- Category: Travel to Albania
- Last Updated: 03 July 2014
The Original article from the Indepenent can be found here
Visting Saranda from Corfu is easy because it takes less then half an hour for a pleasant boat trip.
You can come with boat or car from the nearby countries. The alternative is to fly to the only international airport "Mother Theresa"
that is ~25 minutes from Tirana.
****I admit, I crossed the short stretch of water to Saranda, accompanied solely by grizzled-looking Albanian Gastarbeiters, with unease. I knew a splendid "lost" Roman city lay close to Saranda, but what of the town? Would there be hotels, running water, power a menu I could understand?
My worries evaporated as soon as our boat sped into a magnificent bay. The town of Saranda sweeps in a grand arc around one of the great natural harbours of the Ionian Sea. No doubt the Communist regime of Enver Hoxha once pumped a good deal of sludge into these blue waters, but one side-effect of Albania's abrupt de-industrialisation in the early 1990s is a lack of pollution.
Finding digs from which to enjoy the blue expanse was easy. In recent years a building boom has gripped Albania as villages empty their populations into the towns and as a huge population of expatriate workers in Greece, Italy and Britain pour their savings back into the mother country and into concrete, as no one much trusts banks.
The result is hotel after hotel after hotel, most with improbable names either American cities (Chicago, New York), spiritual destinations (Paradise, Heaven) or odd historical personages. I chose one named after Mussolini's daughter, Eda, for its prime seafront location, and was delighted with my squeaky-clean double room and balcony overlooking the sea all for half the price of my dreary hotel room in Corfu, which had only overlooked bins.
Apart from any number of hotels and restaurants serving fresh, unfussy meals of meat, soups, pasta and mussels the last from the nearby freshwater lake the town of Saranda has few historic sights to detain visitors beyond the ruins of a 4th-century synagogue. So the next day, I hopped into one of the fleet of waiting taxis and headed about 12 miles south to Butrint, a journey that costs about 10 each way. I left the concrete half-builds behind, entering a wild and untamed landscape of bare mountains, churning lakes and expanses of grassland a raw and pristine world that vaguely reminded me of Skye. There, where marshland meets the sea, lies the lost city of Butrint, a great city in Greek and Roman times that Virgil mentioned in The Aeneid, but which sank slowly into oblivion after Slavic tribes invaded the Balkans in the 6th century.
State managed, with the aid of the London-based Butrint Foundation, its excellent condition and signposting contrast sharply with so many other archaeological sites I have seen in the Balkans, abandoned since the fall of Communism to treasure hunters and thieves.
An inviting restaurant-hotel, the Livia, sits at the site entrance, a great place to wind down after a long walk through the glades and ruined churches and eat a meal of fish soup, chicken fillets and Tirana beer.
I left Albania wanting to go back, surely the benchmark of a successful holiday. I never got to the ancient town of Gjirokaster, about an hour's drive from Saranda, and I would love to stay at the Livia, walking from there to the scattered hilltop villages, some Greek Orthodox, some Muslim, that I saw on the horizon. There is great birding to be done in Butrint, too, for the wetlands are rich in egrets and orioles, not to mention otters.
The other reason I want to go back is because the Albanians are palpably enthusiastic for visitors. After years of isolation they have flung open their rather battered front door and are putting a trembling best foot forward.
With its moody, unchartered and, in places, bewitching landscape, southern Albania is sure to become better known in future, as news spreads of its increased accessibility. Perhaps it will eventually become as exhausted from mass tourism as Corfu. But that day is far off. There is still time.