Corfu, then on to Albania

Wed 27 Jul 2011 18:14
We spent 2 lovely days with Mark & Christine & the kids in a really beautiful, quaint village called Nissaki in Corfu.  You can look across and almost touch Albania from Corfu Town, and that was our next port of call.
The border crossing was really easy, and our first stop was the coastal town of Sarande, then on to Butrint, a world heritage site dating from 300 BC  that is still being excavated and has recently been sponsored by Lord Rothschild and Lord Sainsbury.  We were taken around by Victor, and Albanian guide, who told us the story of Butrint.  Settlement began there because of the presence of artesian water and under the Romans, there were 100,000 inhabitants.  They built a 2 storey aqueduct over the salt lake, allowing water and pedestrian traffic, and prospered for centuries.  An earthquake eventually destroyed the aqueduct, and over the centuries the water disappeared and tectonic movements caused the land level to drop, so that now much of Butrint is under water and still dropping.  
Victor told us he is a history teacher of kids aged 6-12 (they have specialist teachers for primary here) and they have 14 weeks summer holdiday, during which he works as a guide.  We crammed Victor into the car for a lift back to Sarande, and he told us about himself.  He lives with his parents and sister, and they all look after his father, who is 59 and paralysed.  Victor didnt seem to know the reason for his paralysis.  The government pays them $100 a month and they get $200 a month from a Dutch charity, but the family do all the care themselves.  He told us he is getting married next year, though his mother in law doesnt approve of him because he has no car or house!
Albania looks very very poor.  When we arrived we drove a few miles then parked on the roadside by one of the hundreds of concrete bunkers that litter the countryside, and met a goatherd (you could smell the chevre cheese smell before you even heard their goat bells), and shared our plums and chocolate with him, but not much in the way of conversation.  Albania has had several incarnations since the Romans were in Butrint.  Ottoman rule lasted 400 years, the Albanians finally threw the Turks out and proclaimed independence in 1912 but a turbulent period followed.  A northern warlord, Ahmed Bey Zogu, declared himself king in 1928.   He liked the good life, we saw the ruins of his palace, it was pink. Then in 1939, Mussolini invaded, and King Zogu and his young wife Geraldine looted gold from the treasury, and fled to London where they rented a whole floor of the Ritz.
In 1941 the Albanian Communist Party came to power, and Hoxha (pron. Hodja) was president for the next 50 years.  Initially Albania allied themselves to the USSR, but fell out when the Russians wanted to build a submarine base in 1961, and latched on to communist China instead.  As a result of this alliance, Albania had its own cultural revolution in the 60’s, and admin workers were moved to collective farms, and religion was banned.  This was the time when they built their 2 million concrete bunkers which you see everywhere, anticipating a western invasion, which never came. 
Albania’s relationship with China ended after Mao’s death, leaving a devastated economy and food shortages.  Hoxha died in 1985, and in 1990, 4500 Albanians fled and were were granted asylum in Italy.  Following more turbulence, the government agreed to allow opposition parties, and heart surgeon Sali Berisha led the Democratic Party to victory in 1992.  A capitalist free for all ensued, a huge black market grew up and stolen Mercedes flooded in.  (If you have lost your Mercedes, look no further than Albania; you will find it here, the place is full of UK registered Mercs). Albania became a favourite crossing point from the Middle East to Italy for illegal immigrants.  Following rioting a further election installed the Socialist Party, and some order was restored.
In 1999 half a million Kosovars entered Albania, fleeing from Serbian ethnic cleansing.  They have had relative stability since 2002 and massive construction work has gone on, mostly horrible, and we have seen half finished high rise buildings that appear to have had one leg pulled from under them, apparently because they are illegal so the police have just come along and toppled them.