Aside from the Finns, all the people of the eleven countries I visited on this trip were cut off from normal contact with the rest of the world from the end of World War II until the fall of the Soviet Union. Both Tito in Yugoslavia, and Hoxha in Albania kept their countries outside the Soviet Union proper, but while Yugoslavs enjoyed the freedom to travel in Western Europe, and to farm independently, Albanians were essentially isolated even from their neighbors behind a second Iron Curtain.
Hoxha was not just a hard-line Stalinist, but seems to have been paranoid as well. Not content with a huge secret police force to keep his own populace cowed, and denied freedom of expression, religion and movement, he littered the countryside with ugly little concrete bunkers intended for defense against invasion.
Not that anyone bothered to try. The world pretty much forgot Albania, and today I suspect many people still overlook it. Even the New York Times’ Frugal Traveler, working his way around the Mediterranean and Adriatic coasts on a budget, had to be reminded by his readers that there were more beaches south of Montenegro, and the living would be much cheaper there.
Some people come on day trips from Corfu to see the Roman ruins at Butrint, although while Corfu has long been a popular destination for Europeans, I’m not sure how many Americans visit it. Tirane, the capital, apparently has a nice new airport, but it really makes more sense to visit Albania as part of a longer Balkan trip, and travel there overland.
From Ohrid I wanted to go south via Korca and Gjirokastra to Saranda and Butrint. I also wanted to visit Sveti Naum at the south end of the lake. Unfortunately, if I wanted to take public transport I needed to go round the north end of the lake. The Lonely Planet guidebook suggested that I could walk across the southern border and pick up a taxi, but posts on Thorntree made it clear that this was a dicey proposition even in season. I reluctantly concluded I needed a car and driver.
Meli’s fixer gave me a quote of 100 euros, which I pretty much rejected out of hand. Lyuba’s contact didn’t have a driver available. Instead I used a travel agency in town (Elida), and their driver, who cost me 60 euros, also acted as informal tour guide at the “Bay of the Bones” – a reconstruction of a Stone Age settlement on a platform built on piles out in the lake. (The remains of the original are underwater.)
The monastery of Sveti Naum occupied a desirable site where the Crn Drim river flows into the lake. While I enjoyed the views I thought the buildings themselves didn’t quite live up to their hype, and was devoutly thankful to be visiting in the off season, when most of the souvenir stands lining the access path were closed.
I snacked on bread and cheese (chunks of bread with a scattering of grated cheese) at one of the empty cafes, before setting off the border just up the road. My driver had to give “tobacco money” to the Albanian guard, but I had no trouble. On the Albanian side a man who might, or might not, have been a taxi driver, was washing his car windows, but otherwise the border was deserted.