25th August 2016
After the second shot of Raki, I literally pass out on the bed. I awake hours later to find my two boys—Charlie, seventeen, and Dylan, twelve—fast asleep, stripped off to their pants, and brown as deep summer. The sun is already hot and from the balcony, straight ahead through the scaffolding of a hotel under construction, I can see the Adriatic Sea. To my right the scruffy promenade of Saranda.
Charlie is miserable. He’s recently split up with his girlfriend and spends most of his time listening to sad music. He snaps and crumbles easily. Dylan watches his brother in amazement. A good few years will pass before he goes through the exact same thing. We’ve done a lot of lounging on the beach, a lot of swimming and not a lot else. Albania is in competition with her neighbouring Greece but it’s a slow, painful process. The country lacks the infrastructure and resources. It seems that few people in Saranda speak English and even fewer Italian, but when we say we are from Brindisi people cheer. Our hotel room is spartan and cramped. The children are less than impressed and I know this holiday will be gone over in fine detail by my ex-husband.
I’ve decided to take them on a road trip to Gjirokaster, a fortress about fifty kilometres from Sarande and one of Albania’s oldest cities. Neither of the boys is overwhelmed by the idea and my head is still thumping.
We set off in our Fiat Panda; Saranda is connected to our hometown of Brindisi by a relatively recent ferry link. The road takes us past The Blue Eye—Syri I Kalter, a singularly disappointing tourist spot where you can post a photo of yourself in what looks like paradise, diving into a deep turquoise pool. In reality, it’s overcrowded and a bit grotty.
I’m a good driver but as the road climbs and locals continue to overtake us on hairpin bends, I begin to feel a little anxious. There are no guardrails and the sight of the hulk of a car that didn’t make it sets us all on edge. Dylan sums up the mood by asking if indeed we have to come back the same way. Charlie makes the sign of the cross.
We get to Gjirokaster safe and sound and it’s beautiful—a medieval town with diamond-shaped cobbles and curious little shops selling leather and textiles where we pay far too much for Albanian football kits and I buy a rug which will never fit in my new, smaller flat. The sky in contrast with the mountains is so blue that we are all caught staring upwards in wonder. We visit the castle and the mosque then stop for lunch in the shade (the food in Albania is delicious and cheap). The boys slip on their football tops and I let the oldest have a beer. He smiles genuinely for the first time since we arrived. Dylan tells me it’s been an epic day and he can’t wait to tell his Dad how cool the drive over was.
I lick my finger and signal a point on the imaginary scoreboard but of course, I don’t let them see it. On the way back they fall asleep and miss the curious sight of goats blocking the road.