A Weekend in Albania

The Port of Saranda
The Port of Saranda

One of the beautiful things about Europe is how close everything is to each other. When I started looking into Corfu, I discovered that one of the suggested activities is to take a day trip to Albania to see Saranda (also spelled Sarandë) and the ancient ruins of Butrint. I found the idea of going to Albania very intriguing and after doing a little research decided to go for it. While most resources say 30 minutes on the ferry from Corfu town to Saranda, it was more like an hour and a half. Passport control and customs in Albania was surprisingly easy (of course since I was only going for the night I only had a small backpack) and entry into the country is free for U.S. citizens.

When I was on the ferry I was approached by a guy who asked if I was from the States. I confirmed that I was and he said his name was Albert and he was from Canada. He was in Albania visiting his family and was headed back to Saranda with his cousin. We chatted for a bit and when we got off the ferry, he invited me to join him and his cousin for coffee. Having no real plans, I joined them. While having coffee at a lovely cafe overlooking the bay, we were joined by a second cousin who came to pick them up. With Albert acting as an interpreter (they spoke very very little English and I speak zero Albanian), we made plans to head up to Lekursi Castle. This castle is now a restaurant and doesn’t offer much in the way of interesting history – but it does provide a great view of Saranda.

The main aisle of the Great Basilica at Butrint
The main aisle of the Great Basilica at Butrint

After the castle, I said I was going to try to head out to Butrint to see the ruins and everything there. Albert was planning to visit an uncle in another city about an hour away and Butrint was on the way so they would just take me if I wanted. Butrint is an ancient Greek city first founded around the 10th-8th century BC, but really built up by the Roman Emperor Augustus  in 44 BC. Before that it had been a small settlement, but the Romans added a large basilica and baptistery. After the fall of Rome, Butrint fell into the possession briefly of the First Bulgarian Empire before reverting back to the Byzantine Empire in the 9th century AD. It was purchased along with Corfu by the Venetians in 1386. However, they were more interested in Corfu and didn’t pay Butrint much attention except to protect the fisheries. The area changed hands a few more times, including the French and the Ottomans before being conquered by the Ottoman governor Ali Pasha in 1799 and becoming part of the Republic of Albania upon their independence in 1912. However, by this time most of the site was abandoned and totally decrepit.

The ruins are quite impressive, especially of the theater, the baptistery and the basilica. Remains of the walls and the gates that protected the city can also been seen. The site overlooks the Vivari Channel, itself a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance. Butrint is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The captured American "spy plane" overlooks the city of Gjirokaster
The captured American “spy plane” overlooks the city of Gjirokaster

Offering to let me continue to tag along with them, we headed to Gjirokastër to meet with Albert’s uncle. While they caught up, his cousin and I had lunch and then went to check out the castle. Gjirokastër Castle is the second largest castle in the Balkans. Although the castle has existed in some form since before the 12th century AD, it wasn’t until Ali Pasha expanded it and added to it in the early 19th century that it attained its true majesty. From the castle, there are amazing views of the city, the surrounding mountains and the river valley.

The old part of town is really neat, with the houses and the streets still made out of stone, earning the town the designation of “museum town” and inclusion as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The majority of these houses were built in the 17th century and showcase typical Ottoman architecture. The castle is also home to the Armaments Museum, which I didn’t go into but several of the larger items (tanks and cannons) are on display outside, including an American Air Force plane that made an emergency landing in Albania in the 1950s – earning it the title of “American spy plane.”

After that we returned to Saranda, said goodbye to my amazing hosts and I checked into my hostel. Saranda is a very seasonal town, and since it was the off-season, I was the only one at the hostel. The next morning I got up and wandered around town a little. The town has grown immensely in the last five or ten years, and therefore most of the buildings (primarily hotels) are fairly new. With that, it was time to head back across the Ionian Sea to Corfu for my last few days in Greece.


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