You won’t believe how close Albania is to Corfu. The coastline of the former communist country is clearly visible just a couple of miles across the Ionian Sea from the Greek island. It’s possible to take a day-trip to the land that spawned Mother Teresa – here’s what to expect…
The port and resort town of Saranda in southern Albania is only a 30-minute hydrofoil crossing from Corfu Town. We went on an organised excursion with Ionian Cruises – €56 for the return crossing (and pick-up from your hotel in Corfu), plus a guided coach trip.
Albania is on a different time zone to Greece (one hour behind), so you’ll actually arrive before you leave.
First impressions of Saranda were that it looked a bit like Benidorm, with lots of high rise hotel blocks. This part of the country, known as the Albanian Riviera, is popular with holidaymakers from land-locked Kosovo as well as a few adventurous westerners.
Saranda is Albania’s 11th biggest city with a population of 40,000, and everyone seems to have a Mercedes so our coach soon got caught up in a monster traffic jam. Since the fall of communism, the Mercedes seems to have replaced the donkey as the country’s preferred mode of transport.
We crawled along a coastal road and guffawed at signs on flashy new apartment blocks proclaiming “Shiten” – the Albanian word for to rent. As we headed 20km or so to the south towards the archaeological ruins of Butrint, one of only two UNESCO World Heritage sites in Albania, it became apparent how mountainous and rural the country is.
The huge inland seawater lagoon, Lake Butrint, was on our left with Mount Mile behind it, with beach resorts on the right and Corfu in the distance.
I went to Albania with two preconceptions – that the roads would be awful, and that we’d be pestered by annoying street-kids. Both of these were blown away in my first hour in the country. Workmen were laying a smooth tarmac surface on the main road all the way to Butrint, putting pot-holed Britain to shame.
Then when we arrived at Butrint, a local boy approached Kat and asked her if she’d like a bracelet for the princely sum of €1. She’d completed the transaction before I’d even got off the coach. Bracelet-boy was now happy and just wanted to talk about English football with me, although he was disgusted when I told him I supported Aston Villa and he walked off leaving us in peace.
Butrint was once an ancient Greek city, and was later settled by the Romans so as you can imagine there are lots of remains to be seen including collonades, basilicas and a theatre, but the highlight has to be the view from the hilltop fortress from where you can see Lake Butrint, the point it meets the Ionian Sea and Corfu. We had two hours to stagger around in the 35°C heat here.
After our bit of culture, we headed back to Saranda for a late lunch, included in the excursion price. The buffet served on the terrace of a hotel was very much what we had grown used to in Corfu – lots of tzatziki, salad and grilled meat. I’m not sure if this was authentic Albanian cuisine, or if the organisers wanted to give us something we’d recognise.
Kat had a glass of local white wine which she said was horrific – it was the only occasion I’ve ever seen her leave a drink! I enjoyed my big glass of Kaon, the local beer of choice. A logo on the glass told me it was established in 1995 (communism in Albania ended in 1990). I’ve already put an order in at my local off-licence, Beer Gonzo.
As we finished our meals, we could see a twister moving down the coastline towards us so it was time to get back on the coach and continue with our tour.
We went to a castle in the hills overlooking Saranda – by the time our coach had made it up the winding roads the storm had passed, and we enjoyed great views of the city below us. Our last stop was in Saranda itself, where we had a couple of hours to ourselves to wander around.
We found a souvenir shop selling the usual Albania memorabilia, so we stocked up on fridge magnets and postcards to remind us of our day. I was surprised to see Enver Hoxha mugs for sale. Hoxha (pronounced “Hodger”) was the hard-line communist leader who ruled the country from 1944 until his death in 1985. I’d assumed he would be a pretty hated man – he outlawed beards and religion, and thousands who disagreed with his policies were executed.
We had time for a quick drink in one of the bars alongside Saranda’s beachfront promenade. Although the currency of Albania is the Lek, everywhere in tourist areas takes the Euro. It just so happened that the bar we chose had no change, so after handing the waitress a €20 note to pay for our two beers, I was given 2,200 Lek in change. I’ve not been able to exchange it for sterling since getting home, so there’s my incentive to get back to Albania one day.