Impressions of Saranda, Southern Albania

View of Saranda from fast ferry

View of Saranda from fast ferry

At one time a quiet port in the south of the country, the Albanian town of Saranda gets the Benidorm treatment.

Saranda is one of the few towns where you can arrive from another country by easy, quick and readily available public transport, i.e., the fast ferry from Corfu, Greece. When I first made that journey I was looking forward to seeing a small town from the sea but the closer you get to your destination you see that ‘progress’ has already made its mark on the town.

Like the rest of the world the town is in the mad dash for the tourist dollar/pound/euro/leke, you name it they want it. This has meant that over recent years there has been a rapid increase in construction and this has been done in a seemingly unplanned manner. Or if there is planning there are few attempts to maintain what would have been the charm of the small Mediterranean sea port.

From the sea you are aware of the buildings slowly creeping up the high hills that confine the town along a narrow stretch of coast. One of the problems is that many of these are incomplete, with little sign that the buildings will ever be completed. Many of them appearing on the slopes are obviously after a space where no one is able to build in close proximity to spoil the view across the Ionian Sea towards Corfu. This includes constructions that sit on or close to the summit of the hills, something which other Mediterranean countries are starting to make illegal as it spoils the look of the countryside.

Although there doesn’t seem to be the same reaction to illegal/unplanned/spontaneous construction in Saranda as in Ksamil the blot on the landscape is even greater. This is even more evident along the road which heads south from the town towards Butrint and the Greek border. But this explosion in construction is also taking place in the centre of the traditional town.

Here the new construction has had the effect of basically ‘hiding’ the old town from any visitors, perhaps not on purpose but certainly as a consequence of the mad rush to turn the town into a popular tourist destination. And this small area that remains untouched (but for how long I don’t know) is only a 2 or 3 minute walk from the town’s main square.

Obviously developed in a time before the level of car ownership that now exists the area is a relatively quiet and pleasant oasis, although some drivers will try to get up any road, however narrow and however low their driving ability. But it does offer an insight to what the town would have been like 20 to 30 years ago. The houses seemed to be relatively self-contained in that many have gardens and if you pass by at the right time of year you will be welcomed by the smells from the orange blossom, the smell of ripening figs or just the scent from jasmine and a whole variety of herbs, so different from the almost sterile area alongside the seafront promenade.

And remarkably free of litter. The random dumping of rubbish is a real problem throughout Albania but I got the impression in these few streets that there was an element of pride in the neighbourhood, unfortunately lacking so often, and you’re not ploughing through piles of litter.

And an ‘introduction’ to the post-Communist resurgence of superstition.

Most writers of the guide book entries for Saranda seem to like the seafront, but I’m not so inspired. Bars and restaurants are being built over the beach (which is already very narrow) and denying any public access. There’s also an extremely adventurous (and I would have thought a bit pie in the sky) plan to develop this seafront/promenade area, with even an Olympic size swimming pool. Not, I think, in my life time.

Now a few ‘secrets’ not mentioned in any of the guide books, so a bit of a ‘Left Side of the Road’ exclusive!

If you’re into street markets there’s a daily market hidden away behind the buildings, a stones throw from the central archaeological square. With the sea at your back go up Rruga Vangjeli Pandi, the one beside the synagogue/basilica and effectively the ‘bus station’. Cross over Onhezmi and pass the taxi rank. About 50 metres on the left there’s a dead end road which seems to just go to a car park. Go up this a short way and then look for an alley way to the left, behind the new buildings on Rruga Onhezmi. This is the start the general market that’s open every morning, closing down at around 13.00/14.00. I’m not into such markets but for general bits and pieces is probably your best bet, although I’m sure you have to bargain (again something that’s not for me).

Also, if you are in Saranda when there’s a ‘r’ in the month and like mussels you can buy them from street sellers who congregate on Rruga Onhexmi, just above Central Park. The mussels have been cooked and shelled and are sold stuffed into what were once water/soft drinks bottles. I know this sounds dangerous, shellfish can really hit you for six if you get a bad one but this is where the restaurants get their mussels and the reputation seems quite high. They are good and come from the floating shellfish racks you see in the lake that’s on the left side of the road as you head towards Ksamil or Butrint. This lake is kept surprisingly clean when you compare it with other water sources throughout Albania not least, I’m sure, due to the value of the cultivated mussels.

Although I consider these mussels to be OK you have to make up your own mind about the risks. That’s my disclaimer.

The fresh food market is along Rruga Ionian, the street that runs parallel and closest to the coast. This starts to close down around 13.00/14.00. There are also a fresh fish stalls in the street. At the end of this street, by the huge tree in the centre of the intersection, is the bus stop for the bus to Butrint.

I hope that I don’t give the impression that Saranda is a place to avoid. It’s pleasant enough but not special for me and I don’t have the same approach to the place as other writers who might be more into holiday resorts, with their bars and street restaurants. It doesn’t, perhaps, help that my visits there have always been in the off-season, and that presents a different face to visitors.

Despite that Saranda is a pivotal place for visiting Ksamil, Butrint, Syri i Kalter (the Blue Eye), the Dema Monument, the small war memorial, and, at a stretch for a day trip, Himara and Gjirokastra.

The port is also the departure and arrival point for the fast hydrofoil ferry between Albania and Corfu.

Syri i Kalter, the Blue Eye

Syri i Kalter, the Blue Eye, southern Albania

Syri i Kalter, the Blue Eye

Syri I Kaltër, the Blue Eye is one of the natural attractions in the Saranda area in southern Albania, especially if you are not interested in the beach or are looking for a change. A visit here can also be put together with a day trip to Gjirokastra from Saranda.

If you look at the pictures and read some of the descriptions the Blue Eye seems to be quite impressive indeed. It’s one of the sources of the river which supplies the water to operate the two hydroelectric plants at Bistricë, in the direction of Saranda (one of these had a visit from Sali Berisha, the Albanian Prime Minister, at the beginning of November 2012 to open a new electricity generating project).

But the problem is that, as it’s a karst spring that has worked its way through the limestone over millions of years. The water will be that which has worked its way into Mount Mali Gjerë and then found its escape route. Perhaps the spectacle is more impressive just after a wet winter where the force of water may be greater. Visiting in the autumn the force was not as great as would give rise to the naming of the spring in the first place.

According to the information board the force of the water was 8.8 cubic metres a second in 1980, but continually fluctuates. If there has been a series of dry years I assume the force reduces and it would take a series of wet years to really understand why it received its name.

As it is you are aware that the water is coming up with some force, but that force has not been strong enough to prevent the growth of underwater vegetation which means that the circular shape of the hole is somewhat disguised.

But it’s a pleasant few hours out in the countryside, especially if weather is good, and you never know when these natural phenomenon decide to put on their best show. After all, it took a minor earthquake to wake up Geysir in Iceland.

Practical Information:

Transport:

Any bus or furgon that travels the route from Saranda to Gjirokastra passes by the side road going to the Blue Eye. From Saranda it takes around 40 minutes and costs between 100 and 200 leke (I was charged the two extremes on a return trip – don’t know if ‘tourist prices’ are starting to become more common now). The bus will normally drop you off at the side road from where you have to walk. There are more buses in the morning, existing in the afternoon but with reduced frequency.

Taking the side road, that leaves northwards off the main road, you walk for about 5 minutes to reach a dam and a control point. There’s a sign which indicates that entrance is 50 leke for visitors arriving on foot but I wasn’t asked for anything. Continue along the dam, with the lake on your right and then just follow this road as it climbs slightly around the edge of the lake. After about 20 minutes you’ll hear the sound of running water and a few minutes later arrive at the end of the road, with the bars/restaurants. Cross the narrow foot bridge, take the path to the left which arrives at the Blue Eye in about 50m. There’s a viewing platform where you get the opportunity to look down into the ‘Eye’ and an information board giving you an idea of what is happening under your feet.

Accommodation

There are a couple of bar/restaurants in the vicinity of the Blue Eye, although only one of them is open all year round – and even that offers a limited service outside the weekend. However the Syri i Kaltër Komplexs Turistik, which is at the fall end of the valley, away from the entrance road, does offer some very basic, but consequently very cheap, accommodation. They have 5 cabins which will each sleep four (one double bed and two singles) and cost €20 per night.

They smelt musty when I was there but that was at the end of the season and it was starting to get a bit damp. In the height of the summer they get booked up some time in advance but outside of that short couple of months chances are that they would be available. There’s no website but they can be contacted by phone on +355 69 24 38 201.

There is a large restaurant connected to the complex but this will not be guaranteed operating in the off-season. It’s location would be perfect on a hot summer’s day as the veranda is built so that it extends over another stream that has come down from the hills above.

If you like isolation and going to sleep to the sound of running water this might be a place to stop if you’re travelling in a group. Bring your own food just in case but if you don’t there are a couple of bar/restaurants just up from the side road that takes you to site, in the direction of Gjirokastra, by the petrol station. A speciality here is the fresh water fish.

Albanian town planning – drastic measures taken

Town planning decision in Ksamili, Saranda, Albania

Don’t annoy Albanian town planners!

Some building developers rub someone in authority up the wrong way and they find their building plans didn’t go quite as they expected.

It’s the late summer, early autumn, in Ksamil, southern Albania. Things are getting quiet now as the bulk of the tourists have left and the bars on the beach are deciding that it’s not worth opening, at least not until next April. It still gets light early and some people, the ones after the worm, are already up. They notice a strange, an unusual sound. Heavy machinery, but not the sort that is normally used in construction.

Amazed they look on as it comes around the corner and heads towards a half completed building. The machine looks angry, aggressive, menacing. At the building it stops, stabilizers are deployed, a long hydraulic arm reaches out towards the defenceless building, approaching one of the reinforced concrete pillars. Huge, powerful jaws open, clutch the pillar and a button is pushed inside the machine and the jaws close with immense force. The concrete and metal are no more than a dry twig to this monster. The concrete crumbles, the bars snap, the building totters.

The machine is unimpressed at the resistance of this shell of a building and moves slowly on to another pillar to repeat the process. Still the building stands proud but looking decidedly shaky. When the third is destroyed the building gives up and the tons of concrete and metal that had taken weeks to construct has become worse than useless. Before any other construction can begin someone has to pay to get rid of all this debris. What started out as a project to make money has become a liability.

This was what happened in the autumn of last year in the erstwhile collective farm of the Socialist era (specialising in olives and citrus fruit) now a nondescript, blot on the landscape, urban sprawl that caters for tourists, both national and foreign, who flock here in the short summer season. These buildings had been started (some almost complete and partially lived in) without the requisite permission and the executioner had arrived to carry out the sentence.

Passing through this town, from Saranda, on the way to Butrint (the Greek/Roman archaeological site a few minutes down the road) and a few minutes after passing the Dema Monument on your right, it was as if you were going through a town that had been hit by an earthquake, buildings leaning at strange and unnatural angles.

A year ago there were many more but in the intervening months some have been completely demolished and, perhaps, construction has been resumed, but this time with the necessary permission. At least in this town those few hours of work in 2011 had taught any prospective developer a lesson.

Why Ksamil? I don’t know. There seemed to be the same treatment meted out to one or two structures on the outskirts of Saranda, the nearest town of any real size, but nothing in the town itself. I can’t imagine that if there was a culture of building where and when you wanted existed in Ksamil it didn’t also exist in Saranda. There it seems that half the buildings are in the process of construction. Perhaps fines were paid or there was a transfer of heavy brown envelopes to the appropriate authorities.

I haven’t come across anything similar in any other part of Albania (where construction seems to as random and uncontrolled as in Ksamil) but someone must have been upset as these machines had supposedly come all the way from Tirana, not an insignificant journey for such heavy plant.

I don’t get the impression that town planners, as such, exist in Albania but if such officials are around and have these power I’m sure they would be the envy of their counterparts throughout the world.

2019 Update

This information is now of historic interest alone as on a recent visit to the town I was unable to see any of the toppled buildings. Being a popular tourist resort there would have been pressures to dispose of these ‘modern sculptures’ as quickly as possible. However, the issue itself – i.e. of illegal constructions – is one that is ongoing in different parts of the country. There seems to be an effort by the present government to redress the total anarchy that existed towards the late 1990s and even quite long established buildings are being demolished. Apart from clearing waway a number of scars on the landscape some public land is being reclaimed as pavements and roads disappeared under bricks and mortar.