It’s what isn’t in Saranda that makes it worth visiting…

It’s a crying shame that the town probably visited by the most overseas visitors to Albania is Saranda. Its close proximity to Corfu (30 min on the hydrofoil, 70 min on the car ferry) makes it a popular day trip destination for tour groups from the island’s resorts. But Saranda does not come close to showing off Albania at its best.

The town feels squashed in between the seafront and surrounding mountains and is dominated by unattractive concrete buildings and hotels. The most appealing part of the town is the promenade that stretches along the seafront but even that seems to lack personality. (In saying that, you can find the best ice cream you will ever taste from the cafes on the promenade!)

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We used Saranda as a base for visiting Corfu and for seeing the nearby sights. Because it’s what’s around Saranda that makes it worth visiting…

Butrint

It’s hard to believe that this expansive park is of such archeological and historical importance mostly because there’s hardly anyone there! Compared to the mobs of tourists that swarm all over other more well-known historical sites in other countries, this place is a dream! It’s huge, the ruins are seriously impressive, and it is a gorgeous park.

You can easily spend half a day mooching around the Greek, Roman, Venetian and Byzantine ruins that were only discovered in 1927. The highlight for me was the Roman theatre.

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Note: when you leave Butrint, don’t just drive back up the road towards Saranda. It’s worth going across the small estuary on quite possibly the scariest cable ferry ever. Foot passengers are free, but if you’re brave enough to drive your car onto the rotting raft of random bits of wood and an old school chair then the small ticket price is totally worth it for the adrenaline rush! (If you do make the trip – then you might just want to turn around and take the trip straight back – there’s not much to see on the other side!)

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Ksamili

Don’t ever ask me to try to pronounce this name! Despite extensive coaching from my hubby, I’ve still not been able to master the ‘k’ and ‘s’ sound right next to each other!

This gorgeous seaside resort has suffered from the usual poorly planned over development. But if you can see past all that, then the little beaches, islands and turquoise blue water are well worth a visit. We stopped for lunch after our morning at Butrint.

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It’s also worth noting that it’s possible to do a day trip to the Blue Eye from Saranda (see my previous blog post).

Where we stayed
We stayed at Hotel Olympia. The location was great. The room was not. It was super tiny – sleeping all four of us – with a bathroom that flooded. And the breakfast was rubbish. But it was cheap and had a fantastic swimming pool. However, it was the thumping dance music played out by the swimming pool until stupid o’clock at night that killed it for us. In the end I stormed outside in my pjs and turned down the stereo myself – to the complete astonishment of the hotel staff. In addition, the horseshoe shape of Saranda, coupled with the surrounding hills, basically makes the town a massive amphitheatre. It felt like the nightclubs dotting the beachfront were right there in our tiny bedroom. We actually cancelled our last night’s accommodations and travelled to Gjirokastra a day earlier than planned!

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The stone city

Things have been pretty quiet on the blog front in the past few weeks… it’s the tail end of winter and aside from a week at the farm pruning the grapes, we’ve not been up to much. So I thought that with the weather warming up, you lot will be starting to plan your summer holidays… so it’s about time I did a round-up of some of the Albanian destinations we’ve enjoyed – just in case you’re planning on heading our way!

Gjirokastra

Often over-shadowed in the tour books by nearby Berat, this UNESCO World Heritage Site actually wins the race for me. The old town in southern Albania tumbles down the hill from the enormous castle perched on top. Car tyres and tourists slide on smooth cobbles on the steep streets. The town is full of beautifully restored Ottoman buildings. Seriously atmospheric!

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Gjirokastra is also the home town of two of Albania’s famous sons – author Ismail Kadare, and perhaps remembered less fondly, the Communist dictator Enver Hoxha.

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We loved visiting Gjirokastra’s castle (tickets: 200 lek). It was worth the hard slog up the hill. It’s huge vaulted chambers house a strange collection of enemy artillery seized during World War 2. Parts of the castle were also used as a prison up until 1971. Now it houses the National Armaments Museum. Outside are the remnants of a US airforce spy plane shot down in 1957 and great views across the valley.

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It’s worth wandering the town to check out the beautiful Ottoman houses. A few can be explored such as Zekate House and Skenduli House. The Skenduli House is currently being restored. There are opportunities to participate in the restoration work.

In the centre of town is the Bazaar – full of small shops featuring local arts and crafts – definitely worth a wander just to enjoy the vibe.

What’s nearby
The Blue Eye (Syri i Kaltër) is not far off the main road from Gjirokastra to Saranda and is well sign-posted. It’s a underwater spring that bubbles up to the surface creating a deep blue pool. Its stunning and well worth the trip.

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The Ottoman bridge at Bënja is amazing – but difficult to get to due to the poor condition of the road. Thermal springs turn the river white, and give it a sulphuric perfume!

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Where we stayed
We stayed at Kotoni B&B in one of Gjirokastra’s gorgeous old buildings. The rooms are all decorated traditionally and our hosts were super welcoming.

Further reading!
Ismail Kadare’s novel Chronicle in Stone is one of my favourite books ever – and not just because it’s about Gjirokastra. It’s a great story and beautifully written. I recommend it – even if you’re not planning on travelling to Albania!