As I continue to remain in the UK for the next month or two at least, I am reliving my 2017 Balkans tour. It started with a flight to Corfu…….
It seemed that I was the only easyJet passenger en route to the Greek Island who would not be staying for a week or two’s sea & sunshine. The word around me was focusing on best beaches, location of the best full English and biggest issues to face (such as full English being unavailable in some quarters!).
Whilst an extended period in Corfu certainly has its huge benefits (Mrs Wilbur and I spent a splendid week there in 2013), I was a traveller on this trip. Admittedly I would start and end as a relaxed tourist, in between there was overland travelling to enjoy.
Hamish had flown from Bristol to take charge of securing our Airbnb keys to our central apartment near the marble Venetian Well.
He had scampered around the Old Fort, traversed the narrow Old Town streets and found our bearings by the time we met up at around 11pm. He had demonstrated great resilience in resisting his first dark beer of the trip until we were together. Suffice to say the first extremely acceptable brew from the Corfu Brewery barely touched the sides.
Next day was to be a mix of sunshine and very heavy showers. We dodged the rain in cafes drinking more of the dark stuff, whilst taking advantage of the dry periods by procuring our flying dolphin tickets for the next day, mooching around the marble streets, visiting the tiny sea chapel that I previously had discovered with Mrs Wilbur and taking in the wonderful views across the deep blue sea.
I also had a mission to accomplish. A visit to the Cathedral of St Spyridon to light some candles. The mummified saint had his casket open for viewing unlike on my previous visit, so I queued up for a glimpse of the blackened, twisted corpse dressed in colourful robes. Slightly creepy to me, but a pilgrimage to the majority of visitors.
St Spyridon Cathedral, Corfu
Corfu to Sarande, Albania
We were due to set sail at 9 next morning for Albania. After initially going to the wrong port in good time, we arrived hot & flustered with eight minutes to spare. Luckily customs was a breeze.
The 30 minute journey saw us arrive before we had left! The one hour time difference worked in our favour as we checked in at our well positioned hotel (Titania) at 9 Albanian time with still an hour of breakfast serving to go. For €2.50 each we tucked into tasty bread & cheese, gorgeous cake and terrific coffee.
Not only the food was ace, with the seaview from the breakfast terrace just wonderful. We were paying €45 for a twin with breakfast. The same view on the Italian Riviera or the French Côte d’Azur would have cost five times that amount.
After a hearty meal we were set for the day’s activities – a visit to the Roman ruins at Butrint and then the natural wonder of ‘Blue Eye’, a rock pool that resembled as you may expect, a blue eye.
First of all though we needed to find out how to get to Tirana next day.
We had hoped to take a bus to Vlore and then the train to Tirana via Durres. We did not care that past experience told us that the average train speed would be 37 km/h and this would make the journey around nine hours long.
Time was on our side, we both love travel by train and had already spent several days in Tirana. Sadly we were to find that 37 km/h had become zero km/h, so a six-hour direct bus journey it would have to be.
The walnut-faced, laid-back Albanian in the bus ticket office drained his grainy coffee and dragged in the last inhalable remnants of his cigarette before advising us to just turn up 20 minutes before the allotted departure the next day to buy our tickets. No problem.
OK that was sorted, now to our imminent activities. A public bus to Butrint left hourly and cost just 40 LEK (€0.25) each way. The trouble was that the next one was 55 minutes away and Blue Eye could only be reached by car. We decided to bite the bullet and negotiate a taxi for the round trip. We baulked at one guy’s best price of €60, this despite him recognising my Norman Wisdom t-shirt!
“Aha Pitkin, very funny. I watch as a child. I love the one where he cleans windows.” Hurrah, at last! I had been informed that Norman was the second most loved foreigner in Albania after George W Bush (more of that another day), but when I had worn the same garb previously in 2007 he had been mistaken for both Benny Hill & Jim Carrey!
Another driver’s bid of €40 was accepted and we were on our way.
Butrint is a UNESCO World Heritage site and worthy of a visit. Having visited better in the Middle East it was hard to get excited, but a stroll around the ruins made for a very pleasant hour or so.The location was however superb, surrounded by the water of Lake Butrint.
There was also a rather intriguing rustic car ferry literally pulling traffic across the lake. See a short video by clicking ALBANIAN FERRY.
Next up the watery wonder. The drive went over some poor road surfaces bumping us about somewhat. The entrance fee was €1, free if you were a goat, plenty of whom had got there before us.
We climbed the gantry for a good aerial view of the tiny pool of water downstream from a narrow water course.
It did indeed resemble a deep blue eye, small was definitely beautiful. I reminded Hamish of his aborted attempt to visit the Blue Lagoon on Capri in 2001 (he got seasick awaiting our turn to enter as we bobbed about on our small vessel), as that too had a similar hue, albeit much bigger and inside a sea cave.
We shared the area with some locals and a bride & groom who had chosen the location for some wedding snaps. I sneaked a couple too!
After twenty minutes we were on our way back to Sarande. Worth the effort if not exactly awe-inspiring.
The rest of the afternoon was for relaxing with coffees and sea views. That evening we enjoyed some mighty fine Korca dark beers, bringing back some great memories of a decade before. We finished with an excellent seafood & pasta dish at Mare Nostrum, rightly lauded as the best restaurant in town. Their seafood risotto was wonderful!
There were also some interesting things to be from promenade ‘shops’.
Travelling By Train Across The Balkans
My 2007 and 2017 visits to Albania are both featured in my Balkans book available as a paperback or download from Amazon.
Read about the ‘Tiger of Tirana’, the thousands of ‘mushroom’ bunkers that dot the Albanian landscape, what life was like under the authoritarian rule of Enver Hoxha and how the decade between visit 1 & 2 had changed things considerably.
It also features travels by train in the other ten Balkan countries.