Impressions of Saranda, Southern Albania

View of Saranda from fast ferry

View of Saranda from fast ferry

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Impressions of Saranda, Southern Albania

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.

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Reasons to be suspicious – Albanian-British Relationships in the 1940s

Mother Albania, Martyrs' Cemetery, Tirana

Mother Albania, Martyrs’ Cemetery, Tirana

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Reasons to be suspicious – Albanian-British Relationships in the 1940s

After liberating their country from the fascists Albanians were under continual external pressure from hostile government forces. At this time Albanian-British Relationships were at an all-time low. In not bowing down to this the Albanians were criticised for being ‘isolationist’ and ‘xenophobic’ whereas their actions were more a matter of survival.

But why was this nation of just over a million people so angry with the British that the government felt it didn’t want to co-operate with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in establishing a final resting place for those British soldiers who had died in the country in the fight against Fascism?

For the sake of brevity let us only mention the attempts of the British (along with the other major European powers) to influence developments in the Balkans for more than 70 years – since the Crimean War. Let’s just pass over the fact that when Zogu ran away from the Italian fascists when they invaded in 1939 he found shelter in the spartan conditions offered by the Ritz Hotel in London. Whilst his country was torn apart by war and an estimated 30,000 of ‘his’ people died in the next five years he spent a very comfortable war, ‘thank you very much’, in a country house in Buckinghamshire. This self-proclaimed king who had depended for his position at home by being in the pockets of the Italian fascists, a collaborator of the first order, was given exile in a country which, within a matter of months, was officially at war with Italy. But no internment for Zogu!

Also let us pass over the fact that gold reserves – that had been stolen from impoverished Albania by the fascists and which was to be decided (in 1948) by an international tribunal of the UK, France and the USA that it should be returned to the Albanian people – were being retained in the vaults of the Bank of England. This gold was not returned to the country until 1992 when the government of Berisha bowed before the might of a powerful international player, just as Zogu had done almost 60 years before with the Italians.

Here I want to concentrate on the situation and events of the immediate post-war years.


Britain supported (with arms, men on the ground as well as massive naval support) the monarchist Greek army against the Communists. Their eventual victory left a deeply divided society and this led to years of internal conflict and ultimately to the coup by the Generals in 1967, which meant the establishment of fascism until 1974.

British Labour Government

The UK Foreign Minister, Earnest Bevin, openly called for a ‘counter revolution’ in Albania. He was a virulent anti-communist, pro-US, supporter of nuclear weapons at ‘whatever the cost’, strong supporter of Korean War and for a British imperial presence throughout the world. He makes Blair appear like a left-winger.

Attempts to incite civil war

During the war British intelligence (SIS) and the SOE (Special Operations Executive) had been wary of the non-Communist forces as they had, without exception, been collaborators at one time with the Italian fascists. After the war, won by the Communist Partisans, the SIS – with the support of the nascent CIA (American Central Intelligence Agency) – used the contacts that had been made with these monarcho-fascists to try to incite civil strife in the seriously war damaged and weak country. These attempts went on well into the 1950s, all ending in ignominious defeat, a precursor to the equally disastrous Bay of Pigs fiasco later to be played out in Cuba.

Corfu Channel Incident

Map showing territorial limit between Albania and Corfu

Map showing territorial limit between Albania and Corfu

This was by far the most confrontational event that took place in the immediate post-war years and is, in fact really three separate events, but all obviously related. This can be a long story and the interpretation of events will vary depend upon where you stand politically. I will try to present the events as I know them and then make a few comments – the British government has more than their fair share of opportunities to make their case known.

May 15, 1946 – two Royal Navy cruisers, Orion and Superb, were fired upon from Albanian shore batteries. There was no damage and no-one was hurt.

October 22, 1946 – a Royal Navy flotilla (don’t know exactly when a group of ships becomes a flotilla) was sent purposely to challenge the Albanians. In the group were the cruisers Mauritius and Leander and the destroyers Saumarez and Volage. Saumarez struck a mine and Volage was sent to tow it back the 16 miles to Corfu harbour. Just after starting the tow Volage also hit a mine and it took them more than 12 hours to make the journey. Forty four men were killed and 42 injured. The Saumarez was damaged beyond repair.

HMS Samaurez on tow back to Corfu harbour

HMS Samaurez on tow back to Corfu harbour

November 12, 1946 – a group of Royal naval ships, including an aircraft carrier, entered waters recognised to be in Albanian jurisdiction with the excuse that they were clearing mines in ‘self defence’ as they could be a hazard to shipping. This was done without consultation or permission being granted by the Albanian government. There was no hostile action on this occasion.

So, some comments.

  1. In May, at the very time that the Royal Naval ships approached the Albanian coast, British forces were involved in a bloody civil war in neighbouring Greece where the Albanians were in support of the Communist forces is it a surprise that the Albanians might have thought they were facing an invasion force and had the right to fire warning shots?
  2. In October why did the British send such a large force of naval hardware? Four ships of the line would have filled Saranda Bay. If they were genuinely searching for mines why not mine-sweepers? Surely they would have been better equipped to detect any potential danger. The British were later to accuse the Yugoslavs of having laid the mines, on behalf of the Albanians – as Albania had no such capability at the time – BETWEEN May and October. Now if I were in a conflict situation with a neighbour I would have people scanning that piece of water 24 hours a day to know exactly what was happening. The British later claimed they recovered up to 25 mines. Now I’m no expert on mine-laying but how would it have been possible for any ship, or ships, to do that without attracting attention? Even someone with a pair of binoculars on the hills in northern Corfu would have been able to see what was going on. And with such a huge force of military shipping in the area why didn’t the Royal Navy post a ship permanently, inside Corfu’s territorial waters, to monitor the situation? To have sent ships into an area that was unmonitored, un-surveyed, unknown is tantamount to ‘reckless endangerment’ on behalf of the British military and government. The families of the British seamen should have taken the British government to court on charges of murder for such incompetence.
  3. In November the Flotilla of Royal Navy ships knowingly entered Albanian territorial waters more for a show of imperial might than anything else. With the all-consuming arrogance of a weak and failing imperial power they didn’t like the self-inflicted damage of the previous month and wanted to show the Albanians that they could still do what they wanted, trampling all over international law that they say should be defended, unless it suits them to break it – like the US is doing on an almost daily basis as we enter 2013. At that time they were able to ‘recover’ more than 20 German-made mines which the British argued had not been in the water for more than a few months. This was all very convenient for the British to later bring up in evidence at the International Court of Justice. Now I wouldn’t say that the British would ever lie in an international forum (perish the thought) although the phrase ’45 minutes’ comes to mind when you consider how convenient this proof was. And the post-war Labour government was as duplicitous as any other when it came to international matters and the ‘protection’ of British imperial interests.
  4. Although there are places where the distance between Corfu and Albania is much narrower (it’s less than two miles at the narrowest point) the first practical place for any sea landing is the town of Saranda – the cliffs being quite steep further to the south and the only small bays around present day Ksamil being too shallow for major ships. Therefore why is it a surprise that the Albanians were so jumpy when they saw such a military force steaming towards Saranda Bay?
  5. What would have been the response of the British and French governments if a Soviet battle flotilla had sailed between Dover and Calais at that time? Would it have been seen as a friendly or a hostile act? Would the British (or the French) reacted in a different way?

Added to all this hostile activity Albania was:

  • not invited to the Conference of San Francisco on the founding of the United Nations,
  • not called to the London and Paris Conferences on War Reparations from Italy and Germany, and
  • not invited to take part in discussions on drafting the peace treaty with Italy.

All these Albania considered it had a right to attend following its sacrifice during the anti-fascist war. At the same time these were all moves to isolate and marginalise the country at the same time as other countries, ie Greece and Yugoslavia, were making moves to absorb Albania into their national boundaries.

Perhaps I’ve gone on longer than I really intended but I thought it was important to attempts to set the scene of the hostile environment that Albania found itself having to confront in the 1940s. The country has often been accused of suffering from paranoia but I’d again refer you to the scale of the damage that the country had sustained in the battle against fascism and the fact that Albania was a nation of a little over a million people.

If you want to address the issue of a paranoia look no further than the UK and the proposed renewal of Trident.

This incident was merely the culmination of anti-Albanian activity carried out by British and American imperialism which began in the early days of the Albanian national Liberation War. To get a greater and in-depth political analysis of this intervention in the affairs of a sovereign nation have a look at Enver Hoxha’s memoir of the period The Anglo-American Threat to Albania.

Click here for the PRA’s request to attend the Italian Treaty meetings, here to attend the Peace Conference with Germany and here for Albania’s response to imperialist incursions into Albanian territorial waters.

Another source of background material to the efforts by the British and American imperialists to undermine the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania can be found in A Tangled Web, by Bill Bland and Ian Price, published in 1986. It only goes into detail about events up to 1955 as this was the latest date where documents were available to the public, following the British Government’s ’30 year rule’ where that period of time has to pass before (some) secret governments documents are released.

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Five Fallen Stars Rise Again – Dema Monument

Dema Monument recently repainted

Monument at Dema to Five Fallen Communists

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Five Fallen Stars Rise Again – Dema Monument

The monument at Dema (Manastir), just outside of Saranda in southern Albania, to those who died in the war of liberation against Fascism returns to something close to its original condition.

One of the goals in my travels around Albania is to identify as many of the Communist monuments as I can and to record them photographically, fearing that they might disappear in the not too distant future. On previous visits I came across a number that had definitely been very badly treated, some with such violence if you didn’t know what you were looking at then you wouldn’t know it was a monument at all. I will return to this issue later, when I will look at the fate of these statues and monuments in the context of the whole country.

However, in the Saranda area I have noticed a dramatic change in the fate of one of these monuments, one that stands at a coll between Lake Butrint and the Ionian Sea. This can be seen along the road that leads from Saranda to the archaeological site of Butrint, just before passing through the town of Ksamil. I had seen, and photographed, this monument earlier in the year, in April. When I passed it a few days ago I noticed that it had been painted in the ensuing months and returned to photograph the newer version.

From the road it didn’t look like vandalism and that was indeed the case, what had happened was just the opposite and that someone had painted the five stars red. They were just white, like the rest of the pillar a few months ago. Now whether this was returning the monument to its original colour scheme I don’t know for certain, but that would make sense.

What has made the capitalists see red in Albania, is, in fact, the red. They have a problem with this. The flag of Albania, adopted in the country’s struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire (which celebrates its centenary on the 27th November coming) was the black double-headed eagle on a crimson background. Under Socialism the only change was to add a gold star, just above the heads of the bird.

This star has been the object of attack in a number of cases I have already seen, two of the most notable, and in many senses most public, being the erasure of the red star (which used to be behind the head of the central woman) from the huge mosaic on the façade of the National Historic Museum in Skanderbeg Square in Tirana, and the wall relief of a female Communist inside the Palace of Congress, also in Tirana.

Last April the flag was red, although not as deep a crimson as would have been the case in the past – I believe – but red nonetheless and it must had been touched up over the years. The subsequent painting of the five stars makes the monument much more distinctive, and also helps in telling the story of why the structure was constructed in the first place. Although I had studied the carvings before I had not made the connections which I now do.

So why 5 stars? They represent 5 of the Communists who died in the war against Nazi Occupation. They are Miltiadh Marjani, Selim Myftar, Astrit Toto, Sadik Rusto and Niko Stefani and with my struggling with the Albanian language I believe they died at the hands of the fascist invaders on 2nd October 1943. As I took the pictures at the beginning of November it could well be that the stars were repainted in time for that anniversary (although there were no signs of any flowers, wreaths, etc., in the vicinity of the memorial.)

The text on the monument reads: Dëshmorëve që ranë këtu në përpjekje me forcat naziste më 2.10.1943. Astrit Toto, Sadik Rusto, Niko Stefani, Miltiadh Marjani, Selim Myftari. Which translates as: The martyrs who fell here against Nazi forces 10/02/1943. Astrit Toto, Sadik Ruston, Niko Stefani, Miltiadh Marjani, Selim Myftari.

So now their sacrifice is a little more obvious on their memorial and as once something is out on the internet it is there forever, this posting helps to keep the memory of the anti-fascists alive, especially at a time when the remains of the feudal warlord, despot, dictator, coward and thief, Ahmet Muhtar Bej Zogolli (the self-proclaimed King Zog I, Skanderbeg III) were brought back from France, where he died in exile in 1961, and deposited in a new tomb on 17th November 2012.





39° 48′ 43.1245” N

20° 0′ 43.8120” E

Altitude: 35.7m

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