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Capt. Barnes in Albania
Intrepid Club traveler Capt. Michael Barnes, Retired, Harbor, enjoyed Albania before the coronavirus lockdown.
By Capt. Michael Barnes, Retired, Harbor
Before moving to this land of milk and honey and becoming an American citizen, I spent years working on various luxury yachts in the Mediterranean, enjoying lazy summers cruising along the coast of Italy and the Yugoslavian Islands. When sailing from the Greek mainland to Corfu or Dubrovnik or vice versa, we had to sail past the coastline of Albania, which we would always give a wide berth: up until a few years ago it was a Communist country with closed borders.
Imagine my delight while visiting cousins on the Greek island of Corfu to discover that there was now a regular ferry service to the resort town of Sarande, “the City of the Forty Saints,” on the Albanian Riviera. So early one morning along with my wife Rebecca we caught the bus from Nissaki to the Port of Corfu, walked over to the ferry building and bought two return tickets with an extra 10-euro port tax to take the ferry to Agios Sarande, Albania.
The ferry was very clean and fast. There was plenty of inside and outside seating where we could see both of Corfu’s fortresses on the way out. It’s about a one-hour very smooth journey across the Ionian Sea. The crew was polite, helpful and very friendly. Being a captain myself, I had a long interesting conversation with the Greek ferry Captain. The Customs checkpoint both entering and leaving Albania was very minimum; the whole operation ran like clockwork, and we hardly knew we had been inspected. Most of the people on the ferry were from organized tour groups and had buses waiting for them when they arrived in the port. This was fine for the not-so-adventurous tourist who likes to be organized and herded around. But we wanted to see the town first, home to Albania’s first synagogue built in the fifth century, walk around the small streets and sample Albanian home-style food (very plain and tasteless) before visiting the ancient city and national park of Butrint.
To get to the historical Butrint National Park was very inexpensive and easy. We just walked around the horseshoe-shaped bay past all the hotels and bars, to the Butrint Hotel (about one hour with stops for beer and ice cream). We boarded the local bus on the opposite side of the road from the hotel at the unmarked bus stop (look for the tourists standing in line) to Butrint National Park. The fare was 100 likes (about 83 cents), and it took about half an hour, with the bus terminating in the Butrint National Park car park near to the entrance. The park was open all year from 8 a.m. until dusk. At the ticket booth you can ask for a guided tour, or you can buy a guidebook. We used the ticket office’s free brochure, as all the archaeological sites were well marked with information boards in English. There was a souvenir shop inside the site selling handmade local trinkets and light refreshments.
The ancient town is very big and spread out over a very large area, so wear good walking shoes and a hat, and bring drinking water. If you follow the ticket office’s site location numbers, and skip 12, 13, 14 and 15, it should take you about two hours. Start at the sanctuary for the fourth-century-BC temple to the god Asclepius. Check out the spring in the wall with its rope-worn grooves in its sides. Then look for the Roman influence, like the bathhouse, forum and organized city planning. The Christian influence can be seen in the sixth century baptistry and Grand Basilica, with a few sad mosaics on display here. The view from the ruined walls near the Venetian Tower over the inlet to the castle is pretty cool. If you have time, take the ferry over.
On the way back we caught the bus from the same location to Sarande, but this time we stayed on the bus to its last stop near a supermarket with a big tree in the middle of the road. From here it was only a five-minute walk downhill to the Ferry terminal.
The local people are really friendly and very helpful, but as a whole they do not speak English, so learn to say “faleminderit,” which means thank you.
Tip: Due to the sudden change from Communism to capitalism, the building codes do not seem to be enforced. If you are intending to stay in a hotel, really check it out, as we observed quite a few with failing foundations!