When your yacht is carefully slotted in amongst ferries and cruise ships as an equal; when you read signs telling you how Albanians aim to serve tourists and customers ‘wholeheartedly’; when you are let off paying the full amount you owe because you don’t have the right change; when people come up to you in the street and just want to chat in English; when shop assistants have a fit of delighted giggles because you had a go at saying thank you in Albanian (you fal eh man dare ez) ; when you are hugged spontaneously by a cafe worker – you know you’re on to a good thing.
Albania is relatively new to tourism, having only just shrugged off Communism fifteen years ago. Remnants of that life still remain in abundance. The drab and baggy clothing, the uneven pavements and scruffy buildings, unfinished construction projects, cigarette smoking, bad teeth, smelly drains and knackered old Mercedes cars.
Saranda Town is burgeoning – in a kind of concrete-block-Soviet-style kind of way. Old red tiled buildings have been overshadowed. I’m sorry to say that any number of palm trees and frond umbrellas on the pebbly beaches just won’t really sway the unadventurous package tourist; but what Saranda lacks in smartness, style and sophistication it more than make up for in the helpfulness, warmth and friendliness of the people!
Not only that, Albania has a good few hidden treasures too. It is a country for walkers, climbers, canoeist, white water rafters, waterfall gazers, horseback riders, boat trippers, Roman ruin enthusiasts, historians and explorers.
Saranda is a town that manages to successfully combine Christianity and Islam. The call to prayer sounds out in the evening and it is incredibly evocative to hear the notes rebound around the bay. In the morning the church bells ring – opposite sides of the same coin.
The market flourishes its colourful wares and ladies sell their knitted, crocheted and laced items. Stalls line the streets around the market selling anything from fish to flip flops, baskets to bedding, cooking pots to camomile, magnets to manicures.
There are huge eucalyptus trees dotted around the town. The back drop is barren sedimentary rock mountainsides plunging into deep valleys, embracing the bay.
Butrint Lake, just inland a little way, is an vast expanse of water with not one single piece of development or building work around it except unassuming fish farm processing shacks.
Enormous fertile plains extend between the feet of the mountains and the sea where the silts from the lakes and rivers have settled over millennia.
The Romans recognised its value and used the land and waters to feed their garrisons on Corfu. The excavations at Butrinti National Park, an ancient city port, are fascinating. The park offers a journey through the ages of history dating back to 800BC. After the decline of the communities who lived there the remains became built on, adapted and entwined in the vegetation and were thus largely protected from human intervention. They lay undisturbed for many years until an Italian archaeologist called Luigi Maria Ugolini and his team discovered incredible statues, an amphitheatre, an acropolis, fountains, gates, aqueducts, fortified walls, a basilica, mosaics and artifacts of daily life, during their archaeological digs between 1928 -1939.
The coexistence of historical monuments, nature and landscape make this place unique. It is the most visited cultural tourist destination in the country. We enjoyed the nature trail, views, peace and quiet, cool breezes, wild life, (we saw white tailed sea eagles soaring overhead) and the incredible history lesson with well-written sign boards.
The museum at the top of the peak in the park is an interesting and informative trail through time, detailing the different influences on the promontory of all the peoples who lived and ruled there.
Furthermore it is an easy bus ride (€1) from Saranda to Butrinti. There is a rickety cable ferry
joining the two banks of the river which you can take for (€0.50 each way) to view the triangular castle fortifications and the promontory from a different perspective. It is easy to see how the ruins were hidden for so long.
We returned to Saranda sitting in the back of the bus with the local football lads. Listening to all the banter and watching the hand shakes and back slapping was not the least bit intimidating.
We are only sorry not to have had more time to explore this fascinating country.
Bus leaves from Skenderbeu opposite the ruins of the synagogue/basilica mosaic display.
Bus leaves at every half the hour pretty much and returns every half the hour.
You can pay €1 or 100 Lek – (which at 137 Lek to the Euro makes Lek cheaper!). A conductor collects fares on the way out but on the way back it is necessary to pay the driver. Most people seemed to pay him when they exited. We paid on entry!
The bus is hot!
The bus stops along the way and most people alighted in Ksamil.
The end of the route is at the ferry.
The entrance to Butrinti National Park is not sign-posted.
Look for a white fence and gateways saying enter and exit.
It is worth a quick ride across the river on the ferry and a wander around over there.
It is 700 Lek to go in to the park. Guides are available but I don’t know the price. It is easy enough to find your own way round the paths. Great toilet facilities in the park.
There is a hotel quite close by, The Livia Hotel, going away from the river, which looked to sell drinks and food and in the season there is probably a stall near the handicrafts area to buy drinks and snacks.