A Less Mysterious Country – Albania, Europe

To go or not to go to Albania, that is the question – go for a few days or one day?

It was my second day on the Greek Island of Corfu, I was not ready to leave. Corfu is not located in the Aegean Sea, as most Greek Islands are, it is still one of the most popular destinations. Being on Greece's northwest coast, not far from the southeastern tip of Italy, many backpackers stop in Corfu on their way to Italy or Athens.

I was staying at The Pink Palace, the famous 20s-something party/hostel/resort complex in Agio Gordios Beach. After a long night's bus from Athens, I arrived at The Pink Palace early on a Sunday morning, exhausted. Drunk people in pink togas were hanging around the 24-hour bar while I was checking in.

For only €25 a day, I was assigned a single room with a double bed. Dinner and breakfast were included. The room was next to the swimming pool, not far from the beach.

I was supposed to travel to Corfu to inquire about the ferry schedule to Saranda, Albania. I slept until 4:00 p.m. and missed the last bus to town. I did not want to go directly to Albania without knowing my options, so I stayed an extra day in Corfu.

I decided to see Saranda, Albania in a day – not the best way to know a country. However, the price was right ($25.00 with Ionian Cruise, not including port tax and a visit to the site of Butrinti). There was less hassle this way than dealing with non-existent Albanian bus schedules. Also, I found out that highways in Albania were quite bumpy, possibly the worst in Europe. No matter how backward Albania felt, I could return to the Pink Palace the same night. I chose comfort over adventure.

My decision also meant I would have a few extra days to rest my sore back before continuing the second leg of my Eastern European trip.

As the charter boat approached the Albanian shore, I started to feel that thrill of visiting a mysterious, less-known country. Albania is close to Corfu, but feels remote from it. None of my friends had visited Albania and nobody at the Pink Palace planned on traveling to Albania (a few miles away), not even for a day.

Until 1992, Albania was the most sealed-off country in Europe (known as the "North Korea of Europe"). Even after it opened up, it still remained unvisited. The collapse of the pyramid scheme and the ensuing nationwide riots did not help improve its image. Only until the Kosovo War in 1999, with the influx of refugees, did the economy improve. My Let's Go East Europe did not send a travel researcher to Albania for their 2006 edition. Aside from two or three travel stories on BootsnAll.com, Lonely Planet and In Your Pocket Tirana, little else gave me information. The former inspired traveling to Albania; the latter did not.

Eventually, I decided to visit Butrinti, a pleasant, huge and beautifully situated place next to a salt lake. Signs were bilingual – Albanian and English. I could see Albania made an effort to attract more tourists.

We returned to Saranda for lunch, a seaside resort undergoing a building boom. I spoke with our guide about his country. He was glad things were improving. He wanted Albania to pursue E.U. membership. He said, "We had already waited for so many years. Even we need another 20 years to be accepted into E.U., it will be worthwhile.”

With only a few hours, I still realized that in this fast changing world, the once isolated nation was not as mysterious and remote as I thought, Albania is no less developed than other Balkan countries.

Saricie Kuo is a college professor and public health researcher from Taiwan. He is also a part-time novelist and film critic. He took most of 2006 off to travel Europe and South America. He made a wish when he was 18: to visit more than 100 countries before he turns 40. Currently in his mid-30's, Mr. Kuo has only 10 countries left to reach his goal.

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