The last time we were in Albania was 2019 and unfortunately did not spend any time in the southern part. We came into the port of Saranda, dropped anchor, checked out of Albania, and left bright and early the next morning for Greece. This time, we decided to spend some quality time in this beautiful town. It is a short hop from Corfu town, Greece to Saranda in Albania (3 hours). After running the gauntlet of formalities in Greece, we were underway by 11:30 a.m. We arrived in Saranda several hours later where we were greeted by our favorite agent, and she quickly handled all our formalities for us…..man, I love Albania! Not only that, she directed us to the one mooring ball in the bay, told us there was no charge, and we could stay as long as we wanted! We quickly got the lay of the land along with a multitude of suggested sites to visit and places to go eat. We arranged for a car the next morning and were super excited for a full day of new adventures!
That evening we headed off to an authentic Albanian restaurant with very high reviews. The place was unique in that there was no menu. The sign at the door stated that you needed to be willing to eat the house preparations of the day. Why not?!?! The restaurant was owned and run by a young man named Leo who prided himself on home grown, organic ingredients prepared fresh daily. We were treated to 14 small plates that offered up amazing and unique flavors of both Albania and Greece. We then had a baked cheese with marmalade and a spinach Burek….both also very tasty. We were then given a choice between fish, chicken or pork. Dan opted for the fish, and I decided to try the pork. As expected, the dishes were delicious, and the house made wine was also very tasty. We were then treated to a complimentary dessert unlike anything we have ever had before. The owner spent a great deal of time talking with us and sharing his background and the building of his special restaurant. It really was one of the best experiences we have had in a very long time.
We got an early start the next morning in order to see as many sights as possible while we had the rental car. Our first stop was Butrint National Park. This is one of the most important archaeological sites in the country of Albania. The ruins are nestled into the forest with unusual pockets of water throughout the site. Butrint was known for being one of the finest and most beautiful cities in the Roman Empire. There is a picturesque lagoon and high mountains surrounding this park. We spent two hours wandering this amazing piece of history. As always, I will let the photographs tell the story. Fortunately, we made sure to arrive early and often had many of the sites to ourselves. By the time we left a few hours later, the hordes of tourists from the cruise ships had descended on this magical place. We were very grateful to have had the peace and solitude to absorb the magnitude of Butrint.
Our next stop was a site known as the Blue-Eye Spring. After finding a parking spot (it was remarkably crowded), we set off on foot for about 3/4 of a mile up and down the winding road until we got to a path that followed a beautiful light blue river through lush, dense forest. There is a platform built over the Blue-Eye to give you a better view. This has become a very popular spot for people to jump into the icy blue hole. The Blue-Eye is a spring which sends bubbly water up from more than 50 meters of depth (over 150 ft.). We were told that they don’t know the actual depth because they have not been able to map it any deeper. The water is crystal clear and icy cold (not that we went in it, but I trust what was written on the sign!).
From the Blue-Eye, we had a long and winding drive far up into the mountain region called Gjirokastra. The drive was over an hour (and sometimes a little hairy with narrow roads and plunging cliffs devoid of guard rails), but the views were spectacular! Not only that but some seriously wicked thunderstorms were brewing. We parked our car and started up the roadway into this beautiful little town. It reminded me of something you might encounter in the Swiss Alps. The cobblestone streets were lined with all kinds of merchants, cafes and restaurants which we quickly passed by on our mission to get to the castle at the top of the mountain. It was a long, steep, winding roadway to the very top where we were eventually greeted by the sweet, cold air in the castle entrance. It always amazes me how hot it can be outside and how shockingly chilly it is within the castle walls. The castle of Gjirokastra was built in the 4th century A.D., and was by far the most intact castle that we have seen. It is also the biggest castle in Albania. Gjirokastra is known as the “Stone City” since all the streets, homes and the bazaar are built of stone.
When you enter the castle, you are greeted by a huge arsenal of weaponry ranging from prehistoric times up until WWII. After leaving the weapons hall (considered the weapons museum), we wandered through the various rooms of the castle. Much of it is kept in it’s natural state, as there was no lightening in many of the underground rooms (such as the prison cells). We did our best to explore all of them but some became a little bit hazardous with only the light of our phone flashlight to illuminate our path. By the time, we finished exploring the castle, the storm I mentioned earlier had made it’s way overhead. The wind kicked up violently along with thunder and lightning. Time to go. We decided to take the more direct route down, a path through the forest with lots of stairs. Needless to say, we hustled. We also raced through the bazaar as rain and hail had begun to fall. Since we were still pretty far from the car and hadn’t eaten yet today, we ducked into a small restaurant to enjoy some more Albanian food. We enjoyed a very tasty lunch while the storm raged outside. By the time we were finished, the storm had died off to a light rain, so we did a little shopping at the bazaar before heading to the car. By the time we returned to Saranda, we had logged over 8 miles of walking and 22 flights of stairs. We definitely felt our busy day and were pleasantly exhausted. We returned the car and headed back to the boat for a relaxing evening.
After taking the next day off, we decided to rent a car once again and head off in a different direction. This time we made an hour drive down the coastline to a town called Porto Palermo. Dan had been communicating through one of his Facebook groups with a couple from the U.S. anchored in the bay here, so we decided to meet up in person. After a quick exploration of another awesome castle (Albania has no shortage of castles), we met our new friends for coffee and the chance to swap stories. Meeting up with other cruisers is also an awesome way to find the best places to go and things to do (not to mention critical things such as where to anchor and safe places to leave your dinghy). Soon it was time to head back towards Saranda. This night, we had a reservation outside of town at a place called “The Mussel House.” This was another highly reviewed restaurant on Lake Butrint where they raise and harvest their own mussels. They are the biggest mussel distributor in Albania and are said to have the finest mussels around. We had booked a private tour which took us out on a motorboat where we learned how the mussels are grown and harvested. At one point, our guide pulled up a net of growing mussels and plucked a couple off which he then pried open with a knife. We were handed the mussel and told to enjoy. As soon as I had mine in hand, I felt a little squeamish. I don’t eat raw oysters for a reason! What am I going to do? I can’t offend our hosts who are eagerly anticipating my thorough enjoyment of their highly touted mussels. I popped it into my mouth where I was instantly greeted by the taste of salt water (yuck), then came the slimy texture. Everything in my mouth and throat immediately shut down in protest. I tried to bite into it, quickly realizing it was alive, and did they only thing I could….I swallowed it whole. Needless to say, I did NOT enjoy the raw mussel and apologized profusely. They of course laughed at my facial antics. When we returned to the dock, our tour included freshly cooked mussels and wine. Now, we are talking. The mussels were fabulous! Another great Albanian experience.
Saranda is a very busy beach town with a number of “pirate ships” that take tourists out. They love to pass by our boat, very close, with their club music blasting. This goes on very late into the night (or should I say, wee hours of the morning)at which time they are brightly lit up in an array of colors. The clubs onshore also have their music blasting which is periodically punctuated by the minarets exotically chanting their call to prayer throughout the day and evening. It’s a very exotic experience here in Saranda, with a cacophony of sights and sounds, and we have thoroughly enjoyed our time here (pretty obvious since we have been here a week!). It is now Father’s Day, and we are killing time until our departure this evening for Italy. We will leave Albania tonight around 5 p.m and arrive in Otronto, Italy tomorrow morning around 6 a.m. Stay tuned for more fun as we make our way around the coast of Italy and Sicily.