May 1, 2010

SARANDE ALBANIA — OFF THE BEATEN PATH & WORTH A CLOSER LOOK

SARANDE ALBANIAChatting with our fellow cruisers back onboard at the end of the day in Sarande, it was hard to believe we’d been in the same spot.  “Poor . . .not much to see . . . horrible roads . . .” were the reports we heard from fellow travelers.  We were confounded.    For us, it was something else entirely.  A new frontier, not yet “discovered” by the hordes of Med visitors, a raw country, finding its way into the 21st century amidst its history of bomb shelters and spectacular scenery.   Having a chance to explore it was one of the highlights of this itinerary — a place where we’re not jaundiced with preconceived notions, stories from other travelers, and endless websites touting various must-do-must-see sites and activities.   Just us, and a country we knew almost nothing about.  Until today.

For me, Albania is one of those places I’ve heard about for years, but never really knew where it was, much less what it was like.  It was a bit embarrassing to realize my images of babushkas and cold climate were trumped by stunning Mediterranean vistas and a warm-but-cautious people.  There are almost as many bunkers as people in Albania, a visible reminder of its paranoid past.  School holidays were set aside so children could help build the bunkers, our driver explained, “to protect us from the enemy.”  It wasn’t lost on me that we were the enemies he’d been warned about.

While most of our fellow travelers opted to stay on the ship, or perhaps venture out on a sanitized bus tour, we opted instead to spend the day with Durim, a local cab driver we found near the port.  His perfectly detailed Mercedes minivan stood in stark contrast to the abandoned construction and work-in-progress that defines Sarande.   He spoke halting English, but bragged that his daughters speak perfect English.  It’s taught in schools now, and children learn it early, then teach their parents, he explained.

From the hillside castle, we enjoyed captivating vistas across farmland and beyond, to the Greek Isles of the Med.  The brilliant blue sky against the sparkling water and lush islands created a computer wallpaper type scene, almost too beautiful to comprehend, particularly enchanting since we were the only people in sight, save the caretaker slowly sweeping the decks.  Then that diesel roar groaned, a caravan of buses careening up the hill, “sticker people” as the kids call them, ready to descend on this quaint little castle.  But wait!  As the hoards descend, Sacagawea and Dundee spot their shipboard buddies, Morgan and Theo (parents in tow) stumbling off the bus.  Their faces tell the story . . . the bus ride is miserable.  Details follow:  the stench of carsick travelers, AC that’s not quite working,  two boys who want to be anywhere but there.  “Join us!” the kids plea, and without hesitation, our friends ditch the bus for Durim’s Mercedes, and our own version of touring.

We hiked through the Butrint ruins, a UNESCO site of dating back to 6th century BC.  Nestled in a wooded forest of sorts, the ruins meet nature’s strength, half covered in vines, trees and overgrowth.  A small museum is tucked in one corner, locked until the caretaker saw us try the door.  He opened just for us, where we saw carefully preserved pottery, urns, and a burial vase with the remains of a newborn.  Our arrival at Butrint was newsworthy in itself, crossing a small river on a single vehicle ferry raft, loosely following an aging track while two boatsmen guide us into place.  For four children (two of whom had just escaped a bus prison), this ferry was something from an Indiana Jones adventure.ALBANIA

Blue Eye (or Syri Kalter as it’s known in Albania) was, without question, the highlight of the day.  A breathtakingly beautiful natural preserve, the area was once reserved for the communist elite of the country — Albania’s Camp David of sorts.  Small cabins and a restaurant remain, evidence of it’s former life.  The starring attraction is the natural spring,  The Blue Eye, a 45-metre deep water spring set amid a forest of hazelnuts, walnuts, cherries, pines and fir trees.  The water in the inner part of the spring appears very dark blue, like the pupil of an eye, while a lighter blue defines an outer ring, the iris, thus creating the eye illusion.  Insanely beautiful, captivating . . . hard to believe its here, tucked away in a small corner of this emerging country.

Back in Sarande and not quite ready to leave this place, we bid farewell to Durim and walk the streets, peeking in on a wedding reception in a waterfront restaurant.  A car suddenly pulled up next to us, honking to get our attention.  Jarred a bit, and almost frightened, I turned quickly and immediately relaxed.  It was Durim, with his family in tow.  He’d gone to find them, to introduce them to us, so his daughters could practice their English.  He came bearing gifts, a bottle of Albanian wine for us to take back onboard.  We’d explored a country forgotten, and in the process, found a friend.  Very cool, indeed.