It was an early start today as we were off to Sarande. It was around a two hour drive and on the way we picked up some fresh figs, which weren’t in season, so tasted like shit. Again, there was a mountain climb which again offered us views you cannot cram into a photo, let alone words. A strong wind bounced off the sea into the mountainside and danced its way through the heavily wooded trail. Visibility was low, so it was a slow drive until we stopped off at a tiny seaside spot called Himare. We took a seat at a bikers bar for a coffee (there we are again, coffee for breakfast. Fuck sake).
Biker memorabilia littered the walls, ceiling, and even floor of the Red Indian Rock Cafe. Every biker-related item you could ever envisage was nailed up somewhere: helmets, jackets, wheels, logos, belts, the lot. One man populated the inside of the bar as all the guests sat outside. He was the epitome of a biker, donning the short sleeve leather jacket, flared jeans, long hair with a bandana and a glare to die for.
Parallel to this mysterious character was a young girl mulling about, casually taking orders. She reminded me of a young Juliette Lewis, lost on the road and found herself wound up at this joint, still wearing the same jeans short and blue and white striped top as she did when she asked for a place to stay all those years ago. The biker man took her in, but she had to work her arse off to earn shelter. It was too perfect.
Our biker friend stepped out of the bar and jumped on his glistening Harley waiting outside for him. He roared away along the coast. Ednora and I took this as an opportunity to check out the inside of the bar. We spotted a pin board of pictures of the biker man. It looked as though he’d done some traveling. There he was riding a camel in Egypt, trawling through a tropical rainforest, eating a big bowl of meat with a group of Asian friends in what looked to be an Asian country, and in all the pictures, same clothes, same neutral expression. Even when riding a camel, it was as though he was constantly looking back at the past. I turned and his face was nearly touching mine. There he was, right there. God knows how long he’d been there. He saluted at me.
‘You’ve travelled around quite a bit,’ Ednora squeaked. He gave her a single nod. We left the room and returned back to our seats like naughty schoolchildren. As we did so, he shouted at his young waitress for a beer. She shouted back that it was too early for a beer, and he concurred with her by shouting, ‘hurry up!’. It was 10:30am. We then saw a sign on the window which had printed the words ‘waiter needed’, in Albanian, of course. But it appeared he had added an ‘e’ in pencil to make the request feminine, which meant only a waitress would have made the cut. It was probably code for wife-slave. As more customers arrived, the man sipped his cold beer and watched the young girl do all the work. It was time to leave and I needed to the toilet. Upon passing the bar door on my way out I caught the biker man just looking at his pictures of yonder, and then looking out into space. I crossed the road and looked back one last time, and there he was, saluting me. What a man.
Thirty minutes of more coastal road and we approached a castle on a small island. This castle was owned by Ali Pasha, a hero of the country. Inside was incredible. It was very well kept, and even a couple of information points so we could learn. Obviously by a couple I mean that there was one, but this was 100% more information than anywhere else. The inside was dark, dank and mazey. Apparently it was famous for its prisons, which were obviously the deepest, darkest part of the castle. The circular, parallel design on the infrastructure meant you could easily get lost in there – the perfect setting for a horror movie, although Petrit preferred the idea of a nightclub. We met in the middle at a nightclub scene massacre. It was amazing at how the darker the rooms got, the colder it got; the most noticeable difference. Must have been hell for any prisoners all those years ago. I also saw a bat. I was like batman.
Outside the castle was an old man in a vest top hanging out with a few goats. He appeared to be the guy who was ‘in charge’ of the castle? I don’t know, but he was there with his goats at a table. He told us that his family are all over the world and that he met his cousin for the first time recently, both around 80 years old. I was beginning to learn that if Albanians had family living abroad, they wanted to tell you about it. I guess it was a proud thing to reveal.
We entered Sarande and stopped off at a pizza place with a coal oven. Behind where I sat were tomato vines which they used. This was the kind of stuff I was constantly surrounded by, the freshest of food. It was here that I decide that it is more or less impossible to go hungry. Even if you are homeless, you could still put together a far fresher, hearty salad than one of those in Sainsbury’s, Tesco, or any of the pesticide-ridden supermarkets - not to mention that it would be completely free. The radio in the restaurant was churning out Lily Allen’s greatest hits. I had heard a lot of Lily Allen music up to this point in the car and in restaurants. They really love her. I wonder if she even knows she has a great Albanian following. The meal came to £5 each. That was a pizza each, a huge salad to share, and a few rounds of drinks.
Then we arrived in Ksamil, a seaside resort. After a bit of hunting around we found a hotel for €12 a night. Other hotels went up to around €40, which was a bit crazy. They seemed to just want to make a quick buck. You could tell that they were jumping the gun right now, but in a few years, the way the country and the seaside resorts are developing, these are going to become the standard prices.
The hotel was family owned and run predominantly by three sons. It was a pretty big hotel, and the house they lived in next door was big too. They told us that they were originally from the north. To travel this far to start a business led Petrit and Leda to believe that they ran away from something. It was extremely rare to move that far away from your town, unless you had skeletons in the closet. Nice guys though.
One of the best things about this up-and-coming area was UNESCO heritage site called Butrint. Originally a little island, land has since connected the location to the mainland. We arrived quite late so asked what time it closes, and the man’s response was, ‘when the sun sets’, like some kind of line out of Lord of the Rings. Never in England would the closing time read on the door:
Monday: when the sun rises – when the sun sets.
This ancient city was first established in the Byzantine era, but then was developed by the Romans. Caesar himself visited the site and upon being so impressed by it, funded its development. Unlike a lot of the Roman dynasty, this ‘city’ was never destroyed because of its deeply spiritual undertones. It became a site where a lot of people would come to worship the God Asceples, the god of healing. It was in these moments of pondering that Petrit screamed like a girl because a snake crossed his path. After strolling around the site and visiting the museum, we crashed a music rehearsal in the well-kept amphitheatre. It looked to be a group of school children and their teachers rehearsing for a performance; apparently there were still shows performed here. The children were very talented, and one girl on the piano was particularly good, although her dictator teacher didn’t quite seem to think so. He was a pretty angry guy in the midst of some really beautiful music. It upset the tone, but made for a good sentence in this blog. It was a pretty special site: live music, ancient amphitheatre, sun setting, only audience members. You couldn’t plan it.
We had dinner at the restaurant. I had lamb ribs as one of the brothers told us about the hotel’s history. He explained that their original hotel was knocked down because they didn’t have a licence. They felt, however, that the real reason was because of the prejudice against the north.
Ednora and I snuck out for a late drink only to discover that although the place was developing, it certainly wasn’t perfect. The closest we got to a drink was a man offering us to take us on his boat in the morning to another island. I came out for a beer, I got offered an expedition.