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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: September 6, 2008

FOR DECADES A VIRTUAL PARIAH, Albania is shaping up as one of Europe’s major tourist destinations. Spotlight on Saranda (pop: 35,000), a pleasant coastal resort a short ferry ride across from Corfu. For years it has been a popular spot for Albanian honeymooners.

The number of tourist visitors to this part of the Adriatic coast during the stifling years of Communism, 1949-1990, was near zero but has since been expanding at a frantic rate. The current tourist boom has produced dozens of new hotels, with half-completed structures arising on almost every vacant piece of hillside. Tourism currently accounts for 25% of the region’s income but this is likely to at least double.

Apart from beaches and the usual attractions of a coastal resort, what draws many visitors are the well-preserved ruins of the ancient Roman town of Butrint, on the six-mile-long Ksamil peninsula. Nearby is a sea-fed lake which today, as in ancient times, is a rich source of fish and mussels.

The origins of Saranda, whose name commemorates the death of forty Christian martyrs, go all the way back to a 6th-century BC Greek settlement later captured by the Romans and used as a safe harbor for the fleet. In 44BC it was a grain depot for Caesar’s army and the aqueduct bringing water to the town is shown on coins that Butrint minted in the reigns of Augustus and Nero.

The ruins, once surrounded by a 30 ft high wall, are a delight for archaeologically-minded visitors who can admire the ancient theatre — its 20 ascending rows of seats seated about 1,500 spectators — and the numerous temples devoted to Asclepius, the god of healing. A gymnasium where youth were taught both academically and physically, was served by water thru pipes to the bathhouse, where mosaic tiles bear a votive inscription dedicated to Zeus Cassios, the god protecting mariners. Gods, however, were very much out of favor during the 40 years of Communist rule (which ended in 1990) when all private religious practice was banned. Today, Albania’s 3.6 million population is more than two-thirds Muslim.

A newly-planted tree is labeled with the name of Croatian prime minister Sali Berisha, who made a recent visit to the site but some earlier visitors were less popular. Our local guide, Anila, talking almost nonstop in fluent English, offered a fund of Communist-era jokes. When Khruschev visited the site, she said, he was bitten by a snake. The snake died.

Greatly adding to Saranda’s prospects is the beachfront village of Ksamil, also chock-a-block with already-operating and half-built hotels (one named after the Albanian capital, Tirana) about halfway between the town and Butrint on a 15-mile, two-lane highway so narrow that cars invariably have to back up when met by buses going the other way.

My recent visit was one of the stops along a tour from Athens to Zagreb, through the Corinth Canal and up the Dalmatian Coast calling at such beautiful islands as Korcula (where Marco Polo’s alleged home is featured in the walled town) and Hvar, famous for its acres of aromatic rosemary and lavender, and such incessant sunshine that visitors who experience a sunless vacation have half their expenses remitted.

In Athens, first stop on the tour, our home was the St. George Lycabettus, a self-proclaimed “boutique hotel” whose glossy aura included its own magazine, filled with lavish ads for luxury products. The panoramic view from the rooftop swimming pool included a view not only of the distant Acropolis but the sea beyond, a totally different aspect not usually seen from most parts of the city whose clutter of buildings extends all the way to the coast. But boutique hotels are not my thing, usually frequented by rich Yuppie types and emphasizing style over substance. They’re hotels that are likely to have barbells in the bathroom but no ice buckets (or even ice machines down the hall); toilet rolls chicly hanging from chains (and thus hard to extract); bathroom doors of glass which flood the bedroom with light; a single flower in a vase but no bottle opener. In short, the kind of place designed by trendy folk who don’t stay in them.

The biggest disappointment of the trip, though, was to discover how incredibly popular some of the world’s most beautiful places had become. For this, I suppose, I am partly to blame, having lured tourists to them via some of my books one of which, Greece and Yugoslavia on $10 a Day, I took along this time for comparison. I had described Corfu (in 1972) as ”….a beautiful island, rich with almost every kind of vegetation including cactus and palm trees, There are said to be more than three million olive trees, producing some of the best olive oil (i.e. low in acidic content) in Greece, and it is luxuriously green wherever you travel.” No change there, of course, nor with my revelation that the Corfu News had found that 46 waiters in town were named Spiros, after the island’s patron saint St. Spyridon, a 4th-century bishop credited with miracles both during and after his life. When our tour guide asked the bus driver for his name, it was predictably Spiros.

The changes at Split, however, were all for the worse. The broad, main street running parallel to the harbor was once lined with a jumbled kaleidoscope of cafes, all with different colored umbrellas from under which it was possible to sit at night and watch most of the local population promenade up and down, meeting and gossiping about the day’s events. Like the nightly paseo in most Mexican towns. All that was gone, to be replaced by a sterile, shiny boulevard flanked by identical tables under identical white plastic umbrellas. All the life washed out by bureaucratic fiat, and a decision so unpopular here that citizens were rumored to be planning to replace the mayor.  Split’s major attraction was still the astonishing and extensive 3rd-century palace built by the Roman emperor Diocletian inside whose walls the once-decrepit apartments were being turned into luxury accommodations. And the crowds were overwhelming.

Even more so in the renowned walled city of Dubrovnik whose undoubted glories have been dimmed by the hundreds of thousands of visitors of all ages and nationalities which makes walking through it a fair comparison with Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Hopefully, the human tide ebbs in other months.

Our guide for the 15-day tour was the ferociously efficient Tamara whose awesome knowledge and skills could hardly be bettered. Overseas Adventure Travel should make her president of the company. Sarajevo-born and thus mistress of myriad languages, Tamara was fervent in her denunciations of, yet insightful about, the background to the 1990s war between the Serbs and the Croatians as we traversed a region still littered with bombed and devastated houses whose occupants had fled. Croatians, fighting for independence, had found themselves on the wrong side of history, she maintained, and had been easily manipulated. This Krajina region, incidentally, was the birthplace of a genuine star, Nicolas Tesla, sometimes described as “the man who invented electricity” and the pre-Marconi developer of radio. Although overshadowed in life and dying of poverty in a New York hotel in 1943, Tesla is undergoing belated acclaim today and has a street named for him in Zagreb where he lectured on alternate current (AC) in 1892.

The biggest mistake I made about my tour was being carelessly gulled into sharing a cabin on O.A.T.’s Athena, thus ending up with a total imbecile for a roommate. It’s a mistake I will never make again. Apart from his insistence on rising (and thus waking me) at 6am every day, this ninny was equipped with a full range of grunts, groans, and giggles which he articulated at intervals during the day, occasionally vocalizing with banal and inane comments. If there was something obvious to be said, he could be counted on to say it, and as his main aim in life appeared to be to draw attention to himself, the more I tried to ignore him the more vociferous his interruptions became.

But easily the most unpleasant part of the trip, was the encounter with the arrogant dimwits of Homeland Security on my return, especially at the first U.S. touchdown at Salt Lake City where a bullying operative kept berating me for not removing from my pockets Euro notes (metal strips thereon), plastic ballpoint pens (metal tips) and Wash ’n Dry packets (foil covering), all of which triggered his over-sensitive wand. This after removing my belt, jacket, shoes, coins, keys, and tiny folding scissors (duly confiscated). This swaggering minion obviously loved his job for the opportunity it gave him to torment and humiliate passengers, and epitomized the paranoia that has infected America in these troubled times to an extent that far exceeds the methods of just about every other country. Essential as Homeland Security is to the safety of all of us, it has become by far the most unpleasant part of today’s travel.