Oh Lord, won’t you steal me a Mercedes-Benz?

In 1966 Albania was a red spot on the map of Europe. It lies on the Adriatic  between Greece and Yugoslavia. Desperately poor and thoroughly repressed with close ties to Russia, it lay directly in our path. But foreigners were not allowed into the country, and that included four English teenagers with a Morris Minor.

We had to drive hundreds of miles out of our way to go round Albania

Up until 1991 and the end of the communist regime, Albanians were forbidden to own cars. The most luxurious form of transport allowed was a bicycle. After the collapse of communism everyone wanted a car. But there were no cars to be had. Not one car dealership existed. Within a very short time the problem was solved. Albania quickly became known for its thriving black market for stolen cars from Europe.  And not any old car. A Mercedes Benz was what everyone wanted. Of course they did! So much so that today  Albania is renowned for having the highest concentration of Mercedes anywhere in the world. The fact that most of them are stolen does not alter that fact. There still aren’t many car showrooms, but there is a thriving used car market. But buyer beware, the cars are only good in Albania. Try and cross the border with a car with Albanian plates,  and the odds are that it will be on a stolen car list and be confiscated.

Even today, we are struck by how few cars there are on the road, especially once you get into the countryside. But we are also struck by just how many of the cars we see are Mercedes. At first we are really impressed until we realise most of them are W123 models  or W124’s from the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Quite why there are so many Mercedes, is up for debate. Some say it is because their fuel tanks are so large they make smuggling fuel into Albania easy, which is a another national pastime for some and a full time job for others. Others say it is simply because of the bad roads. Mercedes build their cars to last forever and Albania knows how to put that claim to the test. We certainly learn in just a few short hours how many dirt roads there are, all  with potholes and rocks that could do in the suspension of a lesser car, or simply give you a flat if you drive too fast – which would be anything over 10 mph.

Then of course you have to throw into the mix the prestige of owning a Mercedes. It may not mean so much in the rest of the world anymore, but it is still the ultimate sign that you have made it in the developing countries.

But I am painting a bleak picture of Albania which is not my intention. In fact, quite the opposite. It maybe still be a desperately poor country and a little chaotic, but it has so much to offer: There is free healthcare and schooling for all, a strikingly beautiful mountainous country and some of the most spectacular beaches in the Mediterranean.

On top of that, the cost of living is cheap, real estate is a bargain and the people are wonderfully friendly albeit a little shady. And I gather all of that in one day. So in case you haven’t yet realised it, I like Albania a lot.

Today, Albania is open to everyone. Our ship sails into the seaside town of Sarande.

There is a small port at one end of the long bay, but it is nowhere near big enough to accommodate a cruise ship.  Instead our ship sits in the middle of the beautiful bay dominating the landscape, while we are tendered into the little dock.

The town looks new, but not quite done.

Brightly coloured buildings line the promenade while many further back are not finished, perhaps even abandoned. The main streets are full of local shops and cafes where everything seems incredibly inexpensive.  The only tourists seem to be day trippers from Corfu which is just 10 miles across the water.

Perhaps one of the reasons I like it so much is that it feels like Corfu and Greece were when we visited 50 years ago. It’s like taking a step back in time. The country seems out of touch with the rest of the world, unaware of the benefits (and downside) of tourism.

The first sign of just how clueless they are is when we rent the car. It is 30 euros for the day. I want to pay with my credit card because it covers the insurance on a rental car. They shrug their shoulders and say the car is already covered. They don’t want a credit card. In fact they don’t want paying. They give me the keys to the car and tell me to pay the 30 euros in cash when we get back. That’s it. No inspection of the car, no deposit, just take the car and go.

We do.

Once out of town the roads are deserted. We cross a huge fertile valley. The road is a simple two lane road (they all seem to be) in a fair state of repair. We pass the odd horse and cart, and old tractors pulling huge loads

Note that is a Mercedes passing the tractor. We see a scooter or two and some old motorbikes but very few cars. Nobody seems to live out here. Whenever we see a road sign to a tiny town on top of a hill, we take the turn off to explore. Immediately we hit a gravel road.

We follow it carefully into the village, winding up the dirt road. When we get there the village always seems deserted. There is just a handful of houses all in varying states of disrepair with most of the shutters firmly closed. We never see any sign of life. It is very strange

Across the valley, we start climbing into the mountains. Here the road becomes quite impressive, winding its way  up and down the mountainside.

We seem to drive for miles without actually getting anywhere. We have no destination in mind, we are just exploring, but we are realising there might be no destination anyway. There are no towns, no side roads, no signs. We have no idea where we are going, if indeed we are going anywhere. We finally turn back across another valley and head for a place called Butrint

Butrint is another sign that Albania needs to catch up with the real world. Butrint has not only been called one of the greatest classical cities of the Mediterranean, but it dates back almost 3000 years, and is set in a strikingly beautiful position on a green tree covered hill almost entirely surrounded by water and lakes,

Add to this, that it is a nature preserve, home to over 250 species of birds, several of them endangered , and you would expect the place to be crawling with tourists and birdwatchers, but it remains largely unknown.

There is an attendant at the car park waiting for us. He directs us carefully into a parking space. The fact that there are only twelve other cars in the car park is irrelevant, as is his job. If we were anywhere else the crowds would be overwhelming. If Albania ever decides it wants to rake in tourist dollars this is the place that could do it for them. But before that they would have to “tourist proof” the site.  Perhaps the most famous of all the wonderful ruins on display here is the circular 6th-century early Christian baptistry with its fabulously colorful mosaic floor depicting animals and birds.

Much is made of it in all the literature and there is an explanation and description next to the baptistry. But what we see is quite different

There is nothing on the floor but gravel and sand. There is a piece of string slung around the baptistry about 6 inches off the ground. Presumably they have had a problem with really short people.

Feeling slightly cheated, we ask a local guide about the floor. He tells us that until four years ago the floor was on full view and you could actually walk on it. But they discovered that tourists were quietly digging up patches of the mosaic and taking it home with them. So much better than a fridge magnet. Today the floor is still there but covered with gravel to protect it. He goes on to say that there are other areas with equally wonderful mosaic floors and they have had to cover those too.

Perhaps a gift shop selling replicas would help. But there is no gift shop. There is a small and beautifully presented museum featuring many of the statues and relics found on the site, but no gift shop.

Where in the world can you go to a site like this with a great museum and not be forced to walk through a well put together gift shop on your way out?

Thanks to its location Butrint was a major town on the trade routes of the Mediterranean for almost 2000 years. Through the centuries it was inhabited by Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Venetians, all of whom left their mark on the city.  Structures and relics of each period are found everywhere. It is a fascinating place to explore .

The Greek amphitheatre, secluded in the forest below the acropolis  is the fourth biggest known amphitheatre and can seat 2500 people

Further into the forest is an amazing wall covered with Greek inscriptions still clearly legible

Some of the legends connected to the City include Medea, King Augustus, the poet Virgil and none other than Julius Caesar himself. Caesar arrived in 44BC and recognized the potential of the place but thought it was a bit of a dump. He sent his adopted son, Augustus, along with other members of his family and a considerable amount of money to launch a major building program.

Under Augustus’s rule the town almost doubled in size with an aqueduct , a Roman bath, houses, a forum complex and a nymphaeum. I have no idea what a nymphaeum is, but any town that has one sounds like a fun place to me.

And maybe it was, but in the 5th century the Episcopalians took over the city and built a Basilica and that was the end of all that Roman debauchery

Butrint continued to thrive until the middle ages when the town was abandoned. Swamps had developed around the town and with them came mosquitoes and disease. It remained forgotten, hidden and overgrown  until an Italian archaeologist unearthed the amphitheatre in the 1920’s.

After three long but fascinating hours, we finally make it to the top of the hill,where we are greeted by some fabulous views

But we are hot and tired and what we could really do with is a long cold drink,, preferably a beer, and perhaps even a nice restaurant or cafe. And lo and behold there is one. Newly built and very stylish we can’t wait to enjoy what it has to offer.

If you are thinking that is rather a forced smile on Gordon’s face,  you would be right. The cafe has nothing to offer except coffee and a couple of different soft drinks. Nothing whatsoever to eat, not even a cookie with the coffee.

They don’t have a problem with stolen cars from the 20th century, so they shouldn’t have a problem with borrowing a few ideas from the 21st century. The cafe could be a little goldmine, a museum shop would bring in big bucks, and Butrint would be established on the tourist map.

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