Coast of Sarande
To take the Albania trip from Corfu you must have your passports registered the day before the trip. We went with Ionian cruises and registered at Petrakis tourist agency. We paid €70 for two people for the return ferry ride. We are given instructions of where to meet and are told the we can purchase the Butrint
tour on the ferry. The meeting point is outside the port, passport control office and the time is 8.30am or 8.45am the latest as the ferry departs at 9am.
Having been given strict time related instructions I am one to follow them. We head out of the hotel at 8am and make our way to the port.
Haggling for lace
We reach the port at about 8.20am, from here we realise that the port is a huge place and trying to locate anything is pretty hard. I spot an Ionian cruises staff and approach her to ask for directions for the meeting point for the Albania tour. She points me to the far left of the port and we make our way. When we get to passport control we see that there is a queue of people waiting to get through and this queue is not moving. Now it is 8.30am and so I get nervous that we might miss the ferry. We see a whole group of tourists surpass us in the queue and we realise that we should find our guides and be lead through also. We locate another Ionian cruises staff and she leads us through passport control swiftly. On the other side we are faced with two different boats, one huge one where everyone is queuing to get one an a smaller one that is deserted.
Ours is the small deserted one. When we get on the ferry our passports are checked and here we purchase our tickets for the excursion. The price €60 for two people, this is inclusive of lunch.
As we were the first on the ferry we had first dibbs on any seat. We headed up on the top deck and sat in the front row seats in full view of the sea ahead and the brilliant sun. Even at 9am the rays are pretty lethal, I can feel it penetrating my skin. The ferry was scheduled to leave for 9am. Don't expect this to happen. We did not leave the port until around 10am-10.15am. As Ionian tours operates transfers from resorts we had to wait for all the coaches to arrive from each resort until everyone on the list had been accounted for.
New construction apartments
It surprised me to see so many people on the ferry, pretty much full and the ferry next to us were also heading for Albania also full. I just assumed that because Albania had been shut up away for so many years that tourism would be slow. Albania isn't widely advertised in Corfu even though it is so close by. If I hadn't known about it before my arrival I probably wouldn't have known about it.
An hour later we pulled into Sarande
, Albania. The approach up to the port was not what I had expected. The area is fairly built up lots of apartments towering above, buildings in various bright and cheerful colours and a Vodafone store stood right out to me.
Tight roads and big lorries
The sandy beach was full of locals sunning themselves and frolicking in the sea. There were lots of cranes in sight but overall the place was much more developed than I had expected. Not as grey and dreary as the picture I had in my head. Once the ferry docked everyone was eager to get off so hoards of bodies ran to the front of the exit. Everyone filed off the ferry in single file with passports ready, anticipating a long queue for passport control and expecting a vigorious check. There was no passport control that we had to pass through and the port guards were very relaxed, no one checked our passports, in fact no one even batted an eye lid at us or our passports. The guards just waved us through. I did feel cheated out of the experience.
Half finshed property
I expected very strict checks or at least a slight concern of the people that were entering their country. It made me sad to see that the influx of mass tourism has already started to hit Sarande. A few big travel agents operate their daily tours here and so they already have a a working system where they can get the masses through without all the fuss.
On the other side of the gate there are three tour buses waiting to be filled an English, a Francais and a Deutsche. Everyone piles on quickly early awaiting the ride to Butrint and the grand tour. We stop off first at a restaurant for a drink and toilet break, this place is facing the beach and has a beautiful view off the roof terrace. Here we exchange our euro into Albanian leke.
The ancient site of Butrint
The guide has advised us that only €10-€15 is required for the day per person. We exchange €20 for the two of us and we get roughly 2500 leke. A coke in the restaurant cost 150 leke, which is a massive rip off considering it was only 70 leke at the kiosk opposite. Four postcards and two stamps cost me 200 leke. There were several ladies on the door step of the restaurant selling lace, hand made of course and a speciality in many countries including Albania. The old ladies spoke enough english to haggle prices.
We start the 25km journey to Butrint. I expect it to be a quick journey as 25km isn't really a great distance away. As we pull off and drive through the town I see several hotels. Once of which is pointed out to us by the tour guide a being a top 5 star hotel and a casino that can rival Las Vegas.
We pass banks and post offices and shops as you would see in any town. The roads in town are fairly decent but as soon as we head out of town and onto mountain hugging roads, we see the expertise of the coach driver come into play. He manouevres around the tight bends and the narrow roads with precision and skill. We have a few incidents where we had to hold our breath and close our eyes. Our speed is hindered by the road situation as we have top stop a few times to squeeze a few trucks past. The guide spiels off some history of the town as the driver handles the roads. The guide tells us that Sarande means 40, it is believed that a monestry was built at the top of the hill and housed 40 saints that watched over the town.
The Roman baths
We pass many olive trees, the tradition of planting olive trees goes back to the time when the Venetians rules this part. The villages were paid 100 pieces of silver for every 100 olive trees that they planted. Nowadays the government gave the trees back to the locals to maintain.
Albanians that have gone to the west invest their money in development here in Sarande and along the coast as they see the money making potential in this place. This is evident in all the contruction sited that we pass. Many half constructed hotels/properties, where the top part of the building is unfinished but the ground floor is all ready and open for business, usually in the form of a cafe/restaurant. As money runs out construction stops and so the priority is always to get the ground floor finished first so that they can use it to make money.
We stop briefly at the closest point of Albania to the island of Corfu. You see the straits of Corfu on one side and a huge lake on the other side. As the distance is so close the invaders of Corfu also took this area aswell and ruled the straits in totality. We pass Ali Pasha castle in the distance and then shortly we arrive at the ancient site of Butrint. As we alight from the coach a couple of child vendors made a beeline for us. They are selling the usual trinkets like evil eye bracelets and shell necklaces. All €1 each, a few people buy a couple of things to get rid of them.
Remember to carry a bottle of water before going into the site, it is about 1.5hrs - 2hrs long. We enter the site and in front of us is a small tower, it is a santuary dedicate ti the healing god, Asclepius.
Beside it is the tombstones of the two archeologists that were responsible for discovering and excavating the site. There are also a few stones around that are dedicated to the few different political leaders that have also visited the site. We walk through to the Roman amphitheatre. The stage area is now modernised and secured as this stage is used regularly in the summer for performances. The original graduation of seats in the theatre all still look like the original, the seats span up pretty high like other Romans ampitheatres. On the front stage area there are some modern interpretations of the bull. The story is that he Roman emperor wrestled a bull on the ship as it was docking into the port. The bull escaped and ran into the town and survived the execution, that is why the are is Butrint, "Holy Bull.
The alter in Great Basilica
The layers of the town were built upon. The foundations that the Venetians had laid and then the Romans built extensions to those foundations. The Roman bath houses are still evident with sections for hot water and sections for the cold water. The area was formerly forest and so the moist marshy remains is still there, which helps built the mental picture of a water filled bath house. The guide is very knowledgeable about the area, some of the theories speculative. Follow him closely if you want the full history breakdown of each attraction. More difficult is getting a picture of the site without it being spoiled by 100 tourists in the background. We pass the Agora/Forum, the commercial heart of the city.
The Great Basilica
The converted chruch, the baptistery with a mosaic floor and the Great Basilica. The Great Basilica is a grand structure, tall columns, a raised alter and original stone blocks that still have the sign of the crucifix. The lake gates face the open waters and so the gate is built narrowly, to prevent a mass invasion of soldiers passing through at once. The stairway also built narrowly, steeply and in a zig zagging style to prevent horsemen from ascending. The Lion gate has a picture of a lion devouring a bull engraved into the head stone of the gate. The pointed out that this was adapted and speculated that the message to invaders would be like the fate of the bull if they invaded i.e. death. The Venetian castle and the tower is at the end of the tour.
A fair bit of walking is required up lots of stairs but the views winding round as you ascend upwards is stunning over the water to Corfu.
You have a brief break at the top to enjoy the views and to take photos before the descent begins. The descent back down is easier to walk but you do have to mind your step as the stairs are a little steep and long. It is a good idea to apply some bug spray on your arms and legs. I was bitten a fair few times on my legs without realising it. As you have to walk past a lot of trees and moist marshy patches it is best to take precautions against insects.
As we leave we are again bombarded with kids selling trinkets and jewellery. We head back on the bus and the journey back begins.
The roads are just as hard to negotiate as the journey here. We arrive back to the restaurant at about 3pm. Lunch is a buffet selection. Nothing special, no Albanian specialities, no frills. We have some free time to explore before we have to catch the ferry back. We head to the beach to walk off our lunch. The beach is booming with young kids and adults. There is a bar at the centre of the sandy bay and loud commercial music is booming out of its speakers. The beach is complete with a promenade of souvenir vendors, ice cream parlours and a tourist information centre. This place has already been bitten by the tourist bug!
We are approached a few times by old men offering their rooms for rent, this is popular in Croatia and now looks like Albania had adopted the same approach.
The Lion gate
This place is worth seeing especially since it is so easily accessible form Corfu. Sarande and Butrint has only whet my appetite for Albania, I would love to see more of it and learn more about the history and the people.