Summer vacation in Albania with my “Thai” friends.

I had been looking forward to visiting to Albania for years. I must admit, part of the interest was that for so long, the country was a bit of a basket case. Even my Albanian guide in Tirana said: “We were like the North Korea of Europe”! I have decided to write about my week-long visit in 4 short stories, instead of my usual monster posts. Perhaps the European summer is making me a little lazy.

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One of the easiest way to get to southern Albania is to take a ferry from Corfu, which itself is very well served by countless airlines. You arrive at this town, Saranda (also spelled Sarandë). The town has exploded with tourism and the coast is packed with mostly ugly and probably unplanned developments. Traffic is chaotic, the place doesn’t have much local feel to it, but the beach looks OK.

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My friends Ines and Marion, whom I met diving in Thailand almost 4 years ago. After some spontaneous Facebook discussions, we agreed to fly in from France, Switzerland and Poland – respectively – and spend a week in Albania, of all places. Ines did have some flexibility to her schedule and asked where I would be the week before. “I’ll be visiting Belarus, the last dictatorship in Europe, Chernobyl and the ghost town of Prypyat and finally the concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau“, I answered. So she flew to Albania.

We didn’t stay in Saranda, but rather in the nearby small village of Ksamil. The place was a small version of Saranda, but we rented an apartment maybe 10 m from the water and the family who owned the small 3 storey building was absolutely lovely. When the grandmother baked some bread, she knocked on our door and gave us a loaf! When was the last time this happened at the Holiday Inn?

We also found that restaurant food was touristy in its selection, but quite good. We were served only one gross thing during the whole week, but it was a self-inflicted injury. We had asked the guesthouse owner to recommend a good fish restaurant. “This one (pointing), but don’t order anything except seafood.” We did, and the accompanying salad – on the photo – was gross, but the fish was very nice.

What southern Albania does offer is a budget vacation. We saw a lot of tourists from countries like Macedonia, where the average salaried worker probably could not afford to fly to Nice for the summer. There is no debate that Albania is cheap for the tourist from a rich country. In fact, I had recently discussed Saranda with my friend Solveig, who had recently visited. Being from one of the richest country, Norway, her answer to my query about cost was something like: “For us, it is basically free”.

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But other than for the family day on the beach, the place is a little underwhelming in terms of attractions. These are the ruins of Butrint, an ancient Greco-Roman city which are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Again, “underwhelming” became the word of the week for us. Luckily, as you will find out in the next few days, Albania got better and better as we travelled north.

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This is apparently the largest Byzantine basilica after Hagia Sofia in Istanbul. Of course, Hagia Sofia has a roof…

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This castle looks good, as it was rebuilt in the 1930’s. The basement houses a modest museum, but photography is not allowed. Therefore, it might as well not exist.

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What Butrint lacked in monuments, it compensated for in beautiful scenery.

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This place is know as the Blue Eye. Looks charming, but again kind of underwhelming when you consider the drive on an overcrowded dirt road you had to endure to get there. Also, I am showing it to you from a very favourable angle.

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This is more realistic. A lot of people looking at a big water source. Hydrologically though, it is impressive. A massive amount of water coming from a hole at least 50 meters deep and becoming the source of the river Bistricë.

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But 100 m downstream, with nobody around, is where I think I got my best shot of this very cold and very clear spring water river.

Next, Gjirokastër where Albania starts going from underwhelming to better, to great!

#Albania

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