September 01, 2011 Lifestyle

A Chance to Travel: Doesn’t Everyone Want to go to Albania?

By Thomas C. Warren, Chelan

I have to admit that I may be a bit strange. Our kids say they think Mary Ann and I are just plain crazy, but surely they are just exaggerating. My slight quirkiness may have exhibited itself on a recent cruise in the eastern Mediterranean. Was I hyped about stopping in Rhodes, Milos, Santorini, Corfu, or Dubrovnik? Of course not. I was excited about a stop in Saranda, Albania! Anybody can go to Santorini.

Now just how often in your lifetime do you have a chance to visit Albania? This little country emerged from the dark ages of a very repressive form of Communism only eight years ago. Very few U.S. citizens have ever been there, so how could you not have this right at the top of your travel list?

For some perspective, there is only one international airport (Tirana International Airport Nënë Tereza—Mother Teresa was a native daughter of Albania) located in the capital city of Tirana. There are only three paved airports in the entire country. Where is Albania? On the east it faces the Ionian Sea opposite Italy, Greece on the south, Macedonia on the east, and Serbia and Montenegro on the north. It is a small country with 3.5 million people and one of the poorest economies in Europe. For a full overview of Albania and its current situation, take a look at the profile of Albania in the CIA World Factbook at www.cia.gov/library/publications/ the-world-factbook/geos/al.html.

Fortunately, our cruise line had a port stop in Saranda, Albania, which satisfied my travel quirk. (We were the only cruise ship in Saranda, while there were 12 cruise ships in Dubrovnik, Croatia—go figure!) Saranda is one of the main resort towns in Albania, with about 40,000 residents. It is trying hard to emerge from the 46 years of Communist suppression that resulted in a totally isolated country. Currently there is 25% unemployment, which explains why 7 million Albanians are living elsewhere in the world. There was a lot of construction in Saranda, but much of it was abandoned or unfinished. Not yet a lot of tourist infrastructure, there were a few upscale hotels and a very nice waterfront promenade.

The rumors were that if you took a tour out of Saranda, the buses would be without springs, there would be no air conditioning, and any bathrooms would have the proverbial hole in the ground. This did not seem very appealing to Mary Ann, but it certainly was not a deterrent for me! We took a tour to Butrint, a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site about 12 miles south of Saranda. The road was a narrow one-lane highway, but it was paved. For goodness’ sake, what more could you ask for? The bus was up to our air-conditioned soft-ride Western standards. It did take some time to travel the 12 miles, as all vehicles had to stop at wide places on the road so either the bus or the oncoming traffic (usually old Mercedes) could pass by. You see a lot of trash and litter about, but no more than in many other emerging and developing countries.

Butrint is an amazingly restored archeological site that goes back to the Greek occupation in the third century BC. The ruins then trace the subsequent Roman occupation up through 500 AD and finish off with a Venetian fortress atop the hill from about 1500 AD. The entire site is on a peninsula that juts out into Lake Butrint, which is connected to the Ionian Sea. Helen of Troy is rumored to have been a one-time resident, but she did not seem to be around when we were there.

Following our walk about the restored and excavated ruins, and having completed our tour around the entire peninsula and up to the fort, we had time for refreshments at a perfectly respectable café just outside the gate. Mary Ann assures me their restroom was very acceptable, modern, and clean, and certainly not just a hole in the floor. All I can say is that those passengers on the ship who did not take advantage of this rare chance to visit Albania certainly missed out. World travelers must be brave and ready to experience some less-than-ideal conditions. It would be interesting to see how Saranda might have changed by returning in a few years! 

Thomas C. Warren (tmawarren@broadstripe.net) is a  retired judge from Chelan County District Court in Wenatchee, Washington, and is active in the ABA Senior Lawyers Division and Judicial Division.