of southern Albania, you can once again take a trip across the water from nearby Corfu.

“The shortest distance between Corfu and Albania is 2km (about a mile and a quarter),” our guide tells us. Ben Cipa is Albanian, but has lived in Corfu for the past 15 years and now runs Sipa Tours — having decided that a company name that sounded like “Cheaper Tours” wasn’t ideal. “When the borders closed, people in pedalos would drift too close to Albania and the police would come in boats firing guns into the air, and that quickly had them pedalling back.”

We’ve come by the more conventional hydrofoil from Corfu Town and are soon driving through scenery that has us open-mouthed: lush green plains with a river on one side of us and a canal on the other. We zig-zag up into the mountains where Judas trees line the road, turning from pink to green in their contradictory way — just right for Albania, which is full of contradictions.

We spend a few hours in Butrint, one of the Med’s most important archaeological sites and now a national park. There is evidence of occupation by Neolithic tribes, Macedonians, Romans, Ottomans and Venetians, among others, all quite unspoilt and much less crowded than similar places in Greece.

The old town of Gjirokaster, with its cobbled streets, is a Unesco World Heritage Site, and here we visit the castle and the grand mansion where the dictator Enver Hoxha was born, now an Ethnographic Museum. Except that he wasn’t born there as the house burnt down and has been rebuilt since, but our museum guide points out the room that he was — and yet wasn’t — born in.

“It’s always good to find a reason for visiting Corfu Town,” writes Emma Tennant in Corfu Banquet, and, back from our Albanian side trip, I agree. I love this meze of a place that offers Venetian buildings and a taste of Paris’s rue de Rivoli next to a cricket pitch. Inside a British palace is one of the finest collections of Asian art in Europe.

Including our side trip to Albania, seven days isn’t nearly enough time to explore all Corfu Town’s nooks and crannies, or to eat in all its restaurants and see its excellent museums, but we’re going to give it a go.

On previous visits I’ve stayed in hotels, but this time we’ve taken Dora’s House for a week. It is a tall, private apartment hidden down a narrow side street beside the Cavalieri Hotel, with several flights of steps to get from room to room. At least there’s a couch and chairs on the balcony where we can recover from the stairs and enjoy the views.

And what views! A hundred yards in front of us are the waters of Garitsa Bay, to the left is the New Fortress (which was begun in 1572) and beyond that the Ionian Sea. In the distance are the mountains of mainland Greece. In the hot sun, under a blue sky and with a glass of chilled white from the fridge, the ache of the 4am check-in soon eased, and we had enough energy to explore the local shops and buy yoghurt, honey, beer and more wine.

Most mornings we take in a museum. The new Palaiopolis Museum, an impressive display of the history of the area, is in Mon Repos, the house where the Duke of Edinburgh was born. Its wild and wooded grounds are so lovely that we walk through them twice.

The Byzantine Museum has a new annexe, though the core of the collection remains in the atmospheric 16th-century church of the Panagia Antivouniotissa, the church of the Blessed Virgin. Here icons gaze at you across the centuries, including the work of Michael Damaskinos, who was the first to give figures and faces a more rounded and realistic look. Two more powerful works by Damaskinos, The Stoning of Stephen and The Decapitation of John the Baptist, are in Corfu’s Municipal Art Gallery, housed in the Palace of St Michael and St George.

This is small, as palaces go, with only three of the state rooms open to peek in, but they’re impressively grand. You think of the banquets that must have been held here when the British “protected” Corfu for 50 years in the early 19th century. It is the Museum of Asian Art in the east and west wings, though, that make the palace a must. The core of the collection is a mind-boggling 10,500 pieces, amassed by a Corfiot diplomat, Gregorios Manos. He handed them to the state in 1927, and the following year died in poverty, having spent all his money on these glorious items.

The Manos Collection includes Samurai armour from the Han Dynasty, 206BC to AD202, 17th-century Chinese porcelain vases and Hindu wood carvings. The displays are beautifully lit and information panels are in Greek and English. In room after exquisite room, the colours become brighter as the centuries roll by. I’ve never seen porcelain with blues so blue, such rich turquoises, such a deep green.

After this feast for the eyes we’re in need of sustenance, and it’s not far to Ninos, the best grill in town and thoroughly Greek. The house wine is poured from a water cooler in the corner, a TV blares, but no one is watching and a painting of Christ regards the scene from over the door, as if giving it his blessing. The souvlaki is certainly divine, and with a pitcher of wine (OK, two) we still spend less than a tenner. Yes, it’s always good to find a reason for visiting Corfu Town.

Mike Gerrard and his wife Donna Dailey are the authors of the Spiral Guide to Corfu (AA Publishing, 2006).

Need to know

Mike Gerrard travelled to Corfu with Tapestry Holidays (020-8235 7788, www.tapestryholidays.com). One week in Tritsi’s House in northeast Corfu is from £774, including return flights to Heathrow, fuel surcharges, and Jeep hire.

A seven-night stay at the four-star Cavalieri Hotel (www.cavalieri-hotel.com), costs from £544pp, with Sunvil Specialist Greece (020-8758 4747; www.sunvil.co.uk), including B&B, return flights from Gatwick and transfers (Birmingham and Manchester departures are £25 extra). Ninos is at Sevastianou 44 in the Old Town.

Reading: Corfu (Rough Guides, £6.99).

To visit Albania from Corfu, see: www.sipatours.com.

Copyright 2006 Times Newspapers Ltd.
This service is provided on Times Newspapers’ standard Terms and Conditions.

The untraveled path – on The Jerusalem Post (2005)

Several months ago I was invited to participate in the development of rural tourism in Albania. Enticed by the unknown, I rose to the challenge, as did my friends, and I ended up leading my first trekking group to the southern coast of Albania.

In glorious May sunshine, we spent a week walking along the Albanian Riviera, over herb-clad mountains, past beaches, sparkling bays, and archeological ruins, and through inhabited and uninhabited villages, all the while meeting local people.

We trekked down the most beautiful coastline, which borders the Adriatic Sea and the Ionian Sea, and lies between Serbia, Montenegro and Greece. The island of Corfu stretched before us, just a short ferry ride away.

Although Albania is a little larger than Israel (29,000 square kilometers compared to Israel’s 21,000 sq. km.), its population of 3.5 million is around half that of Israel.

The Albanians are generally recognized as the most ancient race in southeastern Europe, descendants of the Illyrians, who were the core pre-Hellenic population that extended as far as Thrace and Italy.

The Albanian language, which is distinct from the tongues spoken by the neighboring nationalities, is particularly interesting as the only surviving representative of the so-called Thraco-Illyrian group of languages, which formed the primitive speech of the inhabitants of the Balkan peninsula.

Albanians further claim that Greek mythology was borrowed, in its entirety, from the Illyrians. Zeus survives as Zot in the Albanian language of today and the invocation of his name is the common form of oath among modern Albanians, as well as the word for God.

The Romans ruled Illyria for about six centuries. Under Roman rule Illyrian society underwent great change, especially outwardly. Art and culture flourished, particularly in Apollonia, whose school of philosophy became celebrated in antiquity. To a great extent, though, the Illyrians resisted assimilation into Roman culture. Illyrian culture survived, along with the Illyrian tongue.

The Ottoman Empire also extended to include Albania, and signs of all these periods can be seen in archeological remains and buildings still in daily use.

Only in 1992 did Albania bring down the dictatorial communist regime that had oppressed the nation for some 50 years, mainly under the despotic rule of Enver Hoxha.

After living under the influence of first the Russians and then the Chinese, and discarding both for their ideological insufficiencies, Albanians closed themselves off to external contact. It is only recently that they have begun reaching out to make contact with the outside world.

TOURISM IS an ideal industry for such a beautiful country. But developing this industry is no easy task, particularly when there is no budget, infrastructure, or concept of how to cater to western tourists.

Major national roads are few and far between, potholed and at times too narrow for two buses to pass each other. Hotels offer basic amenities – hot water and efficient plumbing shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Gary and Judy, two Peace Corps volunteers stationed in Saranda, where their mission is to help promote tourism, suggested that rural tourism would be a good starting point for developing the tourism industry. They sold the idea of trekking groups to the local equivalent of a travel agent and from there the project took off.

Our travel agent, Ben, was originally from the Albanian Riviera. After the fall of communism and the opening of the country’s borders, he left Albania for Corfu where he opened a travel agency. Now he was persuaded to look back towards home and become a pioneer in the field of group trekking along the southern Albanian coast.

We set to work. To start I had to convince Ben that we really did want to trek, and not just for one day but for seven days. (Albanians had a hard time understanding why anyone would want to walk, given the option of any other form of transport.)

Then Ben went from village to village, recruiting family members and others in his search for facilities required by the group. Gary poured over aerial photographs and identified old coastal trails. He then walked them, reestablishing and marking them as he went. Judy studied and interpreted local cultures, helping us over periodic hurdles.

This role became increasingly important. For example, we discovered that shaking one’s head from side to side means “yes” whereas sticking one’s chin up is the way to say “no.” Judy then taught us proper greetings, which consisted of half a dozen formal exchanges before broaching the subject at hand.

Our trek began in Saranda, the main town on the Albanian Riviera, just a one-hour boat ride from Corfu. The town sprawls around a beautiful bay, and a chaotic heap of new and old buildings, interspersed with the remains of buildings that had been dynamited because they were illegally built.

Against this backdrop, caf s have sprung up where young men and women promenaded in tight jeans and skimpy tops while elders donned formal attire – the men in classic shirts and jackets and the women in knee-length skirts and blouses reminiscent of the ’50s. Among the back streets the scene was different. Fewer women were seen, and men sat together in caf s and restaurants, whiling away another day of unemployment.

In the center of town there was a large excavation of a fifth-century synagogue with a fine mosaic floor design of a menora. This site, which is still undergoing excavation, established the presence of one of the earliest Balkan Jewish communities. In acknowledgement of the significance of this find, the authorities began rerouting a major road through town so as to enable the full site to be excavated.

THE LOCAL ferry boat took us up the coast to Kakome, an idyllic and deserted bay from which we began our trek. Gazing at the brilliant sparkling water that lapped around the beach, and the shrub-covered mountains rising just behind, we quickly took notice of one of Albania’s national sights: sitting there on the beach was a row of bunkers that consisted of little grey concrete domes with slits.

The geopolitically strategic areas of the country are covered with close to a million bunkers. They were built in the 50s by the communist state, one per family, as protection from greatly feared attacks by surrounding countries.

It was here that we encountered our first obstacles to the development of tourism in Albania. We learned that the bay was marked as the future site of a Club Med resort, and would therefore be off limits to anyone who wasn’t a guest of the hotel. As we walked through the countryside, meeting the occasional shepherd or wild dog, we constantly encountered relics and signs of Albania’s turbulent past, a stark contrast to the now peaceful rural setting.

We followed our guide Ben, our trailblazer Gary, Drekko (Ben’s uncle, and a local goat herder), and Mushka the mule. We felt intoxicated from the strong scent of flowering sage and the breathtaking views in all directions.

Many of the villages we walked through seemed sparsely populated. Disintegrating cobbled paths led us past dilapidated stone houses with beautiful tiled roofs, that appeared derelict until we noticed an old woman dressed in black sitting silently in the doorway, waiting no doubt for the return of a son who had long gone to Tirana to find work and send money home.

And then we reached Himara, a major coastal village linked by Ottoman-era bridges to the old, largely deserted village stretching up a hill to a castle.

Our hotel was literally on the beach. The restaurant owner prepared long trestle tables laden with delicious local food – salads, savory pastries, fried cheese, baked eggplant, succulent lamb – and of course, homemade wine. Ben’s parents were from this village and meeting them was a highlight for us.

Ben’s father, a national poet during communist times, had been sent to Himara to develop cultural life. One of his achievements was to set up a local polyphonic singing group, which performed for us without accompaniment, and while eating and drinking.

We were moved when the group sang a song in our honor; the words were related to the suffering of Jews in the Nazi era and the hope that only happy and better times lie ahead for us. (The Albanians are proud to announce that Albania was the only country overrun by the Nazis where there were more Jews at the end of the war than at the beginning. Not one Jew was killed, and many refugees were taken in from bordering states.) This evening of polyphonic singing took place on Israeli Independence Day and ended with all of us singing “Shalom Aleichem.”

IT WAS a fascinating experience to meet the local people. Whereas 70% of Albanians today are Muslim, the coastal area where we walked comprises mainly Orthodox Christians who have family and other connections with nearby Greece. Many of them speak Greek. Monasteries and chapels in villages like Old Dhermi are returning to life after half a century of disuse. Eyes opened wide when we said that we live in Jerusalem.

Attitudes to religion appeared to be eclectic. It is not unusual to meet a family whose members belong to different religions, one to Islam, one to Christianity. Widespread tolerance is shown, with neighbors paying respects to each other on their festive days.

As we walked from village to village, we generally stayed in local hotels. The warm welcome and pride in their beautiful country, inevitably accompanied by great curiosity as to why we were visiting, more than compensated for poor services.

When a hotel owner in Qeparo personally went out fishing for our dinner – before starting his day’s work as mayor of the town – and then served us homemade wine as we sat watching the sun set over the Ionian Sea, the lack of hot water faded into insignificance. From his young daughter we learned that they did not remember foreigners ever coming to their hotel.

Communication was not easy. Local people did not speak English and we barely managed to master half a dozen Albanian words. But the effort was worthwhile. Every faleminderit (thank you) we produced was rewarded with smiles, and hugs that completely transformed their sometimes severe and suspicious facial expressions. We had only to look at their faces to be reminded of the hardship they had lived through.

In the village of Piluri there was no hotel, so we stayed with local families. And here, for the first time, we really sensed how tough life could be in Albania. Without a word in common, we all felt overwhelmed by the warmth of the hospitality offered by these exhausted, hardworking farmers. In the home where I slept, there was no hot water, and washing facilities were almost nonexistent.

The wife cooked on a gas burner in the corner of the bedroom and kept her few foodstuffs in a cupboard. In the morning, her husband, dressed in his best suit, sat opposite us as we ate a huge breakfast of fresh, boiled milk, homemade cheese and butter, bread, sweet tea, Turkish coffee and Raki. We were each given a gift of a hard-boiled egg for the journey that lay ahead. The wife spent some time in the bedroom adjusting her headscarf before she was ready for a picture. Only after many more kisses and hugs were we allowed to go on our way.

It is our hope that this marked the beginning of the Albanian bed and breakfast industry.

We then found ourselves back in Saranda. But our adventure was not over. One last and special treat awaited us: the Butrint National Park, a World Heritage site just south of the port of Saranda.

The ancient city, inhabited since prehistoric times, comprises at least 10 archeological sites and a diverse range of natural resources and wildlife habitats that support 14 globally endangered species. Its best known monuments, dating from the 4th century BCE, include the acropolis and the lower city, which contains bath houses, temples, palaces, and a fine theater. From the early Byzantine period we saw the basilica and baptistry with its spectacular mosaic floor.

The park, extending beyond the city borders, comprises a rich selection of Mediterranean flora and fauna all beautifully preserved and nurtured in a completely natural style.

Shortly thereafter we were home, sharing with family and friends what had now become memories.

NOMI PAYNTON, THE JERUSALEM POST

Copyright 1995-2005 The Jerusalem Post – http://www.jpost.com/

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.
This service is provided on Times Newspapers’ standard Terms and Conditions .