I don’t know anybody that has been to Albania except for my crazy Italian friend. I mean, nobody.
Enver Hoxha took care of all of our dreams of traveling to Albania in the early days. By the time Albania became open to tourism in the 1990’s, the Hoxha regime, a pseudo-Stalinist dictatorship, had decimated the entire country. For 50 years after World War II, this place had been closed off to all tourism. Nobody could leave, nobody could enter, there was no free press, state TV, lots of “disappearing factions” and it was pretty much the most frightening place inside of Europe that you can imagine. It made Franco’s Spain look like Club Med!
Imagine this, from the Albanian coast to the beautiful island of Corfu took only 30 minutes on a ferry. Except the ferries did not go. What this guy left was no infrastructure for tourism or anything – no roads, no nothing – and a completely beautiful coast line was so underdeveloped that it makes you want to cry. Imagine what the journey from Montenegro along the coast to Albania could have been. You have to take the inland road to get to the border crossing because there simply was no other way, then hang out for an hour and a half to two hours to exit out of Montenegro and enter into Albania. Both Montenegro and Albania are in the queue for application to the EU. Shame on you England for opting out.
In that moment, when you cross into Albania, you are in another world. We drove to a fairly large town called Shkoder. It was a mix of rundown buildings with satellite dishes hanging off of the edge of balconies. Not the sort of place you would want to hang out in and that is precisely why we carried on.
We followed the main highway heading towards Tirana with a view to test out the coastal road to see if there were any resorts worth reporting back on. The highway was nothing but gas station after gas station interspersed with tacky, palatial casinos and nothing else. We stopped at a highway restaurant and everybody was smoking inside and outside in spite of the ‘No Smoking’ signs. It had this feeling of mafia pasted all over it. The gas station scene was ridiculous. It had to be a front for something else. We headed to the “coastal resort” of Durres. No surprises here. There are several shoddy resorts and the sea did not look safe to dive into. This place needed a serious overhaul and probably some of the money that had gone into the gas stations should have gone into the development of the coastal community here. Alas, the thought of buying a villa on the Albanian coastline quickly subsided in my mind. This place needed time which was a great pity because it has the same beautiful climate as Greece and southern Italy.
Tirana, the capital, came at us very fast. It had been built up quickly after the collapse of the old regime. Our hotel was super glitzy, Las Vegas-style, and it overlooked this very Soviet-style square called Skanderbeg Square named after Albania’s national hero, Gjergj Kastrioti, who was later renamed by the Ottomans, Skanderbeg. He unified the country, defeated the Ottomans, and died in the 15th century, but still they love him! Around these parts, believe me, you cling onto anything after what these guys have been through. In the square there is a beautiful mosque, an orthodox church, and a huge mural dedicated to the Soviet-style revolution. The square reminded me of Red Square or Tiananmen; vast, open, and stark.
I thought that maybe I should come back here in 20 years but for now I just needed a great fish restaurant in the center of town. I found one on TripAdvisor called Il Gusto. It had fabulous food, brilliant service, and frankly it was just about the greatest thing I discovered in Albania. See you in 20 years.
First confession: I have never taken a cruise. I sort of always have wanted to, but every time I get close, I run out of enthusiasm. Maybe it’s just the thought of all of that food in seven days or the toilets jamming up or being stuck with 5,000 people day after day and night after night. But something always does me in. Recently, on the Montenegro coast, I was in a beautiful town tucked into the fjords called Kotar. It took an eternity to drive into the center and park the car. It wasn’t clear to me why until we got close to the center and I realized that a cruise ship was there, disgorging its travelers on excursions in this tiny town. Then it struck me…that’s why I don’t like cruises!
There must have been 50 sightseeing tours taking place at one time…maybe more. Here’s the church, here’s the piazza, here’s the shops, and on and on and on. This place was not that big and I could feel myself drowning in the guided talk and the crowds following the guides with their paddle boards.
As I sat there eating a rather desperate and dodgy slice of cold pizza, I thought how invasive these cruise ships can be. The bottom line was that the town could not cope with that number of visitors all arriving at the same moment. The cruise ship was almost as big as the town itself. It essentially chokes up the town. In Dubrovnik the night before, they had even installed a traffic signal to control the flow of cruise tourists coming into the beautiful center. A traffic light for people?! The cruise tourists rarely give back to bars and restaurants since all of the meals are free on the ship. Souvenir shops are the only ones that win. It seems a shame that cruise tourism, which is in the ascendant, is like tourism pollution.
For example, in Venice, it’s suffocating the city. While the glass factories may be rubbing their hands, the innocence of regular tourism and mingling with locals, is flying out the window. What is good for the gondolieri is not always good for the city. I spoke to somebody in Kotar who was staying there for a week. They said that they spent most of the daylight hours outside of Kotar and only came back in the evening when the cruise ships had packed up to leave. It’s a strange thing and a strange sight to see a gorgeous coast line with two cruise ships the size of Texas docked. The question really is, should I try a cruise? I’m not feeling terribly inclined at the moment.
The last time I was in Croatia was 1987. We had taken a two-week vacation at a hotel north of Dubrovnik which was then bombed out of existence during the Yugoslav Wars. This time I had decided to drive from Sarajevo over a very pretty mountain road, onto a prairie-like plain that stretched for miles, and then down into the city of Split and along the coast.
Split was a fabulous surprise. It was Diocletian’s hometown and as any good Roman emperor would have it, he had a remarkable looking palace built. Situated along what is now a very cool and groovy promenade, it hosts restaurants and bars and at any point in time during a busy evening, musicians gather to perform in the open square.
Split is a lively town with a nightlife that seems to go on forever. The restaurants are very decent and in Croatia, the big dish is the risotto with blank ink squid. In my opinion, it is not quite as good as its Venetian heritage, but given the fact that this entire Dalmatian Coast was once part of the great Venetian empire, it was not that bad either. The white stone streets and the palace are constructed with Dalmatian stone and all hail from the same quarries that gave us St. Mark’s Square.
Croatia was the second country to successfully apply for EU citizenship after Slovenia – and it shows. There are EU dollars in these hills for sure. Split is a port, a beach resort, a party resort, and a historical heritage site.
The delight of the Croatian coast is that it never really faces the open sea but nestles itself in between beautiful islands that are never too far away. We drove to Trogir to take a boat ride to the Blue Lagoon. Trogir has a beautiful main square, lots of shops, and a great clock tower that reminded me of a mini San Marco. The influences of Venice are everywhere here. Another fun excursion from Split is to take a double ferry ride to Korcula. Both ferries are car ferries and it’s a fun way to experience the Adriatic coastline.
Interestingly, Korcula was the apparent starting out point for Marco Polo as he began his journeys to the East. It is a delightful town and on a beautiful day it’s well worth the visit. It’s Marco’s town after all! Every traveler should tred in the footsteps of the greatest traveler of all. The drive down towards Dubrovnik reminded me of some of the great drives in the world: Big Sur, the Corniche in the South of France, and the drive down to the tip of Cape Horn from Cape Town. It is simply breathtaking. There are lots of impressive places to stop off – the village of Ston being one place that comes to mind. Lots of signs for wild boar along the road although there is not much evidence of boar in the restaurants!
What we did in one day we could have spent a week doing. Eventually we lost the sun and ended up on a high cliff looking down into the Dubrovnik harbor as a huge cruise ship was getting ready to head out. It looked magical in the evening light and was as a tall as the mountains behind it. But cruise ships take their toll and that is another story.
I’ve followed up my insiders’ guide to Ashland, Massachusetts, with a tour of my second adopted home-town: Boston!
A lot has changed in Boston over the past few years, (hello, artisan coffee and cheese) but one thing remains the same: this city dominates in athletics. Whether your an superjock or a sensualist, Boston is ready for you!
Don’t forget to subscribe to my YouTube channel for Pietro Place in Boston, Massachusetts and dozens of other video blogs!