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How Close?

Few of Corfu's first-time visitors, realise how close the previous communist state of Albania is - in places only 2 miles! It is quite safe though! Several years ago, there were reports of 'Albanian Pirates' swimming across to steal boats from local Corfiots. This was an isolated event and is now unheard of.

If you are really intrigued, it is possible to go on a local ferry (from Corfu town) and visit for the day. I have been several times. It is fascinating, but I am not sure whether I would enjoy the day more just sitting around the pool with a good book!



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Report by Angela and Graham
It was 1989 when we first had the opportunity to visit Albania. I remember someone saying on the boat as we sailed over, how privileged he felt to be making this trip. The captain of the ship explained that he had persuaded some Albanian officials to try and bring some tourism to the area in order to bring in some foreign currency which was badly needed. It was still communist at this time, a year or so before the uprisings and overthrow of the Albanian government. We were not allowed to take any written material into the country and had to list every currency note that we had on us including the serial number. We also had to sign to say we were not concealing any video cameras, televisions or washing machines!!

As we sailed up to the harbour in Saranda, it was quite a strange sight to see a wide curved bay with a sandy beach spread out in front of us. It had a lovely promenade with palm trees, but there was no one on the beach, no sun beds, sun umbrellas or beach bars that you would expect to see on a beach on the Ionian sea. Built into the rocks on the harbour side of the bay was a swimming pool, it was full of children, hundreds of them. There was a great lack of colour, everything was very drab, especially the clothes that the people wore. Two high speed armed patrol boats were moored along side the harbour and armed guards stood on the dockside. They just looked at us as we walked past, to the two buses awaiting our arrival. Not a very friendly welcome. There were no private cars, only army vehicles and old local buses with broken windows, the few shops that existed were empty there was nothing to buy, literally nothing!! We were taken to the archeological site in Butrint and passed soldiers in their concrete bunkers at regular intervals along side the road as we drove through the countryside. We passed donkey carts as we drove and saw many people working in the fields.

After our visit to the archeological site of Butrint we were taken to the only hotel in Saranda where we were served the most enormous meal with so many courses it went on forever, whilst we watched the local folk dancing. We were not encouraged to go out into the town, hence the large meal, but we did manage to get a quick walk around, before we returned to the boat but there was very little to see, only poverty.

In September this year 2003, we returned to Albania on the same trip as we took those 14 years ago and what a different place we saw. The trip on the boat was very straightforward although a visa is still needed, there were no restrictions on what we could take into the country. The armed boats had gone and the swimming pool in the rocks had gone. When I told the guide of the children I saw on the previous visit she explained to us that the children went to the swimming pool at the weekends to swim and play at the beach whilst their parents were working in the fields. She said it was very sad to see them in those days, on their own, the parents so busy working in order to get enough money to feed them that they had no time to spend with them. The town is very pretty and this time there was much more colour. The buses that met us on the dockside were much improved and as we drove through the town, we saw shops with goods in them, many new hotels and new buildings everywhere. Many of these new buildings are empty hotels, waiting for tourism to take off. The hotel we were taken to was very clean and modern and a big improvement on our previous visit. We again visited the archeological finds in Butrint. We drove through the fields, and a village, where there were new houses and a great deal of building taking place, a hotel on the beach (with sun beds and sun umbrellas !!) and continued alongside the huge lake where the mussles are farmed.

The lake spreads all the way along to the site of Butrint, an old Roman township that was visited by Julius Ceaser. It is amazing how much of the ancient buildings are still intact. It is now a world heritage site and is considered one of the most important archeological sites in Europe. Much of the work to uncover these historic buildings is funded by large donations from Lord Rothschild and Lord Sainsbury and much more of it had been restored than on our first visit, it is a site really worth visiting. It is in a beautiful area where the plains stretch along to the sea facing Agni bay in Corfu, and the mountains stand high at the back of the plains where in winter they are covered in snow.

We returned to one of the hotels for a rather late lunch, nothing like the size of the one we had 14 years ago! We visited a few of the shops and bought hand made lace mats and tablecloths from the ladies selling their goods along the promenade and outside the hotels. There are now a few tourist shops selling souvenirs and many people on the tour bought cigarettes and tobacco which I believe is even cheaper than in Greece.

The whole day was full of interest and passed very quickly and it was sadly time to return to the boat to go back to Corfu. I will always remember the relief on returning to that boat on our first visit. Although the visit was interesting, it felt very unwelcoming and frightening seeing soldiers with guns everywhere, it made us realise the freedom we have in our modern European countries and I was glad to be back on that boat.

This visit was very different and that uncomfortable feeling was no longer felt, big improvements have been made and it is quite remarkable how much has been achieved in about 10 years. I believe the country has a long way to go yet to reach today’s European standards, a little paint would go far and a rubbish collection service is long overdue, but there is a vast improvement. It is not dangerous to visit this part of Albania, although the British Home Office does issues warnings about Albania, this is a day trip to a seaside town in an area that belonged to Greece until the second world war and holds non of the dangers of the capital city. It is quite safe, the people are friendly and pleased to see you, the guns are gone and the communism with it. Do take the opportunity to visit and support these people that are trying so hard to make a decent standard of living for themselves and their future generations.

We are sorry there are no photos of our first visit, to compare with this years visit, but cameras were not allowed on the visit in 1989 and although we managed to purchase a few postcards from the hotel there were no postcards of Saranda which was rather disappointing.


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