I’d have been really annoyed with myself if I’d been in Corfu and not known I could cross the Ionian Strait to Saranda, Albania. As it was, Corfu was a transit point, and Saranda our destination.
A seaside town, Saranda gets its name from the local Byzantine monastery of the Agioi Saranda, which translates from the Greek as Forty Saints, a hat tip to the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. It’s had all sorts of name changes under its various rulers, perhaps most interestingly when Italy’s Benito Mussolini changed it to Porto Edda after his oldest daughter. Part of the Albanian Riviera, the town lies in a horseshoe bay flanked by the Gormarti and Berdeneshi Hills.
Construction is really taking off, with the telltale signs of real estate investment evident in the hundreds of newbuilds on their way up. Property prices rose more than 30% last year and they heading up again this year. If you’re interested, Péter at We Love Saranda is in the business and a fount of knowledge on all things real estate in town.
Looking at it from the harbour, it didn’t make my heart lift with joy at the sight of it. The promenade is lined with cafés, bars, and souvenir shops. Artists and sculptors and woodturners ply their craft. It’s where the beautiful people hang out. It was busy. July and August? I’d imagine it would be mobbed.
Lit up at night, it’s a bustle of activity as locals and tourists alike take their evening walks. Just one street up the steps, though, there’s a parallel universe, one inhabited by locals hanging out, drinking coffee, catching up on what’s going on in the world. A completely different pace. Much less frenzied.
But it isn’t the sounds or the sights, not the lights or the music that sets Saranda apart. It’s not the blue waters or the fresh fish. It’s the smell.
It smells divine.
There are flowers everywhere.
We went up to what I thought was a mosque that sits on a hill overlooking the town. It’s not a mosque though, it’s the tekke of Reshat Dede Baba. A tekke or tekkije, is a Muslim, typically Turkish, monastery of dervishes [a member of a Muslim (specifically Sufi) religious order who has taken vows of poverty and austerity.]
There, the flowers were in full bloom and the smells were positively orgasmic. We got a heady scent of heaven. Taking photos, I wished that some supertekkie had invented a scratch-and-sniff way of taking photos. We can capture images and sounds but smells? That still defeats us.
We didn’t get to see inside, as it wasn’t open. But if you’re interested, click here and scroll to the bottom for a short video.
Apart from churches and mosques and synagogues, I’m drawn to boats. This attraction is a little odd as I’m not that comfortable in or on the water. But I love to look at boats. Particularly old fishing boats. The ones that smell of salt and fish and sweat, their hulls a palette of dull colours faded by the seas. I find the activity in a harbour strangely soothing. The old port of Saranda didn’t disappoint.
The sixteenth-century Lekursi Castle is one of the town’s must-sees. And if castles ain’t your thing, then the uphill climb is worth it for the view across the water of Corfu. Built by Suleiman the Magnificent so that he could control the harbour when he attacked Corfu, it was once home to a 200-strong garrison whose sole mission was to defend against the Venetians. It was raided by Ali Pasha of Tepelena (aka the Lion of Ioannina and the Balkan Napoleon) in the eighteenth century and from 1878, was left pretty much to its own devices.
Today there’s a restaurant with stunning views that showcases Albanian food and music.
Touristy? Yes. Worth it? I can only speak for the scenery.
Our two best options to get to Albania’s southern coast were to fly into the capital Tirana and then drive for 4+ hours or fly into Corfu and take the ferry across. I wanted this trip to be all about the south and rather than confuse issues by trying to fit in the capital city as well, we went the Corfu route.
Ferries go from the international ferry terminal. We travelled over with Finikas – €25 for the fast ferry, a hovercraft-type deal. We came back with Ionian – €15 for the slower, more comfortable ferry that cost about 20 minutes extra in transit time and gives you space to walk about and go on deck. Remember, Albania is not yet in the EU so Irish passport cards, good for the EU member countries like Greece, won’t work.
Where to stay
We stayed in the White Donkey apartments – a spacious two-bedroom with a lovely terrace looking towards the sea. It’s within minutes of a pebble beach with sunbeds and palmbrellas. And there’s a lovely café-cum-art gallery next door – Vënçe Art Bar Café. It’s a local neighbourhood with supermarkets, bars, restaurants, and cafés. Run by Hungarians, it was a little surreal to have my pitiful Hungarian understood in Albania.
Where to eat
We were fortunate to have knowledgeable local guides in the form of Péter and Ilcsi from We Love Saranda. There’s something special about going to local spots with local people who’d normally eat in these places anyway. Guidebooks and TripAdvisor are all well and good, but local knowledge is where it’s at.
Beach Bar Restorant Shark is run by Lorenzo and his family. We ordered sea bass and he popped on his scooter and went down to the harbour to buy it – it doesn’t get much fresher.
On the same beach, opposite Shark is the Sunset Café run by Enis and his parents. They were getting ready to open for the season so only had breakfasts and drinks – but at €5 for eggs, juice, coffee, and toast, with a view to die for and friendly conversation, it’s a must.
Down by the old fishing harbour, alive with smells and colours, is Taverna Peshtakari. The food comes as it’s ready. There’s no point in waiting for it all to arrive together – it’s fresh. From sea to table. And the chips! That mix of wild oregano and sea salt on REAL potatoes … delicious. Albanian fish soup isn’t a chowder and it isn’t like Hungarian halászlé either. It’s a taste all of its own.
A weekend brunch favourite is tashquebab with pilaf – for all the world like a beef stew. Very filling. It’ll set you up for the day. We tried it at Taverna e Shefit, within spitting distance of Hilary.
If it’s meat-meat you’re after, then look no further than Taverna Bituni. Péter rang ahead and ordered lamb cutlets, which were served up freshly grilled with a big Greek salad, oregano fries, and tzatziki. It’s in the heart of the town down some steps. Had I been on my own, I’d have kept walking. But this unassuming place with the grinning chef/owner it’s THE place in Saranda to go for meat. Pork. Chicken. Lamb. They do it all; simple and delicious. And get a side order of the round Albanian bread – kulac – served up with their own olive oil. My best advice? Go there hungry.
Saranda’s waterside bars, cafés, restaurants, and clubs are a hive of youthful energy. You can be as lively or as retiring as you like. I’ve grown out of my beach bar days but can still appreciate the scene. For others. For me, I was more interested in the cemeteries, the mosques and churches, the abandoned villages, how expats are making a go of life in Albania, and how locals are doing things differently. Cue: We Love Saranda.
For next time