The Albanian Riviera

In southern Albania, sandwiched between the Ionian Sea and hills of olive groves, the town of Sarandë (pronounced and sometimes spelled Sa-ran-da) sits on a horseshoe-shaped bay, edged by beaches and a promenade, the Bulevardi Hasan Tahasini.  While Albania may not be the first place you would think of for a luxurious vacation, Sarandë’s friendly residents and phenomenal local cuisine (fresh off the fishing boats) makes the town a relaxing and inexpensive place to spend your holiday.

Facing west, towards the Mediterranean, Sarandë’s geography lends itself to spectacular sunsets. The climate is warm enough that Mandarin orange trees line the streets, providing a quick snack as you explore the plentiful bakeries, butchers and fruit stands.  While English isn’t always spoken by the locals, they are all exceptionally welcoming, and always happy to have visitors.

Sarandë comes from the name of the Byzantine monastery of the Agioi Saranda (Άγιοι Σαράντα), meaning “Forty Saints” in honor of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. The monastery dates back to the 6th century AD, and it is thought to have been an important regional pilgrimage site. The second floor of the monastery was destroyed during World War II’s Allied bombings.  While the monastery today is in a state of ruin, it is worth a visit, not just for its historic importance, but for the panoramic views of the town.

Nestled at the top of the hill about a 50-minute walk (or short taxi ride) from Sarandë is Lëkurësi Castle. The castle’s ruins feature imposing round towers and sweeping views, and it has been expanded with a spacious eatery. The views overlooking Sarandë and the farmland nearby, are stunning and well worth the trip. Built in 1537 by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, Lëkurësi Castle was constructed to protect the town from invaders approaching the coastline by boat.

Albania was an isolated country post World War II, and didn’t open her arms to tourists until the fall of communism in the 1990s. The country had distanced itself from neighboring nations and other communist countries, and even now you can see remnants of the communist era in the form of numerous pillbox military bunkers along the roads leading to places like The National Park of Blue Eye (Syri Kalter) with its 18 natural springs or the ruins at the Butrint UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Since its liberation from the restrictions of a communist government, Sarandë has become a popular tourist destination among Albanians and visitors from around the world, with its population swelling to over 300,000 people during the summer months.  However, in the offseason, the town settles down into a peaceful village perfect for your extended, quiet getaway. Just a short ferry ride to Croatia or Greece, Albania is an ideal base as you explore the Ionian Sea region.

Related Reading: Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey (1995) by the American-Uruguayan writer Isabel Fonseca.

 Blog post was written by and images copyright AlphaPixel Reach