Saranda, Albania and Butrint Archaeological Site

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.

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The kitchen. Lots of notes showing love for Tomi

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Barbecue dinner on the beach

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.

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The theater

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Writing in Greek on the walls that showed many people officially freeing their slaves!

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The area of the shrine

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.

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Ruins of a great villa

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.

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The large rocks on the bottom were Greek, the slightly smaller blocks on top of those were Roman restorations, the small blocks above came even later!

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Lion Gate

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.

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Venetian top of the fortress

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You can see the later fortress out there

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.

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At sunset

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“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.

Final Thoughts

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!

Gjirokaster, Albania

We traveled to Gjirokaster from Berat via furgon. Unlike Tirana, there is an actual bus station in Berat. We took a Berat city bus to the bus station and then were able to take a furgon that left Berat at 2 pm. The ride was long because of bad roads and mountain passes, but we passed through some beautiful scenery.

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We arrived in the newer part of town of Gjirokaster around 6. There is not really a bus station, but all the furgons arrive at and leave from the same gas station on the main road.

Where We Stayed

Babameto House – We were asked whether we wanted a taxi when we got off the bus, but we elected to walk to our accommodation. It was a looong walk up a steep hill (into the Old Town part). There were times on the walk where we wished that we had taken that taxi. Babameto House is actually an old and wonderful Ottoman-style house. It has several dorm rooms and beautiful Turkish-style lounge rooms. We were lucky because we paid for a dorm but instead got a large 3 bed room all to ourselves. The only downside was that the walls were quite thin and there were barking dogs that kept us up both nights. =/

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Babameto House

 

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Our room. Notice the Ottoman style screens

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Common seating area

What We Did

Gjirokaster Castle –  Our accommodation was actually located very near to the castle, which is situated atop the hill and is a semi-large fortress. In contrast to the Berat castle, no one lives within its walls anymore. It offered sweeping views of the valley, an eerie collection of old tanks from WWII, and even a tomb of Bektashi, the founder of the Bektashi sect. It also had an old US Air Force jet that was shot down during communism that was just there, ready to play on. It was nice to spend time in the castle where we didn’t see a lot of other tourists. There was also a museum of more old armory which we did not choose to visit.

 

Walk around the Old Town – There is a small Old Town with a special market-y area called the “Neck of the Bazaar” which we enjoyed walking through. We also had received a map of the town from our hostel which had a couple of sites to see. The map didn’t have a lot of information other than the names of the sties, but we enjoyed walking around and trying to find them. The Old Town area is built into the side of the hill, so it was fun to feel like you were walking on top of the houses down the hill. The roofs of the houses were also very interesting: many were made of thick stone shingles.

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Distinctive Stone Roofs

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Some monument… We weren’t really sure to what

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Walking around

Where We Ate

Kujtimi – This restaurant was recommended by both Lonely Planet and the woman at our hostel so we knew we had to try it. Like much of the food that we have had in Albania it was plentiful, yummy, and very affordable!

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Berat, Albania

Getting to Berat from Tirana was not as hard as we feared. Our hostel in Tirana gave us a map with information about where the minibuses (furgons) for Berat left. There is no main bus station in Tirana. The bad part was that the day we left was miserable and rainy. It was quite funny, actually, we moved slowly in the morning and were planning to leave right at the checkout time of 11. We were a few minutes late, pulled our bags on, and started to head out the door. At that moment, the sky opened up and it started pouring. We decided to stay in the hostel for awhile to miss the downpour. We waited for almost 2 hours… then decided to set out anyway. After a 30 min walk in the rain, we were pretty grouchy. But luckily, the furgon to Berat was not hard to find. We did have to wait for awhile, as the furgons don’t really leave until they are full. But we made it to Berat by late afternoon. We were lucky to have GPS and the google map preloaded on our phones because, again, we didn’t get dropped off where we expected and had to find our way to our hostel. Luckily, by then, the rain had stopped!

Where We Stayed

Ana’s Rest House – We had spent a long time deciding whether to stay at the highly rated backpacker’s hostel or Ana’s, which was right across the street. We are happy with our decision. The guesthouse was quite new and comfortable. The bed was large and lovely. We also lucked out with the new worker there. He was a native of Berat and was starting a burgeoning tour business. He was around all the time and we really enjoyed a lot of discussions with him from everything from books, to American politics, to Albanian history.

What We Did

We stayed in Berat for 4 days but feel like we didn’t do a ton.

Ethnographic Museum – This was similar to something we did in Mostar, Bosnia. It was an old, Ottoman style Albanian house which had a small museum dedicated to arts in crafts in the area. The upstairs was a preserved living area from Ottoman times. It was fun to see the plush carpets and couches. It was also interesting to see and learn about the hidden rooms that women stayed in when guests were present that had small screens so they could watch what the men were doing. Unfortunately, pictures were not allowed inside the museum.

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The Ethnographic Museum from the outside

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The grounds of the museum

It was similar to some of what we saw in Mostar. The pictures below are from Mostar, not Berat.

 

Walking Tour – The worker at our hostel was starting a walking tour business. It was not free, but seemed like a reasonable price. It ended up being a tour with just us and one other couple from Belgium (who we really enjoyed meeting and chatting with). It was really nice to have such a small tour because it became very personalized. Both Della and the guy in the Belgium couple were teachers, so we asked if we could see a school. Our guide quickly took us in and chatted with the director and we were able to quickly visit a classroom. We chatted about a lot of different things, learned a lot about the history of Berat, and enjoyed walking through the medieval center, entering a mosque and a Sufi Tekke, and hiking up to the castle where people have been continuously living for thousands of years. Our guide then took us for traditional Turkish Coffee and to his favorite restaurant in Berat.

Some of the things that we were fascinated to learn were that Albania has a long history of religious tolerance and has really never had any violence related to religion at all. Our guide showed us many examples of people of different religions supporting the beliefs of others. Some examples were the Muslims of Berat sheltering hundreds of Jews during WWII and including Stars of David in their Mosques as a way to respect them. He also talked about how during communism, most churches were destroyed. Many mosques were left because, once the minaret was torn down, the building could be reused for something else. He talked about some of the communities of Muslims coming together after communism and helping raise money to assist the Christian or Orthodox communities in building new places of worship.

We also learned about how much Albanians love the USA. This was surprising given how many countries don’t love Americans. The Albanians love us!  We had first heard about this in Tirana but it was confirmed here. Our guide explained that it stems from Woodrow Wilson making sure that Albania stayed a country back at the beginning of the 1900s and was confirmed with the US assistance in Kosovo and President George W. Bush’s visit earlier this century.

 

Visiting a School – Once our guide/hostel worker found out that Della was a teacher he expressed his deep interest in teaching as well. He also was adamant that Della have a chance to see Albanian schools in action. Not knowing what to expect, we said that might be cool. He called a friend, a Peace Corps volunteer from Maryland, who worked in an alternative high school in Berat. This opened the door for us to spend the morning with the Peach Corps volunteer discussing his job and then an hour in his classroom where he works with a partner Albanian teacher to teach English to the students, the equivalent of seniors in the US. It was a unique experience that we quite enjoyed. We felt quite bad thinking that the school went out of their way for us. We found out that even though they are about a month into their school year, they are still working on getting their schedule in order, due to shifting teachers, who may or may not work at other locations in the area at the same time. So, the schedule for any given day comes out the prior day and can shift at the last minute. For this reason, our Peace Corps volunteer explained, the class we saw was not completely typical. There were about 20-25 students crammed into a small room and the class was a bit shorter than expected. There were things that were different that Della sees at home and a lot of things the same. Mainly, the room was very small and there was no technology. We also were told that the books hadn’t come in yet, so only a few students had them. We found out later that the class was combined so was twice as big as normal. We were really fortunate to be able to experience this!

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A hallway decoration

Where We Ate

Hotel Mangalemi – This very pleasant restaurant is attached to a Hotel. We liked it so much we went back twice. The second time we were able to sit on a lovely patio. The excitement of the evening came when a man and his two grandkids (??) came up to the patio where we were eating and proceeded to shoot off several fireworks, just for fun as far as we could tell.

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Final Thoughts

We really enjoyed our time in Berat, in large part to the excellent connections we made. We were so fortunate to meet several other travelers while we there that we really enjoyed chatting and hanging out with. We were even luckier to be able to connect with our hostel worker, who was an Albanian native who loved to talk. We hung out with people every day and almost every evening, learning a lot, and enjoying the ambiance. We even were able to hangout with the travelers who were staying at the backpackers across the road as well. Berat was a charming town with some beautiful scenery, but what made us love it was the people we met.

Tirana, Albania

After slowing down in in Kotor, we headed off to a new country: Albania. We had read that Albania would be a little bit more rustic to travel through, but would also offer up plenty of amazing sights.

Getting to Tirana from Kotor

We intended for our first stop in Albania to be the capital city of Tirana. It isn’t that far from Kotor, but is surprisingly hard to get to. Two hostels in Kotor offer private shuttles direct to Tirana, but they didn’t have enough people going on the day we wanted to head out, so we decided just to use public transit.

Our plan followed a trip report laid out by another backpacker: a bus from Kotor to Ulcinj in Montenegro, then a bus across the border to Shkodra, then a bus from Shkodra to Tirana. We made sure to confirm the time for the Kotor to Ulcinj bus a day in advance and were feeling pretty confident.

The first leg went smoothly, and we enjoyed watching the scenery of the Montenegro coast as we made our way to Ulcinj. But, when we got to Ulcinj the station seemed a little too quiet. Immediately when we got off the bus, a taxi driver tried to tell us in broken English that there were no buses running to Shkodra this day. We didn’t trust him, so we went into the terminal and the lady at the counter said the same thing – she explained it was due to a Muslim holiday of some kind. Of course, he was offering to drive us for 40 euros. We didn’t know of any place to stay in Ulcinj so we just decided to do it (although we did get him to agree to 35). He seemed to say thank you to the lady at the counter as he walked out, so we aren’t sure if she was in on something sneaky.

One other guy got in the cab to Shkodra, but he also didn’t speak English well so we didn’t communicate much. We crossed over the border without issues and made it to Shkodra. The taxi driver let the other guy out on the outskirts of town… and didn’t make him pay! So we were stuck with the full fare ourselves. He dropped us off at a random street corner that he said was a place where minibuses to Tirana would come by (there are no official bus stations in most of Albania). He indicated with hand gestures that one might not be coming for a long time, then drove away.

There was a driver of a minibus headed somewhere else who communicated to us that he didn’t know when the next one was coming, but he could figure out how to get us there for 40 euro. That seemed way too high, so we declined. We waited for a little while and nothing came by, so then we just decided to forget getting to Tirana and stay the night in Shkodra. We walked down the street, getting plenty of stares with our big bags.

Then, all of the sudden we saw a minibus with “Tirana” written in the window. So they were running after all!  Then Eric remembered that he had read that one corner was a place where minibuses might come, and we walked there. Sure enough, there was one that was Tirana-bound that we hopped right on.  We only had to pay four euro a person, so a much better deal. The ride wasn’t very comfortable – think more like the collectivos of Guatemala – but we made it to Tirana in good time.

The last hitch in the plan was that the minibus dropped us off on the outskirts of town. We didn’t have directions to our hostel from this location, but using Google Maps we were able to navigate our way there. It was a long, frustrating day of travel, but we were glad we ultimately made it!

Where We Stayed

Tirana has a surprising number of highly-rated hostels. We chose the Tirana Backpacker Hostel and were happy with our choice. We stayed in a dorm room but ended up not having to share it with anyone. We enjoyed hanging out in the bar in the backyard garden.

Enjoying a byrek (pastry filled with cheese, etc.) in the garden bar

Enjoying a byrek (pastry filled with cheese, etc.) in the garden bar

Our dorm room

Our dorm room

What We Did

National History Museum – We spent a few hours in this large museum housed in an impressive Communist-era building on Skanderbeg Square. Albania has quite a rich history which they attempted to cover through many different rooms. Some of the more interesting exhibits iwere:

  • The Illyrians – Present-day Albanian was inhabited by these people during the classical era. The Albanian people say they are the descendents of these people.
  • Roman Empire – Albania was incorporated into the Roman Empire as part of its expansion. When the empire split into two halves, Albania remained in the eastern Byzantine half. The current Albanian flag uses the double-headed eagle that was a symbol of the Byzantine Empire.
  • Ottoman Empire – After a variety of different kingdoms occupied the area, it eventually passed to Ottoman rule. However, this didn’t happen without a fight: a famous general named Skanderbeg fought and won a large number of battle against the Ottomans. He remains a national hero to this day, and statues of him can be found all over the globe wherever an Albanian population can be found. The Ottoman influence explains why the largest religion in Albania is Islam (although the majority of the country is still non-religious, since the Communist government banned religions).
  • The First Albanian Nation – Albania had always been a land ruled over by other people, but in 1912 an independence movement finally suceeded in creating a new nation. Unfortunately, World War I caused the young nation to collapse. They tried again after the war, but then the nation fell apart again when invaded by Italy during World War II.

We wanted to learn more about the post-World War II communist era, but that section of the museum (along with a few other sections) was closed for renovation, which we were pretty bummed about.

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The communist-era mural on the exterior of the museum. There was also a job fair going on in the large building this same day.

Tirana Free Walking Tour – We were excited when we discovered that Tirana had a free walking tour like so many of the other cities we have visited. Our guide Gazi showed us around all of the major sites within Tirana’s very walkable downtown core. He also did a good job describing the communist era, which we appreciated since the museum was missing that section!

The tour started in Skanderbeg Square, named after the famous leader who fought the Ottomans. Just getting to the square is an experience in itself: it is surround by 4 lanes of traffic on all sides, and there are no traffic signals to help pedestrians. We decided to walk and go with a group of locals once they were ready. The Square does have a number of interesting features besides the traffic. There is the aforementioned National History Museum, an Opera House, a mosque, a clock tower and some Italian influenced government buildings from the 1920s.

The statue of Skanderbeg in the middle of the square. The Italian-inspired government buildings are in the background.

The statue of Skanderbeg in the middle of the square. The Italian-inspired government buildings are in the background.

Trying to figure out how to cross the street! The opera house, clock tower and mosque are in the background

Trying to figure out how to cross the street! The opera house, clock tower and mosque are in the background

We walked to some other interesting sights, including the Parliament, a street named after George W Bush (they love him in Albania because he was the first US President to ever visit) and a Catholic cathedral with a statue of Mother Teresa out front (her parents were Albanian).

But the most interesting part of the tour was definitely hearing the stories about and seeing the relics from the Communist Era. Similar to the other Eastern European countries, the resistance to the Axis powers was lead by a communist group. After the war, this group quickly took over the country. In Albania, the leader was Enver Hoxha, and he remained in power until his death in 1985. In some of the other ex-Communist countries we have visited, it is said that some people miss communism, but Gazi told us that in Albania no one does: Hoxha’s reign was that brutal. His policies to strike down dissenters were extremely severe, and the country became more and more isolated. Albania even broke off relations with the other Communist countries: first with Yugoslavia, then with the USSR and finally with China. Gazi told us some interesting personal stories about what it was like to live during these times. One that stuck with us was that his mother was so excited to finally get to try a banana for the first time in her life once the isolation had ended.

Albania’s transition to capitalism has had some severe bumps though. People began investing in pyramid schemes, and the government did nothing to ban them, and in 1997 this all collapsed. This led to what sounds like a crazy period of anarchy in which rival gangs were in control of large parts of the country. Things eventually stabilized though, and the Albanian economy has actually been growing at a good rate for many years now.

The "Bell of Peace," situated in front of the Hoxha pyramid, was cast from discarded shell casings from the 1997 turmoil

The “Bell of Peace,” situated in front of the Hoxha pyramid, was cast from discarded shell casings from the 1997 turmoil

Our tour ended at an Albanian Orthodox church – the third different type of church we had seen on the tour, highlighting Albania’s religious diversity and atmosphere of tolerance. In fact, we were preceeded in Tirana by Pope Francis by only a few weeks. One of the main points he emphasized during his visit was how Albania can be a model of religious harmony.

The outside of the Orthodox church

The outside of the Orthodox church

The sun setting over the river at the end of our tour

The sun setting over the river at the end of our tour

Watched NFL Football – We were in Tirana on a Sunday night, so we decided to try and find a place that would be showing the Cowboys game. Based on a TripAdvisor review, we thought that Duff Bar might have NFL games. We went and indeed they were showing American football! Unfortunately their feed didn’t have the Cowboys game, but we did buy a beer and watch a quarter of another game.

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Where We Ate

Once we got into Albania, we were happy to discover that local food was plentiful and cheap. Our hostel recommended two restaurants, which turned out to be the same two recommended by Lonely Planet: Oda and Era. We went to both and got large meals with a variety of traditional foods for about $20 each time!

Enjoying our first Albanian beer at Oda - necessary after a long day getting to Tirana!

Enjoying our first Albanian beer at Oda – necessary after a long day getting to Tirana!

 

Enjoyinga meal at Era of stuffed peppers and fërgesë (a local specialy that is a ricotta-like cheese mixed with tomotoes, meat, and spices)

Enjoying stuffed peppers and fergese (a local specialy that is a ricotta-like cheese mixed with tomotoes, meat, and spices)

Final Thoughts

Our day getting to Tirana was quite the adventure, but once we arrived we enjoyed getting to learn a lot about a country we didn’t know much about beforehand. Tirana does have its quirks, and we didn’t fall in love with it, but we definitely enjoyed the two days we spent in the city!