Saturday, 11 April 2015

Albanian Riviera. Only for the brave or just keep it to yourself?


Gjipe beach
Drymandes beach
The route
Not so long ago, when the Balkans were considered an "only for the brave" travel destination, only the bravest of the brave trickled into Albania. It is not gonna be off the beaten track for much longer so make sure it gets on top of your bucket list!


"Ask anyone to give you their list of "paradise" destinations and Albania is probably one of the least likely places to crop up. But as I drop my bags, kick off my flip-flops and dive into a turquoise sea, the "P" word is the only way to describe what I'm seeing" by Matt Carroll.

I divided my Balkan tour into two parts – first one going south from Serbia to Greece all inland and non-coastal areas of the Balkan countries and the second one starting from Saranda, Albania and Corfu Greece and going north the coastal road. After exploring the interior of the country it was time to see the Albanian coast or as they call it the Albania Riviera. 
The Albanian Riviera stretches nearly 300 miles from Vlore down to Butrint, forming one of the last stretches of unspoilt shoreline in Europe. Around almost every corner there's a strip of empty sand that is still untouched by invasion of the package holiday hordes. Yet…I’m sure it is about to change pretty soon…The road is winding and you have to take it slowly but the views that reveals at every turn are just breathtaking.
Saranda

It is probably the most important tourist attraction of the Albania Riviera. Saranda has grown rapidly in the past decade. It is bustling in summer – mostly Albanians but it has been attracting more and more foreigners lately. A daily stream of Corfu holidaymakers take the 45-minute ferry trip to Albania add the Albanian stamp to their passports and hit Butrint or the Blue Eye Spring before heading back.


I got to Saranda hitchhiking from Berat with Glenn who just discovered that hitch hiking in Albania is much faster and more enjoyable than taking buses. I thought that it would significantly reduce our chances being two of us but that didn't happen. Albanians are so genuinely hospitable and generous that we had no problem getting rides (I think 8 cars in total). And we made before our Slovenian friends who left by bus from Berat, same time we did. 






We stayed in Hairy Lemon hostel www.hairylemonhostel.com Pretty nice vibe, cool views of the beach and lovely breakfast – all you can eat pancakes. Annette, the owner is happy to answer all your questions not only about Saranda but Albania in general. Originally from Ireland, she’s been living in Albania for 10 years now and is pretty familiar with all local habits, food and places.
From the terrace in Hairy Lemon Hostel

 
All you can eat pancakes. Glenn´s happy face
 
Dutch girls enjoying the breakfast and Serbian volunteer still in process of making them



Plenty of information
Ksamil. One day at Ksamil is probably worth the trip if it wasn’t that crowded. Only 15 km away from Saranda, there are a few beaches, lots of little restaurants and you can even swim to one of the nearby islands. I didn't but the guys did. It was 4 of us - me and 3 pretty tall boys and we managed to hitch hike without even splitting into two. Got picked up twice and made it to Ksamil faster than what taking a bus could have been. 
 
Ksamil. The island is only a swimming distance away
If you do find yourself craving some ancient history you'll find it just half an hour drive away, in Butrint. Butrint is a microscosm of Meditarrenian history represented in all its phases of development, the rise and fall of great empires that dominated the region from the 4th century BC to the Ottoman defences created in the 19th century. The ruins of this city form an architectural index of ancient history, with Greek, Roman and Venetian remains all contained on one tiny island It is a UNESCO heritage site since 1992. You can amble along avenues of shady trees, working your way up through time, until you reach the island's highest point. The route takes you past the Venetian castle, an ancient Roman bathhouse and Christian baptistery…



Being so close to Corfu I couldn´t just not go there. Ferry to Corfu from Saranda is 24 euros (a bit pricey considering that you can almost swim to the island but no competition there). Another alternative exists if you are more flexible. If you go 75 km south to Igoumenitsa in Greece, the ferry only costs 10€ to Corfu town or 6,50€ to Lefkini. So that’s what I did. 
Getting out of town, I quickly got picked up by a guy who not only took me to the other side of town (with my non existing sense of directions I was standing on the wrong side of town) and then to first village so I could hitch hike easier and safer but also didn’t let me leave the car without taking a bill of 50 euros! Didn’t help telling him that I have enough money and it is just my way of travelling…He insisted and I ended up taking it with the promise that I can return the favour one day by helping someone else on the road! Who said Albanians are dangerous!
Back in Albania. Getting on the ferry to Butrint

After a few days on Corfu I got back to Albania. Easy hitch hiking from Igoumenitsa to Butrint, nice old couple who drove me extra 20 km just to make sure I get safe to Butrint. Then a few more rides from real nice people, the obligatory coffee breaks on the road and got to Vuno and Shkolla Vuno.  I was told about this unique place by various travellers I met in Albania and definitely wanted to spent a few days there. Hidden between the olive and fig trees, next to a beautiful 200 year old church and housed in the old village school, the hostel sits back, with an amazing view over the Ionian sea, a wonderful place to get off the beaten track.  There is always a volunteer who would take care of you. And two restaurants in the village with very friendly staff and nice meals. 
Another surprise was waiting for me in Shkolla Vuno. Met Antonia, another 33 old solo female Bulgarian traveller (not many of us around, first time I meet one actually). And quite a few goats and a donkey :))

  
 
Had a group discussion about the donkey/horse evolution and Antonia was playing the teacher
Gjepe beach - my favourite one in Albania
Near Vuno is the best beach in my opinion in Albania - Gjepe beach. It is a 20-30 min walk down from the road (Shkolla Vuno provides transport to it every morning but if you are not a morning person like me, you can easily hitch a ride, not more than 5 min guaranteed). The beach is simply amazing with its canyon behind!

Another thing that surprised me in Albania was that they nod head for yes and shake head for no. Just like us! I always thought Bulgaria was the only country in the world doing it the opposite way. good to know we are not alone!




 

 

33-year olds encounter
Gjepe beach
Gjepe beach by Antonia
Albanian bunker by Antonia
More than 40 years of communist rule under the dictator Enver Hoxha, followed by a ruinous period of extreme capitalism in the mid-90s, have left the country struggling to find its feet in the new millennium. 


The bunkers were built as part of a parnoid government initative last century when Albania seemed to believe it was more likely than the USSR and the USA to be destroyed by nuclear bombs!


The main beach in Dhermi

Another must visit place is the Sea Turtle camp site in Drymandes beach (Dhermi). This great little set-up is run by two brothers. Each summer they turn the family orange orchard into a vibrant tent city, and the price includes the tent (with mattresses, sheets and pillows), breakfast and a family-cooked dinner (served up in true camp style). Hot showers are under the shade of old fig trees, or it's a short walk to the beach. Make sure you reserve your tent in advance because it is always full.



 
Stones get really hot after lunch


 
And us, happy happy at Drymandes beach. Private beach, private bar, Mojitos and sunset!
Most of the beaches at Dhermi (Drymandes) are stony but if go to end of it on the right (looking towards the sea), you get to the rocks and then you can find plenty of tiny isolated sand beaches. Just when you think that you have just found you perfect spot, you go and look behind the next rock and another private beach, even more beautiful is waiting for you there...Mountains rise up just behind the beach, huddling together to increase my privacy


 
Still searching for the perfect spot..Apparently it is just behind this rock
 
And here it is...
Some Albanians even bring their suitcases to camp :))
The crowd here was laid back, and friendly as everywhere else in Albania. Mostly Albanians or Kosovars, all young, also camping, ready to help with information or anything else. Ask someone on the street and, even if they cannot help, they will know someone whose second cousin definitely can. 
If hospitality and generosity were a marketable resource, Albania would be rich.

As much as I liked Albanian beaches, it was time to go. I had a flight to catch from Zagreb, Croatia in less than a month and so many other places on my way north through the Balkans to see. Headed to Skoder (almost where I started from in Albania), had a stroll around the city (not that impressive) and made my way to the border with Montenegro. Another incredible country in terms of nature and people...but much more crowded.
 
Shkoder and its lake
Another classic in Albania. Again smiling. 
Still not on top of your bucket list? Read my post about the Albanian mountains (Albanian Alps), Lake Ohrid and the Unesco heritage site Berat and it will get there :) Albanian Alps, Lake Ohrid and Berat

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