A day in Albania


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.

Ionian Cruise's hydrofoil to Saranda

Ionian Cruise’s hydrofoil to Saranda

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.

Just like Benidorm?

Just like Benidorm?

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.

The car 'ferry' across Lake Butrint

The car ‘ferry’ across Lake Butrint

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.

Butrint ruins

Butrint ruins

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.

On the Kaon beer

On the Kaon beer

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.

Twister over the Albanian Riviera

Twister over the Albanian Riviera

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.

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Categories: AlbaniaTags: , ,

34 comments

  1. Love the idea of fitting an extra country into a trip! Especially somewhere like Albania where you might not think of going there specifically for a whole holiday. I imagine like a lot of countries in that region it’s changing so fast that by the time you get back to spend the rest of your Lek it’d be totally different!

  2. Fun to see Albania through your eyes!

  3. Great report . I’ll remember not to order wine when I go !

  4. Wow I didnt know that!! Thats a pretty nice idea, good to know 🙂

  5. Hated Corfu myself but Albania sounds lovely!

  6. We went to Albania a few years ago and loved it – the weather, the people, the haphazardness! We had a great time in Tirana, Saranda and Himara and then finished our holiday with a couple of nights in Corfu. The grilled fish and vegetables we ate everywhere were delicious! I hope you do get to go back!

  7. Very helpful info. I plan to hop over to Saranda and the area for a few days while visiting Corfu.

  8. Hi Richard. Interesting to read your experience of Albania. Saranda was one of the places I stayed during my trip last year and we saw the ferry boats crossing to Corfu. Saranda, I agree, is not much to look at and could be a high-rise resort anywhere. But it isn’t typical of Albania’s coast- there are miles of beautiful unspoilt coast, undeveloped and with stunning beaches. We cycled along the coast and every twist and turn was spectacular.
    I cycled from Saranda to Butrint. Did you notice the turtles at the theater? I saw them resting on the stone in the sunshine. I loved Butrint so much that I ended up being the last to leave and had to cycle back on my own without the rest of the group!
    The worst thing I saw in Saranda was a guy with a brown bear on a lead. He was walking it up and down the main street and charging tourists to get photos taken. It was awful to see that.
    Shame about the bad wine, although the Albanian raki is very good. I was even given some on completing a mountain bike uphill challenge!
    I had excellent food in Albania and there is certainly a similarity to Greek food.

    • I bet that cycle was hard work in the heat – it was pushing 35C when we were there in July. I follow visit_albania on instagram, and they post some gorgeous photos of the coastline, I’d definitely like to go back.

      I missed the turtles and the bear – not nice!

  9. Great article glad I found your website!

  10. Missed this one, Richard! I wouldn’t mind a bit of a look at Albania. I know Colin really liked it. Back in the day, when I went to Corfu, the Albanians were still busy firing at people so this trip wouldn’t have been feasible.
    You must be about due for another jaunt? 🙂

  11. Me and my boyfriend traveled to ksamil and it was beautiful. Corfu was nice too.” 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 recognize “, traveling to Albania and absorbing some of the culture, you can tell that there is a difference between the south and the north of Albania. They both share the different cuisine. The north is known more for their mountains and foods that are similar too Montenegro Serbia, and its surrounding neighbors. if you haven’t noticed already, the south has more of a Mediterranean kind of feel to it because of the closeness to Greece, many people in Saranda, as we stayed in local hotels, such as hostels, we got to experience the locals. The locals in Saranda speak Greek and Albanian. so I would say the culture does rub off since this part of Albania is relatively close to Greece. and yes the food in Saranda and ksamil being the south does have tzatziki and grilled meat being one of their dishes.

    Do some more culture experience before actually writing about it next time (about the food) ( I am pretty serious when it comes to food)… and I agree on the wine, my boyfriend tried the red one and the white one and it was horrible.

  12. I will be traveling to Albania this summer, to revisit some of the places and see some of the local people that I met last time. i hope they remember me haha.

  13. Arriving May in Corfu. Wanted to spend a week driving around Albania but online info is mixed. Will anyone give me solid info on how safe, smart, feasible this is. Thanks

  14. Thank you for the link. I am leaning towards not renting a car in Corfu and taking the ferry to Saranda and getting a car there. I see no reason to have a car in Corfu Town but am wondering about public transportation options on Corfu. We have a fairly short time on the island and have yet to book our hotel. We would like to see Corfu Town and be close to restaurants, cafes, bars. Is it easy to use public transportation or taxis even if not staying in town? I am also interested in any ideas about where to stay (2 days when we arrive, 1 – 2 when we leave).

    • There is a bus service on the island taking you from Corfu Town to other resorts, but sorry – I didn’t use it so can’t comment on how reliable it is. You could stay in Corfu a Town itself, or one of the nicer resorts. There are some nasty ones so do some research, but Kassiopi and Kalami are my favourites.

  15. You may have just sold my boyfriend to go on this trip. I want to tick Albania off my list! Cheers dude 🙂

  16. I was happy to read about Albania. It a place my husband has wanted to visit. You have intrigued me. We will go. Thanks for liking talesandtravel.com

  17. Nice write up – I’m planning to do this same trip in August. Impressed with a dictator that bans beards, we need someone like that to sort out the hipsters!

  18. Albania has THREE World Heritage sites: Butrint, Berat and Gjirokaster!! Enver Hoxha and Ismail Kadare were both born in the latter town.

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