Thursday, 10 September 2015

Costa del Albania - Saranda, no love at first (or the second!) sight

A trip to Corfu allows you to tick another country off your list, too: Albania. 

On the map Albania's distance from Agios Stefanos is about 3 mm. Even in real life it's so close you can actually see there. Because of all sorts of passport and visa check requirements though you'll have to make your way to Corfu town first (for more info on the buses and how to get there see this earlier post).

The port the Albania-bound ferries depart from is within a walking distance (about 1 km) from the terminal serving the long distance (a.k.a. Green) buses. You can buy the tickets at Ionian Cruises, located halfway there. In Saranda their office is next to the port.

There are four daily routes between Corfu and Saranda. First departs at 9am and is the quicked one, only taking half an hour. The later ones take about an hour and a half. One way ticket costs €23.80. Don't forget to bring your passport (No visa needed for EU citizens though). The return ticket can only be purchased in Albania.

I'm not entirely sure what I expected of Albania, though it's probably safe to say not a lot. I think I'm not alone in this one. I mean, what do you think first when you hear "Albania"? Poverty, misery, beggars and asylum seekers yes. Sun, sea and Sex on the beach (of course I'm talking about the cocktail over here!)... no.

All I really cared about was getting yet another country on my list, really. I'm not a good person, am I?

So, the view that greeted us in Saranda was nothing short of a surprise. Hoardes of tourists, hotels as far as the eye could see. Saranda has for long been a popular holiday destination especially among the Italians.

I'll freely admit the Costa del Sol-like scenery did not make my expectations any greater, though that's what these border crossings are like. I mean, no-one would go to Tangiers and expect to encounter Morocco at its most authentic, right?

Already in my Andalusia posts I've advised you all to avoid the crowded beach boulevards and over-priced tourist traps located there but I must say Saranda didn't exactly charm us outside of them either. 

However, every now and then there were little glimpses of Mediterranean mellowness I've come to love so much. Take the amphi theatre-like plan for instance. The city is built in three rows following the curve of the bay, each layer connected to the the others by stairs.

In the mornings the streets come to life the way they do across the bay. Old men gathering in cafes they never seem to leave, younger men taking up residence on makeshift stools on the streets, playing board games and going through endless tiny cups of coffee. Toothless fruit vendor organized the figs (now in season!) and throwing away yesterday's tomatos that have gone bad. Moustached grannies yelling at rowdy kids and let's not forget those those old, old ladies, clad in black with scarves tightly wrapped around their faces (Angels of Death as I call them). 

Stray cats, stray dogs, stray cows (!)...

The only thing that really tells you've moved on to the other side of the Mediterranean is the pryaer call echoing over the rooftops at sunset: 60% Albanians are Muslims. 

City itself is tiny, which is a good thing. Navigating based on the map quickly proved impossible, mostly because only about 10% of the street names were printed on it. No use anyway, as the locals wouldn't even know the names.

As far as historic sites go, I suppose I could mention the Lekursi castle, a fortress guaring the city on eponymous hill overlooking Saranda (free entrance). The road leading there is in such bad condition, that you might want to take a taxi (and get ready to haggle. A lot. )

Another one is the ruins of an ancient synagogue, located smack in the centre of the city, right next to the bust station. In all honesty though the site (from 5th century BC), once famous for its mosaics, just looks like a construction site for a car park.

The main attraction of Saranda is this. The beach. Which there's a lot of. It's rocky though, so bring swimming shoes. The water is clear though, so if a cheap and cheerful beach holidays is what you're after, you could do a lot worse.

And hey - the perfect way to compliment the beach, hot sun and cooling sea is a cold beer. Which here is cheap (about €1 a bottle). Local wine (strangely watery yet tart) didn't really wow us and the prices even in the local shops were significantly higher than back in Greece.

The currency was probably the single most confusing thing of the trip. They don't operate euros here, you see. Oh, no. They have lek. €1 comes to 139 leks, so you're carrying quite a wad of notes, which made restaurant bills a nightmare for someone as hapless with numbers as yours truly(so what's the price in real money? €3,40? €34? €3400?!)  And do stay tuned - there's a separate post coming up on Albanian food. 

Next stop however, takes us to a Unesco World Heritage site. Any of you familiar with Southern Albania? Any guesses as to where we're headed?




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