Albania - where to begin. 

190820 4 Approaching Sarande

Our first view of Sarande - no prizes for architectural uniqueness

190820 4a Sign saids it all Friendly in Albania starting with the sign

Albania lies on the Balkan Peninsula in South East Europe. Its small coastline of just 362km or 195nm that faces the Adriatic Sea in the Northwest and the Ionian sea in the southwest. It is bordered by four countries. Montenegro in the north, Serbia (Kosovo) in north east, the Republic of Macedonia in east, and Greece in south east. Over the centuries the country and its people have had to adapt to political, religious, educational and economic challenges. The most significant in recent history being the end of the communist rule in the early 1990s. 

190821 2 Cathy working the plank

Sarande Albania, our port of entry, lies just 15nm from Corfu Greece - literally across the bay. Today there is a constant ferry service that runs between Sarande and Corfu transporting both Albanians and tourists from afar. Around Sarande are many beautiful beaches which we were informed the Northern Europeans have been coming to for years. So it was a little bit of a surprise to us when we arrived in Sarande to find the foreshore just like any other European swimming area in summer, packed with people, restaurants and music broadcasting. Definitely not the image we all had in mind. 

From the moment we squeezed Katherine into her space on the customs dock we were warmly welcomed and the assistance offered just didn’t stop. The one thing we have come to notice in this country is that everyone is happy to help - and no - that doesn’t always involve paying for the help. There has been for us a genuine interest in what we are doing and that we have come to spend time in Albania. A priority for them appears to us that we leave with good memories and experiences had in Albania. As I write this, over two weeks on and many miles of discovery later we are happy to say that our opinion hasn’t changed.

190820 2 Heading for Albania passed this traditional boat

Passing a traditional Lateen sailing boat 

190820 10 Fireworks a  little too close

When crossing from Corfu to Sarande we passed a traditional looking boat sailing with a Lateen sail - triangular sail that dates back to the Roman era of navigation. We thought little of it until we were in harbour and the boat arrived to a huge welcoming committee complete with red carpet. There was music, speeches, a Sultan, traditionally dressed sailing crew and finally fireworks. The later just a little close as we watched them exploding over our mast - literally.

190821 6 Butrint National Park Chapel of the 4th Century bc dedicated to the god of Asclepius

Chapel of the 4th Century bc dedicated to the god of Asclepius

190821 7 Butrint National Park The ancient theatre of the 3rd century then arranged to the Roman style

Our first day of exploration we headed out on a local bus for the cost of 1 euro each to Butrint National Park some 20km from Sarande. Butrint was “World Heritage” listed in 1992 and the National Park encompasses some 94 square kilometres of land which according to the Unesco World Heritage site  "constitutes a very rare combination of archaeology and nature. The property is a microcosm of Mediterranean history, with occupation dating from 50 000 BC, at its earliest evidence, up to the 19th century AD"

190821 16 Butrint National Park The Great Basilica 6th century AD mosaics

Our brochure advised that the majority of the ancient city discovery was due to the work of an Italian Archaelogical team let by Luigi Ugolini who dedicated nearly 10 years to Brutint between 1928 and 1939. 

It took several hours to wander around the ancient ruins that reflected occupation from the 4th century BC. Each era of occupation had left a signature from Ancient churches, Roman forums, baths and the classic theatre to the towering remains of Churches. 

190821 18 Butrint National Park The Lions gate constructed in Medieval Period

Perhaps the only disappointment was that the Baptistery of the early 6th century was no longer covered with mosaics as was shown on the brochure and when we visited the museum held in the Fortress within the walls of Brutint there was no evidence of its presentation there. One can only hope it has been placed in safe keeping for restoration and preservation. 

Without a doubt this is one of the largest historical sites that we have had the opportunity to visit. It was as it has been incredibly hot but wandering amongst the ruins we were thankful we were almost always in the shade of trees. We all agreed it had been worth the effort to visit but were equally in agreement that a return to the boat and a swim was much needed. 

(The Lions Gate: 4th Century BC.) 

190821 14 Butrint National Park Nature as art

Looking out from Butrint to the lake area

190822 1 Fuel Truck no tanks here (1)

Sarande and in fact Albania is not yet fully set up for the cruiser. The only officially operating “marina" is run by Italians and based in Orikum located between Durres in the North and Sarande in the south. It caters for 70 boats but only to a depth of 2.5m a little too shallow for us. But despite this the Albanians within the boating industry ensure that where services are needed they are provided. We were able to refuel at the “Fuel Dock” as other boats did in Sarande with a fuel truck. The size of the boat obviously directly affected the size of the fuel truck and there were some mighty big fuel trucks coming and going. Given the fuel was not tax exempt pricing was still reasonable at 1.40 euro per litre. 

190823 4 Walking Gjirokaster the wealthier houses picked by the number of chimneys

Gjirokaster - Houses from the Ottoman era perched along the hillside

190823 1a Walking Gjirokaster there beautiful pavement being replaced

After a day in Sarande on anchor discovering the towns services and enjoying swimming off the back of Katherine in the huge harbour we headed out to Gjirokaster with our trusty taxi driver LLia. Gjirokaster is 60km from Sarande and is another Unesco Heritage listed village recognised for its well preserved Ottoman village and slate roofed houses. We had organised to do a walking tour and our guide Manjola spoke excellent English and gave us a tour beyond our expectations. 

190823 7 Walking Gjirokaster

The cobblestone streets of the old town are currently being torn up as “modern connections” are established to the old town buildings but it is hoped by the residents that the pathways will on completion of work be returned to their former glory. Despite the construction it was still very easy to appreciate the beauty of this town and its buildings dating back to a period of rule that lasted from 1417 - 1913. 

190823 11 Walking Gjirokaster The Castle 12th century

Gjirokaster Castle 

190823 16 Walking Gjirokaster The Castle 12th century

We started our tour in the grounds of Gjirokaster Castle. Perched on the highest point above the town it began construction around the 12th and 13th century. During the Ottoman Period many additions were made particularly during the period of Ali Pasha of Telepina who oversaw the construction of a clock tower and the development of an acquaduct to bring water from 10km away. Following Ali Pashas death the fort fell into ruin until it was used as a prison from 1930 - 1960. Today the prison area is used as a the National Museum of Armaments.  

Every four years a national folk festival is held in the grounds of the fortress to celebrate Albanian Folklore. The next Festival is to be held in 2020, given that it is considered one of the most important cultural events in Albania where traditional music, dance and dress is presented it would be an event not to be missed if you were fortunate enough to be visiting Albania at that time. 

190823 19 Walking Gjirokaster Stopping for coffee with Manjolas family

(Left: We suspect not the original clock tower)

A morning tea stop was provided courtesy of Manjola’s mum in their home where tea from local herbs was boiled and coffee beans were ground and roasted in the traditional way that they still do today. The tea was refreshing and the coffee had enough punch to keep us going for hours. Despite the language barrier Manjola’s father was keen to extract as much information as he could about Australia and continued to apologise that the media did not allow him the opportunity to know anything about Australia. We could have also apologised as prior to deciding to come to Albania our personal knowledge was next to none. 

190823 28 Walking Gjirokaster Skenduli House 1700s (1)

The Skenduli House 

190823 24 Walking Gjirokaster Ethnographic Museum190823 5 Walking Gjirokaster the wealthier houses picked by the number of chimneys

The final official tour saw us visit both the Ethnographic Museum and the Skenduli House. 

The Ethnographic Museum was built to replicate a typical Ottoman House in 1960. It was built on the site of the house that belonged to Enver Hoxha (the dictator) but that had burnt down. It was modelled on the houses that existed at that time around the city.

The Skenduli house in contrast was built in in the 1700’s and had remained within the family since its construction with the exception of the period in which communism ruled. Today it is back in the hands of the family and they have opened it to the public in an effort to use the funds to assist in the maintenance of the building. 

(Looking out over the slate roofs of the Ottoman Houses)

Blue Eye Waterhole

190823 34 Blue Eye

On our way back to Sarande we stopped off at the Blue Eye - a popular tourist attraction though the condition of the road would have made you think otherwise. 

Blue Eye is a natural spring that is over 50 meters deep and is the source of the river Bistrice that flows 25km into the Ionian Sea south of Sarande.

At a constant temperature of 10 degrees it is not the faint hearted that ignore the no swimming signs and dive into its depths. 

190824 Heading out for dinner Sarande Lee Cathy Jim and Andrew

A final dinner out together in Sarande

190825 1b Cathy and Jims early morning transport back to Greece

After a lovely dinner out in Sarande with Jim and Cathy it was time for them to start their journey home. 

Leaving Albania was going to be an experience in itself we all agreed as they boarded a “Fast Ferry” in the early hours of the morning of the 25th for Corfu Greece. 

Jim advised on their safe arrival that not only did it look like something out of the movies it also listed to Port (Left) but it got them across the channel safely and on time. Several flights and many hours later they were home in Houston Texas with stories to share. 

For us it was time to continue on - exploring a little more of Albania further north. 

(Click for more photos)

© SV Katherine 2018      Cover Photo: Katherine on Anchor Isle Tabarca Spain