If I only had a week or two to have a holiday in Europe, I couldn’t recommend more this itinerary that was the last 12 days of our Eastern European adventure. It was the part of our trip that felt most like a holiday, staying in apartments and hotels rather than hostels and eating out more frequently (because of my birthday and because in Albania there’s really no price difference!).
Two countries. One relatively unexplored, one with a long established tourism industry. Greek, Roman, Ottoman, Medieval and Modern history all combined into one. Religious diversity, an insight into a strict communist regime alongside the place where democracy was invented. An island paradise, beautiful beaches, idyllic mountains, quaint Ottoman villages, a thriving capital city in the process of reinventing itself, amazing food and surprisingly cheap and comfortable accommodation. While that sounds like a lot packed into a short time, the longest leg of the journey is about 3 hours.
Albania ties with Bosnia and Hercegovina as one of my favourite countries. During its communist era, Albania was almost impossible to travel in and out of and was referred to as the ‘North Korea of Europe’. That all changed in the 1990s, but tourism has grown slowly compared with its neighbours. In saying that, I’m glad we went when we did. Its’ gaining momentum fast!
Albania’s capital Tirana is becoming an easier destination to fly into. British Airways has direct flights from London to Tirana for less than €100. There are also a stack of cheap flights via Athens or Milan among other European capitals. I’ve researched these flights in reverse as we originally planned to fly from Tirana to London to end this leg of our trip.
Tirana is a small city jam-packed with interesting sights, most within walking distance of Skanderbeg Square. Must sees for me were the National History Museum and Et’hem Bey Mosque (built in the 1600s with beautiful frescos inside). Nearby is the Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania and Tanners Bridge (a tiny Roman Bridge now dwarfed by its surroundings). Other areas we explored included the trendy Blloku neighbourhood, Mother Teresa Square and the nearby Grand park, where we watched the sun set over an artificial lake. A short bus ride away is Dajti Mountain, take a bus going to Porcelani (disembark when the bus terminates) and walk uphill and follow the signs to Dajti. There’s also free shuttle van that runs from Porcelani to Dajti. You reach the foot of the mountain and take a cable car to the top. Near the base of Dajti is BunkArt, an enormous underground nuclear bunker than has been transformed into a communist museum, art gallerry and concert venue.
UNESCO heritage listed Berat is known as the ‘town of a thousand windows’. We arrived in the late afternoon by bus from Tirana, which takes about about 2 hours. We paid 400Leke (€3) for a coach. We stayed in the Mangalem district, in one of the famed white ottoman houses at Guest house Hava Baci paying a meagre €20 p/night for a spacious double room with a private bathroom, A/C and views of the city, Osum river and Katedralia Orthodokse “Shen Dhimitri” (orthodox church). We checked out the Gorica district across the river, sipped coffee among locals on Shetitorja Osumi (a riverside promenade) and climbed up the hill to visit Berat Castle complex.
From photos, we thought Gjirokastra looked similar to Berat and considering skipping it. While it is has similar Ottoman architecture it is quite different. Plus, it’s on the way to Saranda. Again we paid €20 p/night for Palorto Hotel, a 3 star hotel which included breakfast and cable TV! We ate dinner overlooking the city at Taverna Kuka. The food was so delicious and cheap we were there two nights in a row! We paid around 2000Leke (€15) for two of us including drinks. The main attraction is Gjirokastra Castle, which is more well-preserved than Berat Castle and houses a military museum. It was used by the communist resistance in world war II, captured by the US Airforce and earlier housed prisoners during the communist regime. There is also a cold war tunnel, beautifully restored Ottoman houses (Skenduli house and Zekate house) and an ethnographic museum.
Saranda is 1.5 hrs by furgon (minivan) from Gjirokastra. It is not a particularly or pretty city, its’ more expensive than other parts of the country and the beaches are dirty. It is a good hub for reaching more beautiful parts of Albania’s southern coastline, such as Ksamil Beach and Islands and Corfu.
The ancient city of Butrint is 30 minutes away by local bus from Saranda. We spent a half day exploring the ruins which were first established by the Greeks and developed further by the Romans. It later became an Episcopal centre, with early Christian structures established in the 5th Century AD. It was reconstructed by the Byzantines in the 9th Century, occupied by Angevins and Venetians in 14th century and finally conquered by the Ottoman empire.
Island of Corfu, Greece
Corfu is a large island, we based ourselves in two different towns spending a couple of days in each. Corfu is a 45-minute ferry ride from Saranda (€22). Once there take a bus from the port to the bus station, from there you can get to most locations on the island.
Mesoggi is a sleepy village but it does get busy in summer. We stayed here for my birthday and it was a great place to relax! We splurged on the Ionian Eye, a modern apartment with a Seaview and a beautiful pool (€88 p/night). The food at family-run Taverna Minori was the best we had on this trip and the owner Harry stops for a chat with all his customers.
We didn’t book our last 3 days in Corfu. Once we realised the infrequency of buses, we decided to base ourselves somewhere with lots to see within walking distance (and by boat). There were no cheap accommodations available in Palaiokastritsa. Many of the hostels are in towns with not-so-nice beaches. If you can be in Greece outside of July-August you can save a lot! We stayed at Villa Fiorita. Their high season rates are €60 p/night, Sept – June €45 and we found a last-minute deal for €35. It was a basic, but nice with a even better sea view than the Ionian Eye! Many of the Restaurants have Greek dancing (complete with plate-smashing) on a Saturday night. It’s touristy but fun. The main attraction of Palaiokastritsa is its stunning natural beauty. Rugged cliffs over pristine beaches and clear blue water. You need to take boats to reach many of the isolated beaches not connected by road. Corfu’s airport is within walking distance of the bus station, and Easyjet has cheap flights to London and Amsterdam.