Sweet Saranda: Cheap Albanian Getaway for Beaches, Ruins and Gourmet Food

Sweet Saranda: Cheap Albanian Getaway for Beaches, Ruins and Gourmet Food

When trying to find a place to meet around Greece and Albania, Simone and I had a surprisingly hard time. I was coming from Nepal and she was based in Athens, Greece with only a four-day vacation. She could fly cheaply and easiest to Western Europe, which meant I would need to retrace my steps significantly to return to Turkey. Furthermore, Western Europe doesn’t interest me the same way other places do- I wanted to be riding a camel in Petra, Jordan or exploring Egyptian temples while tourism is still cheap. She brainstormed a few places to compromise, choosing cheap, quirkier destinations like Izmir, Turkey (I’ve been there), Tbilisi, Georgia and Saranda, Albania. I knew absolutely nothing about Albania so I jumped at the last suggestion, and I’m certainly glad I did. Simone and I made Saranda our home-base for our three-days together and a weekend is all you need to see to major sites in the area. If you’re a more leisurely traveler, Saranda is a cheap and enjoyable place to lay on the beach and eat gourmet food at unbeatable prices. Day 1: Gourmet food, seaside siestas and sunset panoramas We arrived at Saranda around lunchtime on a mini-bus, trying to decode the cryptic directions to our hostel. “Make a left at the bank with the palm tree”, “stop at the creperie and ask for Tomi”… it seemed straightforward until we were surrounded by a sea of banks and creperies, punctuated with dozens of palm trees and people kept pointing us in opposite directions. Fortunately, someone at a newsstand offered to call Tomi for us, offered to share his shaded stall and buy us an ice cream while we waited. Tomi arrived on a bicycle, which he used to wheel Simone’s bulging duffel and assured us that coming to our rescue was “no problem, no problem” and welcomed us warmly to the city. The private room we booked through SR Backpackers, actually had an upgraded location in a hotel overlooking the Bay. After plopping down our bags and breathing in sea breezes, we made lunch our next mission. As with most things in Albania, the local restaurants aren’t well documented… Even if you can find the name of an eatery online, it rarely has an address and never has a menu. Simone had spotted one of the Tripadvisor restaurants the way in, so we headed to Mare Nostrum (Address: Jonianet 20, Saranda) to pursue their menu of Greek, Italian, Albanian and seafood dishes. Since the tourist season in Saranda does not start until July, we had the place to ourselves. We giggled at elderly tourists lumbering by the seaside path in excessive sun hats then a magical appetizer appeared! Some sort of crispy bread accompanied by a creamy herb dip, soon joined by the sesame-seed encrusted fried feta cheese balls and fig jam that we ordered. Just when we thought our meal couldn’t get more delicious, the main course arrived. I had the vegetarian roasted vegetable salad with cheese. After over a month of eating cooked vegetables drowning in curries, this dish was exactly what I needed: crispy vegetables topped with roasted peppers, eggplants and topped with salty Albanian white cheese. Simone ordered some chili-lime shrimp, which looked a little scary when they arrived on skewers, peering at her with beady eyes, but she also raved about her meal. The waiter proved that dreams do come true when he surprised us with a complimentary dessert: some sort of banana pie, crystallized in a caramel glaze. To top it all off, the meal cost about $7 USD. We took our food coma straight to the beach, which we had almost exclusively to ourselves. We felt better about the eerily vacant promenade and shoreline when we later learned than Albanians take siesta from 3-5 PM. After our siesta on Saranda’s pebbly shores, we put on our walking shoes and hiked up the 5 meters to Lekursi Castle, which they converted into a restaurant. It took longer than expected but we made it in time to enjoy breathtaking views of the city and the sea during sunset. If you go during July/August (the tourist season), you may be able to catch traditional live music. Once the sun went down, we decided to head back down the hill. Lucky for us, a taxi driver offered us a free ride and we used the time that we would have spent walking for a drink on the waterfront. Day 2: Day trip to Butrint ruins and Ksamil beaches If in Saranda, Butrint is cultural “must-see” and UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s an ancient port from Hellenistic to Ottoman times,...

Travel Albania: Enjoy Hospitality from Tirana to Berat

Travel Albania: Enjoy Hospitality from Tirana to Berat

I don’t know if Albania’s flag contributes to its ominous reputation. At first glance, it is pretty terrifying. A demonic looking two-headed eagle silhouetted against a dark, blood red background. When talking to an Albanian friend, I confessed I found it a bit intimidating. He chuckled and said, that it wasn’t supposed to be scary at all. Apparently, the eagle has been the symbol of the area since the Byzantine Empire. Various stories surround the introduction of the two-headed eagle but they all seem to agree that the double-head represents unification: unification of North and South when the country had to fight the Ottoman empire, unification of church and government (which I find a little strange since at least now, Albania doesn’t have a strong religious identity and open-mindedly welcomes Muslims, Christians, etc.) and unification of the Albanian people. My friend summarized, “the two heads represent eagles helping each other, until out they become one.” I found this selfless, helpfulness everywhere in Albania… more than any other country I’ve been to. Sure, the cab drivers tried to rip us off and charge us 5 euros for a two-minute ride. But for all the times that happened, three locals would literally stop what they were doing to deliver us to our destination and make sure we got the right bus. We received at least three offers of free ice cream, a free cab ride down the mountain and dozens of incredible conversations. In addition to amazingly generous locals, the country itself is beautiful and still relatively untouched. It’s so refreshing to go to a country without any McDonalds, Starbucks or Burger King, where the closest thing you can come to American fast food is “AFC”: Albania Fried Chicken. It’s tempting to keep Albania as a “best-kept secret” but I think I owe it to all the Albanians who helped me to share my enthusiasm for this place. Albania may be a leap into the unknown for you as a traveler, but I guarantee it’ll be a rewarding and enjoyable experience! Tirana: Albania’s Colorful Capital City For more items to add to your Albanian itinerary, hopefully my last 24-hour blitz tour of the North will inspire you. After a ferry ride from Corfu and a 6-hour bus ride to Tirana, a friendly face and a good meal was exactly what I needed. Alban, a lawyer born and bred in various parts of Albania, wanted to show me around for the day (I was surprised he still wanted to meet me after the million question pre-departure questions I bugged him with). We started at Oda’s, his friend’s mom’s restaurants, for an epic feast featuring traditional Albanian fare. In between bites of doma (stuffed grape leaves), byrek (flaky vegetable pie pastry often with spinach or feta cheese), eggplant stuffed with cheese, beans and an endless supply of other things, we looked at the random Albanian artifacts around the perimeter of the wall. The husband of the restaurant owner was a cinematographer who collected old photographs, which added to the museum-like atmosphere of this cozy and delicious dining establishment. We drove around the central Albanian square and he pointed out important ministries and churches, many of which were painted in a cheery yellow. In regards to Albania’s colorful capital, my Make The Most of Your Time of Earth: 1000 Ultimate Travel Experiences (Thank you, Meghan Westlander- I love this book!) explains, “Tirana’s torrid twentieth century was dominated by one color: a Communist red so deep that the country severed ties with the Soviet Union because brutal dictator Enver Hoxha believed the USSR had turned anti-Marxist since Stalin’s death. The capital’s skyline is still dominated by the concrete apartment buildings thrown up in the postwar period but, under wildly popular city mayor Edi Rama, these bleak structures have been daubed in all manner of murals, patterns and multicolored stripes. Formerly a painter himself, and armed with a lifelong passion for Picasso, legend has it that one of the first things Rama did when he took office in 200 was order in paint. Now after encouraging tenants and housing cooperatives to get involved in brightening up this most maligned of cities, Tirana has been transformed into a riot of purples, yellows, greens and yes, even a little red” –Rough Guides After our resting off our food coma, Alban and I decided to drive about an hour and a half to Berat, another one of Albania’s UNESCO museum cities. The first part of the drive was relatively straightforward but the last 60 km or so revealed why people complain about Albanian roads. There were no streetlights and these mostly-unpaved roads contained car-sized...

Arrival in Albania: Night bus from Greece to Gjirokaster

Arrival in Albania: Night bus from Greece to Gjirokaster

“Albania?! Why would you ever go there?”, people often inquired when they heard my plan for this summer, shuddering incredulously as they pictured a country full of dark human traffickers, a la the movie “Taken”. Simone and I didn’t really know what to think either, except that it was relatively easy to get to, cheap and supposedly one of the “up and coming travel destinations of 2014”. So we decided to go for it. The more we looked into it, the more mysterious the country became. Finding information about rental cars and transportation was nearly impossible so eventually we gave up, shrugging and saying, “I guess we’ll figure it out when we get there”. We decided to meet in Gjirokaster, both on buses from different Greek cities (I came from Thessaloniki and she came from Athens), booked a hostel in Saranda and wished each other smooth travels. The adventure began before either of us boarded the bus. Penny bid me farewell, put me on the proper bus to the main bus station but I had almost a half an hour of wandering highways on the city outskirts before I could find the separate Crazy Holidays international terminal. When I finally arrived, I was the only American, the only solo traveler and the only person who appeared to be going to Albania for fun. Simone was in a similar situation but since she spoke Greek, she benefitted from fellow passengers giving her “advice”. One woman said, “don’t let them know you’re American”. She replied, “do Albanians hate Americans?” and the woman responded, “No! They love Americans! But you’re alone. And they’ll think you’re rich. Just tell them you’re Greek” (Simone has grown up in America but has two Greek parents so she looks Greek and can speak it pretty well). “I finally felt myself lifted definitively away on the winds of adventure toward worlds I envisaged would be stranger than they were, into situations I imagined would be much more normal than they turned out to be.” ―Ernesto Guevera, The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes of a Latin American Journey  Arrival in Albania Back to my journey, I arrived at Gjirokaster at 2 AM, as the only one who got off the bus. Immediately, I was swarmed by grizzled wrinkled men… supposedly cab drivers but in unmarked taxis… One seemed to know where I needed to be and since there weren’t any legitimate looking cabs in sight, I figured my only option was to trust him. He whizzed around windy roads and dropped me at a small hotel at the corner of an ancient stone building. A scary-ish looking man answered my knock at the door, rubbing sleep from his eyes, and trudged up a cold, concrete staircase to deliver me to a room which looked like a great aunt’s attic. I plopped down to sleep for a few hours before I was supposed to meet Simone at 7 AM in the “lobby”. I waited in a deserted lobby wondering who to pay until 7 AM rolled around, and I saw someone with dark sunglasses and a giant purse squinting through the window. “Simone!” I hopped up, ran to the door to let her in and give her a hug. She let out a sigh of relief, “I thought I was going to get human trafficked back there. I think we had the same driver. He said he picked up a blonde girl at two AM. They didn’t know what was going on with all these white girls arriving alone on buses in the middle of the night”. She continued animately, “They all speak Greek! I can’t believe it! We might be able to talk to people after all”. Glad that at least SHE could talk to people, I decided to wander around the halls one more time looking for the man who let me in last night. With him nowhere to be found, I decided to hand over my 8 euros to the random man who entered from outside, asked if I paid and bopped over to his cafe next door. “Gosh, I don’t even know what’s going on”. Fortunately, that random cafe man who took my hotel money gave Simone a basic overview of the lay of the land so we had a general plan (since there was no wifi in the hotel). Sightseeing in Gjirokaster Gjirokaster, “stone city” was dubbed as UNESCO as a living museum, known for its traditional architecture and castle on the hill. We started with the most obvious attraction, and made our our way up to the fortress, slipping on lumpy stone sidewalks. After paying less than a dollar to...