“Do you realize we’re just 30 minutes from Albania?” I said. “We could take a boat over tomorrow.”
Albania — like Naples — is often viewed as one of the least desirable destinations in Europe, so naturally Rich and I have been longing to go. We’ve set out for it twice, only to have our trips cut short for various reasons. And now, in the middle of our most unplanned, disorganized trip ever, we found ourselves literally within sight of its shores.
Here's how it happened. After the madhouse of Naples, we’d meandered southeast across Italy, dozing in the quiet mountain town of Potenza and strolling the tranquil streets of ancient Lecce. Finally I said, “Great food, gorgeous weather, magnificent monuments … this is beginning to feel more like a vacation than an adventure. Time to shake things up a little!” We stopped in a café, ordered espresso, and pulled out the map.
“Brindisi is just up the coast,” Rich pointed out. “We could catch a ferry to Greece. The closest port is … Iggie-something.” Igoumenitsa (or Iguana, as Rich kept calling it) was just opposite the island of Corfu. Before we’d drained our thimble-sized coffee cups, Rich was on his phone booking tickets.
Perhaps we should have paused to read the reviews, although at that point we had the bit between our teeth and would doubtless have charged forward anyway. Later I discovered that embittered travelers frequently speak of that ferry ride using such phrases as “a thoroughly, genuinely terrible experience,” and “an absolute disaster, never again.”
Blithely unaware of the ferry's reputation, we stumbled on board, wondering why there were so few passengers. A crew member directed us to an empty lounge furnished with filthy, ragged seats so repellent that we immediately fled to the bar. Bypassing the hideously uncomfortable couches, we selected seats from the array of chairs with screws poking up out of the armrests. The food was so bad even the truckers weren’t finishing their meals. When we finally docked in Iguana late that night, we had to exit through the parking deck, flattening ourselves against the wall to avoid being crushed by massive 18-wheelers tearing past; we could hardly blame them for being eager to leave.
The next morning, a pristine little ferry took us to Corfu. Onboard, we saw a few folks on holiday but nothing like the mobs of tourists we’d feared to find on this popular destination island. Our lodgings were near the harbor on a quaint street of colorful old houses with a few cafés, a church, and a bakery; we saw no one but locals. Wandering over to a nearby square, we found sun-bleached old buildings with weathered shutters and a few people lingering over coffee in the shade of a vine-covered trellis.
“Lucky we’re here in the offseason,” I said. “We have the island practically to ourselves.”
My optimism was as short-lived as it was misplaced. A few blocks further on, we began seeing tourists: a few dozen, then hundreds, finally thousands. The streets became a heaving mass of vacationers, tour guides, horse-drawn carriages, Segways, and Hop-On-Hop-Off buses. Aghast, we bolted back to the apartment.
“So not quite as undiscovered as we’d hoped,” I muttered grimly. “There must be some way of avoiding the crowds.” And that’s when I opened my laptop and found the day trip to Sarandë, Albania, conveniently located just 8.7 miles across the Ionian Sea.
Off we went the next morning on the Flying Dolphin, a hovercraft packed with ancient women in widow’s black, European bicyclists, families heading to reunions, and men hauling mattresses home to their wives. “This is more like it,” Rich said.
A century ago Sarandë was a settlement of 110 inhabitants; today it’s home to 20,227 or possibly 41,173 residents, depending on whose figures you believe. Considered part of the new (still largely theoretical) Albanian Riviera, this port city offers deep blue water, 300+ days of sun a year, and a row of nice waterfront cafés; it hasn’t yet gotten around to doing much else to attract tourists.
Undistracted by official Points of Interest, Rich and I watched fishermen selling their catch, chatted with an old fellow who wanted to know if we were married (I’m not sure why this was of interest), and poked our heads into the dank interior one of the famous 173,000 defensive bunkers built by Enver Hoxha when he ran the People's Socialist Republic of Albania. We climbed over the stubby remains of stone walls which, according to the sign, were a Christian basilica constructed four to five hundred years before Christ. (How that is possible? Beats me. A miracle, maybe?)
As we left the stone ruins, a dapper fellow named Romeo popped up from his underground barber shop and greeted us in English. The next thing I knew Rich was saying “Yes, I could use a trim!” A delighted Romeo escorted us downstairs, and as he finished up with a prior customer, he regaled us with stories about visiting his son in Minneapolis, USA. This topic took us through Rich’s haircut, which involved scissors, straight razor, electric razor, whisking, blowdrying, and threading cotton through a comb to remove stray hairs. We got a solid 40 minutes of entertainment and a haircut for just 300 lev (about $3.70).
For us, it was a perfect day. Sarandë may lack Corfu’s storybook charm — indeed, most of the landscape is a series of unfortunate high-rises — and the kamikaze road warriors are more terrifying even than Napoli’s. But aside from the drivers and one cranky, hungover waiter at the coffee bar, everyone was warm and welcoming, laying before us such modest treasures as the city possesses, urging us to come back whenever we need a haircut, fresh fish, or simply a chat. And we will be back. Faleminderit për kujtimet, Albania. (Thanks for the memories.)
Stay tuned for updates on our trip. I’ll be posting at unplanned, disorganized intervals, so if you’re not already on my mailing list, sign up now to make sure you don’t miss a thing.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain, to which I've just returned after a 16-month absence due to the pandemic.
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