Sarande, Albania—quite the surprise

Well, well. Who would have thought? Sarande is quite the beautiful and booming town overlooking spectacular water on the south coast of Albania.

Yes, that Albania, the country that was occupied by the Romans, the Turks, the Greeks, the Venetians, the Nazis and after World War II, the Communists. In the Cold War years, Albania was considered to be a completely closed country, more allied with Communist China than with Soviet Russia before the collapse of the Iron Curtain in the late 80s and early 90s. Since independence, things have changed.

Tourism seems to be a relatively new industry in Albania. The Sarande harbor does not have a terminal large enough to accommodate a ship the size of the Queen Victoria, so we had to be ferried to shore on tenders, a first in our experience. Nothing like a ten-minute boat ride to shore during your two-week boat ride around the eastern Mediterranean.

However new to the game, Sarande has already developed the basics of the tourism trade—trinkets and t-shirts. The recently spiffed-up small harbor front was lined with dozens of souvenir sellers and a few beggars, some of whom included children under eight. Our first impression was not overwhelmingly positive.

The center of the little city may be fairly old and not terribly attractive. But the harbor itself displayed a row of recent sculptures overlooking beautiful clear waters. Just a block into town from the waterfront is an excavated Roman ruin with little explanation other than a sign on the street. Just a bit more development could make this a major attraction.

Beyond the nondescript center, however, today Sarande is a boom town. Right past the main city and especially heading south through the smaller town of Ksamil on the way to Butrint National Park, scores of apartment buildings are under construction. Dozens of new hotels on the hillsides overlook the crystal clear green–blue waters of the bay, just a mile across to Corfu.

Give this place another five years, and it will be a major resort.

We met up with a taxi driver who quoted us a fixed price of 40 euros to take us up to the Butrint ruins going back well before Julius Caesar’s time. It’s a short 20- kilometer drive along the coast offering views of the bays toward Corfu and the fields of agriculture on the landside toward the mountains. Once we arrived at Butrint, our driver waited for us in the parking lot with a number of other cabs and a few large tour buses so we could explore the extensive ruins on our own.

We spent nearly an hour walking past the Venetian fort just past the front gate, then up the Acropolis, and finally down to the Roman amphitheater that was expanded by Julius and Augustus Caesar themselves. The entire park is essentially an ancient city, so it is far more extensive than we could cover while our cab driver waited. Interestingly, it was discovered less than a century ago, between the two world wars, and developed as a tourist destination only since independence from Communism less than 20 years ago. Like the town of Sarande itself, in about five years or so, the future is bright for this historic attraction.

When we returned from the park, our driver rode us down the mountain and detoured down a barely concrete path into a restaurant on another beach overlooking the bay, where we sat down for local Korca beers and an energy drink for him. I offered to pay, but he refused, and without hesitation picked up the bill himself. This was intended to be part of his fare.

The view alone was worth a couple of beers. The water was beautifiul, and we were entertained by watching a young boy of about six or seven years climb around a small dinghy on the beach and take the cover off the outboard engine. Only problem was that he could not get the cover latched back on, so had to call out his dad on another boat in the tiny bay to help out. A woman, presumably his mother, walked out from the restaurant to shout out admonitions to both the boy and his dad before returning to her duties inside the establishment.

Once we returned to Sarande, our faithful driver turned away from town and took us up a narrow road to the Castle of Leukasis for even more spectacular views of the waters below on one side and the valleys and mountains of Albania on the other. By way of comparison, consider that Cunard was charging $47 a person just for the tour of Butrint in a big cumbersome bus. With no stops for beer along the way or excursions up the mountain.

During the tour, our driver explained that tourism in Sarande has boomed to the point that the town is too crowded in the summer starting in May, but then empties out for the winter, starting in about a month. So he leaves his car (a spotless Mercedes) in Sarande and crosses over the mountains to Greece to make a living driving around Athens during the winter.

By the time he deposited us back at his cab stand, we were ready for lunch, so following our rules of restaurant engagement in these towns, we walked up a block and found a little place that did not show photos of their food or have a waiter hawking us in from the door. As soon as we walked into the small dining room, we realized this is truly a local spot.

Having learned our lesson a few days ago about over-ordering, we maintained our discipline and ordered stuffed eggplant, which was actually sliced and cooked down with onions; a kebob, which was actually a stew of unidentifiable but tasty meat in a hearty sauce and a what they called a tomato salad, which turned out to be a huge green salad of tomatoes, peppers, onions, cucumbers and olives. (The mixed pickle salad that I had originally ordered was out for the day.) The waitress also brought a basket of firm, coarse white bread to mop up all the gravy. It turned out to be just the right amount of food for a perfect excursion lunch.

And then the bill arrived—750 lekes, the local currency. That translates to six euros.

Stunned but thrilled by this bargain, we walked down the street to the Conad grocery to select a bottle of Albanian wine. Since the restaurant had given me a 500 leke bill as part of my change, I chose a 300 leke bottle to avoid currency exchange issues, because the next wine up was 550 lekes. We have not yet tasted the 300 leke wine, but if our Crete wine experience is any indicator, the Albania wine will be just fine, even at the price of $2.63 US.

We agreed that Sarande is worth a longer stay.



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