The sky was very dark when the hydrofoil from Corfu docked in Saranda, Albania. The trip took 30 minutes; so close to Greece but before 1991, a world away. Albania had been ruled from 1943-1985 by the Soviet style dictator Enver Hoxha, who closed the country off from the world. The first time I visited Saranda in 1996, it was a tiny seaside village . By the time, i returned in 2008, it had grown into a small city. As we walked out of passport control, the entire coastline was cluttered with every size and shape of building, mostly hotels and there was a line of men and women holding signs for hotels, taxis and tours. As quickly as we could, we grabbed a taxi to Ksamil, a small beach town thirty minutes south.
We had booked an Airbnb without an address; the only info we had, near Bela Vista beach. Our taxi driver, a young boy who spoke only Albanian, dropped us at the beach in the pouring rain. We found a woman at the Castle hotel, it actually looked just like a castle and she called the host of the apartment. He sent over his Mafia like macho assistant to take us to the apartment . It had a great view of the sea with two tiny bathrooms, two beds in the kitchen and one in an alcove. My clothes were always damp from the humidity and to avoid flooding the bathroom, I didn’t take a shower.
The tourist season over, Ksamil had become a ghost town. The next day after wandering around town, we could not find the apartment, but since many of the Albanians speak Greek, having worked in Athens or the islands after the end of the communist dictatorship, we made friends and found help. Our first new acquaintance we met at the bakery. Vendim was a Christian preacher, but we didn’t let that get in our way. Sharing stories about growing up in a family of eight under the dictatorship had made his religious beliefs, outlawed then, stronger . He invited us for coffee and of course every other bar in Albania has an espresso machine.
It was easy to spot the espresso bars, filled with young men and women. Older men, with sad faces, dressed in drab, dark clothes, sat in the traditional tavern, drinking Turkish coffee and smoking cigarettes. Women were unofficially banned. The elderly receive a retirement pension of between $120-$240 a month, barely enough to survive. The youth under 25 want to leave for Europe or U.S., seeing no future in Albania. People who are now middle aged, have had the most opportunity to make a better life. After 1991, they worked abroad, saved money and returned to start businesses, the majority involved in tourism.
We were determined to take public transport but standing at the bus stop in the morning, with a bunch of Albanians, the bus arrival changing every few minutes, we opted for a taxi, directly to Gjirokaster. One hour and 45 euro less in our pockets, we arrived at another World Heritage site, a 13th century Byzantine town under Ottoman rule from 1417-1913. It became part of the newly independent state of Albania in 1913 but there has always been conflict since a large minority are Greeks. However, there are few Greek tourists in Albania.The Corfiotes generally do not like the Albanians ,even though many have lived and worked on the island for over 20 years. I was a curiosity as a tourist who spoke Greek, and was not Greek.
I had booked a small traditional hotel online but when we arrived no one knew where it was.. Finally at tourist information, a young guy who was fluent in English,called the owner. The first to arrive was his pretty teenage daughter, followed by her dad who spoke only Albanian. They took our bags and started walking up the steep cobble stone streets until we reached the end of the old village. He gestured towards his car at which point I asked ‘where is your hotel’?She replied past the castle, at the top of the mountain. Without a lot of argument, they agreed to cancel the reservation, We had each booked our own rooms on different sites; booking.com credited my entire booking fee of $80. Back down the hill, i checked a very accessible hotel at the beginning of the town. Dating back 300 years, it had been restored recently, squeezing in fifty two rooms, charging 55 euro a night. Tiny but luxurious, with feather like mattresses, two nights passed quickly.
Such warm, friendly people, plus my Greek fluency, made it easy to have long conversation with shopkeepers and hotel concierges. I collected several new Facebook friends and learned a lot about their lives. Anna had lived in Athens half her life and gone to school there. She was 39 and had come back to Albania after the 2008 financial crisis, her friend also Albanian, now her husband, followed but they didn’t renew their residence permits so they couldn’t go back to Greece. Her father goes back each year to work. She works in a small boutique hotel with 9 rooms 6 days a week and earns 250 Euro a month. She has 2 adorable sons and speaks English, Greek and of course Albanian.
Emira was my other new friend; she was married, 32 yrs old ,and a mother of 2. She had taught herself English, Italian, and some Greek and worked in a pastry shop, and she was a Bekasi Sufi, the most moderate Muslim minority.
Gjirokastër was enough after one and a half days. As we trekked up a large cobblestone road to the 14th century castle, elderly men and women stood by the road, selling lace tablecloths, wooden utensils and other sundries of stuff one doesn’t need.
I am always sadden and wonder how these people survive. I bought 5 dollars worth of something to help. Another castle under my belt, we prepared to leave for Korce the next day.
At least a 6 hour journey, we considered renting a car but the Albanian renting the cars had Mercedes and other large expensive cars that didn’t sit well on narrow mountain roads.
So the opportunity to take the bus seemed reasonable.We were up at 5:00 am and down to the bus stop at 5:45. An old mini bus with 25 seats, already full of locals carrying large bags, we grabbed the two seats in back of the driver. Before the bus even closed its doors, another throng of country folk squeezed in and crouched in the aisle. On the way out of Gjirokastër, the bus stopped to let people on and off. Within an hour on the road, I noticed the engine was making a strange sound. Within minutes after this, there was steam rising from the hood. The radiator had a leak and the battery died.
But this was an old communist country and like Cuba, rags, twine and wire were used to fix broken cars. So stocking up on water jugs and getting a tow to start the battery, we were on the road again. Between the loud Balkan music and the Albanian voices, my friend had ear plugs and I watched the last episodes of the downloaded series The Spy.We had left at 6 am and arrived in Korce at 1:30. Immediately we loved the town; the houses from the 1920’s-30’s, the wide streets and the abundance of espresso bars and restaurants.
Our small hotel of 7 rooms had been renovated a few years before and reminded me of the brownstone I once owned in Brooklyn. The taxi driver who took us up to our charming villa, became a dear friend. He had lived and worked in Athens for 29 years and came back each summer to drive tourists around in his treasured Mercedes taxi. He had a house in Korce and a house outside of Athens. His wife and son lived and worked in Athens; his other son lived in Glasgow, Scotland; his brother had immigrated 20 years ago to Jacksonville Florida and was more American than Albanian and they all reunited in August in Albania for a beach holiday. We spoke Greek together and he corrected me when I made a mistake. After realizing the idea of returning to Saranda by bus at 4 am was ridiculous , Vasili drove us in style in his Mercedes to catch the boat to Corfu.
One of the memorable moments with Vasili was when we went to pay the hotel in Korce and they accepted only cash. About to go to an ATM, Vasili pulled out 168 euro and told us we could pay him later.
The trip to Saranda from Korce was tiring and long. We drove on narrow mountain roads, through lush forests, grazing sheep pastures and over the Pindus mountain range, which lies on the northern Greek and southern Albanian border. Vasili kept a conversation going almost the entire trip so I finally had to escape to the back seat. We bought him a Turkish coffee for his drive back to Korce. We walked around Saranda in the evening and were glad we only had one night in this town. Overcrowded with too many hotels and apartments, the streets were pretty dirty and on the ocean front, the prices were inflated. I felt helpless watching homeless dogs roaming in packs on the street. We had an end of season room deal facing the sea for 29 Euro and probably the worst free breakfast on the trip. Running down the street, I found my morning cappuccino at a bar on the seafront for 1.5 euros.. Boy am I spoiled.