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An Ode to Albania – Part 2.

  Hello everyone! I’ve just put the finishing touches to this fortnight’s themed quiz. I went for the Baltic this time, and hope it triggers some memories, or tempts you to visit in future. It is now Wednesday 27nd May and it has been a glorious few days down here on the Kent Coast. I ventured out to the Post Office last week as I felt I had to send a prize to Mr Theo Steel. You’ll recall that I said that I could not think of another vertical lifting bridge that I had ever sailed underneath, except on departure from Wilmington, North Carolina. To my shame, Theo pointed out that I have sailed under another lifting bridge, and it happened on the following cruise! We had visited Martha’s Vineyard on 23rd May 2018, with Boston, Massachusetts as our next stop. During the evening we made use of the Cape Cod Canal, which included passing underneath the raised Cape Cod Canal Railroad Bridge. We traversed the canal from 9.30pm to 10pm, and I do remember being out on deck to witness it, but not being able to capture a decent photo in the darkness. I can also recall watching the bridge being lowered back into position once we had passed underneath, and a train then crossing over.

               Having been reminded of the Cape Cod Canal, I thought about another canal we traversed on the Eastern Seaboard. On the evening of 15th May 2018 we sailed from Baltimore to Philadelphia. I remember that Captain Peterstam wanted us to leave Baltimore as soon as possible as fog was predicted in the evening that would close the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. We went through the canal in the early hours of the morning, and from my brief research into the bridges of the canal, it also includes a vertical lifting bridge, imaginatively called the “Chesapeake and Delaware Canal Lift Bridge”. The bridge carries the Delmarva Central Railroad across the canal. I must have been asleep when we passed underneath.

Also, I’d like to thank Tony & Gillian Parker for getting in touch. It was Tony who took the photo of me with Martin & Mary Sixsmith and had kindly sent it to me.

 Thank you to everyone who wrote to pass on belated birthday wishes to me. I’m still making my way through Emma’s amazing chocolate cake. Onto this week… last week I started writing about Albania but ended up being diverted to Montenegro and not finishing off the Albania tales. You’ll recall I had mentioned our wonderful local agent in Albania, Auron Tare. Once the ship has left an Albanian port, he always drives down (or up) to the next Albanian port to meet us there as we dock the following morning. Quite often he has the same guides with him too. Having re-embarked in Shëngjin, we departed for our next Albanian port of Durrës.

Durrës is the port for the Albanian capital, Tirana. The port is very large, as you would expect, but security was not as strict as it is in most European ports. Our passengers were welcome to walk to and from the port gate, and it was occasionally nerve-wracking to see the container lorries pausing abruptly to allow our passengers to cross their path! In true Brian Hanrahan style, I counted them all out and made sure I counted them all back. We transferred via coach to Tirana and found ourselves in the very large central square. Without wishing to sound unkind to Tirana, the architecture is all over the place, but is all the more fascinating as a result. Grand Italian style buildings dating back to the 1930s sit alongside Communist-era concrete piles, and much more. Our visit to Tirana included going into the underground bunker that was built for the Ministry of Internal Affairs. I remember thinking that this was an interesting illustration of the paranoia of the 1960s, but then realising that the bunker was built between 1981 and 1986. Albania has a total of over 175,000 bunkers, described as being either “mountain sites, buildings or pits”. This was the “pit” variety, being dug in an open-cast style, fitted out, and then having a roof placed on the top. The roof in this instance is 2½ metres (nearly 8ft) of reinforced concrete. The bunker was an amazing complex, with 24 rooms, an apartment for the Minister, and a large hall dedicated to intercommunications. The bunker never saw training, let alone actual use, as both the then Prime Minister, Mehmet Shehu, and Dictator, Enver Hoxha, died before its completion. Places like that are always hard to judge time-wise. Some passengers understandably find it eerie and are heading for the exit pretty quickly, whilst others equally understandably want to take their time to absorb what was happening a mere 35 years ago in a fellow European country. I realised that I had been quite naïve in my understanding of Albania. When I was at school, history appeared to end with the outbreak of World War II. The subsequent events were never really covered. I had just assumed that Albania was always part of the Soviet Bloc. Little did I know that whilst Albania was a founder member of the Warsaw Pact (1955), that only six years later it allied itself with China after breaking off diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union over an ideological rift. Later still, in 1978, China ended economic and military aid after relations became strained by China’s reconciliation with the USA. From that time until the collapse of Communism in 1989, Albania was completely isolated. Hoxha had over half a million small bunkers built to repel an attack he convinced his people would be coming. It was only as recently as 1990 that Albanians were granted the right to travel abroad. Even I had travelled abroad before 1990, with day trips from Folkestone Harbour to Boulogne-sur-Mer, or from Dover to Calais or Zeebrugge being highlights of annual summer holidays here in Hythe. I’d also spent a week on the Isle of Wight in the late 1980s, which surely counts?

 

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Tirana centre

  Our visit to Tirana moved to the National Arts Gallery, with classical works hung alongside striking Communist-era paintings. Our sightseeing around Tirana continued, with a well-earned coffee break, before we arrived at another glorious slow food lunch venue. Whilst the lunch at Fishtë, as described last week, would take some beating, this lunch came pretty close. If ever a culinary tour to Albania is offered by Noble Caledonia, then I can already recommend it!

 After lunch we drove back to Durrës and the passengers had the option of returning to the ship or admiring the sights of Durrës. I had presumed Durrës was simply the port for Tirana, but I had presumed wrong. We walked through medieval city gates, built by the Byzantine Emperor Anastasios I (491-518 AD), and made our way to look down into a huge 2nd Century AD amphitheatre, with a capacity of up to 18,000 spectators. It was only rediscovered in late 1966 by archaeologist Vangjel Toçl. The amphitheatre is on the ‘endangered’ list of archaeological treasures, but Auron is working hard to have such sights protected for generations to come. Having admired the amphitheatre, we strolled into the town and found ourselves in a palm-tree lined square with children running in and out of the fountains. The Italian influence was noticeable in both the number of ice-cream shops, and the quality that was on offer. It would have been rude not to indulge!

 

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Medieval gate in Durres

  Our visit to Durrës and Tirana was complete, and we sailed along the coast to our next port of call, Vlorë. Vlorë is in a very long bay, with one concrete pier protruding to allow us to berth. Writing these blogs is jogging so many memories. I can now recall that we arrived and had four different vehicles at our disposal, all with different capacities, and the passengers split across a choice of shore excursions. The regular excursion we operate from Vlorë is to Apollonia. Our drive through the Albanian countryside brings us to the remains of this ancient Greek city. The city was founded in 588 BC by Greek colonists from Corfu and Corinth, on a site where native Illyrian tribes lived, and was arguably the most important of the several classical towns known as Apollonia. The city had flourished in the Roman period and was home to a renowned school of philosophy, but began to decline in the 3rd century AD when the harbour silted up due to an earthquake. It was abandoned by the end of Late Antiquity. The sights we see today were first excavated by French archaeologist Leon Ray in the 1930s. The 1970s saw restoration work carried out by the Tirana-based Institute of Monuments. The main highlights today are the façade of the Bouleuterion, and the remains of the Odeon.

 

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View of Apollonia

 After exploring the sight, a welcome coffee break (with the rather bewildered chap behind the counter not believing his luck) ensued before we went on to browse in the neighbouring museum. The superb museum is housed in a former monastery, and was opened with UNESCO funding in 2011. The museum overlooks the beautiful Church of St Mary, and is a wonderfully peaceful setting. Discoveries are still being made to this day and there is much of the site that awaits excavation.

 

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Church of St Mary

 On at least one occasion, the alternative to visiting Apollonia was a boat trip to Sazan Island. Normally, we are the ones who are excited to be visiting somewhere, but for Sazan Island, it was the Albanians who were excited that we were going there. The island has an incredible history, being owned by the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Venetian Republic, the Ottomans, the Venetians again, the British, the Greeks, the Italians, and finally ceded to Albania on 10th February 1947. The Soviets then built a Whiskey-class submarine base there, and all that remains today is a small Italo-Albanian naval base. The island has been a no-go area to non-military personnel since records began, but as of 2015 it was officially opened to the public. A marine park has been set up around the island to help protect the area and the island possesses a unique variety of flora and fauna. We set off from the pier in Vlorë on a local boat and the island was clearly visible. I did not think it would take too long to get there, but it was nearly an hour and the island appeared to keep growing and growing as we approached. In perfect weather we walked up the road, with occasional wild donkeys greeting us, and explored the ruins of this highly secretive island. You really could imagine what life must have been like. Abandoned schools, theatres, houses… to think it must have been a hub of activity just over thirty years ago, and now nature was slowly recapturing what was once hers. I do appreciate the large number of ancient sites that we visit, but to be somewhere that has changed so dramatically in our own lifetimes tends to have more of an impact on me. There had been talk of a major hotel chain buying the whole island and converting it into a private Mediterranean resort, but I praise the Albanian authorities for resisting that temptation and having the determination to do something with the island that all Albanians can enjoy in the future. I sincerely hope it works well for them.

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Wild Donkey on Sazan Island

 Looking at my diary, the last time I visited Vlorë was on board “Panorama II” on 6th July 2018. After dinner that evening I went for a stroll along the vast EU-funded waterfront. Every bar had a television showing Brazil v Belgium in the World Cup, and the atmosphere was very friendly with pop-up bars and a charmingly good-natured crowd sat in front of a temporary big screen. (Belgium won 2-1).

Our final stop in Albania was Sarandë. I alluded to Sarandë in my previous blog, as it is the one place in Albania that cruise ships often call at, so that their passengers can visit Butrint. We were just the same, the advantage with us being that we can berth at the small pier in Sarandë, whilst the large ships have to sit at anchor in the bay and patiently tender their passengers ashore.

 

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Serenissima docked in Sarande

 Butrint is a marvellous historical site. I am sure many readers of this blog will have been there in previous years when you had to precariously balance on a raft to cross a river to Butrint. Nowadays the road reaches the entrance and it is a much less precarious route. Highlights of Butrint include the Sanctuary of Asclepius, the Theatre, the Roman Forum, the Triconch Palace, the Baptistery, the Great Basilica, the Lion Gate and much more. After our initial wanderings, we gathered together in the theatre. The theatre was an early modification to the Sanctuary, and is still used today for theatrical productions. Our local agent, Auron, who had been with us all the way through Albania, had played a pivotal role in the restoration and tourist infrastructure at Butrint. He gathered all the groups together and delivered a talk, using the acoustics of the theatre. He explained how the Italian archaeologist Luigi Maria Ugolini discovered the theatre in 1928-30. It had been established that the first theatre followed the Greek style and would have been used by worshippers and the priests of the Sanctuary for religious ceremonies and public discussions. Auron pointed out a late 4th century BC inscription that told us that the theatre construction was funded by donations to the Sanctuary. He showed us the surrounding walls where we could see numerous ‘manumission’ inscriptions that recorded the freeing of slaves in honour of the god, Asclepius. Auron had just starting telling us about how, in the 2nd century AD, the theatre was rebuilt and enlarged in the Roman style with a stage, when an unexpected interruption completely stole the show.

 

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Basilica at Butrint

  Whilst Auron had been talking, I had been sat by the side of stage and couldn’t help overhearing the sound of splashing from nearby. I had presumed it was some children playing in puddles, and thought nothing of it. What I had forgotten is that Auron had brought along his trusted companion, a beautiful Golden Retriever called Bora, to combine the shore excursion with her daily exercise. Bora must have heard Auron’s talk before, and so she had decided that she would find a way to entertain herself whilst her master spoke to us. Just as Auron was holding the attention of our passengers whilst he regaled them with the history of Butrint, the muddiest, but happiest, Golden Retriever you have ever seen strode across the wooden stage and sat lovingly in front of her master. Any hope Auron had of carrying on at that point were lost as the passengers all burst out laughing and Bora responded by wagging her tail enthusiastically. One of the local guides, a brilliant lady called Linda who I still speak with to this day, managed to entice Bora away from Auron so that he could carry on with his presentation. Bora then lay down in front of Linda and looked puzzled as Linda produced a small tissue with the aim of cleaning an entire Golden Retriever. My concern was that Bora had come with us on the coaches to reach Butrint, and I didn’t fancy having to try and convince the coach driver that she should be allowed on board for the return journey. Fortunately, Auron had a plan. Later on during our walk around the site there was a small wooden pier that opened onto a lake. A few sticks were thrown and Bora finally jumped into the crystal clear waters of the lake and resurfaced looking pristine. She had time to dry off whilst we all looked in the small but perfectly laid-out museum and then we headed back to Sarandë to enjoy the rest of the day.

 

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Bora coming on stage

  If you would have told me a few years ago that I would be sat here and, with completely free rein, would have chosen to write over 5,000 words extolling the virtues of Albania, then I would definitely not have believed you. Auron Tare and his team are working incredibly hard to bring in tourists, but also to preserve the history and culture of Albania, and make the Albanian people proud of what they have. I sincerely hope they go from strength to strength – particularly in light of the current issues the entire travel and tourism industry is facing.

 Thank you very much for reading this far and I hope it has been of interest and that it has jogged a few memories or inspired future adventuring. I’ve just eaten the penultimate slice of the massive birthday chocolate cake and, more alarmingly, discovered that I’ve run out of Bombay Sapphire. I continue to hope that you and your loved ones are all feeling healthy and thank you all once again for your kind emails.

 

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Back at the pier with Crystal Ann Mangersnes, Elaine Weddick, Bora, Saskia Vrolyk and Auron Tare

  

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