Castles, a crashed spy plane, stunning scenery, blown up buildings and concrete UFOs all contribute to an unforgettable journey through this otherwise quiet country.
Stepping Into Saranda
Dozens of unfinished buildings and an apartment hostel with too many beds were my first impressions of this potentially beautiful coastal city.
Doing things on a whim generally means doing things without much money and that was the case when I headed to Saranda in Albania. Because of limited funds, I’d used a website to volunteer my services at a backpackers’ hostel, which meant I could stay there and eat for free while still being able to see the sights. I had no idea what to expect from Saranda and after initially catching the ferry there via Italy and then Corfu, I hopped out of my cab and began to walk down a dusty, stony street in the general direction my driver had pointed in. I had been told to look for an Irish flag hanging from a balcony, but all I could see were empty, half finished buildings. Most of them just grey, breezeblock and concrete frames - nothing more than mere shells. They hadn’t been burnt out or destroyed though – these had simply been left unfinished. The strange thing was that there wasn’t just one or two, but nearly every building. The only sections of some of them that were complete was the lower floor which, from what I could tell often housed a ramshackle convenience or hardware store. Above these I could see metal rebars rising vertically out the rooftops as if, at some point, there was supposed to be another floor on top but that idea had long since been shelved.
After half an hour of looking for anything resembling a flag, I’d circled quite a few blocks and acquired quite a few layers of dust as the breeze from the nearby sea swirled around the dirt tracks and piles of garbage that were stacked on every corner. Apart from the unfinished buildings, the other thing I’d noticed was how quiet it was, almost eerily quiet. Maybe it was the time of day, I pondered, as I continued my efforts to locate an Irish flag in an unfamiliar Albanian town. Eventually, I spotted a building that looked a little more complete, an apartment block perhaps, and made my way towards it. Craning my neck I was able to spot a tired looking flag hanging helplessly from what looked like the eighth or ninth floor. I had found what was to be my accommodation and workplace for the next week or two. I eyed the small lift door with suspicion as it creaked its way open and stepped inside with mild trepidation. I hoped that this was the one thing I’d seen so far that had been built to completion. Thankfully, it eventually shook its way to the eighth floor where I exited to the first apartment-hostel I’d ever stayed at.
I was greeted by the manager, Nina who, in her early twenties, seemed quite young to have her own hostel. And she was American, not Irish. “The owner’s away at the moment,” she explained. “She’s asked me to find some volunteers to help run the place while she’s not here.” I looked around. This small, three-roomed apartment didn’t seem like it would need more than one person to manage it but I was getting a roof and board for a few hours’ work a day so I wasn’t going to complain. I wondered how many guests there were. “Just one,” said Nina. I put my bag down in one of the bedroom-turned-dorms. It was the first time I’d seen triple bunk beds in any room, let alone a room as small as this. There were three of these in one room, three in the other and a living area with kitchen. This meant that, at full capacity, there would potentially be at least 18 people crammed into this apartment. I thought myself lucky that I had arrived at a very quiet time of year. Other than that, the apartment was modern, tidy and had great views of the coastline, once you turned away from the empty, half-built apartment blocks that covered the majority of the town. My duties at the hostel would simply be to do the odd bit of cleaning, cooking and general maintenance work which, with just one guest, didn’t really take that long at all. I would soon discover that Nina was a big fan of sitting which was the reason for my employment. It didn’t take long to meet the hostel’s only guest, who had returned from a walk around the town. His name was Erik, from the Faroe Islands, who had been staying at the hostel for the best part of a month, occasionally leaving - then returning - from time to time. He was about thirty, wore a black bandana and, like Nina, was also a big fan of sitting.
He would spend his days on the balcony staring out at the ocean. He told me he had no desire to return to the Faroe Islands and was happy to be spending his time wherever he could. In hostels, you tend to get certain types of people - from the standard backpacker who’s on a sightseeing trip and following an itinerary - to the wanderers, those who don’t really have a home and don’t want to return to their home country for reasons best kept to themselves. Erik fell into the latter category and I would later find out that he had a tendency to stay in hostels for as long as he could until he’d be asked to move on. As this hostel’s owner was on holiday, Erik had been able to stay for quite some time in the company of Nina who, as she shared the same pastime of sitting, he got on quite well with.
As there was little to do in the hostel, I found myself with plenty of free time to explore. It quite often felt like a ghost town, with very little activity from either locals or tourists, and these desolate, abandoned building projects were on every corner. It turned out that these unfinished projects were the combined result of bad decisions, broken promises, and a tourist ‘boom’ that failed to appear. Albania was, and still is, an EU candidate country, which means that it has to meet certain requirements to become a member state. As such, the EU gives grants to candidate countries in order to help them introduce the necessary political, economic and institutional reforms that would bring them in line with European standards. For Saranda, this resulted in a building boom, with the Albanian government handing out its newly acquired EU capital to help kick-start projects which builders were then supposed to match with their own funds. The trouble is, most of these companies didn’t actually have any money of their own. This resulted in buildings being constructed and then abandoned as the money ran out. Most builders were simply too quick to grab the cash without thinking about how they were going to raise any extra to complete the projects. Some simply began to build and then pocketed the rest of the money and ran. This resulted in a hotel boom that wasn’t even half-finished, leaving a huge blot on the landscape and Albania without any of its grant left to get anywhere close to EU requirements.
Private investors have also left their mark which can be seen on the outskirts of Saranda. Keen to jump on board the building rush, many houses were also built which the local government then took offence to and subsequently decided to blow them up. By placing explosives on a single pillar or a corner of the properties, the government collapsed more than 200 buildings that had been constructed without planning permission and simply left them there. They were subsequently ignored by their constructors and the government alike where they now remain, broken and deserted.
Where the money should have been spent is obvious after walking around the town. Saranda, and Albania in general, has very poor infrastructure for removing waste and if there was ever an example of why the world should be more responsible when disposing of plastic, then Saranda is it. Waste plastic can be seen all over the town, from the stacks of bags overflowing from the bins out of the streets to the empty containers and wrappers that are floating in the sea. Any waste that is taken away isn’t taken far and a short walk past the main beach leads to a path which cuts through piles upon piles of fly-ridden rubbish which has simply been dumped there due to a lack of facilities and infrastructure to dispose of it any other way.
A sorry sight to see was a cow that had inadvertently swallowed a plastic bag while trying to eat from the rubbish that was dumped one of Saranda’s main streets. It was on its knees, choking and the only way out for the poor creature was for one of the locals to grab a machete and slit its throat while it was still in the middle of the road. As it keeled over and the street became tainted with trails of red, I realised that this wouldn’t have been an isolated case – this is what’s happening to all kinds of animals as they feed on what’s irresponsibly thrown away the world over. Left nauseous, I headed to the beach where, as if to confirm my thoughts, a dead and bloated dog was bobbing up and down on the water like a bouy, surrounded by its own entourage of plastic waste. I decided against going for a swim.
Sights Of The South
Away from the concrete jungle of Saranda, there are some stunning sights to discover a little further afield.
For great swimming and to see how beautiful the Albanian coastline can be doesn’t mean travelling far from Saranda. I hopped on a bus which, while not frequent, run on time and I travelled south, past all the partly-demolished buildings on a day trip to the coastal village of Ksamil. Despite being close to Saranda, Ksamil couldn’t be more different. Azure blue waters lap gently on to the smooth white sand of the beach, above which an area of nicely crafted wooden decking is base to large beach umbrellas made from sticks and straw. Here, you can sit and sip ice-cold beer or eat ice cream and relax on sun loungers while gazing out at the stunning tree-lined islands which are dotted close by. The local kids can be seen swimming over to them and I admired their aquatic abilities, picturing myself blubbering and floundering at the half way mark if I was ever to try that myself.
This really couldn’t be any more different to the building frenzy that had taken hold just a few miles north and it felt like I was on a beach holiday in Thailand or the Caribbean. The water was clean and clear and, as this was May which was pre-holiday season, the whole area was devoid of tourists which made it feel even more special. Not that I had seen any tourists anywhere else so far, but I could picture each sun lounger and section of beach crammed with people at the peak of summer, taking advantage of the extremely cheap prices and the fact that this area of Albania sees an average of 300 days of sun a year.
Dating back 3000 years, Butrint is a delight to visit. Once home to Ancient Greeks, Romans, Venetians and Ottomans, these ancient ruins of ampitheatres, temples and churches can be explored at your leisure. I spent the best part of a day there just exploring and found the smaller details the most interesting, like seeing where the stone wells had grooves worn into them from the ropes of buckets being lowered and raised to collect water.
I wondered how long ago it was since the first person dropped their bucket into the well and what kind of time scale it was before the last person did the same. It could have been a couple of hundred years, it could have been a couple of thousand but when I considered what would be my own, relatively short life span, it seemed like a very long time indeed.
Blue Eye Spring
About 30km from Butrint lies the Blue Eye Spring, which is another tourist attraction that has piqued the interest of many an intrepid explorer. It’s unusual by the fact that no one really knows how deep it is, divers have been down to about fifty metres but how much further it goes is anyone’s guess. As its name suggests, its waters are the same colour of blue eyes and, while the surface area isn’t huge, it’s still worth a visit if just to sit by the waters and imagine what’s lurking at the bottom.
It turns out Albanians have a slightly different, yet no less significant, way of communicating.
One evening I’d been tasked with shopping for the hostel as I was going to be cooking dinner for the staff (myself and Nina), and the one resident, Erik who, as usual, was out on the balcony - sitting. There were quite a few butchers in the town, and they were easy to spot too, with meat carcasses generally hanging upside down, unrefridgerated in the shop windows. With barely a word of Albanian learnt, I walked in to the closest butchers and stood sweating in the doorway for a second or two while my eyes adjusted to the light. I looked at the burly looking Albanian behind the counter who was about as stereotypical a butcher as you could get. A once-white apron was smeared in dubious red and purple stains and would probably have ran for dear life it it wasn't fastened so securely at the waist. His fat-fingered left hand gripped a worryingly oversized meat cleaver which was about to drop with some force on to the carcass under it, which I hoped was once an animal. The shop was tiled and clean though and I could see that behind the glass counter lay meat that could only have been beef. Excellent, exactly what I was looking for. I gingerly approached the oversized Albanian. “Mish lope?” I enquired. Nina spoke limited Albanian but had assured me that this was how you said beef. At the time I wasn’t sure whether it should concern me that my first words in Albanian were to ask for a piece of meat, but it was far too late for trivialities like that. I wasn’t confident of my pronunciation and even less confident of whether or not I had learnt the translation correctly. I looked at the butcher. He shook his head. “Mish slops?” I said, this time slightly changing my pronunciation in case I had in fact forgotten what I should be saying. This time he looked at me a little confused and continued to shake his head. I tried pointing to the meat behind the counter but again, just a headshake. I began to back out of the shop, my instinct telling me that if someone refuses to sell you something they have for sale, then it can only mean they don’t want you around. I smiled and backed out of the doorway while the butcher continued to stare at me nonplussed.
I returned to the hostel and explained what had happened. It was only then that I found out that, in Albania, a slight headshake actually means yes and a nod signifies no. It was little wonder that the butcher was looking at me confused when I asked him for some beef. I hoped at best he thought I was a little bit simple and that I wasn’t taking the piss out of him in his shop. The last thing I needed was to be chased down an uneven, potholed street by a twenty-stone Albanian with a meat cleaver in his hand. It did make me realise how the smallest cultural differences can really affect the way we are or the way we communicate with other people and that it really helps to do a lot more research before heading into a country you don’t know much about. It’s a lesson still I remember to this day
A castle, a spy plane, a dodgy policeman and an angry Irishwoman are all part of a day's adventure.
There was one more place I wanted to visit before leaving Saranda, the World Heritage Site of Gjirokastra. This city goes back to the 1300s and at one point had thousands of buildings constructed in a style that was unique to the city. Nowadays, there are still some of the original buildings left but the main attraction is the huge castle and fortress that sits atop a hill overlooking the surrounding area.
The castle houses a military museum which displays captured artillery, on show as a reminder of when the communist regime resisted German occupation. Another symbol of communist power is a captured US air force reconnaissance plane which is proudly displayed at the top of the castle.
Catching the bus there was easy enough and it was my intention to return to Saranda the same way. I wasn’t sure what time the return bus was supposed to be, so I’d geared myself up for a long wait and stood among the locals. From what I’d already experienced, having cars stop and offer you a ride wasn’t uncommon. What’s also not uncommon is being asked for money for the experience so I’d always politely declined any offer of a lift. On this particular day, I’d kept declining until a policeman, who must have just finished his shift, pulled up in his car and offered me a ride. I’d started to get a little paranoid about the bus not turning up so it didn’t seem like too bad an idea. After all, surely a policeman wouldn’t ask me for money? I got in the car and tried to tell him where I was going. “No problem, my friend, no problem!” This seemed to be the only English he knew and I tried to remain jovial, which was difficult once I realised I was in a car with a stranger who had a gun. After many more “no problems” and after driving for no more than ten minutes we pulled up outside a house at the bottom of a steep hill which I recognised from the bus ride earlier. It was still quite some way back to Saranda. The next words I heard were a little unexpected. “Ok my friend, fifty euros.” Befuddled, I looked at the smiling policeman.
“Er, what?” I replied, tentatively.
“Fifty euros, my friend.” He was still smiling. I would have been too if I was expecting to receive fifty euros. I wanted to tell him that I didn’t think we were friends any more but I refrained. I was also concerned that this man was armed.
“I don’t have fifty euros,” I gestured with my arms with a movement that I hoped said something along the lines of ‘please don’t rob me, I'm broke'.
“Fifty euros, we go," he repeated.
Did he mean if I give him fifty euros, we’ll go or if I don’t give him fifty euros, we’ll go? Neither seemed like an attractive prospect. Was this man even a real policeman? I hadn’t heard of the uniformed man with gun scam so far. Was I the first victim?
I shook my head. “No fifty euros.” Oh no, wait. Did he think I said yes when I shook my head? I nodded. “No fifty euros.” Now I was just starting to look like an idiot. He stared at me blankly. His smile was starting to wane as he realised he wasn’t going to be earning half his monthly salary in a day.
“Ok,” he said. “You go this way.” He pointed up the hill. He was going to abandon me on the side of the road. At least we weren’t at the top of the hill. I had visions of being asked to walk over the edge at gunpoint.
This was my cue to get out of the car. We’d only gone a few miles and now I had no idea how I was going to get back to Saranda. I watched as he drove his car into the garage of the house we were opposite. It must have been where he lived and he all he’d done is got me in his car on his way home to try to make some extra cash. Well, who would have thought you couldn’t trust a low paid policeman in one of Europe’s most corrupt countries?
I began walking up at the hill and looked over towards the sun to try to figure out how many hours of daylight I had left. I worked out that if I walked at an average speed of four miles an hour that I’d probably make it back to Saranda in about five hours. That thought didn’t exactly make me feel happy but it wasn’t the end of the world. Fortunately, that day I’d chosen to wear walking boots and not flip flops. I continued up the hill and looked back over my shoulder. I wasn’t being followed by a policeman waving a gun so I felt pretty safe. He obviously had no concept of how much money English people actually make. Fifty euros to me was a hell of a lot of money and I was trying not to spend that amount in a week, let alone an afternoon. After a few miles uphill I was starting to worry that I wouldn’t have enough daylight after all. There hadn’t been many vehicles going past me either and the prospect of walking back in the dark was a daunting one. If a policeman had tried to extort fifty euros out of me in the daytime, what would a gang of random Albanians do after dark? I picked up my pace. I was relieved, to say the least, when I saw clouds of dust being kicked up by a bus which was making its way up the hill. I hoped it would stop for a random foreigner who happened to be walking in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately it did and I stepped on, relieved, absorbing the puzzled looks I was getting from the curious passengers. I dug around in my pockets for some coins for the driver and tried to offer them to him but he simply waved me on and gestured for me to sit. An Albanian bus had never been so comfortable. I smiled at the situation. I’d gone from having a policeman asking me for fifty euros for a ride from him, to getting a ride for free from the generous bus driver who must have taken pity on the sorry looking foreigner who’d ended up trekking uphill in the middle of nowhere. Just as I thought my strange day was ending, I returned to the hostel to find an American freaking out on the floor, an angry looking Irish woman berating her and a sheepish looking Faroe Islander in the corner. Had I just walked in on three people re-enacting some kind of joke? Apparently not. It turned out that Erik had scored some local hashish, made it into cookies and fed some of them to Nina, who wasn’t taking it too well. The angry Irish woman was the hostel owner who, with impeccable timing, had returned from her holiday just as Nina thought she was falling through the ceiling. The hashish would explain why they both had such a fondness for sitting, I realised. It worked out that I had great timing of my own – I’d already made arrangements to leave the next day – and now that the atmosphere in the hostel had turned a little sour, it was definitely time to move on.
The pace of life comes to a standstill in the Town Of A Thousand Windows.
Saranda to Berat is, according to Google maps, about a four hour bus ride. What that fails to take into account is the condition of the road and numerous impromptu stops which adds at least a couple of hours on to that. It’s definitely worth the journey to this UNESCO World Heritage City, nicknamed Town of a Thousand Windows due to the numerous large windows that are part of each stone building. These buildings themselves are full of character as they’re all twisted and bent out of shape because of the many earthquakes that have occurred here over the years.
It didn’t take long for me to feel one of these earthquakes for myself during my time there. I was sitting in the garden of the hostel I was at when I felt a strange, deep rumbling which almost seemed like a large truck or lorry driving past. There was no chance of that happening though, as there were no roads large enough nearby, only narrow, winding cobblestoned streets. These rumblings got louder and louder until eventually, everything around me was shaking. It was the first time I’d experienced an earthquake of any magnitude and although it can’t have lasted more than ten seconds at the most, it was a strange feeling to feel everything moving and rumbling and being completely helpless to do anything other than just sit and ride it out. It can’t have even registered as an earthquake of any significance either as no parts of buildings or roofs were dislodged. It was just a tremor but I dreaded to think what a large earthquake must feel like. Wandering around Berat is one of the great pleasures in spending time here. The people are friendly, the town is beautiful and can be seen in full view from the ruined Byzantine citadel which can be walked up to via a steep cobblestone path. There’s no sign of a building boom here and the traditional city is unaffected by potential developers due to its heritage status. Locals can be seen casting their nets in the wide river although at this time of year, the river had dried out somewhat and the snow had already disappeared from the peaks of the Tomorri mountain which provides an attractive backdrop for this already picture-perfect town.
To say that the pace of life here is slow would be an understatement. Down Bulevardi Republika, there are numerous cafes and small eateries occupied by young men, while the older generation will be playing chess or draughts while sipping coffee. It can only be presumed that their wives are at home but I’ve no idea how the men make any money as there always seemed to be a large number of people doing very little except drink coffee. It’s Bulevardi Republika where most of the ‘action’ occurs though. Every evening at 6pm, residents old and young all come out to walk up and down it, most hand in hand, all dressed up like it’s their birthday. It’s a huge social event in what’s otherwise a town where nothing happens. It all dates back to the communist era when leisure time was strictly controlled and monitored and was limited to this time of day. Now though, it’s an occasion where people meet and greet each other, exchange news and stories or play games on the side of the boulevard. There’s no better place to people watch and observe the locals while joining them in their walk.
Albania's landscape is littered with hundreds of thousands of strange concrete domes.
Throughout Albania it’s impossible not to notice strange, UFO shaped concrete bunkers almost everywhere. These were constructed under instruction of the communist leader of Albania, Enver Hoxha, who was in power from 1944 until his death in 1985. Albania had been invaded on numerous occasions and Hoxha decided that it wasn’t going to happen on his watch. The solution, he decided, was to build as many concrete bunkers as possible, from one man gun posts to larger bunkers which could house anything from helicopters to chemical weapons. In the end, some 750,000 concrete bunkers were built all over the country and were Albania to be invaded, then the bunkers were to be used to fend off their attackers. Everyone was trained to use the bunkers from the age of 12 and there was a national programme in place which sought to militarise civilians in the event of an invasion.
There’s an average of 24 bunkers per square kilometre of land and the staggering amount of money it cost to construct them meant that there was nothing left to solve pressing issues such as insufficient housing or roads. Because they were designed to withstand bombs and simply because there’s so many of them, they’re virtually impossible to remove and, while some have been turned into storage units, animal shelters and even nightclubs, most sit empty and unused. They’re a bit of a source of embarrassment for Albanians who know that they had a leader who squandered all their cash on concrete eyesores and attempts to talk about them with a local will often result in a derisory sneer or a bored look that tells you to quickly change the subject. Berat is a good place to go on a tour of some of the more interesting bunkers which are close by, as well as some of the old military areas. For the even more adventurous, the capital Tirana even has all night raves in some of them, complete with built in bar.
Fond memories remain of this friendly country
I’d managed to see a reasonable amount of Albania on a very low budget by volunteering at the two hostels I stayed at using the workaway website. The upside of staying in each place for quite some time, rather than the typical couple of days a backpacker usually affords themselves, was that I was able to get to know the area and the people as well as get a genuine feel for each place. It doesn’t take long to get your face recognised around town if you’re a stranger, but the Albanian people are warm, hospitable and curious as to why you chose to visit their country or their town as travel isn’t something that comes easily for them.
It’s a country where you can accept a drink from a stranger as a sign of goodwill, as a welcome to where they live and I had many a conversation with a local in a bar without either of us understanding a word the other was saying. Sometimes laughter (and lots of local Raki) is all that’s needed to make friends. The downside of staying in one place is, of course, you don’t see as much of the country as you otherwise would. I’d like to go back and see some of the places I missed the first time around, but I also hope that the building boom hasn’t swung around and picked up where it left off. The last thing this beautiful country needs is an excessive amount of hotels and swathes of tourists throwing more rubbish into the sea and ruining the stunning coastline that this sunshine-bathed land has.
There are two ways things will go for Albania; either it will develop responsibly and considerately to its environment or it’ll be a free for all and consumerism will cause ugly hotels and excessive development to be the main priority to get money flowing in as quickly as possible. Only time will tell but I’m a little concerned it may well be the latter. I picked up my backpack and decided it was time to head across the border into Macedonia, where realised I was about to keep a promise I’d made to someone a long time ago. Check out my Macedonia article to find out more.