Lured by photos of beautiful beaches, UNESCO world heritage sites and inexpensive restaurants serving incredible food, it wasn’t long before I had planned a trip to this lesser visited south eastern European country back in 2018.
With no direct flights from NW England where I live I needed to do some research, and found direct flights to Corfu, Greece, which is so close to this diverse country that you can pick up an Albania phone signal in various spots on the island. There are multiple daily sailings from Corfu Port to the Albanian town of Sarandë, varying from a 30 min fast ferry to a more leisurely 1hr 30 minute crossing. Direct Ferries is probably the best website to find the most accurate information and for less than £40 for a return foot passenger fare, it was too good to turn down.
With a hotel booked overlooking the sea, it was only a 10 minute walk from Sarandë Port once mum and I arrived, after a quick uneventful check at passport control. Accosted by a few eager taxi drivers standing outside the port exit, we knew we didn’t have far to walk, and with our directions already saved in our phone, it wasn’t long before we had checked into our accommodation at the Hotel Pini and we were drinking in the views of a new country and its gorgeous coast line.
Keen to get exploring, we headed for a walk along the seafront, visiting the many little market stalls lining the promenade. Albania has a rich history of craftwork, such as leather, wool and jewellery, and with its ideal coastal location and warm climate has an abundance of olives, garlic, figs, nuts, lavender, herbs, the list goes on.
The smells and sights of all the incredible fresh food on offer gave us an appetite, so we got some of the currency LEKE from an ATM machine, found a lovely beach side cafe and stopped for some coffee and cake.
We then spent the rest of the day exploring the seafront, finding little coves and monuments, road side shrines, petted the local dogs of which there were many and had some good old fashioned chill time on the beach.
After watching the sunset across the Adriatic, we headed back out along the promenade and had a delicious dinner at Rustico, which had local wine and a pretty decent selection of vegetarian meal options too. As it was mid September when we visited, the Mediterranean climate didn’t disappoint and so we ended the night sat out on our adjacent balconies with a book and another small wine.
The next morning, after a delicious strong coffee overlooking the seafront, we headed back in the direction of the port, locating the bus stop by the large roundabout with a big tree in the middle. We were off to Butrint, and although you could get a taxi, the bus takes about 45 minutes and costs about 68p, so we just had time to grab a pastry in a nearby shop, and we were off down the coast.
Butrint is situated on a peninsula about 11 miles south of Sarandë, it’s an ancient port, an historic Roman city, and designated UNESCO world heritage national park. In other words, it’s a popular cultural destination with many good reasons to put it on your itinerary. Although we were there towards the end of the summer season, it wasn’t massively busy, probably because like Albania itself, it’s still a lesser discovered holiday destination.
There is so much to see, once we arrived we got a map from the visitors centre and set off to explore, taking shade when we could among the trees. Wandering around the ancient city ruins, you quickly become aware of how huge this once bustling port must have been. Some ruins date back as far as the 8th Century BC in the area around the Acropolis, with the more recent Venetian tower and castle being built between the 14th to 16th century, and so much more in between. The mosaic floor of the baptistery and the large basilica as well as the Roman theatre were definitely highlights.
Because of it’s location stuck out on a small peninsula, surrounded almost on all sides by water, the wetlands have been given special international recognition. With over 800 plants to be found here, including some rare and endangered, along with 246 species of birds and 105 types of fish, as well as exploring the ruins, experiencing the National Park for its natural beauty is another joy of the area, the views all around were outstanding.
It was then time to head back to Sarandë for a late lunch and crepe sandwich in a seafront cafe and then a chill out on our balcony in the shade. It’s just nice to stop and rest sometimes, something I am guilty of not always making time to do.
Once the main heat of the day had past, we ventured back out to see the remaining sites in the town, stopping to chat with the local cats and dogs, of which there were many friendly faces. Interesting spots we found were a military war bunker and the ancient remains of a synagogue just a couple of roads back from the seafront.
That evening we took another lovely leisurely walk along the prom and then settled on Gerthela for dinner near our hotel, finding room for a final sugary, sweet Albanian pastry for dessert, delicious!
We could have spent another day really in this lovely coastal town, there were a few things that were just on the outskirts, too far to walk, and would have needed a taxi or further investigation of local bus routes to get there, like the Monastery of 40 Saints and the Blue Eye Spring. But something tells me that although the following morning, we took the ferry back to Greece, I wasn’t done with Albania yet, someday I hope to return, what a magical country.
EATS – Being a coastal resort, there are lots of sea front restaurants, that you will be spoilt for choice, lots of places specialise in seafood, a lot with Greek and Italian influences too we found. I loved Rustico Taverna from our first night, as there were some good vegetarian options and located a couple of streets back from the seafront and with upstairs seating you have a great viewpoint of the action below.
COFFEE AND CAKE – There weren’t many if any options for none-diary milk, at least at the time of my visit in 2018, so I made do with strong black coffee, which did the trick. As for pastries, there are loads of little bakeries ‘furrë buke’ all selling both sweet and savoury local delicacies and for only a few pence, we visited quite a few during our short stay and none disappointed.
TOP TIP – If you are just visiting for the day, you can pay for things with Euro’s, although you will get a better rate if you use the local currency. There are ATM’s everywhere, so you wont have any trouble getting Lek on arrival.
ALWAYS BE POLITE – Përshëndetje – Hello!, Faleminderit – Thank You, Mirupafshim – Bye.