After my fairly good overnight bus experience I went straight to sleep at the hostel and woke up a few hours later to the smell of crêpes! Had some (free) breakfast, got the scoop about Saranda and decided on a beach day for day 1 in Albania. Hostel guests got free loungers and umbrellas at the beach club across the street so I just went there for the day. The ocean was warm, the sun was hot and I spent the whole day there reading and swimming.
In the evening I did a little writing and met another girl, Chelsea, who was doing the same and we decided to go for dinner together to get some Albanian food then called it a night.
The next morning I decided to make a day trip to Butrint archeological site and Ksamil beach. I hopped on one of the sweatiest and busiest busses of my entire life for about an hour and arrived at Butrint with my sanity hanging by a thread. But it was worth it, Butrint was beautiful and breezy. I spent a couple of hours wandering through the not too busy site (compared to the Acropolis 3 days earlier it was practically empty) and took lots of photos. The site is part archeological site and part natural reserve which makes for a bit of a wild experience. It’s part swamp, totally overgrown everywhere. I really didn’t have many expectations of Albania but this was not even close to anything I’d have thought it would be like. A part of the ruins were a mosaic tiled floor, unfortunately covered in sand for my visit but why they cover it is really interesting. For a few weeks a year it is uncovered for archeologists to do restoration work and so people can see it but the rest of the time it is covered with sand to protect it from the changing water levels in the area and the sand keeps the water from seeping in and ruining it.
Also, a little fun fact, Butrint is so close to Greece that you can get Greek cell service! So if you’ve got a EU sim you’re in luck for the day because my phone stayed on Greek service almost all the way back to Saranda!
I got back on the bus from hell and decided to stop is Ksamil for lunch and a swim. (Sidenote: I’m not sure that I’ve mentioned this at all in my blog yet, but everywhere I want was scorching hot, like 35c plus humidity on the daily. I don’t think there was a day on this trip until it (spoiler!) rained in Sarajevo, and even then it wasn’t cool enough for a sweater.) I had a classic lunch, peach iced tea and a chicken souvlaki, then walked to find the beach. Well I found the beach and it was packed with people! Also, important to know about Albania (and Montenegro), most of the beaches are private so you’ll need to rent a chair in most places. I decided that it wasn’t worth it to spend close to 8€ on a sunbed when I could just go back to the beach by my hostel and get a sunbed for free. So I hopped in for a dip to cool down and made my way back to the hell bus to finish my one hour journey back to Saranda.
In the evening I was hanging around the hostel and found a couple of new friends and my friend from the night before to go for dinner with. Funny thing, we all got so into chatting and making dinner plans that it took all the way until we were sitting down at the restaurant to realize we didn’t know eachothers names, we had a good laugh about that. We had a great and cheap dinner at one of the nicest restaurants in Saranda right on the beach. Eating out in Albania is CHEAP, we ate very well and had wine and it was definitely under 10€ per person. Afterward we decided to check out the nightlife a little bit, unfortunately it wasn’t very fun, we were VERY underdressed, and the ice cream shop we saw before dinner was closed when we walked back to the hostel! Great night with new friends though, decided to cut my trip short and make my way north to Montenegro with one of the gals I met, Emma, so the next day would be my last in Saranda.
On my third and final day in Saranda I went on another day trip, this time to Gjirokaster with Chelsea. We needed to catch a different kind of bus today, not the city bus, and boy was it an experience. We went to the place we were told to go to by our hostel and looked for a van that said Gjirokaster in the window, we found it and it was leaving soon so we hopped in to find that there wasn’t enough seats… so the driver popped up a stool to put in the aisle for one of us to sit on, luckily a kind Albanian man offered to sit on instead so we could both have seats! The drive took us through the beautiful hilly countryside and there was a little traffic jam with some horses on the road. It took about 2 hours to get there and our driver told us what time we could meet him if we wanted to come back with him instead of walking all the way down to the main bus station. The first thing we did was wander into a bunker tour without realizing it and it was super cool (literally and figuratively, it was nice and cold inside and super interesting). It was Hoxha’s cold war tunnel/bunker specifically for military and government officials that ran beneath the entirety of Gjirokaster’s castle. Next, we walked up top to the visit the castle. It was interested to see the safety standards at tourist attractions throughout the Balkan peninsula, very different from western standards, hold onto your kids because there are no guard rails! There was an interesting and well signed museum exhibit because Gjirokaster is actually an UNESCO world heritage site so they received funding for the exhibit. It was really interesting to learn about the history of the region from ancient times through to the Cold War. The castle was mostly used as a prison through the communist years and there were some pretty creepy hallways that we stumbled upon.
We had a delicious traditional Albanian lunch of qifqi (fried rice balls) and a salad that looked remarkably like a greek salad. Then we met our van and went back to Saranda to spend the rest of the afternoon at the beach! We made a mandatory stop for ice cream on the walk from the bus station to the hostel and it was just as good as it looked the night before when we walked by before dinner, and so cheap! Our two other friends from the night before, Emma and Scott, had got a great spot at the beach (one of the big fancy sunbeds with white fluttery curtains) so we joined them and drank cocktails and swam until sunset!
I was pretty happy to leave Saranda a day earlier than planned. It was a great base for a lot of cool sites but the city itself isn’t too exciting. Next, early morning bus to Tirana!