Our last stop in Albania was the beach town of Saranda at the southern tip of Albania. We chose Saranda somewhat because we wanted to get in some beach time at Albania’s supposedly beautiful beaches, but mostly because we wanted to see the ancient site of Butrint.
Getting to Saranda from Gjirokaster was pretty easy. We did have to hike back down the large hill, but once we made it back to the bus stop there was a furgon waiting to go to Saranda.
Where We Stayed
SR Backpackers – We had read about the legendary hospitality of Tomi, the owner of the hostel, and we were happy to say that the legends were true! Tomi was an excellent host. He welcomed us with watermelon, cooked up a nice breakfast every day, and hosted a beach barbecue for all of the guests one night. He even was kind enough to show up at the bus stop early on our last morning to make sure we caught the bus out of town smoothly. The hostel itself was a basic hostel with different dorm rooms. We stayed in a four-bed room with one other guest.
What We Did
Butrint – This archaeological site has a fascinating history: it has been the location of Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman settlements. Old structures from all of these are scattered throughout this small park located on a peninsula in a lagoon off the Straits of Corfu. There were very few other people visiting on the day we went, so most of the sights we had to ourselves! Getting to the site from Saranda was easy – a city bus leaves every 30 minutes or so and takes you straight there.
The first major area was the site of a Greek shrine to Asclepius, a god of healing – springs on Butrint were thought to have healing powers. This site was eventually expanded to include a theater, the ruins of which still exist today. The theater remained under Roman rule. The area around was converted into a classic Roman village with hot baths and a forum.
We walked past the ruins of some ancient Roman villas, where some of the rich citizens would have lived. Butrint thrived during the Roman period and greatly expanded in size from the Greek period. There even was a suburb across the channel from Butrint, and a large aqueduct bringing water into the city.
As the Roman Empire transitioned to become Christian, Butrint began to have some Christian architecture built. We saw the remains of a 6th century baptistery. There was supposedly a grand mosaic on the floor, but it is currently covered in sand to protect it from the elements. We also encountered the remains of a large basilica as well, built in a style similar to many cathedrals.
Looping around the east side of the site, we came upon one of the massive walls surrounding the city. It was interesting because you could see where it was originally built during Greek times, then during Roman times and finally during the medieval period. We walked through one of the main gates, called the Lion’s Gate since it depicts a lion devouring a bull’s head.
We walked up to the top of the hill, which has been the center of the settlement throughout. It was the Greek acropolis at first. Later during the medieval period, battlements were built around it to protect from invaders. Today, there is a tower that is a 20th century reconstruction. From up on the hill, you can also see the Venetian fortifications (a tower and the Triangular Fortress) guarding the channel, and a palace built by the Ottoman Ali Pasha.
There is also a small museum that goes through the history of the site and includes many of the original artifacts found there. There is also a small sculpture garden. Unfortunately, you aren’t allowed to take pictures inside.
On the bus ride back to Saranda, we considered stopping at the beaches of Ksamil, which are supposed to be very pretty, but we decided to skip them since it was somewhat late in the day.
Explore Saranda Beach – We did spend a little bit of time on the Saranda beach. We strolled up and down the promenade a few times and admired the views. We also went swimming one afternoon. Low season had already started in Saranda, so we had the whole beach to ourselves. It is a pebble beach, but the water is nice and clear.
“Celebrate” Albania’s “Victory” Over Serbia in Soccer – Our last night in Saranda turned out to be the same night as the Albania-Serbia soccer match. We didn’t watch it but could hear cheering from the bar below the hostel. Then, at one point there were very loud cheers. We thought it must be for a goal, but we discovered that it was actually due to a crazy series of events involving a drone carrying a “Greater Albania” flag into the stadium during the game, a Serbian player tearing it down, Albanian players taking offense, and Serbian fans rushing the field. After the game was called off, we could hear many fireworks being set off throughout the city, and car horns honking. Luckily they quieted down after 11 or so.
Where We Ate
We ate at two restaurants on the promenade. Both were good but neither was particularly memorable. We did enjoy a savory crepe we got from a creperie just below the hostel one night.
Saranda was a nice town to visit, but we decided it wasn’t our favorite in Albania. We did really enjoy Butrint and Tomi’s hospitality though!