Our Surprise Day Trip to Albania
“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.
4/19/2018 05:50:33 pm
I just visited Corfu for the first time, one of my long-time goals after reading My Family and Other Animals a few years ago. I agree about Corfu Town, but we stayed in the little village of Barbati, and it was lovely. We drove around the northern part of the island, and since it's not tourist season yet, it was pretty quiet. I think it's worth another visit, but I'll avoid Corfu Town and the months of May-September!
4/20/2018 02:08:20 pm
I read My Family and Other Animals on the ferry going to Igoumenitsa, and it paints a delightful picture of the island back in the 1930s. Yes, I'm sure much of the rural charm is still there in the more remote areas, and you can't beat the scenery or the weather on the island in general. Our little neighborhood was really traditional and quiet. There is a lot to like about Corfu, although as you say, best avoid it during the high season.
4/19/2018 06:29:23 pm
Sounds a little like an ancient visit of mine to East Germany!--though sunnier. Anyway, very amusing, and tell Rich he looks stunning in that new(?) do . . .
4/20/2018 02:12:02 pm
It's always an experience going behind what used to be called the Iron Curtain. I will pass on your compliment to Rich, Tobey. I think he is secretly hoping to set a new fashion trend in Albanian hair styling.
4/19/2018 07:43:53 pm
You two crack me up!
4/20/2018 02:12:34 pm
Glad you're enjoying the fun, Lois!
4/19/2018 09:03:28 pm
Karen, I just love reading your blogs, checking out what you are carrying and all your tips. I’m still looking for a great jacket with sleeves and lots of pockets like your multipocketed vest.
4/20/2018 02:19:23 pm
So happy to hear you're enjoying our crazy travel adventures, Mary. As to jackets, I am in the market for a new one myself; my old fave olive green one has just about fallen apart. Rich loves his multi-pocket Koyono Black Coat Classic, so I'll look at that, and also see what Scottevest, the makers of 17-pocket travel vest, have to offer. Or I may just buy a regular jacket and have the tailor at my dry cleaners add a couple of extra inside zippered pockets. I'll keep you posted on what I find works best. And please let me know if you run across anything that looks interesting.
4/19/2018 10:19:35 pm
What no "Eat With" family in Albania?? Great story, Karen!!
4/20/2018 02:24:09 pm
Incredibly, we couldn't find an EatWith host in Sarandë. Go figure! But we're now in Athens and have booked an EatWith dinner for tomorrow night. We also took a food tour here, and have learned that just about everything we think we know about Greek food is wrong. We've had great meals; luckily we're walking hours every day to work them off.
4/19/2018 10:31:56 pm
Nice blowout, Rich! ::smirk::
4/20/2018 02:24:41 pm
I think he's hoping to start a fashion trend, Traci!
4/19/2018 10:56:26 pm
John Beluchi was Albanian ...for what its worth...
4/20/2018 02:27:03 pm
I had no idea, Paul. Somehow, that fits; I can easily imagine John Beluchi in Sarandë. Just look at the guy waiting his turn in the video of Rich's hair cut!
4/20/2018 05:39:18 am
We've been a part of that Corfu Crush and won't rush back to do it again. However, keep in mind that if you took a ferry to Patras, Greece and then drove a few hours you'd be at our house in The Mani. We'd love to show you two our part of the world someday!!
4/20/2018 02:27:53 pm
We will take you up on that one day, Jackie! It would be wonderful to see Greece through your eyes.
4/20/2018 02:54:50 pm
We love Corfu, but have always gone to the west coast, which is far more laid back and way less crowded, even in August. We venture out to the east of the island rather than stay there. Once we went to the top of the tallest mountain in Corfu (can't remember the name) for sunrise, and it was worth the early start. As we came around the last bend, there was a herd of cows in the road, sleeping there presumably because of the heat the road retains from the daytime.
4/20/2018 04:07:16 pm
No doubt about it - you do see the world. Love the haircut - what a bargain. The big ferry looks like UK cross-Channel ones were like - shabby and dirty.
1/14/2019 12:13:25 am
Why dramatize it more than it already is ? Saranda is no alternative it factually is a tourist hot spot ( Albania of 2.831 million resident population having this year 6.2 million foreign tourists ) ... with Saranda having had around 1 million tourists this year.
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
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