Mysterious but friendly, ancient but scarred, shut off from the world for almost 50 years — the tiny country on the Adriatic Coast is basking in freedom and beckoning travellers in.
Story and Photos by (and courtesy of) Dario De Santis
The ferry sails buoyantly on the cobalt-blue waters of the Ionian Sea. From the deck of the ship, my friend Lorenzo and I catch a glimpse of the silhouette of Saranda as it appears on the horizon: framed by a long waterfront, and buildings that stretch back to the slopes behind.
We are about to discover Albania, one of the few European countries we haven’t yet been to and it’s very unknown to us. We know very little about it: the country was ruled by the Communist regime for nearly half a century—from 1944 to 1992—and during this period was virtually isolated from the rest of the world.
Today Albania is one of Europe’s least-developed countries, and a great number of Albanians have emigrated, and keep emigrating, to seek a better life. The info we’d gathered just surfing the web and listening to the (often implausible) stories from people who’ve been there offered us a vague and contrasting picture of the country—we really don’t know, even as we start out, what this trip holds in store for us.
After a while I am crossed by a feeling of both anxiety and excitement, which only a brush with the unknown can give.
As our ferry moves closer to the harbour, I recall the reactions of disbelief from people when I said I was going to Albania: “Why the hell are you going there?!” and, “You’d have to be mad!”
Their skepticism motivated me even more to go; I’ve always liked a challenge. In spite of these skeptics I have three travel mates with me on the trip: Lorenzo, an old friend; Angeliki, my girlfriend, and her friend Chrysa. Angeliki and Chrysa will be coming to Saranda by car from their home country of Greece.
When Lorenzo and I set foot on the pier, a sign saying “Miresevini ne Shqiperi” (“Welcome to Albania”) gives us a taste of the seemingly obscure Albanian language, which is not related to any other extant language. But we’re not worried since we know many Albanians learn Italian and other languages by watching TV. Our assumption turns out to be true when Samir, a local guy I’ve met through Couchsurfing welcomes us in English. We soon learn that he speaks very good Italian and Greek as well.
After leaving our bags in the flat we’ve rented, we head for dinner in a restaurant Samir recommends. Flicking through the menu, I notice how many words sound familiar, and Samir confirms my impression, explaining that Albanian cuisine shares many dishes with Italy, Greece and Turkey—three countries I know very well.
“Consider that Italy and Greece are a step away,” he says. “And that Albania was part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries.”
If there is one thing I’ve learned through travelling it’s that food ties people together, is unmindful of national borders. We toast to that, clinking our jugs of Kaon, the local beer. Tempted by the low prices and the desire to try an array of Albanian specialties, we order lots of food: a plate of hot and cold appetizers, tarator (cold yogurt and cucumber soup), dolma (vine leaves stuffed with rice), qofte (meatballs), tave kosi (baked lamb and rice with yogurt), and for dessert the classic baklava. A feast for kings; our trip is off to a great start.
The Albanian Riviera
First thing next morning we meet Angeliki and Chrysa near the port, and sit by the sea in a quiet café, updating each other on all our latest news.
Saranda is located in a beautiful bay in the south of Albania. With a population of about 36,000 it’s one of the country’s main tourist destinations, particularly favoured by Albanian honeymooners. Only a few traces of its thousand-year history have survived to this day: the ruins of a synagogue, a Roman arch and little more.
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What makes Saranda the pseudo capital of the Albanian Riviera is its mild climate, spectacular beaches and crystal-clear sea—as well as the many hotels and resorts right on its seaside! Its surrounding area also plays host to several interesting attractions, the most well-known of which is Butrint National Park, our first destination.
Driving south from the city in Angeliki’s small car (the park is only about 20 kilometres away), we soon realize the condition of the roads—and the driving style of Albanians!—leave a lot to be desired. As we fly by we notice some odd, round concrete buildings camouflaged by the landscape; reading our travel guide, Lorenzo informs us they are military bunkers built by the communists for defensive purposes.
Interestingly enough, the bunkers are not oriented outwardly toward the sea but inland, since the most concrete threat was from its then-neighbour Yugoslavia. “There are some 700,000 of them all around the country,” says Lorenzo, almost incredulously.
Half an hour later we arrive at the park, which is situated on a lagoon set between the Corfu Strait and the mountains that demark the border with Greece. To reach the ancient city of Buthrotum, which today is called Butrint and lies within the park, we need to cross the narrow channel of Vivari by using an ingenious and curious means of transport—a cable-ferry, essentially a rusty platform pulled by ropes that goes back and forth between the two shores.
Near the cable-ferry is the Venetian fortress that dates from the 16th century, and Ali Pasha’s castle. When we ask a group of local fishermen, with their stunningly grooved and sunburned faces, we learn that the castle rests at the tip of the channel and can only be reached by boat. We decline their kind invitation to take us there, and instead alight the cable-ferry.
Butrint, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1992, lies on a lush peninsula. “Lucky us,” says Angeliki. “Otherwise the heat would kill us.” A path leads us through the ruins, revealing the various historical periods of the ancient city. Founded in the fourth century BCE, the city has been ruled by Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Angevins, Venetians, Ottomans, the French and eventually, in 1912, it became part of the newborn Albanian state.
I let the others go ahead so I can sit alone for a while on the stone stands of the well-preserved Hellenistic theatre. I try to imagine the voices of the actors, the applause, the laughs and sighs of the audience in a play that might have taken place two millennia ago. Of a once-huge basilica, only the high arched walls and altar survive. Lorenzo heads back to me and playfully we simulate a human sacrifice, even as the girls comment with one voice: “Men never grow up!”
We walk along the city’s cyclopean defensive walls and at a certain point have to bend to pass through the Lion Gate. After a slight climb, we finally reach the ancient acropolis, where we find a fine, recently restored castle and the museum of Butrint.
A breathtaking panorama of the ruins, of the lagoon and the surrounding hills, awaits us at the top of the castle. As I expected, Angeliki goes on a photo-taking spree—but this time is excused by the beauty of the view!
Back in the car, we head toward the peninsula of Ksamil. Behind a line of palm trees running along the road, wonderful beaches flow before our eyes and we can’t decide where to stop. A sign saying “restaurant” dispels our indecision, and soon we find ourselves eating lunch on a shady terrace facing the sea. The food, fish and roasted meat are excellent and the bill ridiculously cheap—the girls have polished off their plates, to my and Lorenzo’s disappointment.
Less than two kilometres from the restaurant is the most beautiful beach of the region: a thin sandy strip that encircles an enchanting bay from whose azure waters emerge a few green islets. We spend the afternoon in this corner of paradise, relaxing under straw umbrellas, swimming in the crystalline water and drinking cocktails at the bar on the beach. It is one of those days you wish would never end.
“You know what? I’m going to nail that yellow shining thing to the sky, so we’ll never have to leave!” I say, as I mime hammering a nail into the sun.
But the sun is blind to my humour and keeps lowering relentlessly until regretfully we have to go. Before returning to the flat we stop at Lekures Castle, set on top of a hill overlooking Saranda, Ksamil, Butrint, Corfu and the inland relief. Over the vestiges of the castle is an elegant restaurant built in stone. We sit at a table on the terrace and talk until the lights of the city below glow in the subdued colours of dusk.
• • •
The next day we decide to explore the region north of Saranda. Contrary to what we expected, the road does not run straight along the coast but winds in a series of hairpin bends through the hilly landscape dotted with maquis greenery. The road is not comfortable nor very safe; in exchange it offers breathtaking aerial views of the coast and a picture of rural Albania.
As we drive we often share the road with horses, donkeys and herds of livestock. Chrysa has a soft spot for donkeys—every time we come across one she joyfully shouts out their Greek name Gaiduraki!
We stop off in Porto Palermo Bay, attracted by the sight of a castle set next to a small beach and clear waters. Angeliki and Chrysa strike up a conversation with the castle’s keeper, an elderly, moustached man with a big smile. From him we learn that the majority of the population here in the region of Himare are ethnically Greek, speak Albanian as well as a Greek dialect, and are Christian-Orthodox.
“I’m Orthodox, too,” he emphasizes, pointing out a tiny, stone church nearby.
When the girls tell him they are of distant Albanian descent, the man is visibly touched. Then Lorenzo is sorely tempted to go for a swim and I literally have to drag him into the car.
“We’ll swim later, I promise!” I say, trying to persuade him.
We keep zigzagging among the hills. At some point the slope gets very steep and treacherous for our 1,000-cc engine car, so much so that a faint, yet alarming burning smell begins to seep from the bonnet. I pull over in a rest area, pop the bonnet and leave it open to allow the engine to cool down. While waiting, we casually watch a group of people nearby who are getting ready to paraglide. Unfortunately, the wind isn’t favourable and when we get back on the road they’re still there.
Perhaps due to Angeliki’s prayers we manage to reach Llogara National Park, which sits at about 1,200 metres above sea level, 90 kilometres north of Saranda, and 35 km south of the town of Vlore. Here we go for a walk in the forest among tall, century-old black pine and ash trees. In English these coastal mountains we’re travelling through are known as the Ceraunians, from the Greek word for thunder, a name that well conveys the majesty of the place. Around us is a wild landscape in which we feel insignificant, overpowered by the forces of nature.
We have lunch in a restaurant called, rather unimaginatively, Panorama. And the view is superb: the immense expanse of the sea faces the wood-covered land; along the coast, where they meet, the colour of the sea becomes bright azure, whereas the green of the vegetation gives room to snow-white sand.
“There they go!” Angeliki exclaims, and suddenly we watch the incredible show of a dozen colourful paragliders swaying in the wind and softly descending in the sky.
“We should try that!” I say, but my travel mates are not overly keen on the idea.
The long and broad strip of sand we see from above is the magnificent beach of Dhermi, our next destination. Descending a slope that strains our car’s brakes to their limits, we finally arrive at the beach—it’s 15 minutes from mountain to sea!
“Perhaps the descent would have been easier by paragliding,” says Chrysa.
An invigorating swim in the heat of early afternoon is exactly what we need—I got to honour my promise to Lorenzo, after all. While we lie blissfully on the beach, cries of joy and disappointment come from nearby bars. Groups of people are watching the Italian football match between Juventus and Napoli, with the same, if not more enthusiasm we would expect from Italian fans.
Only another 15 kilometres south of Dhermi is the town of Himare, which is the region’s capital and shares its name, and is predominantly populated by a Greek community. With its stone houses, Byzantine churches and tavernas on the seaside promenade, the town is reminiscent of villages found in northwestern Greece. In order to find the historical centre of Himare, perched up high on the spur of a hill, we ask the locals for directions, who respond in an odd Greek dialect.
The old city consists of a dozen traditional grey stone buildings gathered around an ancient castle. Except for a few well-kept houses where people still live, the rest of the buildings are in ruins. The state of neglect makes this place even more fascinating. The air is pervaded by a sense of nostalgia for a bygone age.
Immersed in a dreamlike silence, we gaze at the warm light of the sunset enveloping everything. An instant later the shadows of the hills behind us stretch across the bare walls of the houses, the abandoned churches and palaces, the terraces cultivated with olive and citrus trees gently sloping down to the sea. We leave Himare before darkness, with a bittersweet feeling of melancholy in our souls.
We spend our last evening in Saranda dining on the seashore and walking along the lit waterfront, which has a lively market. From the nearby haunts, the notes of traditional Epirote music drift to our ears, while people dance to its rhythm.
We say goodbye to Saranda, and to our friend Samir, in one of the many clubs along the promenade. We’re sorry to be leaving Albania’s coast and its fabulous sea; on the other hand, we are keen to discover the inland regions of the country.
• • •
The next day, a short time after our departure, we stop near the village of Mesopotam to visit the Monastery of St. Nicholas (or Shen Kolli, as it’s known locally), one of Albania’s oldest religious temples. The church stands out in the desolate countryside among the olive trees and cypresses, its only company a belfry.
A nearby local man, maybe the keeper, tells us that the building is closed for restoration but still lets us in. Inside, a few beams of sunlight split the darkness, illuminating a scaffold and some icons covered by what feels like centuries of dust.
Not far from the monastery, set amid a luxuriant forest, is the incredible Blue Eye Spring (or Syri i Kalter). It is a 45-metre deep natural spring whose pattern, with its dark blue centre and light blue rim, resembles an eye. For a while we stand still, gazing at the mesmerizing blue nuances of the water, before Lorenzo throws a rock in just to watch the strong stream push it back to the surface. We contemplate a swim, but when we dip our feet in the water it’s ice cold.
Gjirokastra’s old city lies on the slopes of the Drino valley. As soon as we get out of the car, we’re stunned by the magic of the town—it’s one of the best examples in the world of Ottoman urban architecture. Strolling around the pebbled streets of the Old Bazaar we admire the splendid houses with their stone roofs and wooden windows, doors and balconies. Even the sole mosque in the historical centre features the same architectural style.
The alleys are alive with locals carrying out their daily activities: children playing, women chatting next to their front doors, men drinking and smoking in the cafés, craftsmen carving wood and stone in their workshops. The deeper we enter the maze of alleys, the more we feel transported back in time, in a parallel dimension, where life flows slowly and steadily. Enshrouded in this magic atmosphere, we keep our voices low and limit our movements for fear of breaking the spell.
Some of the fine Ottoman houses are open to the public, and we get the chance to visit the most interesting: the three-storey Zekate house and the former residence of Enver Hoxha, since converted into the Ethnographic Museum. A native of Gjirokastra, Hoxha was the infamous communist dictator of Albania, from 1944 until his death in 1985. Not very surprisingly, the museum doesn’t display any item belonging to the political leader, in line with the policy of erasing Hoxha’s legacy from Albania.
But Gjirokastra’s main landmark is the castle. To reach it we have to climb a long steep slope.
“That’s why they call it the city of a thousand steps!” Lorenzo jokes.
“Spare your breath,” I reply, panting.
Next to the entrance is an American aircraft shot down by the communists during the Cold War and exhibited here as a trophy. Some of the stark rooms of the castle, formerly used as prisons, today house the National Museum of Armaments. Walking through the huge citadel, we arrive at a lovely clock tower and an arch, both in grey stone.
Lorenzo and I decide to climb the arch so Angeliki can take a photo of us. From the ramparts of the castle, we get a bird’s-eye view over the mountains in the distance, the fields and the city spreading across the wide valley.
Below us, the old town looks in perfect harmony with the surrounding. The silver colour of the pebbled streets and stone roofs blends with the green of the hillsides. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the name of the city means “silver castle,” and Gjirokastra is often referred to as “the city of stone.”
The journey from Gjirokastra to Berat turns out to be the only bad experience of the trip. The 170 kilometres separating the two cities consist almost entirely of unpaved dirt and rocky roads. When we see a five-kilometre-per-hour speed limit sign we start laughing—just so not to cry. I have to draw on my best driving skills to avoid the huge cracks and potholes in the asphalt. When we get to Berat, after almost four thrilling hours, we all sigh with relief—especially Angeliki, who didn’t think her car would make it. If you ever plan a road trip in Albania, take note: you need 4WD!
Our guide in Berat is Jo, an easy going and talkative guy I met through Couchsurfing. The first place he takes us to, upon our request, is Gjahtari, a local restaurant renowned for its game specialties. For only 1,000 lek each (about seven euros), we get to taste a huge mixed menu of grilled birds, hedgehog and rabbit, served with rice, potatoes and excellent local wine.
After lunch, Jo shows us around the marvellous old town—which feels a lot like Gjirokastra’s, and which also shares World Heritage status. Berat lies in a spectacular location on the slopes of a hilly area cut in half by the river Osum. Its old city is divided in three historic districts: Mangalem and Kaleja on one side of the river, and Gorica on the other. Walking on the main street we come across a big church and several mosques, where some of the faithful are gathered.
For the first time since our arrival in Albania, we sense that we’re in a predominantly Muslim country. The picturesque Mangalem neighbourhood seems straight from a fairytale: traditional Ottoman houses sprout literally one upon the other, clinging to narrow terraces dug into the hillside. These beautiful buildings—dating mainly back to the late 18th and 19th centuries—feature a wooden skeleton still visible in the frame of windows, doors and balconies.
The walls are whitewashed and sometimes covered with stones in their lower floors and basements. The low pitched roofs are coated with small stones to make them impermeable. Being tiered on the slopes, the houses in Berat are smaller and predominantly horizontal in layout and have more windows compared to the ones in Gjirokastra. The sight of the many windows looking out from the flank of the hill earn Berat the epithet “city of a thousand windows.”
An ankle-twisting slope leads us to the fortress known as Kaleja, which rises grandly on the mountaintop. Jo explains that the castle has been inhabited for centuries, and even today people live in the houses of the citadel. Inside the castle there are several Byzantine churches in various condition.
The most beautiful temple is the Cathedral of the Dormition, which although still functioning as a church, houses the Onufri Museum. When we arrive we find it closed for the day—however, having a local in our group turns fortuitous as Jo persuades the keeper to get the key and let us in. The interior of the church is decorated with wonderful, well-preserved frescoes and icons by Onufri, a renowned 16th-century Greek painter.
In the museum there are exhibits of some of the oldest and most precious religious manuscripts in the world, crafted in gold and silver. We are so lucky to be able to admire these outstanding masterpieces by ourselves.
Before getting to the lookout, we take the opportunity to climb to the top of a minaret, the only remnant of an old mosque. As in Gjirokastra, the castle has a commanding view over the city and the wild mountain ranges, whose canyons and forests, Jo tells us, are great places for hunting, hiking and extreme sports.
He also points out the word “never” spelled out in all caps with white rocks on the mountainside. The original writing was “ENVER”—Hoxha’s first name!—but some years ago the first letters were swapped to convey a message of hope and change.
From here we get a fantastic view of the river and the two bridges spanning it. On the opposite shore lies Gorica, the historical Christian neighbourhood of Berat, a city where different people of different faiths and cultures have coexisted for centuries.
• • •
Chaotic traffic welcomes us in Tirana, Albania’s capital and only big city, with a population of approximately 420,000. By now I’ve gotten used to the erratic driving style of Albanians, so we manage to make our way to the city centre without much trouble. The focal point of the city is the vast Sheshi Skenderbej (Skanderbeg Square), named after an Albanian prince whose equestrian statue stands in the open space.
All major landmarks of Tirana surround this square, slightly reminiscent of Moscow’s Red Square. The buildings belong to several architectural styles, creating a curious cocktail of shapes and designs: the fascist-style government buildings, the splendidly decorated Et`hem Bey Mosque, the fine clock tower, the communist
-era Palace of Culture, the modern Tirana International Hotel, and the National History Museum.
We get the impression the city is going through a process of transformation, is still in its quest for an identity, hovering between a future to plan and a past to reckon with.
Despite what I would call its relatively recent origins (established in 1614—I am European!), Tirana has plenty of culture to offer. The history museum, featuring a colossal mosaic on its façade, gives an excellent account of Albania’s long history. All the sections are interesting but the most emotional, at least for us, is the one dedicated to the fascist and communist period. In the National Arts Gallery, among many beautiful paintings, we are particularly impressed by the socialist pieces, where artists employed shapes and colours to extol the virtues of communist ideology.
Once our thirst for culture is satisfied, we go for a stroll around the downtown. The long Deshmoret e Kombit boulevard, built by the Italians in the 1930s, is flanked by nice parks and buildings. Right across the Lana River is an odd structure called The Pyramid. Once known as the Enver Hoxha Museum, it was first turned into the International Center of Culture, and then into the headquarters of the Albanian television station Top Channel—at least this is what we read in the travel guide, since at first glance the building seems dilapidated and unused.
On the opposite side is Blloku, the neighbourhood where the leaders of the Communist Party used to live. Today Blloku is Tirana’s trendiest neighbourhood, full of fancy cafés, bars and restaurants packed by the upper middle-class.
The boulevard ends at a large square named after Mother Teresa—probably the most well-known Albanian ever. Walking along the tiny Lana River, we see many apartment blocks painted in bright colours, as if to embellish or counter the dull, grey communist style.
Tirana’s repainted buildings have become a symbol of Albania’s struggle to come out of its long winter shell. Next to the riverbank is the pretty Tanners’ Bridge, one of the few Ottoman Empire monuments that have survived here. Our pleasant walking tour ends at Murat Toptani Street, a renovated pedestrian avenue where the Albanian Parliament, the walls of Tirana’s castle and some nice cafés are found.
Tirana has so impressed us we decide to stay another day. The next morning we go to Mount Dajti, a perfect day retreat from the chaos of the city. To get to the top we take a cable car. The journey on the cable car is exciting, but even more enjoyable is breathing in the fresh air of the mountain forest and sipping coffee while admiring the panorama of Tirana.
Back in the city centre, we have our last lunch with Lorenzo. In the afternoon he will catch a bus to Durres, and from there the ferry back to Bari, Italy. For his farewell meal we choose a traditional restaurant called Oda. The interior is furnished like a private house and decorated with vintage photos and antiques, and the menu is handwritten!
As we accompany Lorenzo to the bus, we start feeling sad, not only because he’s leaving but also because we realize our trip is ending soon. We take a last picture together, and I know this is one of those photos that will make me feel nostalgic when I look at it in the future.
• • •
If Tirana is the economic and political centre of modern Albania, Kruje—just 20 kilometres north of it—is where the Albanian spirit and identity were forged. A winding road that plunges into the forest leads to the town, set on the slopes of Mount Kruje.
Because of this commanding position and its natural defences Kruje became the capital of the first Arberesh (the ancient name of the Albanian people) feudal state in the Middle Ages. Its glory days came under the rule of Gjergi Kastrioti Skanderbeg, who, after having united several Albanian princedoms into one league, bravely defended his homeland from the Ottomans until his death in 1468.
Besides offering a magnificent view of the surrounding hills and the Adriatic Sea, Kruje’s castle houses the Museum of Skanderbeg, a tribute to this national hero, a symbol of the identity, unity and independence of the Albanian people.
After the castle, we visit the nearby National Ethnographic Museum, hosted in a fine, old Ottoman house. Observing the interesting furniture and many artifacts exhibited here, we get a better picture of how life in traditional Albania used to be.
Kruje’s other attraction is the charming bazaar, a narrow pebbled street lined with colourful shops selling souvenirs, antiques and local craft. The atmosphere of the bazaar is authentic and relaxed, no annoying sellers or shoals of tourists packing the place. Maybe it’s because of this that we leave Kruje with our trunk full of souvenirs.
The last stage of our trip in Albania is Shkodra, in the north of the country, on the Montenegro border. (The next day we’ll head eastward to the Republic of Macedonia.) Shkodra is one of the nicest and best kept cities in Albania. The center is relatively small and we manage to explore it in a couple of hours. The picturesque pedestrian street Kole Idromeno, flanked by fine historical buildings, restaurants and bars, is the main gathering point for locals and tourists.
In the vicinity of Kole Idromeno, at a short distance from each other, are a mosque, a Catholic cathedral and an Orthodox cathedral—the places of worship of Albania’s three main religions. A local Catholic priest tells us that religion had been banned in Albania from 1967, until the fall of the communist regime in 1991. Since then, Albanians have been slowly reacquainting themselves with religion, but they are still one of the least religious nations in the world.
Shkodra’s most important attraction is Rozafa Fortress, crowning a hill at just two kilometres from the city. Since its foundation by the Illyrians in the fourth century BCE, this massive castle has been the scene of bloody battles, like the Ottoman siege of 1478 in which several thousand people lost their lives.
Wandering through the desolate courtyard, carried by the wind that shakes the high grass, we can almost hear the echo of the war cries, the clashing of swords and the moans of the warriors who fought here centuries ago. Standing on the ramparts, we contemplate the idyllic landscape: the dramatic mountains stand in the northeast, while two rivers curve sinuously in a green plain and flow into the vast blue expanse of Lake Shkodra.
We have our last dinner in Albania in a nice restaurant by the lakeside. At the table, while we relish our carp fish and Tirana beer, we reflect on the stages of our trip. In less than a week we have crossed the country from south to north; we have visited cities and historical towns, castles, golden beaches and crystalline seas, lakes, rivers and mountains; we had the chance to get to know Albanians, a humble yet proud and above all hospitable people.
Certainly there’s more to discover and we have plenty of reasons to come back; nonetheless, we’re convinced we also managed to catch the essence of this small, beautiful country, no longer so unknown anymore. Tomorrow we will be back on unknown roads, driving through another part of the mysterious Balkans. ♦
Once based in Istanbul, Dario De Santis has explored Eastern Europe, Greece and Turkey, and wrote about for Outpost. He now lives back in his native Italy, where he works as a language teacher. This story first appeared in Outpost magazine.