Postcards from Albania

Postcards from Albania

When in Greece go to Albania

It’s only three miles from Corfu at its closest point so it would be rude not to. We sailed the hydrofoil from Corfu Town and here we are sipping a cappuccino at a smart restaurant in Sarandë, a port and resort on the Albanian Riviera – yes, they’ve got a riviera. We’re on a coach trip with a herd of Saga louts – Brits and Germans mainly. We had neither the wit nor the inclination to organise the tour independently. Albanian’s call their country Republika e Shqipërisë. No, I can’t pronounce it either so let’s just stick with Albania.

Sarande

The Trojan Connection

Our first excursion is to the ancient city of Butrint – Roman Buthrotum back in the day and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After years in Turkey, I tend to be a bit blasé about old cities – Turkey’s got ‘em by the quarry-load. But I have to admit the site is pretty impressive with its Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman remains. And the setting on the edge of a lagoon is magical. According to Greek mythology, the city was founded by exiles from Troy. A fanciful tale? Maybe not.

We’ve meandered through a mozzie-infested thicket and over long-buried streets to various ruins in various stages of ruination, including a Byzantine basilica – reputedly the largest in the world after Hagia Sophia in old Constantinople. While imposing, I didn’t think it was that big but what do I know?

Butrint

As we rambled, I Googled ‘Butrint’ and happened across the UK Butrint Foundation. Guess where it’s based? Yep, Norwich. Small world.

Pushy Fraulein

We’re back in Sarandë for lunch. Many of our fellow passengers would push their firstborn under a bus to get to the buffet first. It’s like feeding time at the zoo. I had to neck an Albanian beer to get over the shock of an ancient Teuton with fat ankles, bum bag and curly perm elbowing me out of the way to get her grubby hands on the köfte.

Eye Spy

Our afternoon excursion sped us through the Butrint National Park to the Blue Eye, a spring that bubbles forth from a deep pool. I don’t think I’ve ever seen waters so clear or iridescent. The images here are for real – no filters required.

Ooh, Aah, Kosovar

We have an hour or so to kill before our hydrofoil back to Corfu Town. Liam’s sniffed out a swish harbourside bar, with prices to match. I’m sipping Kosovar wine. I didn’t know they made wine in Kosovo. Sarandë is a handsome town – more modern than I was expecting but then I don’t really know what I was expecting. Actually, I’ve never visited an ex-‘Communist’ state before. I’ve been to yer actual Commie country – when I took the train 1,500 or so miles from London to Moscow during Brezhnev’s reign. And then there was Romania when Ceaușescu was on the throne. Both experiences were broadening but those eras are long gone. Albania is beautiful but it’s developing fast. There are mouths to feed and aspirations to fulfil. I just hope they don’t lose too much in the mad rush to be just like everyone else.

Here Endeth the Lesson

I’m guessing not many people know much about Albania. I certainly didn’t. But I know a little more now, courtesy of our guide, a splendid young man who speaks great English, and great German too by the sound of it. Throughout the day, he’s been giving us a potted history in bite-size episodes. He even mentioned the German occupation during the Second World War, something  I thought he might have skipped to avoid offence. It was done in such a matter-of-fact way, I’m sure no one was offended. Our young guide is looking to the future, not dwelling on the past. I’m rather taken with him (not in that way – get your minds out of the gutter). He ended the lesson by saying simply,

Don’t judge Albania by what you’ve heard. Judge Albania by what you see – good and bad.

He got a round of applause – and a tip.

Coming soon – Postcards from Corfu Town.

Laundry line

 

Gran Canaria, Sex Emporium

Gran Canaria, Sex Emporium

Eight hours after leaving Norwich, we turned the key on our digs at Playa Del Inglés. Aside from a few up-market hotels, Canarian apartments tend to be standard fare – concrete boxes with a small dark bedroom, an enclosed shower-room with barely enough light to fix your face, a stark balcony with nasty plastic seats, an ill-equipped kitchenette and a wipe-down living space decorated with lopsided Athena prints. We were pleasantly surprised to find that our concrete box was a comfortable cut above, with laminate flooring, trendy fittings and a flat screen TV. Liam flicked through the channels. The only one in English was CNN. They were showing an interview with Mitt Romney’s sons – all Hollywood teeth and apple pie. I wanted to throw up. At least the Osmonds could sing. I swept open the balcony door and the first thing to catch my eye was a sign for the ‘Garage Sex Shop – Cabins, Cinema and Video.’  It does exactly what it says on the tin, a metaphor for the entire mid-Atlantic rock. We’d arrived.

Gran Canaria October 2012 037

When it comes to a turn around the dance floor, location is more important than lodgings. Happily, we were spitting distance from the Yumbo Center, the throbbing epicentre of gay Canarian low-life. The Yumbo is a naff treat for all the senses, a crumbling multi-layered open air shopping and sex emporium. It started to fall apart as soon as it was built (some twenty five years ago). By day, it’s an over-sized pound shop patronised by ancient slow-lane Germans in busy shirts and socked sandals. But, at the stroke of midnight, the racks of tat are wheeled away, the garish bars throw open their doors and the entire place is transformed into a gaudy cacophonous neon-lit cess-pit of drunken debauchery. After four years of tranquilising sexual ambiguity in Turkey, the no nonsense in-yer-face, up-for-anything style was right up our alley.

Our photos couldn’t possible do justice to the wonder that is the Yumbo Center (we must get ourselves a better camera) but this certainly does:

Next Holiday Post: Sucking on a Woo Woo

Jack and Liam Go To Gran Canaria

Jack and Liam Go To Gran Canaria

Perking the Pansies will be off the air for a few days. Liam and I are taking a well-deserved mini-break to Gran Canaria, that scurrilous mid-Atlantic duty free rock to catch some rays, stock up on Clarins essentials and celebrate my 52nd birthday in dipsomaniac style. I’ve been many, many times before for a little winter warmer and furtive fun in the sun. Now I’m older, wiser and firmly married, I’m content to observe the boozin’ and cruisin’ from the safety of a bar stool and shady sun bed. Notes will be taken and reports will be written. No doubt, the odd geriatric German will wave his crumpled old do-da at us on the beach, flopping out from a well-clipped grey bush. My wrinkly old British do-da will remain safely under wraps. I like to keep the boys guessing (or from throwing up). Normal transmission will be resumed shortly. Salud!

Jumping Jack

Liam and I registered with our local GP practice. The serene surgery is a far cry from the NHS bedlam we left behind in inner city Walthamstow. Natural politeness reigned supreme and you could hear a syringe drop in the waiting room. The entire process took no more than ten minutes. I have wobbly legs to check and periodic limb movement disorder to re-diagnose so I booked my first appointment. I was greeted by a smiley Germanic quack who listened intently to my dancing calf story and examined the test results I had shipped over from Turkey. She checked my blood pressure. “A little high,” she said, “but that’s because I’m a scary doctor.” We laughed. “Best we re-do the tests,” she continued. I’m booked in for a fasting blood test in a few days and I’ve been given a home blood pressure kit to check the numbers every waking hour on the hour for the next week. I suppose I’d better cut down on the sauce a bit. Frau Doc has also referred me to a consultant cardiologist for an arterial MOT. Apparently, I book the appointment online. I have a sneaking suspicion that Teutonic efficiency will cut through the NHS flab like a hot knife through butter.

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NHS Treatment for Repats

Mad Mother Nature

Bodrum, Turkey, April 2012. What is going on with this crazy weather? A real snap, crackle and pop of a storm has just rolled across the horizon. We’ve been assaulted by hailstones. Big buggers, they were too. Mad Mother Nature needs to be sectioned. She’s clearly lost the plot and is a danger to herself and the poor boys trying to complete the urban refit before the season is in full swing. Let’s also spare a thought for the Teutonic early birds with their knee-length shorts and sensible shoes who have taken flight to the nearest covered refuge.

Love Seats and Leather Slings

We had a German in order to install lights and a put up a few pictures. I could have done it myself but we just don’t have the right equipment. My little girly cordless drill doesn’t leave even the smallest dent in the thick stone and concrete walls. The German is an interesting chap. Stocky and bald he wouldn’t look out of place in XXL (The huge London gay club for fat boys and chubby chasers). Even though he bats on the majority team he told us about his ménage à trois with his best (male) friend and the friend’s (female) partner. He didn’t elaborate on who did what to whom but there was no penetration involved, apparently. This information was volunteered with absolutely no prompting from me. As he screwed our pan rack to the kitchen ceiling he mentioned that he once constructed a love seat in his bedroom to spice up the sex life with the missus. I’ve seen a leather sling or two in my time, but I’m not too familiar with the love seat concept. Whatever it is it didn’t work. They’re now divorced.

Sweet Swedes and Wretched Russians

My faith in our distant Nordic cousins has been mercifully restored by the arrival of Joel and Mikaela, a sweet couple from the northern pinelands of Mother Svea. They own a Tepe house on the level beneath us. Joel is a tall, slim, handsome older man with silver hair and a laid-back charm. His wife Mikaela is the archetypal Aryan beauty, a blue-eyed blond bombshell. Their warm and kindly disposition is a welcome respite from the grumpy old Danes next to us. They invited us in for tea. Their grand villa is a picture of understated Scandinavian chic. We chatted away for hours, a delicious smörgåsbord of wit and wisdom.

I recalled my first visit to Stockholm when I was a hormonal adolescent. The little local grammar school I attended laid on the most incredible journeys designed to broaden horizons and expand the mind. One early morning in 1975 twenty or so sweaty boys boarded  a train at Victoria Station and headed for the coast. We sailed on the morning tide to Flanders where we began our grand passage across the great North European Plain.

First stop Berlin. It was the height of the Cold War and we spent two days exploring the cruelly divided city, escorted through the wall at Checkpoint Charlie. Onwards east, our carriages were pulled by an ancient steam locomotive that choo choo’d through a flat, monotonous landscape. As we neared Poland our party was raided by a detachment of East German border guards brandishing Kalashnikovs. The mean-looking, chisel-chinned troopers in tight beige uniforms rifled through our belongings and ransacked the couchettes. Perhaps they were looking for Levi jeans. Calm was quickly restored and we continued our incredible journey. A brief stop in Warsaw precluded an excursion to the city. We continued on across the Soviet border to Smolensk where the entire train was silently raised from its bogies and placed onto a new set of wheels to fit the wider Russian railway gauge.

Second stop Moscow. Tsar Brezhnev was on the Soviet throne and we were tightly chaperoned by an over-painted woman in cheap scent. She was tailed by the KGB. Shops were empty save for Russian dolls, and strangers approached us in Gorky Park wanting the clothes off our backs. Moscow was drab but the metro was palatial. The Kremlin was magnificent and Red Square was vast and windswept. Lenin in his marble tomb looked like a Madam Tussauds’ dummy. The comrades around us looked fed up and miserable as they shuffled dutifully past the macabre exhibit.

Third stop Leningrad that was. The Venice of the North was a more visually pleasing spectacle with imposing baroque architecture painted in multi-coloured delicate pastels. The majestic enormity of the Winter Palace containing the Hermitage Museum was too vast to comprehend. As if Peter the Great’s grand imperial capital wasn’t grand enough we embarked on our fourth stop, a day trip to Novgorod, one of the most celebrated cities of medieval Rus. This ravishing city is twinned with Watford of all places.

Fifth stop Helsinki across the Gulf of Finland. This picturesque and verdant city reminded me of a mini-St Petersburg. Our whistle-stop excursion was all too brief.

Sixth stop stunning Stockholm where we expected to see a sex shop on every corner. It was the sexual repressed seventies when buttoned-up Brits were convinced that emancipated Swedes were at it morning noon and night. We were disappointed.

We steamed back to Blighty across the cold northern seas in a Ruskie rust bucket that saw service in World War Two. We shared the wreck with a party from an all-girl’s school in Scarborough. I watched the boys chase the girls and wondered what all the fuss was about. Our teachers allowed us to take a drink at the bar. Perhaps this is where my gradual but certain descent into alcohol dependency all began.

Final stop Tilbury Docks and back to earth with a bump. Three weeks for 150 quid which my parents saved for months to pay. All in all a fantastic adventure that was a little lost on a bunch of post-pubescent fourteen year olds whose main preoccupation was masturbation.

PS Perking the Pansies has few followers in modern Russia but I spied a lone flasher in Novgorod the other day.