Albanian Mountain Landscape

 

When my husband Billy and I ended our visit to Albania last spring, we had a somewhat unpleasant experience while driving the road that leads from Saranda to the Greek border town Kakavia.  As a way of preventing crimes such as drug trafficking and vehicle theft, police often will park on the side of the road, then wave down each car that comes by.  Sort of like a mini-roadblock except that if you really wanted to just keep driving past, it wouldn’t be that hard (which consequently is exactly what cousin Yonie did one time while we were in the car, to our complete delight).  So anyway, there we were driving along the sleepy country road around dusk, when a policeman wearing a yellow vest started waving at us with his little red stop sign to pull over.  Although we had all the necessary documents including an affadavit from Billy’s mother giving us permission to drive her little black Opel Astra, the policeman stated the document needed to be translated into Albanian (it was obtained from the Greek police station where she lives, and thus was written in Greek).  Argument ensued, and only when the second police officer discovers that he knows our relatives who live in Saranda, do they give us a break and let us go.

Coastal Albania road signFast-forward to this past December during our last visit.  We decided to make our drive to Albania a night one, which might not have been the best idea but there we were.  Big surprise when we see the guy dressed in police-navy and the construction-vest yellow step out into the road, waving us down with the little mini stop sign.  This time though, we had a plan.  Billy greeted the officer with a “hello”, and acted as though he only knew a little Albanian, while I leaned over and eagerly offered “Passports?” with a helpful look on my face and showing both of our American passports.  The policeman took a quick look at us, and without another word, waved us on through.  What a refreshing alternative to all the other times we have had to deal with Albanian cops.  This exact scenario happened 3 more times during our drive that night.  Every time, the officers (who I suppose were reluctant to break out their rusty English language skills) asked zero questions and just motioned for us to pass by.

Albanian Mercedes

Albania has more Mercedes Benz per capita than Germany

It’s not that Albanian Police aren’t justified in pulling people over.  Most likely their efforts are an attempt to limit vehicle theft (or rather, the transport of stolen vehicles into Albania) and also drug trafficking.  Albania is a European Union “potential candidate country”, and made it’s official EU application in 2009, but before they can enter they need to make serious improvements on corruption and organized crime.  It’s thought that many of the Mercedes Benz cars on the road (you can’t throw a stone without hitting one) were stolen from places like Germany and Italy, then brought into Albania with help from bribes to customs officials.  Many Albanians themselves though are weary of the cops being corrupt, and attest that they only pull people over in order to extract a bribe in exchange for being let go hassle-free.  Honestly I myself am skeptical since the cop in my first story was threatening to take us and our car to the station, a little overly-dramatic if you ask me.

Sheep crossing in Albanian coastal village

Police will slow you down as much as a sheep crossing in Albania

With that being said, if you ever decide to drive while visiting Albania, don’t be alarmed if you are pulled over for no apparent reason.  And even if you’re an ex-pat like my husband who knows a fair amount of Albanian, just feign ignorance and offer your foreign passport to make your identity clear.

 

Bunker

This is a story written by my mother-in-law, who grew up in Albania and in this story tells about a communist work party she was a part of during the early eighties.

My name is Engjellushe, I was born in and grew up in Albania. I am 46 years old, my life was hard, in general it was very difficult for everyone who lived in Albania at the time. Our way of life was poverty-driven, we lived without basic needs, and above all, we had to face the challenges of communism. We didn’t have the right to live freely or to even ask for our rights. There was a dictatorship, or in other words I could say that everything was prohibited. They had censored everything from us, we didn’t know how the rest of the world lived. They had closed us into a small space, in a small country where any outside influence was forbidden. We worked for the government and what they gave us was a piece of bread. The only good thing was that health care and education were completely free. In the end, we lived ethically and proud, because we had discipline, those of us who grew up during that time still retain those qualities. Despite everything I went through, I succeeded because I had two parents who had dignity, who showed us how to take the right path, and who showed us how to get by in such a life. Our family’s way of life, we received love and they gave us strength and courage.

Lukhove Hillside

I remember when I was 18 and I had finished high school. Every year the town board would get everyone together and ask them about the problems and issues that they had. As with other years they decided to gather teams to go to Lukove and do plantings of fruit and olive trees, and to care for those that had been planted the previous years so that the orchards would grow larger every year. This was the project that I was chosen to participate in. There were four of us from my village, Dukai, while Tepelen, Permeti, and Vlore each sent forty of their citizens for the work project. We slept there together, there were buildings with two floors – the boys on the bottom floor, with the girls on the top floor. We stayed there for one month, it was in December. It was very cold but we woke up at 7 am in the morning, to get ready for work. First we went to a big restaurant in order to eat our breakfast, and after to go to work from 8 am until 3 in the afternoon. We planted lemon, olive, and orange trees. We hoed the ground, we planted trees, we pruned trees, and we watered all the orchards. We did everything we could to protect and nourish the trees. We also worked to take care of the surrounding area, picking up trash and in general making everything nice.After we finished our work we would go to our rooms to wash up and get dressed and to go to the restaurant in order to eat. First they would do the roll call to make sure everyone was there. Then they would give out awards to reward those had worked the hardest. Then we would eat our dinner.

In the evenings we walked around, we danced, we sang, nice songs – everything was scheduled and had time limits. That experience was a good one, we respected each other, we didn’t trick each other, we watched out for each other like brothers and sisters. It was pleasant because we were all the same, there weren’t rich and poor people, in difficult times we helped one another. Groups like that went all over Albania where there was need.

Despite everything, Albania is a country rich in resources and natural beauty, with virgin coastlines, ancient castles, Illyrian ruins, and clear water. Over the years, many things have changed and Albania has recognized the need for tourism and the government has helped to pave the roads. Also there are many nice restaurants and cafes, hotels and clubs, all of good quality. Foreign and local investors have turned their intention to housing and accommodation infrastructure, especially in touristic locations by the sea. Compared to previous years, the economy and political situation is stable. Albania is now part of NATO and in the coming years will join the EU, which will help bring attention to this often overlooked country. An advantage in terms of tourism over other countries is that in Albania the prices are among the lowest in Europe, a visitor can truly get their money’s worth. In coastal Albania, tourists will discover ancient towns which are comparable to other beautiful ancient towns in other parts of the world, yet are still somewhat untouched due to Albania’s communist past.


 

Springtime in Saranda

On April 26, 2011, in Saranda Travel Stories, by Hanna
Beautiful Lukove Beach

Beautiful Lukove Beach

We had hoped to visit Saranda this summer, but unforeseen circumstances brought us there in March instead. Luckily, the weather felt like summer, and Southern Albania was as beautiful as ever. After collecting information from the town hall (their Tourist Information office is extraordinarily helpful), we walked around the boardwalk and snapped a few pictures for the “Visit Saranda” website we are developing. Next we ate a delicious meal of fresh seafood and salad at one of the seaside restaurants. We have found that you really can’t go wrong with any of the restaurants near the boardwalk in Saranda (let me know if you have found otherwise). It seems that the meals usually contain high-quality local produce and seafood, with an excellent presentation and reasonable price. Not to mention it is usually easy to find a place where you can sit with an ocean view or outside on a balcony.

View of Saranda from Lekursi Castle

"View of Saranda from Lekursi Castle"

We made our way up to Lekursi castle for the first time ever. After reading so much about the castle, it was great to get up there and see the gorgeous view. The castle has been turned into a restaurant/bar/cafe which is nice if you’re the type who wants to sip coffee and relax, but not so much if you prefer authentic preservation of historical sites. Just don’t go there expecting to get a castle tour as you might be able to do in other places. Nonetheless, the vista is spectacular and looks out over all of Saranda. There is seating inside the castle, and a gorgeous stone patio outside where visitors can relax on warmer days.

After spending a night with family in Ksamil, we decided to head up the coast to see more of the undeveloped part of the Saranda District. We saw signs for Kakome, which we had heard of as having a beautiful beach. So, we turned left down the road to check it out, only to arrive at a locked gate with armed guards. We could see that there was building going on down by the beach, but when we asked the guards about it they were vague and pretended not to know much.  From what we have learned since, there is some kind of luxury resort being developed. As is the case with much of these sort of places in Albania, ownership was most likely the result of a land-grab after the fall of communism, followed by bribes to government officials in order to make things legal. We continued to drive along the picturesque and undeveloped coastal route, which is situated high above the shore below. Olive trees, wildflowers and shrubs are abundant in this area, as well as wild herbs and the occasional fruit trees.

Amazing Lukove Sunset

Amazing Lukove Sunset

After seeing signs for Lukove, we decided that might be a nice beach to visit. So, we followed the sign and turned down the road which quickly turned into dirt. This gave us a nice excuse to get out for a hike so we parked the car and began our descent. The weather was sunny and hot, but there was a light breeze and at every other turn we caught glimpses of the shimmering water below. After passing a few houses and getting the wise advice to “stay on the path or you might get lost”, we arrived at Lukove Beach. It was completely deserted, a smooth-pebble beach with several of the old Communist-era bunkers (it wouldn’t be Albania without them). The scenery was breathtaking to say the least, with gorgeous aquamarine sea edged with sand, stones, and the silver-green of the olive groves. Afterwards my mother-in-law told us that in her twenties she had been bused there with other workers in order to plant olive trees as part of a communist work party.

Driftwood in front of the shimmering sea

Driftwood in front of the shimmering sea

Even though this visit to Saranda and the nearby Lukove was a short one, it was perhaps one of the most memorable. We took the time to explore a bit outside of the city and as a result we really got a feel for the natural areas of the Albanian Riviera. Even though summertime brings more foot traffic to even these areas, the breathtaking views and natural air will surely make the trek worthwhile.

 

1. Visit the ancient city of Butrint

Image Butrint Amphitheater

A Unesco World Heritage site, Butrint gives visitors a chance to truly peer back in time. The archaeological site is located at the end of a quite interestingly-shaped peninsula, just south of the town of Ksamil.  This amazing city has been excavated to reveal numerous ancient architecture, exhibiting the remains of a number of powerful civilizations.  In fact, Butrint is considered a microcosm of European history since it was invaded and rebuilt almost by anyone who came through Europe at one time or another.   You will find spectacular evidence from the Greek, Roman, Venetian and Byzantine empires, just to name a few of the many cultures who inhabited the walled fortress.  During Albania’s communist regime the site was open only for tourists to visit, and was closed to Albanian citizens due to fear that they would try to escape.  The Butrint Foundation has a vast amount of fascinating information on their website at www.butrint.org.


2.  Soak up the sun in Ksamil

One of the most beautiful beach locations in Albania yet still somewhat undiscovered, Ksamil is a must if you intend to catch some rays on a vacation to Southern Albania.  The drive alone is quite beautiful since the road goes along a narrow peninsula, with views of the ocean on your right, and of Lake Butrinti on your left.  There are several small islets which are close enough to swim to, and the sandy beaches are uniquely shaped.  There are a few restaurants which have great seafood, and chairs with umbrellas out on the beach where you can sip your beverage of choice while relaxing.

The name Ksamil comes from the Greek word Εξαμίλια “Exa-milia”, which means six miles, since it was supposedly six miles from the island of Corfu (yet I’m not sure about this since it looks to be actually only two miles away).  If you are visiting the district of Sarande you should not miss a trip to Ksamil, perhaps making it your afternoon stop after a morning stroll around Butrint.


3. Take a drive to see the Blue Eye (Syri i Kalter)

A natural fresh water spring with a depth of 50 meters, the “Blue Eye” was given its name since the shape and color resemble that of an eye, with the darker center resembling a pupil.  This is another beautiful location which was off-limits to the general public during the communist regime, since officials used it for their own repose, dining at what is now a restaurant, overlooking the nearby rushing stream.  (A word to the wise, we hope the situation may have changed by now, but during 2006 when we dined at the restaurant, we found the food to be less than appetizing, to put it mildly.  It was a shame since the location is absolutely magical, but don’t let yourself be fooled and instead prepare a nice picnic to enjoy next to the spring.


4. Ride a hydrofoil to Corfu, Greece for the day

If you are vacationing in Saranda there is already a good chance you’ve included Greece in your itinerary.  If not, don’t miss out on the quick ride over to Corfu (in Greek Κέρκυρα, “Kerkyra”), to get a nice taste of Greek culture.  As with many of the Greek islands you will find plenty of beautiful beaches and an ancient castle, but Corfu also has great hiking trails, Italian-influenced culinary traditions, and the classic but trendy “old town” which was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007.


5.  Go diving

There is at least one diving outfit we are aware of in Saranda, and the underwater creatures to be seen are far beyond what you would imagine lurk in the depths off the coast of Saranda.  Sea animals range from dangerous eels, 150 cm long fish, and “bearded fireworms”  to less intimidating species like  star fish, colorful sea slugs, shrimp, crabs, snails, squid and octopi.  Not to mention there are sunken war and cargo ships as well as deep underwater caves to explore.  For more information check out “Polish Diving Base” at www.albaniadive.com.  They offer trips and courses (including those for beginners) from June to September.

 

Saranda

The first time I went to Albania, I landed in Saranda after taking a short boat ride over from the Greek island of Corfu. At first, I did not quite know what to make of the dusty seaside town. The first thing which struck me as odd was how almost every car I saw was an old Mercedes Benz. I later learned that this is about the only brand of automobile that will withstand the rocky dirt roads, which are full of potholes. Albanians living and working abroad in Western Europe would bring them back and leave them for their families.

It was my husband’s first time back to Albania after being gone for almost eight years, so his Albanian was a little rusty, but we managed to communicate pretty well with people. As an American I was well-received. One time after telling a policeman my nationality he smiled profusely and said “Thank you Mr. Clinton!” Of course he was referring to the 2001 Nato bombing of Serbia forces who had been carrying out ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo.

I was blown away by the hospitality I experienced while in Saranda. Every time we visited extended family who were unprepared for our visit, we were welcomed with a large meal of fresh, delicious, nourishing food. Meal items included locally grown olives, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, onions, fresh bread, and a sour yogurt-like spread called geez. At another relative’s house we were treated to freshly-caught black and orange mussels. If the visit was a short one, Turkish coffee or Raki would be offered. I relished the richness of a culture where people honor their guests by making them feel at home.

Things are changing quickly in Saranda, roads are being built, and you can see the construction of houses, apartments, and hotels at every turn. However, some modern amenities are slow to catch up. The most noticeable of these is the lack of an effective trash disposal system.

Just miles from Greece and only a boat ride from Italy, Saranda is convenient for travelers who want to add some adventure to their vacation. At the same time, Albanians are trust-worthy, hard-working, and do not seek to steal from or shortchange foreign tourists. Instead you will find that for good prices, it is easy to find excellent meals and accommodation, as well as great beaches and welcoming people.

Perhaps it is the beautiful coastal scenery, or else maybe my dislike of the bumpy roads leading further inland (which usually make me carsick), but I have always been more than pleased to spend my time enjoying Saranda. In addition to the beautiful ocean scenery, a visitor can take advantage of everything Albania has to offer, including fascinating history, a warm culture, and an adventure to remember.