From the tourist-friendly Mediterranean island of Corfu, southern Albania is just a short ferry ride away. We take the road (or boat) less travelled and discover a land rich in history.
Our first glimpse of Albania is from the bus which, having wound its way along the narrow roads from Corfu town, has crested its final hill in the run down to the small fishing harbour town of Kassiopi.
The ruins of a hill fort, a sweeping crescent piazza waterfront and its attendant cafes are below us and in the distance, across a shimmering blue sea are hills. High hills and, at their base, tall white buildings.
That’s Albania, a country renowned for fiercely maintaining its privacy and traditions while surrounded by nations that have witnessed substantial and sometimes catastrophic changes.
My parents often retold how, sailing near Corfu in the 1950s, they came a bit too close to Albania, only to be “encouraged” back to Greek waters by an Albanian gunboat whose artillery was definitely pointed at their vessel and not ahead of its bow.
The day after arriving in Kassiopi, we easily discover more about Albania: the buildings we see are part of Saranda, a favourite holiday destination for wealthier Albanians; the snow on the Albanian hills is crystal clear to view on warm winter days from Corfu; there are many Albanians living on Corfu and — most useful to us — there are regular day trips to Albania with excursions to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Butrint, barely half an hour from the port of Saranda.
Tickets are booked (they are not expensive), an alarm clock set for an early rise and we are ready to step into the unknown. The day starts innocuously enough in the soft, blue pre-dawn light with a bus ride to the ferry that runs from the town of Corfu, one hour away.
It’s a bit of a milk run, offering wonderful scenes of rural Corfu and stunning views from the ridge of the hills that dominate the geography of the north of the island.
We pick up various tourists from resorts, retreats and private houses along the way and finally rumble into Corfu’s old port precinct.
After a short time queuing for the visa formalities in an unsophisticated shed, we are soon on board the boat and puffing our way north up the coast of Corfu before swinging east to Saranda.
Many years ago, I landed at Tashkent in Soviet Russia. The most memorable aspect of that brief sojourn was the line of armed, grim soldiers ensuring we couldn’t stray from the course that led to the waiting room with its faded posters, insipid apple juice and dubious-looking chicken wings.
I’d suspected we would be greeted at Saranda in similar fashion, by a no-nonsense squad of gun-toting uniforms sent to ensure we do as told and not necessarily as we want.
And I am completely wrong. Not a gun in sight. Instead, a small group of welcoming multilingual guides who divide us into groups according to language.
We are soon on board buses creeping round the narrow streets of Saranda to a hotel for tea and some nibbles and then to Butrint.
Out of the city we rumble, past new developments where goats bounce around half-completed buildings.
It is, without doubt, off season, but nevertheless I am surprised by the absence of people in the city, its suburbs or developments.
A narrow road winds its way above a fertile plain criss-crossed by waterways. On the other side, we get occasional glimpses of a coastline with pristine beaches, islands and hills sweeping down to rocky shores.
We draw to a halt on a large area of levelled land by a sluggish, wide estuary just as the heavens open long enough to persuade half the visitors to remain on the bus.
The rest of us steel ourselves for a drenching and pile out to discover the ruins and little-known story of a fascinating piece of Mediterranean history.
A two-hour guided tour reveals its history. Settled since prehistoric times, Butrint was occupied at various times by the Greeks, the Romans and the Venetians before being abandoned in the 19th century.
Its defensive walls and high perch on the hill overlooking Lake Butrint must have made it impregnable to assailants while the still waters of the Vivari Channel provided a perfect conduit for the trading ships of the Mediterranean countries.
So why did Butrint change hands so often? Why was it abandoned?
The guide tells us it was the marshes and the lake. The mosquito infestations caused such fierce outbreaks of malaria that Butrint, for all its logistical advantages for trade and defence, became untenable as a viable place for humans. Note to self: if returning, bring insect repellent suitable for bird-sized biters.
The dozens of structures and fortifications still standing bear testament to the various occupying forces.
The view from the ramparts over the marshes to one side and the lake and mountains to the other are breathtaking despite — or perhaps because of — the swirling rain clouds.
It is extraordinary how intact so much of it is, considering the several hundred years of opportunity for weather, nature and humans to degrade it.
As it is, we gaze onto the amphitheatre where Romans would once have watched plays, stand on battlements where Byzantine soldiers would have once watched for signs of enemies, wander through temples and basilicas where Greeks would have worshipped and pick our way through the ruins of the once-decadent homes of Venetian merchants. At the foot of the ramparts are portals through which produce would have been imported and exported. Today, the only boat visible is far out on the lake, a small dinghy occupied by a figure in a yellow raincoat, optimistically fishing in the downpour.
In a bid to make some geographical sense of Butrint’s location, we make our way to the Venetian tower at the high point of the site.
To the east stretch long, rich pastures interspersed with waterways or flooded roads — it’s hard to tell today.
To the south lie the dark, forbidding mountains towering over the lake and the former city.
To the west, over the trees we can glimpse water and the hills that line the channel to the sea, while to the north the view is similar, bar the water.
We return to the steamy-windowed bus and the tourists who remained.
Back in Saranda, the rain has eased and we are free to walk around the town.
Saranda is unpretentious. It has tall buildings that appear designed for function rather than glamour: they are there to house holidaying Albanians.
Occasionally, we stumble across a house which, having seen better days, gives us a glimpse of the struggle Albania must be facing to progress and appeal to Western tourists.
The harbourfront provides a wonderful view back onto the city and its mix of old and new buildings.
Colourful boats decorated with bright flowers lie by the quay, which I suspect they rarely leave.
Bright yellow nets piled on the quay suggest, however, there is still some fishing activity.
There are also plenty of cafes, tables and umbrellas to welcome visitors on a sunnier day. It would be good to return in the tourist season.
We head back to the port and set off for Corfu as the heavens open again.
This forces the passengers on the deck into the saloon below and it soon becomes apparent that most of the day trippers, rather than filling up on ancient history, had availed themselves of some fine Albanian hospitality in several Saranda taverns.
It also becomes clear that the little boat is very “practical”.
For while the alternative transport to and from Albania — an aerofoil — no doubt has rows of seats and, possibly, a television to entertain the customers, this little tub does not.
But we do have the Poles. We are seated at one of the many, many tables available in the saloon. Not one of them is fixed to the ground — nor are the chairs.
The upside to this is that you can pick up a chair and move it to join the rest of your family. The downside is that, if the tub rolls too extravagantly, you are going to move — and the table isn’t going to stop you.
None of this bothers the Polish passengers. They have stocked up on something potent from the Albanian duty free and a party of a dozen or so younger passengers are leading the singing at one end of the boat.
Their raucous chant lifts and rolls with the boat; two old ladies near us are singing away to the song and an extra loud cheer rising whenever the boat pitches into a particularly deep trough.
There’s much table thumping and laughter. It’s better than any television and it may be just as well that the words are unintelligible, so I can answer truthfully when asked by our youngest child what they are singing about. “I have no idea.”
And that’s how we chug back into Corfu. But as we disembark near the harbourfront, we can see the shimmer of lights of Saranda across the water.
Wonderful to have seen a bit of an unassuming country and a glimpse of such fascinating history.
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