The slog from Berat to Saranda, a coastal city which is part of the Albanian Riviera, was hot and sticky. (Again, transportation details in a later post). I checked into my hotel along the water with the plan of doing next to nothing for the next few days. It was beach time. Saranda is developing at a lightning-fast rate. In one guidebook, I saw the buildings on the surrounding hillside described as “skeletal,” and I understood why once I got there: the new hotels and apartments are going up so fast that at any given time, half of them are unfinished, giving the appearance of a bony framework of steel and concrete.
After exploring the boardwalk on my first afternoon there (and running into the two German backpackers that I had met on the furgon ride there), I decided to take a day trip on day 2. The beaches of Ksamil are supposed to be lovely, so I caught a van ride there. Located just down the hill from the main road, the rocky beaches were full of sunbathers, who tried to avoid the crashing waves of the Ionian Sea. From my towel, I tried to flag down a vendor, a old woman who was selling bread twists. As I couldn’t understand everything that she was trying to tell me, the couple next to me thankfully stepped in to translate. For the next two hours or so, they would graciously share their food with me. I would get a tap on the shoulder, and the girl would surprise me with something like a stick of roasted corn. (Roasted corn is EVERYWHERE here). They introduced themselves as Arian and Kaltrina, and they were here from Kosovo on vacation. As a thank-you, I offered to buy them a drink at the nearby cafe. Sipping our cocktails as the wind started to whip through the curtains of the bar, they convinced me that I would have to make a stop in Kosovo.
I caught a local minivan back to Saranda and marveled at the breathtaking views over the hills as the sun started to set. When I returned to my hotel, the electricity was still off (it had shut down earlier in the day) but fortunately came back on before dark.
It should be mentioned at this point that my hotel stood directly next to the ferry port. I determined that if I really wanted to, I could spit from the breakfast room of the hotel and hit the port authority (although I would never do this 😉 ). All over Saranda were signs from tourist agencies and ferry companies advertising ferry trips to the Greek island of Corfu. Hmmm. I have never been to Greece and wasn’t necessarily planning on going there on this trip… but it would be so easy to get there. And I could go for just a day. I felt as if all signs were pointing to a journey to Greece.
And so, early the next morning, I stamped out of Albania and was on a fast ferry bound for Corfu Town. I sat next to a very sweet 11-year-old Albanian girl who wanted to practice her English. We traded sticks of chewing gum and simple stories, and the ride went quickly.
Once in Corfu, the drastic difference in tourism from Saranda was immediately apparent. Signs and menus were in several different languages, travelers visited from all over the world, and prices were back to Eurozone standards. After a brief respite from the heat with a cold juice in a fan-cooled cafe, I wandered through the old town, visiting Orthodox cathedrals and photographing the winding streets. I also stopped for lunch at a local taverna, where the owner recommended their pastisada (meat cooked in a cinnamon-tomato sauce), which fell apart in my mouth. Drool.
Seeing as how I had decided only the previous day to visit Corfu, I was somewhat ill-prepared without a real map or Greek language guide. I had set my sights on visiting the Temple of Artemis, because 1) my guide book described it as “serenely impressive,” and 2) I am kind of a mythology nerd. You know how most kids might stay up late watching TV or playing video games? I was the kid sitting up in bed poring feverishly over my copy of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. (Great book. Still have it on my bookshelf). I did not know exactly how to get there and missed the bus heading in that general direction, so I did what I always seem to do, which is get myself involved in a haphazard wild goose chase, this time walking in the scorching Greek midday sun. I stopped every so often to ask for directions, although half of the people I asked seemed not to have heard of it. I was on a peninsula on an island; I could only get so lost, right?
An hour and a half later, I was no closer to finding the temple. I had left the touristic center, and with it, much of English-speaking population of the area. I knew I couldn’t be that far, but with my nonexistent Greek speaking skills, I couldn’t get much directional help. A brief ray of hope appeared when I reached Mon Repos Estate and saw an arrowed sign to the Temple of Artemis… but this arrow pointed vaguely in a direction that could have indicated about three different streets. I started along one, but it seemed far too residential; turning back, I headed along a more prominent road. I trudged along, frustrated and cranky. I would ask for help, but in this heat, no one even seemed to be outside. In the distance, I saw a man about my age jogging with headphones toward me on the road. Yay! I excitedly tried to flag him down… only to have him run right past me. “Sir!!! Excuse me!! SIR!!!” I desperately shouted over his music. Without stopping, the man removed his earbuds and, out of breath and jogging backwards, yelled to me, “It come every twenty minutes!” and then turned back to continue his workout. Huh? I looked to my side, where I happened to be standing near a signpost that marked a bus stop. Well thanks. Thanks for nothing.
After eating a consolatory yogurt at a nearby convenience store (I am the personification of the word “hangry” when I get low blood sugar), I finally found someone who could point me in the right direction. Back on the road, one last local woman showed me the way. “It is out of the way and very difficult to find,” she said. “But I don’t know, maybe it is not so much to see.” Continuing far down the road (the original residential one that I had turned back on!), I gleefully approached this sign:
and then walked forward to this site:
I hate to sound like a philistine, and I know that I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to see the magnificent ruins in places like Rome, but this was NOT worth a three-hour march through 90+ degree weather. Thoroughly annoyed with myself for my atrocious lack of planning, I stormed back to the waterfront and did the best things I could to improve my mood: wade up to my knees in the clear blue water, then sit down with a Greek frappè. Ahhh… icy cold caffeinated deliciousness. And everything was better.
I didn’t have much time left, so I caught a bus (ha! The bus! That would have been useful three hours ago!) back to the center. After grabbing a kumquat ice cream, I hurried back to the port.
On the ride back to Saranda, I sat on the lower indoor deck looking out the window. On the horizon, I saw a flash near the water that didn’t seem quite normal. I squinted; there it was again! I let out a gasp of recognition, and my feet were carrying me to the deck of the boat before my brain could even register the nearby Italian passenger calling out, “Delfini!” I peered out over the side and got one last glimpse of the dolphins before they disappeared. I’d like to think that they wanted to personally escort us out of Greek waters ;). I decided to stay seated on the top deck, glorying in the blue of the sea, which unfortunately soon became cold and extremely choppy for the remainder of the journey. My stomach and my equilibrium were both overjoyed when we finally docked back at Saranda.
One day and four passport stamps. I consider it time well spent!