The Balkans – Sarandë, Albania

First of all, I’ve to say that I think I’m too old for travel speedruns. My initial rough route was quite tight on time but as travelling does to you, I found interesting on-the-way detours that I had to visit. That ended with me spending only a night at too many places, then walking through part-way sights, backpack and all. I’d suffer at the end of the trip.  This part of my travels took me from Meteora (Greece) to Sarande (Albania), Gjirokaster and Berat before exiting to Ohrid (Macedonia).

albania

The Balkans is a very interesting area for me. I’ve read the requisite literature about the Ottoman Empire and have some semblance of knowledge about Alexander the Great. Also, in the last years, I have come to the realization that the history we know of the world is very much skewed towards the perception of the conquerors so it intrigues me much to get a feel of the area. Albania for one has had a rough but proud history – there’s enough heritage sites to interest the average traveler but it suffers from a lack of exposure to the outside world. If you think about Croatia, you’ll think about the splendid beaches but you don’t have that sort of perception about Albania though they share the same coastline. What may come to mind though is unrest and poverty.

From Meteora, I headed towards Ioannina and prayed for a bus to take me to Sarandë (there is one). Transport routes aren’t the best in Albania since you rely on furgons (local public minivans) that seem to run on a schedule known only to locals. Entering Albania is a bit of an experience. None of the foreigners on the bus got a passport stamp which, according to the internet, isn’t a strict practice. Passing through the Greece border, the route followed was rocky and the landscape grey and dull, also due to the fact it was a bit of a cloudy day. It feels quite somber and a reminder of how roads and structures are built mostly with stone. Through the trip, I’d see city squares paved with marble and majestic stone sculptures that are quite unique to the geography.

My first stop was Sarandë, a small coastal town that looks like it doesn’t see a lot of tourists. It might be that I was travelling completely off-season (through the trip, I’d be staying alone in hostels…more on that later).

albania

2 Euros lunch (1 for beer and 1 for a Souvlaki) by the beach

If Croatia is becoming hot summer property, I can’t see why Albania can’t follow likewise if they had a higher tourism budget. The main town runs alongside an open beach that well, is empty because it’s cold and cloudy. Restaurants don’t open until mealtimes and most parts of town are being constructed, possibly in time for the tourist season.

I stayed in a self-run hostel, Beni Hostel, a short walk from the beach for 5 Euros a night where I pretty much had the whole room to myself. Beni was hacking rocks at his garden and explained he was still working on improving his place, like most other home owners in the area. There’s a shortage of funds all around and people usually work on changes part by part.

Usually, I’d judge the safety of an area by how people are guarding their homes. A lot of the neighbors keep dogs that really go at it when you pass by but most of the townsfolk seem pretty nonchalant about approaching strangers.

I hung out by the beach with two youths walking their dog. They assumed I was Japanese and the dog’s named Kenshin. We chatted a bit about life in general; one of them spoke English better and was studying to be an economist but also took up a hairstyling course because it made better money. As we parted ways, he mentioned his phone got swiped earlier that day and that I should watch my belongings better.

The highlight of Sarandë is a UNESCO site called Burtrint, about an hour away by furgon. The area was a Greek, then Roman settlement and what remains are the ruins of a fortress.

burtrint

 

Unlike heritage sites in more developed places, most of the sites here are very laissez faire about where you can enter. In some sites, you don’t even have a map or an ‘ideal’ route to take and you’re free to explore as your eyes take you. Burtrint is probably one of the more organised sites where there are route markers.

Because it’s winter, the mosaics aren’t available for viewing and are covered with a layer of stone and sand to prevent frost/water degradation. I think it would be more spectacular come summer but I’m not sure if I’d like jostling with crowds… if there are crowds.

I stayed in Sarandë for 2 nights which is quite sufficient to cover the main sights. In summer where you don’t have to stupidly hang around the beach in jacket and jeans, it might be worth lazing under the sun for a day or two. It’s an incredibly affordable beach getaway and fortunately (for now), not a widely-known route on the tourist circuit.