Roman shipwreck found off Albanian coast


An underwater archaeological survey has turned up a Roman shipwreck off the coast of Albania.

As the above video shows, the remains of the ship are now little more than a heap of amphorae, the characteristic pots the Romans used to transport wine. The team hasn’t had a chance to excavate the site yet, so more finds may lie hidden beneath the bottom of the sea.

The archaeologists estimate that the ship was from the first or second century BC and was part of an extensive wine trade on the Adriatic Sea. The ship was about 30 meters long and contained an estimated 300 or more amphorae. The excavation was funded by the RPM Nautical Foundation, which has discovered numerous shipwrecks in recent years.

Shipwrecks can tell us a lot about early technology and trade. Several museums are dedicated to them. In Stockholm, Sweden, the Vasa Museum houses the well-preserved remains of a warship that sank in 1628. Despite its impressive appearance, it was badly designed and sank less than a nautical mile into its maiden voyage. In Portsmouth, England, the Mary Rose Museum has a warship that sank in battle in 1545. The Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark, houses five Viking ships dating to about 1070.

Walking the streets of Tirana

Everyone has their own intimate reasons for traveling, be they discovering new places or simply leaving behind old ones. For me however, it’s about finding yourself somewhere that you previously couldn’t have imagined. The clichéd word for this type of travel is “off-the-beaten path,” though the experiences it yields are anything but cliché.

Several years ago, I landed in Athens intent on traveling overland through the Balkans en route to Vienna. While this was never a major tourist route to begin with, I did manage to visit some of the better-known sites: the hilltop monasteries in Meteora, the Dalmatian Coast in Croatia and the up-and-coming Montenegrin Riviera. Along the way, I took a slight detour into a country that I knew next to nothing about: Albania.

What little information I could remember from history class was the following bizarre account. During the Cold War, the Communist leader of Albania was a deranged paranoid by the name of Enver Hoxha. Fearing annihilation from above by Western powers, he charged his military engineers with the task of building almost one million concrete bunkers across the whole of Albania.

The Iron Curtain has long since fallen, but I confess that my image of Albania hadn’t changed with the times. As such, you can imagine my surprise upon arriving in the whimsically-colorful capital city of Tirana. Take a look at the gallery below, and then continue reading to learn how this once grey and gloomy city earned its multi-hued stripes.

%Gallery-124160% Prior to the Cold War, Tirana was a beautiful city. First established as an Ottoman outpost in the 17th century, Tirana quickly prospered as a major commercial center along the caravan trading routes. It was soon outfitted with all the architectural symbols of the ruling Turks, including mosques, hamams (bathhouses) and bazaars.

Following independence in 1912, the somewhat comically named King Zog I (yes, that’s his real name!) launched a massive building campaign to Europeanize the city. Noted Italian architects descended on Tirana, and gifted the city center with neoclassical buildings and grand boulevards. Of course, construction efforts were de-prioritized following subsequent invasions by Italian Fascists and German Nazis.

After World War II, Albania became a communist state and sided with the USSR. Tirana was thus transformed into a socialist-styled industrial powerhouse. Elegance gave way to practicality as historic buildings were ripped down and replaced with concrete block-style apartments, and any available green spaces were filled-in to accommodate behemoth factories. Tirana became the cold and dreary city one often associates with so-called brutalist architecture.

Since 2000 however, Mayor Edi Rama has launched a number of admirable campaigns to beautify Tirana. Some of his efforts are fairly standard urban renewal practices, such as knocking down abandoned buildings, cleaning up public parks, planting trees alongside river banks and renovating the few remaining culturally significant buildings.

But what separates Mayor Rama from your average fighter of urban blight is his love of color – yellow, orange, blue, green and violet to be specific. And in this case, the palette is the bleak concrete facade that typifies most of Tirana. Viewing his city as a work of art in progress, Mayor Rama has set aside subsidies for people and communities to spruce up their streetscapes. Indeed, a fresh coast of paint can often do wonders.

Walking the streets of Tirana is really the best way to capture his lofty vision. Some apartment buildings opt for geometric patterns of intersecting shapes in bold coloration. Others embrace softer undulating pastel lines that are reminiscent of waves crashing in a fantasy ocean. And then there are those with blunt racing stripes that draw attention away from glaring architectural flaws.

Soviet-era stylings still do predominate, and the frivolous nature of the project has drawn its fair share of justified critics. But as a living, breathing social experiment, Tirana truly is one of a kind.

We’ll be the first to confess that Tirana is not an easy place to visit. Your first hurdle is simply getting here as Albania isn’t exactly the crossroads of the world. But there are direct flights to Tirana from most major European capitals including London. There is no train station, so you can forget about the Eurorail pass, though international buses run to neighboring Balkan countries as well as to Greece and Turkey.

English is a rarity, so it’s recommended that you book a hotel in advance rather than stumble around in search of accommodation. Habitable rooms tends to gravitate towards the mid-range and top end, though rates here are much less than in other European capitals.

Eating out is very cheap, and you’ll find all manners of filling treats including byrek, a filo-dough style pastry with meat, cheese and/or spinach. More familiar doner kebabs and Italian pastas and pizzas are also popular. Local beer is excellent, though keep in mind that the local “Stela” is not the same as the Belgian “Stella Artois.”

In terms of sites, there are a few decent museums and performance spaces scattered around the city. The National History Museum is recommended if you want to get a better sense of the strange twists and turns that led to the creation of modern Tirana. Petrela Castle on the outskirts of the city is an impressive Byzantine structure lying at the top of a rocky outcrop. For something far less stately, check out Hoxha’s International Center of Culture, which resembles a giant pyramid of cement!

Need more inspiration? Check out the gallery images below.

%Gallery-124160%

[All photos and gallery images are the author’s own original work unless otherwise specified.]

Five ways to get more European stamps in your passport

european passport stamps
Lake Ohrid, Macedonia.

Yesterday, I wrote about the fact that European passport stamps have become harder and harder to get. The expansion of the Schengen zone has reduced the number of times tourists are compelled to show their passports to immigration officials. For most Americans on multi-country European itineraries, a passport will be stamped just twice: upon arrival and upon departure.

Where’s the fun in that?

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying your passport’s stamps. They’re souvenirs. So ignore the haters and treasure them. You won’t be the first to sit at your desk alone, lovingly fingering your stamps while daydreaming of your next adventure. You won’t be the last, either.

And if you are a passport stamp lover with a penchant for European travel, don’t despair. There are plenty of places in Europe where visitors have to submit their travel documents to officials to receive stamps. Some countries, in fact, even require Americans to purchase full-page visas in advance.

The Western Balkans remain almost entirely outside of Schengen. Russia, Belarus, Armenia, and Azerbaijan all require visas for Americans, while Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia do not. Immigration officers at the borders of all of these countries, however, will stamp your passport when you enter and when you leave. Turkey provides visas on arrival. These cost €15. Among EU countries, the UK, Ireland, and Cyprus remain outside of Schengen for the time being, while Romania and Bulgaria will soon join it.
european passport stamps
Pristina, Kosovo.

Ok then. How to maximize the number of stamps in your passport during a European jaunt? Here are five ideas.

1. Fly into the UK or Ireland and then travel from either of these countries to a Schengen zone country. You’ll obtain an arrival stamp in the UK or Ireland and then be processed when entering and leaving the Schengen zone.

2. Plan an itinerary through the former Yugoslavia plus Albania by car, bus, or train. Slovenia is part of the Schengen zone but the rest of the former country is not. Traveling across the borders of Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Albania will yield all sorts of passport stamp action.

3. Visit the following eastern European countries: Turkey, Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Georgia, Armenia, and/or Azerbaijan. Unavoidable passport stamp madness will transpire.

4. Visit San Marino and pay the tourist office for a passport stamp. The miniscule republic charges €5 to stamp passports. The bus fare from Rimini on Italy’s Adriatic coast is worth it for the bragging rights alone.

5. Visit the EU’s three Schengen stragglers, Cyprus, Romania, and Bulgaria. In the case of the latter two, visit soon.

Photo of the Day (11.26.10)

photo of the day

If you pay any attention to those year-end forecasting features in travel publications–and you should, as your loyal Gadling writers are currently assembling a favorites/forecasting list of our own–then surely you will have recently come across a few mentions of Albania. The southeastern Adriatic country with one of the fastest growing economies in Europe has slowly but steadily been picking up press over the last several years. This image captures a beautifully dramatic storm over the Albanian city of Gjirokastër. It was taken by Flickr user SummitVoice1 from the citadel standing guard over the southern Albanian city.

Have an image of a destination that will be popular tomorrow? Upload it to the Gadling Flickr pool. If you’re lucky, it will end up as a future Photo of the Day.

Trade Mocked

You were a cheerleader, you dated a cheerleader, or you hated the cheerleaders. As I recall, that’s how high school worked.

Thanks to travel PR, that same primeval paradigm lives on long after graduation. That miniskirts-shouting-slogans thing still works, whether you’re a used car salesman, Miley Cyrus on VH1 or the tourist board of a small Balkan nation. When it comes to selling your destination in today’s busy world of busy people, a country’s name just isn’t enough–just like school spirit, you need colors, a pep band, a mascot, a brand and most important–a cheer.

It’s tragic but true: tourist boards don’t trust their country’s name to inspire appropriate thoughts in your brain. Toponyms are too open-ended and too untrustworthy–also, way too obvious. For example, what’s the first thing that pops into your head when I say . . . Monte Carlo? How about Australia? The Bahamas? Kuwait? The Gambia?

Whatever you’re thinking, it’s not enough. Tourist boards want you to choose their destination over all others, then allocate all of your vacation days to them and then come spend your money on very specific things–like miniature golf by the sea or hot air balloon rides across the prairie. In short, they want your school spirit so much they’re churning out cheers to fill up all the Swiss cheese holes in your mental map of the world.

Like a good cheer, a good destination slogan is simple and so memorable it sticks in your head like two-sided tape. Sex sells, but then so does love: “Virginia is for Lovers”, Hungary offers visitors “A Love for Life”, Albania promises “A New Mediterranean Love”, while the highlighted “I feel Slovenia” spells out sweetly “I Feel Love”. Meanwhile, Bosnia & Herzegovina call themselves “the Heart Shaped Land” and Denmark’s logo is a red heart with a white cross. Colombia and Dubai have red hearts in their logo. Everybody else uses sunshine.
There is a direct correlation between sunshine deprivation and travelers with disposable income–sunny places sell, which is why Maldives is “the Sunny Side of Life”, Sicily says “Everything else is in the shade”, Ethiopia quizzically boasts “13 Months of Sunshine”, Portugal is “Europe’s West Coast”, and Spain used to be “Everything Under the Sun”. Spain was also the first country ever to have a logo-the splashy red sun painted by Joan Miró in 1983. Some destination logos work–like the black and red “I LOVE NY” design of Milton Glaser that’s been around ever since the 70s. Others fail to grasp the spirit of a place (cough, Italia). Reducing one’s country to a crazy font and some cheesy clip art often detracts from that country’s best assets. Like nature.

When chasing the crunchy yuppie granola suburbanite dollar on vacation, you’ve gotta roll out Nature and promise them the kind of purity that lacks from their daily life. British Virgin Islands claims “Nature’s Little Secrets” while Belize counterclaims with “Mother Nature’s Best Kept Secret”. Switzerland urges us to “Get Natural”, Poland is “The Natural Choice”, Iceland is “Pure, Natural, Unspoiled”, Ecuador is Life in a Pure State, “Pure Michigan” is just as pure, Costa Rica is “No Artificial Ingredients”, and like a clothing tag that makes you feel good, New Zealand is simply “100% Pure”. New Zealand also wants us to believe that they’re the “youngest country on earth” but that’s pushing it. The youngest country on earth is actually Kosovo (Born February 2008)–so young they’re still working on their slogan.

And there’s a tough one–how do you sell a country that’s just poking its head out from under the covers of war and bloodshed? Kosovo’s big bad next-door neighbor Serbia asks us frankly to “Take a New Look at Your Old Neighbor”; “It’s Beautiful–It’s Pakistan” steers clear of the conflict, Colombia owns up to its knack for kidnapping by insisting, “The Only Risk is Wanting to Stay”, and Vietnam nudges our memories away from the past and towards “The Hidden Charm” of today.

Our nostalgia for simpler, better, pre-tourist times invokes our most romantic notions about travel: Croatia is “The Mediterranean as it Once Was”, Tahiti consists of “Islands the Way they Used to Be”, and Bangladesh employs a kind of reverse psychology to insist we “Come to Bangladesh, Before the Tourists.” Such slogans of unaffectedness mirror the push for national validation by tourism, where actual authenticity is second to perceived authenticity, hence Malaysia is “Truly Asia”, Zambia is “The Real Africa”, and the Rocky Mountain States make up “The Real America”. Greece is “The True Experience” and Morocco is “Travel For Real”. Everybody wants to be legit.
country logos
Countries without the certified organic label try merely to stupefy us: Israel “Wonders”, Germany is “Simply Inspiring”, Chile is “Always Surprising”, Estonia is “Positively Surprising”, “Amazing Thailand” amazes, and Dominica claims to “Defy the Everyday”. To that same surprising end, Latin America loves trademarking their exclamation points (see ¡Viva Cuba!, Brazil’s one-word essay “Sensational!” and El Salvador’s “Impressive!”)

Where punctuated enthusiasm falls short, countries might confront the traveler with a challenge or a dare. Jamaica projects the burden of proof on its tourists by claiming “Once You Go You Know”, Peru asks that we “Live the Legend”, Canada insists we “Keep Exploring”, South Africa answers your every question with a smiley “It’s Possible”. Meanwhile, Greenland sets an impossibly high bar with “The Greatest Experience”.

Working the totality of a country’s experience into a good slogan is a challenge that often leads to open-ended grandstanding: “It’s Got to be Austria” might be the answer to any question (and sounds better when spoken with an Austrian accent). Next-door Slovakia is the “Little Big Country”, insisting that size is second to experience. Philippines offers “More than the Usual” and small, self-deprecating Andorra confesses, “There’s Just So Much More” (I think what they meant to say is, “come back please”). Really big numbers carries the thought even further: Papua New Guinea is made up of “A Million Different Journeys”; Ireland brightens with “100,000 Welcomes”.

When all else fails, aim for easy alliteration, as in “Enjoy England“, “Incredible India“, “Mystical Myanmar”, and the “Breathtaking Beauty” of Montenegro. (For more on the correlation between simplistic phrases and high mental retention, See Black Eyed Peas-Lyrics).

The point of all this is that today, the internet is our atlas and Google is our guidebook. It’s how we travel, how we think about travel and how we plan our travel. Punch in a country like Tunisia and you’re greeted with a dreamy curly-cue phrase like “Jewel of the Mediterranean”–Type in next-door neighbor Algeria and you get a glaring State Department warning saying “Keep Away.” In a scramble for those top ten search results, destinations compete with a sea of digital ideas that pre-define their tourist appeal. It’s why we’ll never find that page proclaiming Iran “The Land of Civilized and Friendly People” but why a simple “Dubai” turns up Dubai Tourism in first place, along with their moniker “Nowhere Like Dubai” (which should win some kind of truth in advertising prize.)

That aggressive, American-style marketing has taken over the billion-dollar travel industry is obvious. Nobody’s crying over the fact that we sell destinations like breakfast cereal–that countries need a bigger and brighter box with a promised prize inside in order to lull unassuming tourist shoppers into stopping, pulling it off the shelf, reading the back and eventually sticking it in their cart. I guess the sad part is how the whole gregarious exercise limits travel and the very meaning of travel. By boiling down a country into some bland reduction sauce of a slogan, we cancel out the diversity of experience and place, trade wanderlust for jingoism, and turn our hopeful worldview into a kind of commercial ADHD in which we suddenly crave the Jersey Shore like a kid craves a Happy Meal.

Nobody’s ever asked me to join their tourist board focus group, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have my own opinions and tastes. For instance, my daily reality is a stereo cityscape of car alarms and jackhammers. Any country that simply placed the word “Quiet” or “Peaceful” in lower-case Times New Roman, 24-point font white type in the upper right hand corner of a double-truncated landscape spread–well, I’d be there in a heartbeat. Better yet–how about a one-minute TV commercial of total silence. (“Oh, wow honey, look!–that’s where I wanna go.”)

This is probably why I’ve never been in a focus group. For all the focus on authenticity and reality, I find most tourism slogans lacking in both. For the most part, they are limiting and unoriginal, easily dropped into any of the above categories. Even worse, today’s slogans challenge actual truths gained through travel experience. One day spent in any place offers a lifetime of material for long-lasting personal travel slogans. My own favorites include Russia (“Still Cold”), Turkey (“Not Really Europe At All”), England (“Drizzles Often”), Orlando (“Cheesy as Hell”), and Ireland (“Freakin’ Expensive”).

As a writer, I must argue against the cheerleaders and in favor of words–the more words we attach to a destination the better the sell. I think it’s safe to assume that Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia has done more for Argentina tourism than any of their own slogans. Similarly, Jack London gives props to Alaska, Mark Twain mystifies us with the Mississippi, and Rudyard Kipling keeps sending people to India. All four authors wrote about love, nature, and sunshine. They wrote long books filled with enthusiasm and punctuated with exclamation marks. They made us fall in love and yearn for places we never saw or knew.

No matter how many millions get spent on tourist slogans, today’s trademarked PR phraseology has generally failed to hit the mark. Perhaps they’ll make us rethink a place–reconsider a country we’d somehow looked over, but can a two or three word slogan ever touch us in that tender way, make us save up all our money, pack our bags and run away?

I don’t think so.