Saranda: My First Glimpse of Albania

Leaving the Pink Palace wasn’t as easy as we thought. Drinking until the wee hours of the morning made it hard to wake up early. Eventually, we managed to wake up early enough and we took the shuttle bus to the port. So the plan was to take a ferry to Saranda/ Sarandë. There’s no need to buy a ticket in advance since there are about 14 ferries leaving daily. The Corfu- Saranda and Saranda- Corfu routes are high traffic routes since there are lots of people going on day trips to and from both places.  You can just head to one of the ticketing offices near the port. These offices are located outside the port, about 15 minutes away by foot from the main gate. If you’re taking the local bus, just tell the driver that you don’t have ferry tickets yet. He’ll tell you where to get off.

There are fast ferries that can bring you to Saranda in 30 minutes. The other ferries are those big ones and taking those would take 60-90 minutes. We were able to buy tickets for the 11:45 AM fast ferry. It only costs 23.80 euros per person. One only needs to show a valid passport. In 30 minutes, we were already in Saranda.

Let me start by giving praise to the Albanian people. Albania seems to have a bad reputation. For many people in the western world, there’s this impression that Albania is a dangerous country.  I get where they’re coming from. I’ve been told of this as well— that the entire country is sketchy. And in certain western countries, a lot of Albanians are associated with gangs and drug dealers so people tend to generalize. This creates the impression that Albanians aren’t good people, and this is really unfair. I’ve been all around the country, not just Saranda. I have to say that Albanians in general are probably one of the nicest people in the world. Whenever you’re lost, ask anyone for directions, they’ll be eager to help. Share a drink with a local, it would seem that you’ve known each other for life. When we asked a coffee shop owner where the nearest place to eat was, she gave us some of her food— and she didn’t ask for anything in return. The same thing happened when I asked a shopkeeper elsewhere in Albania— he gave me some of the Burek he was eating. At a grocery store near the mountains, after I bought some food I went back inside and grabbed a beer. As I was about to pay, the owner said I didn’t have to. Consider it a gift from him. Tell me, where else in the world does stuff like this happen frequently??? I’ve been to a lot of countries already and I’ve never received so many freebies! LOL. I’m sure that there are dangerous areas— I can say the same about all the countries I’ve been to. But I’ve never felt that I was in any danger. I’ve traveled  through most of the Balkans last year but skipped Albania because I was misinformed. I’m so glad I decided to visit the country this year. I surely missed a lot when I decided to skip it.

Many locals don’t speak a word of English though, and that could cause problems. Google translate isn’t very accurate apparently. Whenever I used it, the locals laughed at the translation. Here’s a trick I used: if you know how to speak Spanish, speak Spanish. Miraculously the locals understood me whenever I switched to Spanish. I thought they knew Spanish, but that wasn’t it lol. A lot of locals know how to speak Italian, and apparently Italian is very similar to Spanish— at least that’s what I’ve been told. So if you know Spanish or Italian, you’ll have no problem speaking to locals.

One more thing I like about Albania? If you’re familiar with the value of US dollars, it’s easy to keep track of how much you’re spending. This is because 1 US dollar is equivalent to a little more than 100 Albanian lekë. At first you might think that everything is so expensive. One time I paid 500 lekë for a meal and I balked at the price. But then I realized that was only 5 bucks, which wasn’t bad at all lol.

Back to Saranda— it’s basically a resort town. A lot of Albanians go here for vacation. There are lots of tourists too, mainly Russians and people from other Balkan countries. During the day you’ll also see lots of tourists from Corfu spilling over. Since it’s touristy, prices are noticeably more expensive compared to other places Albania. But coming from Italy and Corfu, everything was still very cheap. A meal in a nice restaurant would cost about half of what you’d pay for the same meal in most European countries. As with most resort towns, the nightlife is pretty good especially on weekends. It may be touristy and crowded, but overall I liked it. The town itself is beautiful. It’s a place where you wouldn’t mind stopping by for a couple of days and just relax… which is exactly what we did.

Most travelers stay for only a night or two in Saranda. We stayed for almost a week. It’s probably because we were still on “party mode” so we didn’t feel like doing much exploring. We still partied until the wee hours of the morning and usually woke up late with a hangover, so we were perfectly content just lying by the beach all day. When the sun sets, the cycle repeats. So for those looking for detailed guides, I won’t be able to give you that. We did visit two nearby attractions though when we rented a car for one day– Ksamil (another beach town) and the Blue Eye (a deep natural spring).

If you’re traveling as a group, I’d suggest renting a car since a lot of places are not directly accessible via public transport— it would only cost 20 euros per day. If there’s 4 or 5 of you, that’s gonna be a really sweet deal. If that’s a little too much and you just want to head to Ksamil, there’s no need to worry. It’s easy to get there by  public transport. Just head to Friendship Park— it’s that huge park in the center of town. Here you’ll find lots of local buses heading to various destinations. You’ll also find a number of bus stops here, including the one for buses heading to Ksamil. The bus stop is across the ruins (pictured below). If you can’t find the specific bus stop, there’s no need to worry. You can ask anyone by simple mentioning “Ksamil“. Even if the person you asked doesn’t speak English, he or she will point you to the correct bus stop. There’s one bus passing by every half hour so there’s no need to rush. A one way journey only costs 100 lekë and it only takes 30-40 minutes.

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The “ruins” near Friendship Park

I would recommend visiting Ksamil because the beaches there are more beautiful compared to the ones in Saranda. There are also less people. Sure some beaches will still be crowded, but it’s easier to find an isolated spot. A lot of people just do day trips, but I’d recommend spending a night or two. Accommodations are real cheap anyway. We managed to find a 3 bedroom Airbnb for only 16 euros a night. It’s easy heading back to Saranda. You’ll find lots of shuttle buses leaving every half hour or so.

Heading to the Blue Eye is a little trickier though since there’s no public transport that heads there specifically. Still it’s not too difficult. You just need to hop on a shuttle bus that’s heading to Gjirokaster. You’ll find these shuttle buses about a block away from Friendship Park. Again, just ask any local for directions by simply mentioning “Gjirokaster“. You can’t miss these buses, they have signs saying “Gjirokaster” up front. After paying 200 lekë, tell the bus driver you’re going to the “Blue Eye“. This should take about 30-40 minutes. You’ll be dropped off by a dirt road next to the main road. There’s a huge sign at the start of the dirt road so you won’t miss it. From here it’s about a 40 minute walk to the Blue Eye. Somewhere along this dirt road you’ll come across a checkpoint where you can also buy tickets. It costs 50 lekë per person.

I didn’t really like the Blue Eye— probably because we arrived at around noon and the place was so crowded. Maybe I would have appreciated it if we arrived early in the morning when there aren’t too many people.  It’s quite refreshing on a hot day though. There were lots of people jumping in, even though there are many signs saying “no swimming”. LOL. Heading back may prove to be difficult depending on the time of day because there’s no bus stop here. Once you find your way back to the main road, either wait for shuttle buses heading back to Saranda or try to hitchhike. I’ve been told it’s easy to hitchhike in Albania. I never tried it, but from what other travelers have told me it’s kind of a mixed bag. In certain places it’s easy, but it can be difficult in others.

Day trips to Gjirokaster and Butrint are the other popular day trips from Saranda. Both are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Lots of people were highly recommending both places, so I kinda regret not visiting them. I know how to get to both though because I’ve asked around.  I’ve already mentioned how to get to Gjirokaster. To head to Butrint, which are the ruins of an ancient Greek city, you need to go to the roundabout near the port. If you’ve been walking around Saranda, you would know what I’m talking about. The buses are parked near the roundabout. Simply ask any local for the specific spot. Alternatively, these buses also pass by the same bus stop across the ruins near Friendship Park. It’s better to just head to the roundabout though so you’d be assured of getting a seat. A one way journey takes about 40-50 minutes and it costs 100 lekë. Admission to Butrint costs 700 Lekë for foreign citizens.

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Butrint – photo grabbed from Wikipedia 😛

After spending a few days in Saranda, I’ve realized that I’ve had enough of beaches on this trip. It’s been one beach after another and I’ve constantly been sunburnt for weeks. The fresh pain that I felt on both my shoulders drove the point further. I decided to split up with my friends for a while and check out the country’s capital.

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By the way… Are there any vampires in Saranda?

 

 

 

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