In the last post, we mentioned the ticketing for the ferry briefly, but left out one important detail. This was deliberate, because – frankly – we didn’t want to tempt fate. The price we’d been given over the phone was a full 20% cheaper than the price online, and we didn’t quite believe it. We got to Brindisi docks early, and went in search of the ticket office. The young guy behind the counter turned out to be the exact same guy we’d talked to on the phone – and, yep, the price was right…
After our farewell pizza, we passed through the Italian customs, we were pointed towards a line of about half a dozen cars in a wire-fenced compound, with the back end of a ferry facing us. As our boarding time approached, and the queue had barely doubled in length, the guy in the car in front got out and wandered back to talk to us. Unfortunately for us, he assumed that anybody on a ferry to Albania must be Albanian, so lauched straight into utter impenetrability. Eventually, we figured that he was muttering about the fact we’d been dumped and forgotten… That was when we twigged that the boat which was sat way off to our left was our boat. One car left the queue. We paused, thought, and decided to go for it, too. Everybody else followed us… Fortunately, we’d got it right, and boarded almost immediately – but since our motley convoy turned out to be virtually all the cars and vans on the boat, I suspect they’d have found us sooner or later.
As we wandered in search of the reception to get our cabin key, the next surprise hit us. For a Greek boat plying an Italian-Albanian route, there was a surprising amount of Swedish signage on board! A couple of smaller signs carried another language which looked vaguely Latvian or Estonian, so our guess was that the Ionian Spirit used to be more of a Baltic Spirit.
By the time the boat moved off, we were already cosily installed in our bunks. Very cosily, since the cabin was about twice the width of the bunk. Still, that meant that there was something to brace yourself against, as the rolling of the boat threatened constantly to eject me from the top bunk onto the floor. I gather Ellie’s lower bunk was similarly precarious, but she had a much shorter fall ahead of her…
After the tannoy woke us to tell us to hand our key in, we headed for the outside deck to see what was ahead. The answer – MOUNTAINS! Lots of ’em, with snowy caps. But first, we had the bureacracy to fight. Or – as it turned out – to gently play-wrestle. Our big worry was car insurance. As with Tunisia, we were going to have to buy a local policy for the van, since our usual UK insurer whimpered gently at the thought of such dangerous destinations. A conversation with our Austrian neighbours at the Manfredonia campsite suggested this was yet another symptom of British fear of Johnny Foreigner, since their insurer automatically gave them a green card for countries that ours seemed not to even have heard of. Hiho. In the end, it turned out to be ridiculously easy. As we walked back to the van on the car deck, a chap in a scruffy anorak and baseball cap wandered towards us. On about the fourth attempt, he found a language that we were both comfortable with, and proceeded to flog us a mildly crumpled insurance certificate, which he then vaguely scrawled something resembling our details onto.
We exited the boat and drove through a throng of scruffy car insurance salesmen towards the customs desk, which was utterly straightforward. Out of the port we drove, past a scruffy car insurance office, and into Albania. A country which was the European equivalent of North Korea within the last two decades.
The road took us south, following the coast through mountainous terrain. The scenery was astounding. The roads were quiet – and much, much better condition that we’d expected. Sure, there were some dodgy stretches, where the road surface seemed to have gone on holiday, but they were the exception. We’d decided to start with the south and work our way north through the country. Our first port of call was Butrint – originally a Greek city, later Roman, eventually an outpost of the Venetian empire before being central to the 19th century realm of an Ottoman warlord, Ali Pasha. Now, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, with the ruins of the various stages of civilisation peering through lush vegetation, giving you a real impression of what it must have felt to be an explorer tripping across these places for the first time.
The site sits opposite a triangular Venetian fortress at the mouth of a channel leading through to an eponymous lake, and occupies a roughly circular bulge of land, with a central hill crowned originally by the Greek Acropolis. Beneath that, the theatre sits with the seating – disrupted by earthquakes – climbing away from the stage, currently the exclusive preserve of terrapins gliding through the water to an almost deafening chorus of frogs.
As we wandered around, we met remarkably few other visitors, save for a Swede visiting his 103rd country and a Polish monk. As you walk around the promontory, you follow the line of the fortifications.
Still remarkably intact in many places, they also enclose an early basilica and baptistry (renowned for the quality and condition of the mosaic flooring – but which, unfortunately, is semi-permanently covered for conservation reasons), as well as residential quarters, including a Senatorial palace. After the Romans left, and most of the site fell into disuse and disrepair, the palace was used for a variety of purposes – including a fishing village and market place. At the top of the hill, the Venetian fortress keep is now in use as the museum, reopened recently after being badly looted in the chaos and anarchy following the fall of communism. Much of the site remains unexcavated, but that just adds to the sense of drama and wildness.
We weren’t going there, though – we’ve seen a lot of the mainland and Peloponnese, and wanted to focus on places new to us – so we curled round the far side of the lake. A couple of small diversions took us to the 11th century church of St Nicholas at Mesopotam (totally unrelated to Mesopotamia…), a squat domed building with many of the stones reused from earlier structures, some featuring crisply carved creatures, real or mythical.
As we wandered around the outside (the inside’s closed, due to restoration), I climbed up some stone stairs onto a wall for a photo. At the top, a quick look down spotted movement as a well-camouflaged snake, maybe three metres long and a good few inches across, dived for cover after basking gently in the sun… The wildlife here seems to lean towards the dramatic, as a power cut at our campsite the previous night gave us a good view of dozens of fireflies circling lazily around despite strong winds. There don’t appear to be that many campsites in the country, and – as with Tunisia – those that do exist are often clustered together around “holiday areas”. Which, of course, means that many of them are closed outside of high summer. Barely 4km away from the gate to Butrint, Ksamil camping was the only one open in the entire SE corner of the country, but was perfectly located. It’s not exactly your huge resort – there’s room for maybe four or five vehicles to park up in Alexander & Linda’s front garden. The loo and shower cubicles in the garden are immaculate, with one very novel feature – or, rather, lack of… A ceiling. Still, anybody on the neighbour’s balcony can’t quite see into the shower. Not below shoulder height, anyway. Probably.
The “Blue Eye” was our next stop, a deep underwater cave from which water pours from a still unknown source. From the right angle, the resemblance of the water’s surface to an eye is visible, although the rain over the last few days had probably resulted in the surface being a bit too lively for it to be more obvious. It was a very beautiful spot, though, and it really wasn’t a great surprise that the Communist era had seen it accessible only to those who were More Equal enough to be deserving of it…
Our lunch stop, underneath an allegedly 600 year old tree in the village of Libohovë, saw us handed a menu which – although short – was way beyond the scope of the food section of our phrasebook. Despite a quick guided tour of the kitchen, our order remained a tad unclear – but there was an easy solution apparent to the nice lady who ran the place. Bring us one portion of everything. After we finally cleared it all, we headed off to try to find the 6th century church of St Mary in the next village up the hillside. Eventually, we found what we thought was the right road, but made the fatal mistake of checking directions with a passer-by. It was, it seemed, the right road (if that’s the right term), but she seemed to be trying to dissuade us from heading that way. Maybe it was also closed for restoration, maybe the road just got a LOT worse. Who knows? We gave up, anyway, and headed on through to Gjirokastër.