Hop aboard for Albania coast

Hop aboard for Albania coast
RESORT CENTRAL: Sarande, heart of the "Albanian Riviera," is having a building boom partly funded by Albanian expatriates. (Barry Zwick)
Somewhere on Earth there must be a cheaper, easier, more exotic cruise, packed with even more beautiful sights and filled with more history, providing even tastier food, but for now, I'm happy to settle on this one: Ionian Cruises' daily excursion from Corfu, Greece, to Sarande, Albania.

How cheap is it? Thirty-eight euros (about $55) for the round-trip boat ride, 19 euros (about $27) for a shore excursion that includes a fabulous buffet lunch. That's about $82 for an enchanting day in Albania, an additional dollar if you want a big glass of wine with your lunch. It's just a day, but you can extend your stay and return to Corfu on the day of your choice at no extra transportation charge. And don't forget to bring a bathing suit.

As my wife, Bobbie, and I boarded the Sotirakis I, we heard a babel of languages. Bobbie quickly made friends with two Estonian schoolteachers and a teenage Romanian girl. Onboard, we met a Welsh couple, Shane and Kelly, who were expecting an Albania wholly different from the one we had read about. We were sailing for Sarande, which has been called the heart of the "Albanian Riviera."

We wondered. Albania was the fourth-poorest country in Europe, still recovering from the 40-year rule of Communist Party chairman Enver Hoxha, considered the most unyielding dictator on the continent.

We had an hour and 20 minutes' cruise time to discuss what was coming with our 105 fellow passengers, most of them catching the rays on the upper and lower decks overlooking the calm, cobalt blue Ionian Sea. Most were Greeks, then came citizens of the British Isles, with large numbers of visitors from the former Yugoslavia as well as elsewhere in Eastern Europe. We met no other Americans.

Shane and Kelly wore their bathing suits under their tank tops and shorts and planned to spend the day enjoying what they imagined would be a lovely resort. Sotirakis I was more a ferry than a luxury boat. The toilets were holes in the floor. There was no restaurant onboard, but a busy snack bar sold soft drinks, wine, beer and potato chips.

Bobbie and I were in the middle of four days in Corfu. We were eager to visit a more off-the-beaten-track destination, and this cruise filled the bill. It was laid-back and casual. We bought our tickets a day in advance but saw many passengers buying them just before they boarded the ship. The only formality was getting our passports stamped. (Albania recently dropped its visa requirement for Americans and citizens of the European Union.)

The ship officially set sail at 9 a.m., but we didn't pull out of Corfu's new port until just before 10 a.m., which was 9 a.m. Albanian time.

As we approached Sarande's horseshoe-shaped bay, we saw a forest of cranes. At sea level, every inch of ground but the beach and the palm-shaded seaside promenade seemed to be covered with hotels, condos, cafes and restaurants.

When the Sotirakis I landed, a young woman who had met the boat quickly packed us into buses depending on language. On the French-and-English bus, our guide explained the building boom: Albanian expatriates working abroad believe in investing at home, and they had formed partnerships with Greeks and Eastern Europeans to develop the coast, with great success and a considerable price lure: A deluxe seaside hotel room on the Greek side of the Ionian Sea averaged $350 a night; on the Albanian, $90 was the very top.

Our bus stopped at Palma, an inviting two-story yellow stucco taverna with an enormous front patio filled with beer-drinking revelers. We would stop for half an hour for espresso, wine or beer, our guide explained, and we should change about 10 euros (about $14.50) for Albanian leke at the rate of 1 euro for 130 leke. This would pay for our beverages, she said.

Some of us chose to explore Sarande, starting at the broad esplanade in front of Palma. Shops were selling textiles, and tablecloths stacked on overflowing tables. Other ship passengers were buying, and they said the deals were excellent. Souvenir shops were full, and bars and cafes were crowded.

Our guide rounded us up and herded us back onto the bus for 30 minutes of learning as we headed toward Butrint.

The corniche along the Ionian Sea to Butrint seemed to be paved with condos until we reached a stretch of olive groves. Our guide said Albania was in much demand by conquering powers in days of old because of its fertile soil and varied microclimates; you could grow anything. Then we passed a long stand of agave plants, imported by the former Communist government for the manufacture of soap.

Our bus joined a fleet in the parking lot of Butrint National Park, the object of our tour. Butrint was once the center of a mighty Christian civilization -- the baptistery can be viewed today -- but its influence diminished under Muslim rule, and it is now a little fishing village. As Virgil tells the tale in his "Aeneid," the city was founded by the Trojan ruling class, led by Aeneas himself, fleeing Troy after it was burned by the Greeks. "I saw before me a Troy in miniature," Aeneas says of Butrint in the epic.

Butrint was abandoned, and much of it was buried in mud and forgotten until the 20th century, when Italian archaeologists, between 1928 and 1941, dug up much of what we see today.

In 1992, UNESCO named Butrint a World Heritage Site. Five civilizations have left their mark here: Greece, Rome, Byzantium, Venice and the Ottoman Empire. The ruins, just beyond the Strait of Corfu, are not your average pile of rocks; they are beautifully preserved and, according to our guide, neither restored nor reconstructed. Woodland glades cover most of the 19 acres that once were filled with monumental structures, but 10 remain. Only 15% of ancient Butrint has been excavated, and archaeologists expect to be busy for decades. The oldest buildings standing date from the 4th century BC.

Our guide led us to a Byzantine church with a large floor mosaic, dominated by dark reds and bright yellows, and finally to a Roman amphitheater built during the 5th century AD on the ruins of a Greek one from the 3rd century BC. It was in remarkably good shape and is still in use. The Russian State Ballet performed here recently, and plays by Euripides, Shakespeare, Molière and Sophocles have been staged as well.

During our visit, stagehands were moving klieg lights in preparation for the evening's performance, a variety show that was part of Butrint's annual summer festival. The highlight of most seasons is Jean Racine's "Andromache," which is set in Butrint.

Dignitaries preceded us here, from Roman emperor Julius Caesar in 48 BC to Soviet Communist Party chairman Nikita S. Khrushchev in 1959. Khrushchev told Hoxha this would be a great location for a submarine base. Hoxha died in 1985, but his Communist successors remained in power until overthrown in 1992.

We climbed 200 steps to the acropolis, with a commanding view of Lake Butrint, a teal blue, brackish lagoon where most of Albania's mussels are harvested. Scenically, it was the highlight of our trip, well worth the climb. We walked downhill to a massive souvenir marketplace, where our party grabbed bottled water, sodas, fruit juice, trivets, trinkets, refrigerator magnets and glossy coffee table books, euros gleefully accepted.

We boarded our air-conditioned bus for a 25-minute drive back for a very late lunch at Palma, a taverna in Sarande. We swarmed the buffet tables laden with French bread, tzatziki, stuffed grape leaves, feta, olives, shredded cabbage with raisins, tomatoes, cucumber salad, meatballs, veal steak, Lake Butrint mussels, French fries and fat green apples.

We sat down in the air-conditioned dining room and at the outdoor terrace at tables set with white tablecloths. Waiters brought us cold beer, red and white wine and fruit drinks. When our Albanian leke ran out, the waiters accepted euros. Nearly all of us went back for seconds, even the French. The buffet was that good.

Our lunch lasted an hour and a half, and we reboarded the Sotirakis I at 5:42 p.m., rejoined by our grinning and bright red and rather damp Welsh acquaintances and others who had found lounges on the beach while we were off to Butrint.

"Culture enough in Greece, you know," Shane said.

It was 7:30 p.m. when four tour buses took us back to our hotels.

Did Bobbie and I shed our opinion of Albania as a backwater? Only in part. We knew we were seeing the best of it, but it was spectacular and, I might add, great fun.