Monday, July 27, 2015

Onward to nostalgia

I will admit that after two final nights in Albania, in the northern town of Shkodra, I have had enough of the country. I'm ready to move on.

Saranda in the south is the buzzy Mediterranean entry to the otherwise undeveloped Albanian riviera. It has bars and beaches and a broad, curving boulevard of marble. Gjirokastra and Berati are picturesque hill towns with multi-storeyed whitewashed houses of stone and thick wooden pillars which tumble down from hilltop castles like fields of square boulders. And Shkodra? Sprawling rotten concrete and overflowing rubbish skips.

There is also a well-restored cobbled strip with cafes and bars at one end and a park at the other. But in just four blocks, Shkodra rapidly sprawls away from the arbitrary centre into soiled, broken footpaths and ugly utilitarian buildings, culminating in my hotel.

In the spartan restaurant on the ground floor, where noises echo off the tiled surfaces like a hospital ward, some swaggering Albanian is arguing in English with a girl on his phone. "No, I fucking told you... yes, in England! The fucking UK, bitch... what do you want... sure, I should fucking sell my car?" I shift uncomfortably in my seat and try to tune it out and write my travel notes, but he goes on and on, oblivious that his voice is the only sound in the room. "You don't fucking know... look, I spent time in prison..."—at this I begin packing up—"It was hard for gangsters..."—and start heading to my room. Only now does he finally hang up. Then he starts closing the restaurant. He's staff!

I arrive the next day in Budva. Montenegro is more prosperous than Albania, a fact immediately evident by the state of the roads. The bus hugs the seaside cliffs as below it passes nearby Sveti Stefan, the small luxury island of stone terracotta-roofed houses connected like a speared whale to the mainland by a narrow isthmus. It was made famous in the 1960s by cinema royalty such as Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor (as well as actual royalty Princess Margaret and Queen Elizabeth herself).

Six years ago I was in Budva. It's a summer resort town, but I was there in October when the storms pelt the coast of the Adriatic and the locals, surly in their off-season colours, bolt their shutters to the fierce winds. Everything was closed and not a tourist was to be seen. Sveti Stefan was still abandoned following the collapse of Yugoslavia. Everyone had gone home. The quiet desolation was all mine.

Now, in July, it is writhing. Budva is party town. The locals have snapped out of their funk and colonies of Eastern European tourists cram the white sandy beaches, plunging into the crystal turquoise waters beneath the craggy limestone cliffs. Crowds throb and clubs thump.

I miss the desolation.

Back then I stayed at the kitsch Hotel Kangaroo. It was a likeably incongruous place, naively cool in its cheesiness and unrelated to anything Australian other than that it was owned by a family who lived for a time in Perth. The decor of my overlarge room was genuine retro with pink flock bedspread and a bathroom of dusty lime enamel, and the restaurant downstairs had one entire wall taken up with a bas-relief of a sailing ship, like one of those themed family seafood restaurant in the seventies, despite the menu being staple Montenegrin meat and fried potatoes. But through a little back door in the restaurant was a dimly lit modern cocktail lounge of low tables and clean lines, square purple ottomans and yellow cushions, with Fellini's black-and-white classic La Dolca Vita projected onto the wall to a mellow electronica soundtrack. And the drinks were cheap.

After this discovery I returned the next evening. Happily, La Dolce Vita was playing again and I could watch scenes I had missed the previous night. The music was still good, and I wondered if I might actually have the album. It sounded familiar. But when I went back the third night and La Dolce Vita was on yet again, I realised I didn't have the album; it was the same album still playing.

I drop in to see if the son on the front desk whom I befriended back then is still here, but he has apparently returned to Australia. Not much else has changed, though. The decor is the same. The portholed ship is still atop the fibreglass waves. Unfortunately the lounge hasn't opened yet. I really wanted to check if they've changed the CD.


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