Wednesday, April 27, 2011

“Doesn’t Everyone Want to go to Albania?”

           Waterfront promenade in Sarande, Albania

I have to admit, that I may be a bit strange. Our kids think Mary Ann and I are just plain crazy, but surely they are just exaggerating. My slight quirkiness may have exhibited itself on a recent cruise in the Eastern Mediterranean. Was I hyped about stopping in Rhodes, Milos, Santorini, Corfu, or Dubrovnik? Of course not, I was excited about a stop in Saranda, Albania! Anybody can go the Santorini.

Now just how often in your lifetime do you have a chance to visit Albania? This little country emerged from the dark ages of a very repressive form of communism only eight years ago. Very few U.S. citizens have ever been there, so how could you not have this right at the top of your travel list? For some perspective there is only one international airport (Mother Theresa International – she was a native daughter of Albania) located in the capital city of Tirana. There are only three paved airports in the entire country. Where is Albania? On the east it faces the Ionian Sea opposite Italy, Greece on the south, Macedonia on the east, and Serbia, and Montenegro on the north. It is physically a small country with 3 ½ million people and the poorest economically in Europe. For a full overview of Albania and its current situation take a look at the profile of Albania :

Fortunately, in order to satisfy my travel quirk, our cruise line had a port stop in Saranda, Albania (hmmm, we were the only cruise ship in Saranda while there were 12 cruise ships in Dubrovnik, Croatia – go figure!). Saranda is one of the main (only?) resort towns in Albania with about 40,000 residents. It is trying hard to emerge from the 46 years of communist suppression resulting in a totally isolated country. Currently there is 25% unemployment which explains why 7 million Albanians are living elsewhere in the world. There was a lot of construction in Saranda, but much of it was abandoned or unfinished. There were a few upscale hotels and a very nice waterfront promenade. There was not yet a lot of tourist infrastructure.

The rumors were that if you took a tour out of Saranda, the buses would be without springs, there would be no air conditioning, and any bathrooms would be the proverbial hole in the ground. This did not seem to be very appealing to “wonder woman”, but it certainly was not a deterrent for me! We took a tour to Butrint, a UNESCO World Heritage site about 12 miles south of Saranda. The road was a narrow one lane highway, but it was paved. For goodness sake, what more could you ask for. The bus was up to our air conditioned soft ride western standards. It did take some time to travel the 12 miles as everyone had to stop at wide places on the road so either the bus or the oncoming traffic (usually old Mercedes) could pass by. You see a lot of trash and litter about, but no more than in many emerging and developing countries.

Butrint is an amazingly restored archeological site that goes back to the Greek occupation in the 3rd Century B.C. The ruins then trace the subsequent Roman occupation up through 500 A.D. and finish off with a Venetian fortress atop the hill from about 1500 A.D. The entire site is set on a peninsula which juts out into Lake Butrint which is connected to the Ionian Sea. Helen of Troy is rumored to have been a one time resident, but she did not seem to be around when we were there.

Following our walk about the restored and excavated ruins, and having completed our tour around the entire peninsula and up to the fort, we had time for refreshments at a perfectly respectable café just outside the gate. Mary Ann assures me their restroom was very acceptable, modern and clean, and certainly not just a hole in the floor. All I can say is that those passengers on the ship who did not take advantage of this rare chance to visit Albania certainly missed out. World travelers must be brave and ready to experience some less than ideal conditions. It would be interesting to see how Saranda might have changed by returning in a few years!

                          Sarande, Albania

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