Sarandë and Butrint, adventures on the Albanian coastline.

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.

 

Christmas Eve Bansky hunt in Palestine

I am a big admirer of Banksy, the British street artist/political activist and have been to various spots around the UK to see his art. I had heard that he had opened a hotel in Bethlehem, that also housed a museum, art gallery and restaurant, so I eagerly started planning my visit once our flights to the region had been booked.

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You can book specific Banksy tours over in Palestine, taking you to some of his work found around the area, as well as to the hotel, but we decided to make our own way on public transport and enter Palestine on foot via the notorious Checkpoint 300.

When you tour Palestine on a tour bus you are let through the border without any hassle, its quick, safe and easy, but a privilege that actual Palestinians don’t have. Having had that tourist friendly experience earlier on in our trip, I wanted to make the journey on foot this time and experience it as a local would.

We boarded the 234 bus from Damascus Gate in Jerusalem which stops right outside the Checkpoint on the Israeli side, it takes about 25 mins to get there and costs around £3.

I didn’t take any pictures as we made our way through the border checkpoint, maybe you weren’t allowed, but also, out of respect for all those who aren’t free to wander between the two countries like I did with my British passport.

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When you arrive on the Palestinian side you are greeted with a combination of Israeli Army personnel and lots of eager taxi drivers. We avoided both, as its only a short walk from the checkpoint to the hotel, but we arrived about an hour before the hotel opened for our Christmas Eve lunch on purpose, so we had lots of time to walk alongside the separation wall, which in part has been turned into a ‘museum’.

This ‘museum’ comprises of 270 stories pasted onto the wall, recalling tales from local Palestinian women and children, telling the daily struggles they face living inside the walled off region. It gives a human face to the conflict, and a narrative usually missing from world news reports, it made a somber reflective morning walk, but it was an important part of why I wanted to visit. If I just wanted to enjoy sun, sand and sanitised safe tourist spots, I would have just stuck to the Spanish coast for my holidays.

We continued our walk, alongside the wall, taking in all the art and stories, spotting some of the more well known pieces of graffiti, including ‘make hummus not war’, a alternative New York subway transit sign, a possible sighting of a Banksy rat and the Angels, which is a certified Banksy.

If you keep following the direction of the wall from the checkpoint with the wall to your right hand side, its probably not more than 10 minutes to walk to the hotel, but of course if this is your first visit, like it was for us, it will likely take you a lot longer to walk there, as you take in all the messages and artwork on the concrete.

Soon Banksy’s hotel came into view, called ‘The Walled Off Hotel‘, a play on the famous Waldorf Hotel, as well as by means of its location as it’s effectively ‘walled off’ from the rest of the world. Opened in 2017, this boutique hotel has 10 rooms, varying from presidential suite, to no frills budget room with shared bathroom, all with the worst view in the world, the 8ft concrete wall outside.

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The hotel is open to none-residents from 11am – 10pm daily, wanting to make sure we would get a table for our Christmas Eve brunch, we arrived just as the doors opened. On arrival you enter straight into the Piano Bar, fashioned on an old colonial style dining room, you can sit down for food or drinks, surrounded by many of Banksy’s works as well as a haunted piano, playing works recorded specifically for the hotel from musicians such as Flea and Trent Reznor.

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We ordered a ‘walled off salad’ with some dips and bread and whilst we were waiting a camera crew walked in, only the day before a new Banksy installation had been put on display in the hotel, some friends had even texted me from home about it. So overwhelmed and excited to be in the hotel, we had walked straight past the ‘Scar of Bethlehem’ in the entrance, a take on the Nativity scene, which instead of taking place in a straw laden manger, takes place beside the concrete wall, complete with bullet holes.

By the time we had finished our brunch complete with virgin cocktails, the camera crew had left, so we had space to investigate the piano bar further, along with the nativity scene, the place was packed with Banksy paintings and installations, including my favourite Flower Thrower.

Upstairs there is an art gallery to visit, this time no Bankys here, this space is purely for Palestinians, some known artists such as Suliman Mansour have their work on display here, as well as a temporary area for rotating new and up and coming work. There was some really cool stuff on display and we felt lucky to have been able to see artwork that due to restrictions you wouldn’t normally get to see outside of the country.

Back downstairs is a museum dedicated solely to the separation wall. It’s a really modern interactive space, as you would expect if Banksy was involved along with the help of a British university professor. There’s lots of information about the history of the wall right up to present day with little films, audio, military artefacts and a camera on display from the incredible Oscar nominated Five Broken Cameras, which I really recommend watching. The plan is for the exhibit to be expanded as more artefacts are collected over time, but it was a thought provoking, humbling experience to see and hear how this wall has changed the face of the landscape and its people on both sides.

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Final stop was obviously the gift shop, where we were lucky to chat to the manager of the hotel. A lovely man called Wissam Salsaa, he was keen to know where we had travelled from and what we thought of the hotel, in short I told him, if we were to return to the area, I would absolutely plan on staying here next time around.

There were a few Banksy items for sale in the gift shop, and I did think long and hard about a £70 keyring, which was the cheapest item for sale that was certified by the artist. But then the frugal part of my brain kicked in and I just bought postcards and a couple of tote bags instead, realising I could use that £70 for another flight somewhere instead (not realising Covid was about to happen and I wouldn’t get away for almost another 2 years!).

I desperately wanted to stay for longer, but we had really explored every part of the hotel that is open to none residents, also we were conscious that it was Christmas Eve and the tourists would be flocking to the centre of Bethlehem for the celebrations. So we headed back to Checkpoint 300 which was practically empty as we passed back through, the security guard barely looking at our British passport, and the local bus was waiting ready to return to Jerusalem on the other side. With so many places I still have to see, I rarely make plans to return to a visited place but Palestine makes that list and hopefully one day I can return, whether the political situation will be any calmer, I’m doubtful.