Frank Gardner

Do all MI6 men wear such quirky cufflinks?

‘You’re late. About four years too late.’ The lady in the car-hire office gave a casual shrug and turned her gaze towards the perpetual traffic jam in the street outside. Mercedes squeezing past BMWs squeezing past customised 4×4 Jeeps. There’s plenty of wealth in Albania if you go to the right places. Or the wrong ones. ‘It’s all mafia money,’ she went on. ‘This is where they come to spend their money in the summer. It wasn’t like this a few years ago. Now the prices here have gone crazy.’

Put it down to poor research but this wasn’t what we were expecting. The phrase ‘Albanian Riviera’ had a rather lovely ring to it. We had envisaged head-scarved old ladies watering their window boxes, and pristine beaches untouched by the package tourism of nearby Greece and Croatia. The last time I was in Albania was a quarter of a century ago during the Kosovo war, when Emirati Puma helicopter pilots flew us journalists through wild mountain ravines to a place called Kukes. What was it going to be like going back there with a wheelchair, I wondered. Well, getting there was the easy part. My friend Richard and I caught the hydrofoil from Corfu to the Albanian port of Sarande. No checks, just a wave through the gates and we were out on the street and an overpriced taxi ride to our hotel, like the rooms too, at more than €150 a night. The bargain boat had definitely left port some time ago.

This being the beginning of yet another Mediterranean heatwave, we waited for the 37°C daytime temperature to cool before joining the promenade at sunset. It was a lovely scene: families out strolling beneath the palm trees, a few people fishing from the dock, the lights of Corfu twinkling across the bay.

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