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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.