Last time I was in this corner of Europe I didn't manage to fit in any boat trips, so I'm quite excited about catching the ferry over to Sarandë, Albania today. I walked down to the port last night to scope it out and buy my ticket, so I already know it's about a 40-50 minute walk from my hotel. Despite the heat I just can't bring myself to take a taxi; I arrive at immigration control feeling extremely hot and uncomfortable. But at least I didn't spend any money getting there!
The boat is small. Smaller even than I had expected. But apparently it's a car ferry. A small crowd gathers on the upper deck to watch as the cars are manoeuvred into place. All four of them. They just manage to squeeze the fourth car on, although its alarm keeps going off at irregular intervals as we make the crossing. Perhaps protesting the indignity of the experience.
I momentarily consider sitting on the lower deck - indoors with the comfy chairs - before opting for going to the upper deck and sitting on a hard wooden bench under the shade of the life rafts. I figure the breeze will help guard against seasickness. Plus if the boat sinks I don't want to be trapped below deck. (I have probably watched too many disaster investigation shows, but better safe than sorry.)
Partway into the journey a British woman sitting across from me pulls out her "Colloquial Albanian" book. Unlike me with my phrasebook it's clearly not her first time of reading; there are sticky tabs on some of the pages and she doesn't open it at page one. I must try harder.
I find the view as we approach the port in Sarandë a little daunting, intimidating. The hill around the bay is dominated by ugly tower block buildings stretching into the distance. Poured concrete and gaping soulless eyes stare back at me. I panic a little that maybe I've made a mistake coming here.
I set aside the panic as the boat is moored, and scan along the beaches to my right. I'm not in the mood for another hike with my bag in this heat, in the middle of the day. I notice an attractive looking hotel immediately next to the port and wish that I could have booked to stay there instead.
The line at immigration moves slowly, despite how few of us there are, but at least the woman at customs shows no interest in x-raying or even checking my luggage as she has for everyone else. Travelling light pays off again.
Pulling out the printouts for my Sarandë hotel I take a quick look at the small grainy photo of the hotel front so I will have some idea what I'm looking for. I suddenly realise I actually am staying at that hotel by the port. Genius. Sarandë just became my favourite place in the whole world. No more stressful cross-town hikes for me today. (Yes, this is the level of preparation I set out with, I had no idea where my hotel was.)
The town isn't actually as bad as it had looked from the boat once you start walking around. I take a lazy afternoon to stay out of the worst of the heat, before joining the crowds for an evening stroll along the seafront after the sun sets. The promenade is actually really lovely, and there's a lot going on: park benches filled with elderly people chatting; playgrounds filled with children and young families; popcorn stalls and barbecued corn on the cob; amusement rides, laughter ringing out from the dodgems; restaurants, cafes and fast food stands; the usual stalls with people selling tat; and a couple of stands offering tattoos (as tempting as the idea of getting a tattoo done on the street is, I keep walking...).