e premte, qershor 27, 2008

Jan & Cora Gordon - Vagabonds in Albania

I previously posted some comments and quotations from Jan and Cora Gordon's travels in Albania in the mid-1920's.

See here for links.

A very interesting website on the Gordon's has been brought to my attention and I have added the link to the posts.


Sorry, but at the moment I am in Scotland with "limited" internet access, so posting will be infrequent for a short time.

e diel, qershor 15, 2008

Want clean beaches? Go to Albania!

Here is a report in today's Independent newspaper.
I have never been to saranda, but having been just south of Vlore, i can confirm that there are many areas of "untouched" shoreline where the beaches are clean and the water is very clear.

It is however a different story in Velipoje and Golem , where there are far too many people and little hygiene!
It seems all of Shkoder is in Velipoje in the summer and all of Durres and Tirana are in Golem.

Things will change over the years and Albania's shorelines will get more touristy...but for now there are many places to be enjoyed while the chance is still there!

The beaches are clean in Albania. And they're almost empty!

Clear seas, rooms with views, even a lost city to explore. How long till the hordes reach Albania, asks Marcus Tanner

Sunday, 15 June 2008

I never meant to go to Albania. Who would after reading Paul Theroux's apocalyptic account of a trip to Vlore in The Pillars of Hercules? The idea was a sunny week in Corfu. But Corfu and I didn't connect, so after two days I checked out of my hotel and wheeled my suitcase to the port.

I never meant to go to Albania. Who would after reading Paul Theroux's apocalyptic account of a trip to Vlore in The Pillars of Hercules? The idea was a sunny week in Corfu. But Corfu and I didn't connect, so after two days I checked out of my hotel and wheeled my suitcase to the port.

The first office I reached had the sign "Tickets to Albania" in the window, and as the man inside at his desk looked amiable, curiosity drew me in. When was the next boat? "In a few minutes at nine o'clock." "Umm, can I get back?" "There are three boats a day!" How long was the ride? "Twenty-five minutes." That more or less sorted it; the fact that my return ticket cost only €25 clinched it.

I admit, I crossed the short stretch of water to Saranda, accompanied solely by grizzled-looking Albanian Gastarbeiters, with unease. I knew a splendid "lost" Roman city lay close to Saranda, but what of the town? Would there be hotels, running water, power – a menu I could understand?

My worries evaporated as soon as our boat sped into a magnificent bay. The town of Saranda sweeps in a grand arc around one of the great natural harbours of the Ionian Sea. No doubt the Communist regime of Enver Hoxha once pumped a good deal of sludge into these blue waters, but one side-effect of Albania's abrupt de-industrialisation in the early 1990s is a lack of pollution.

A long walk round the bay revealed no sign of effluent. I swam without a care. I swam without much company either; the youths of the town remained on the corniche, watching the handful of foreigners splashing around in the sea with speculative, enigmatic expressions.

Finding digs from which to enjoy the blue expanse was easy. In recent years a building boom has gripped Albania as villages empty their populations into the towns and as a huge population of expatriate workers in Greece, Italy and Britain pour their savings back into the mother country – and into concrete, as no one much trusts banks.

The result is hotel after hotel after hotel, most with improbable names – either American cities (Chicago, New York), spiritual destinations (Paradise, Heaven) or odd historical personages. I chose one named after Mussolini's daughter, Eda, for its prime seafront location, and was delighted with my squeaky-clean double room and balcony overlooking the sea – all for half the price of my dreary hotel room in Corfu, which had only overlooked bins.

Apart from any number of hotels and restaurants serving fresh, unfussy meals of meat, soups, pasta and mussels – the last from the nearby freshwater lake – the town of Saranda has few historic sights to detain visitors beyond the ruins of a 4th-century synagogue. So the next day, I hopped into one of the fleet of waiting taxis and headed about 12 miles south to Butrint, a journey that costs about €10 each way. I left the concrete half-builds behind, entering a wild and untamed landscape of bare mountains, churning lakes and expanses of grassland – a raw and pristine world that vaguely reminded me of Skye. There, where marshland meets the sea, lies the lost city of Butrint, a great city in Greek and Roman times that Virgil mentioned in The Aeneid, but which sank slowly into oblivion after Slavic tribes invaded the Balkans in the 6th century.

State managed, with the aid of the London-based Butrint Foundation, its excellent condition and signposting contrast sharply with so many other archaeological sites I have seen in the Balkans, abandoned since the fall of Communism to treasure hunters and thieves.

An inviting restaurant-hotel, the Livia, sits at the site entrance, a great place to wind down after a long walk through the glades and ruined churches and eat a meal of fish soup, chicken fillets and Tirana beer.

I left Albania wanting to go back, surely the benchmark of a successful holiday. I never got to the ancient town of Gjirokaster, about an hour's drive from Saranda, and I would love to stay at the Livia, walking from there to the scattered hilltop villages, some Greek Orthodox, some Muslim, that I saw on the horizon. There is great birding to be done in Butrint, too, for the wetlands are rich in egrets and orioles, not to mention otters.

The other reason I want to go back is because the Albanians are palpably enthusiastic for visitors. After years of isolation they have flung open their rather battered front door and are putting a trembling best foot forward.

With its moody, unchartered and, in places, bewitching landscape, southern Albania is sure to become better known in future, as news spreads of its increased accessibility. Perhaps it will eventually become as exhausted from mass tourism as Corfu. But that day is far off. There is still time.

How to get there

Petrakis Lines (ioniancruises .com) offers return fares to Saranda from €25. Double rooms at the Hotel Porto Eda (portoeda.com) cost from €50 per night with breakfast.

Further information

Butrint Foundation (butrint.org). Albania

e diel, qershor 01, 2008

A visit to Shkoder

Had to post this link.

It is a post of a trip by someone last year.
Although from the photos and the reports it appears like 10 years ago!

Anyway, anyone who starts with...
"... almost immediately we are in Shkoder. What a mess. "
deserves to be read....


here is the full post!


At the border is a massive puddle, which I studiously avoid. After all, how deep is the hole? I have no wish to get stuck right at the border crossing where everyone is likely to gather round to gawp and giggle.

The border post consists of a portacabin on each side of the road. From out of one of these comes a man in a white coat clutching a clipboard. He peers at my car, and asks for two euros to cover the cost of the agricultural inspection. "But I am in a car," I say, somewhat puzzled. Surely agricultural inspections are reserved for tractors and combine harvesters. He ignores me, and asks if I have driven thru the disinfectant unit. "Disinfectant?" I look puzzled. He ignores my implied question, and writes something on a piece of paper which he then pulls from his clipboard and hands to me. Obviously the puddle is the disinfectant unit. The piece of paper is almost incomprehensible, but appears to be a receipt for my two euros. No doubt I have passed the agricultural inspection.

I am then asked for ten euros for my license to drive in Albania, and am given a splendid document on stiff paper with a great seal affixed to it. It looks worth every cent of ten euros. This is something I can frame and put on my study wall. I stand there staring at it for some time. I will have to look after it and keep it clean. I proudly place it in the windscreen.

The road from the border is excellent. Smooth, wide, a comfortable drive, but sinister just the same. What is that wide mouth staring at me from the bank just on the bend. It is like some futuristic painting of a head, with the mouth staring straight at me. It is watching me as I drive towards it. It has a great view right down the road, and across most of the valley. As I swing round the bend I look up at it. It is a massive pill box set in concrete in the bank overlooking the entry to the village. Back in the days of Enver Hoxha two members of the secret police would have sat in there watching the comings and goings, and generally spying on the workers on the land.

The road follows the river, which has massive great nets hanging from complicated structures. On every corner, and on every hill is another pill box; the gaping mouths a warning to the population that they are under constant observation.

I go thru a village and on the other side is a great clutch of the things. There must be half a dozen all angled to a slightly different orientation. What the heck were they watching out here? Each other? How did the locals live in this stifling atmosphere? Under observation twentyfour hours a day from armed police. This whole country used to be a massive concentration camp. It is rather freaky driving along, altho I know the boxes and watch-towers are now empty. At least I think they are.

I come to a bridge over the river. It is a rickety affair which wont support much weight so we are reduced to single file traffic. I wait at the lights and a gypsy boy leans in thru the window looking at the fancy lights splashed all over the dashboard. He pushes a button, lifts a lever, but cant see much happening. I show him a button on the door, and press it while pointing to the opposite window, which winds down. He grins, fascinated, and spends the next fifty seconds playing with the buttons, nearly jamming his arm in the window when he presses the button for the window he is leaning thru.

The lights change. I drive over the bridge, and almost immediately we are in Shkoder. What a mess. Everything is everywhere; pedestrians, bikes, beat-up old cars, ancient lorries, sheds alongside the road where mechanics have set up business. There is a brand new petrol station next to concrete cells for gypsies by the bridge. There are girls in tartan skirts, girls in jeans, tenement blocks with washing hanging from makeshift lines, filthy walls, rusting t.v. aerials. There are gypsies going thru the trash cans taking out an old bicycle inner tube. Two men on a vespa are towing a horse. There is a new church, wide open to the street, a box-like, clean building in bright colours.

The streets are total chaos, with people walking, cycling, driving cars across any free space. Cars and pedestrians weave about amongst each other in a seemingly random fashion using whatever free space is available, no matter which side of the road. There are potholes everywhere, some several yards across. It has just been raining and the road is soaking. Some enterprising pedestrians have placed slabs of concrete across the larger potholes so they can cross the road without getting too wet, and the cars have to weave amongst these objects.

I get out and walk. The pavements are brimming with people. At least the pavements are dry. But they are cluttered with portable shops, and furniture for sale strewn every which way. I wander around inside this chaos for a while, then head out of town.

Suddenly we are all brought to a halt. A traffic jam here? Wow. We dont move for ages. In the end I get out and walk up the line to see what the problem is. In the middle of the road is a cart with one of its wheels stuck in a pothole. The mule is struggling to pull it out, but with no success. Eventually the two gypsies in the cart get out and start to unload it there in the middle of the road. First they push the sheep out; there are six of them, there are two bags of animal feed, and a great jumble of corrugated iron sheets. This is all unloaded into the road, and the sheep wander off looking for grass. The men gradually manage to lead the mule forward as it heaves the wheel out of the hole. Then they load back the bags and the iron, and go off to try and round up the sheep which are wandering in among the cars and bicycles.

At last I manage to get out of town, and drive along a road beside the lake. There are no houses near the lake, and when I try to approach the area I am thwarted by high wire fences. Of course the border goes thru the middle of the lake so no-one was allowed near it. A decade ago the police would have patrolled this area. Now it is calm, and I pass a garden with a grave in it, the grave is surrounded by a fence which is laden with flowers.

Further down the road I am stopped by a traffic cop for not wearing a seat-belt. I dont believe it. This is scarcely a road I am driving down, and.... hey, this is Albania isn't it? I put on my seat-belt and drive on, deeply shocked.

I dont have much time scheduled for Albania. This is just a short recce. But I rather like the messy chaos everywhere. I must come back. Meanwhile I head back to Montenegro.

Shkoder is not that bad.

Even the author says...
"But I rather like the messy chaos everywhere. I must come back."

p.s. I love the bit about being stopped by the traffic policeman! :-)