|Albanis's flag is a double-headed eagle.
Our guide’s microphone kept cutting out. She tapped it repeatedly and turned the volume up so that when the microphone suddenly reawakened we jumped in our seats.
Somehow the microphone symbolised the day. Here we were playing tourists on a bus in Albania – a country where the economy certainly doesn’t work, but there are occasional signs of life.
|Partly built - derelict. Waiting for a
tourist boom that has never happened.
|Rubbish in a side street in Saranda.
This is a seaside town of 35,000 where
the population doubles ove the summer
holiday seasons as tourists arrive from
the capital, Tirana, and Kosovo and
The view was depressing. Apartment block after house after apartment block lay half built – sometimes with people living on a single floor while above and below them was a wasteland of concrete. “When we get the money we can finish them,” said our guide, a cheerful local called Julie. She added, ”this (an investment opportunity) will be of interest to your country.”
|The bottom floor is closed in,
the top floor is open to the
weather. The middle floor is
|A Vodafone billboard is the only
advertising visible from the water
as we approach Saranda.
The people – from behind the shelter of our bus windows – looked lean, even mean. Not threatening but as if they were in need of three square meals.
Youths – like young males everywhere – hung around the central park in Saranda looking bored and listless. When they did move it was often with a swagger, trying to look tough. Their clothes, at first glance fashionable, looked cheap and poorly made.
|UNESCO World Heritage Site at Butrint. The ruins are
slowly sinking while engineers try to figure out how to
control the flooding that's gradually getting worse.
|Traffic is forced to wait while busloads
of us tourists cross the street safely.
|Our guide, Julie, a resident of Saranda.
Energetic, cheerful and determined to get across the message that
Albania is beautiful.
Images (below) from bus window
|Road works - Saranda
|Saranda waterfront - a glimpse of what may be.
|A handful of smart retail shops, but a
lack of customers. To be fair, it was the
end of the summer season.
|This building was deliberately bowled
"because they didn't have the right
permits", we were told.
Here was the country that has one of the poorest economies in Europe. The 20 year transition from a xenophobic Communist state to a modern democracy remains fraught with widespread corruption, organised crime, high unemployment and a rundown infrastructure. An example of the latter: one source says 35 % of all electricity generated in Albania (most of it hydro) is lost through delivery problems and theft.
Our bus tour began with a stop for coffee (cheap) and then on to the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Butrint, inhabited first by the Greeks, then the Romans before being abandoned in the Middle Ages when it was struck first by an earthquake, then a flood.
A sudden storm struck towards the end of our visit; sheets of lightning, thunder rumbling and a deluge that sent us scurrying back to our coach.
We bussed back to Saranda, 20 kilometres to the north, where we had a late lunch of meatballs, pork slices, diced cabbage and so on, while outside a woman sold brightly coloured T shirts bearing the symbol of the double-headed Albanian eagle. For her at least, it was a good day. Many of our number had been soaked by the rain and were happy to buy a dry garment for the return boat ride home.
|Animals - particularly teddy bears - are
hung outside to ward off evil spirits.
That evening we dined in comfort at our local taverna. The images of Albania were still fresh and disturbing. How could it be, we asked, that a country so close to Western Europe could be so far away?