Sarandë is not only a beach resort in the South of Albania but also a ferry terminal with frequent services to the Greek island of Corfu, just 12km or so away. It is also large enough to have good connections to various places of interest in the vicinity which is why we decided to stay here a few days.
Our booked apartment was comfortable enough, close to the centre and also very near the seafront promenade. It was also within earshot of the local mosque, so at least we knew when to pray if we wanted to!
Sarandë is not a particularly attractive place, and most of the beaches that are within walking distance seemed to be private – to the extent that they relate to a particular bar which rents out recliners and parasols at a daily rate. These tend to fill the entire beach area. However, the two public beaches just in front of the promenade are nice enough, and just a three minute walk away from our apartment so we used them for refreshing swims in the late afternoon once we had got back from whatever trip we had been on for the day.
Fortunately there was a tourist information office a short walk away so we had the potential of finding out useful information such as places to see locally and how we could reach them by public transport and from where. It was unclear when it was open since no opening hours were shown and during what might be normal working hours it was usually without anyone inside. So we relied upon checking as we passed by on the street. Anyhow, when it was open one time when we were passing, we were able to gather relevant information that we needed.
The Blue Eye – Syri i Kaltë
The Blue Eye lagoon (Syri i Kaltë) is perhaps one of the most well known and popular destinations in the area and even attracts day tours from nearby Corfu. To get there involved catching the bus heading back to Gjirokasträ and getting off 18km or so from Sarandä at the big car parking area at the entrance to the National Park entrance.
It was a 30 minute walk to actually get to the springs, which was pleasant enough since it twisted up and down through forested areas and nice views over the mountains. It was a very popular place though, and meant that we were accompanied by people of all ages and nationalities coming to see the springs as well. It was sad to see rather a lot of overweight people struggling in the heat and with walking the distance to get to the attraction.
The springs themselves were remarkable. Crystal clear water welling up from deep underground (more than 50mtrs we are told), lending it a deep blue colour. And the lagoon into which it flowedb formed a little of the shape of an eye.
The water was really painfully cold, a steady 10C apparently, and as we confirmed with our paddling a little downstream from the spring in the cafe/bar nearby.
Taking a little walk around the many forested footpaths in the vicinity meant that we could enjoy the scenery and different vantage points of the pool and also observe the wildlife away from the crowds. There was a profusion of cobalt blue dragonflies clustering around the vegetation near the water and lots of various coloured butterflies fluttering around the greenery.
For our return journey to Sarandë we gathered with others on the main road near the turn off in the expectation that the bus driver would see us and stop. No marked bus stop here! Sure enough, around 30 mins after we were told to expect it, the bus stopped to pick us all up.
Back in town, and after a refreshing swim at the town beach whilst watching the hydrofoil and ferry service to Corfu depart we took part in the “passeggiata” along the promenade as one does in thus part of the world. On our walk we came across an Italian style restaurant that was able to serve a delicious and filling gluten free pizza.
Exploring the ancient town of Butrint
Next day was a ‘service’ bus ride from Sarandë to Butrint National Park. We got on an already
full bus in town, which, as it negotiated the built up area, stopped quite a few times and more and more people were shoe-horned in. The ticket man really had to struggle to collect fares amidst the squeeze! This time the bus appeared to be a recycled German bus, with various pieces of passenger information still displayed in German, including maximum number of passengers allowed ; a figure which clearly doesn’t apply in Albania! Thankfully, quite a number of locals together with tourist visitors got off at Ksamil, a small beach resort along the coast a few kilometres before Butrint.
Butrint itself is geographically interesting, not quite an island on the edge of a lagoon, very close to Corfu. This location has made it strategically important, to control the trade and protect the rich fishing grounds and agricultural land thereabouts.
It was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992.
Evidence of human activity and habitations have been found here dating back to the iron age.
The area was first heavily developed by the Greeks in 6th Century BC and is mentioned in classic mythology as a place of healing and dedicated to Asclepios (God of Healing), with an Agroria and Amphitheatre being built. Then it was ruled by the Romans, who further developed the settlement including an impressive aqueduct to supply fresh water from nearby hills. Sadly, only the base pads for this exist now, largely because of an earthquake in early times.
Then it became part of the Byzantine Empire, with churches and a basilica being built, but well before it was sold off to the Venetians in medieval times. Unusually, the Ottomans were succesfully fought away by the Venetians, and despite their best efforts, the Ottomans were never able to exert their control here. Instead, in the 19th century, Ali Pasha ruled, a local powerful ruler who was adept at fending off the French and taking advantage of various British arms deals to thwart Napolean’s ambitions locally, as well as maintaining the challenge to the Ottomans. We Brits seem to specialise in arms trading.
For a brief period it became part of Greece, but it then was formalised as part of Albania in the early 20th century.
With all these waves and changes of rule, there are archeological remains of many eras scattered amongst the trees growing all over the site. There are Roman baths and villas, an amphitheater,
castle and wonderful mosaics, churches and a basilica. Sadly the mosaics are kept covered for their protection and only exposed every once in a while.
The whole site formed a fortified settlement through the ages and in places, erstwhile gates into the settlement seemed to have been specially blocked up by large pieces of stone, sometimes taken from a previous building.
The layers of history and romantic past attracted people like Lord Byron and Edward Lear to visit on their grand tours of Europe; they were friendly with the ruler at the time, Ali Pasha.
The bus back to Sarandë was thankfully not so crowded this time and we both had a quick cooling dip in the sea when we arrived back.
I was keen to experience a few of the beaches along the coast, but in the main they could only be accessed by public transport travelling inland a little from the coast, so it would have meant anything from a 30 minute to a 1 hour walk down a dusty and hot track to reach them. And then there was the unknown quantity of bus times and where to flag them down for the return journey.
A boat ride to explore the coast and visit beaches
A boat ride seemed to be the answer. Along the promenade there is a profusion of signs advertising wonderful boat trips to beaches as well as fishing trips. Some with people doing the hard sell, some simply with sign with photos and a phone number, whatsapp account or instagram address. Some, we quickly ruled out, being on larger boats that seemed to have constant music blaring. Others were ruled out on price. We were keen on a smaller boat so that we could get closer to coves and caves and access potentially smaller beaches.
In the end Molly Instragrammed one that looked promising, especially since the online conversation gave a price of €25 each and the details of the trip. A rendevous at 19:30 was arranged.
At the arranged location 19:30 came and went. So at 19:50 an Instagram message elicited a response.. “we are not here, we start out from home now. See you at 20:15.” Meanwhile a young Kiwi couple asked us about the trip, so we told them what we knew. It sounded interesting to them so they ‘whatsapped’ the number given to reserve their places. Sure enough at 20:15 someone appeared to reserve our places. A €20 deposit was requested, which, with some trepidation we handed over, and arranged to meet at 10 the following morning at the same place. We both wondered if we would see the value of that note again.
10am, and no one to be seen… at 10.15 a young man ambles up “you waiting for 10 trip or 11 trip?” It appeared he was the agent for the boat trip we had reserved places for and he asked for the balance, after pointing out the boat we would be on.
15 minutes later a group 10 was assembled by the said boat and off we went. We were asked to wear the provided life jackets ‘just for a few minutes’.
Just as well, since 10 minutes out the boat was stopped by a police speedboat ( funded by the EU!) . A group photo of all of us was taken on the boat, presumably as evidence that a) they were doing their job, b) that we were all wearing lifejackets and c) we weren’t a group of Albanians heading for Corfu and the EU to seek employment.
Papers of the boat ‘skipper’ were checked and all was well, and off we sped along the coast. Once out of sight of the Police everyone took off their life jackets to get ready for the various short swimming visits in different coves and beaches along the coast.
The coastline was very interesting. Various highly contorted rock strata forming striking patterns on the cliffsides interspersed with small caves eroded by the sea from the soft white rock and now and again pretty unspoilt beaches some of which we moored up for swims in the beautiful clear blue/green sea.
Here and there we could also see a few of the rounded “mushroom bunkers” built on the coastline (and most places else in Albania) under Hoxha’s paranoid hardline Stalanist dictatorship.
Ostensibly they were built to defend Albania against invasion either from Western countries or so called ‘Revisionist’ Eastern bloc countries, such as Yugoslavia. Albanians also say they were there to shoot at Albanians trying to escape Hoxha’s oppressive rule and poverty.
Lunchtime stop at Krorës beach for a couple of hours was time enough to swim, have our picnic lunch and do a spot of sunbathing before heading back to visit another small beach for a swim then some bouncing on the swell back to port at Sarandë .