SARANDA, Albania — Nestled in the remote eastern corner of the Adriatic, where it joins the Ionian Sea, is a 125-mile stretch of beachfront real estate unlike most others in the world. This little-known edge of Europe is called the Albanian Riviera. It differs sharply from its counterparts, the French and Italian Rivieras, by its cost – a week there could give you barely a few hours in its snazzier, snootier namesakes.
Certainly there are other vacation beach fronts along the brilliant blue waters of the Adriatic: the increasingly popular Dalmatian Coast of Croatia, for example. But few visitors uncover the beauty and simplicity of Albania, which at one time was Europe’s most thuggish communist gulag but is now America’s most slavishly devoted ally on the continent.
While the Albanian seaside scenery is quite extraordinary, above all the area is cheap – easily one-tenth the cost of its French and Italian counterparts and half the cost of the Croatian coast.
Seafood, caught that very morning, is served at beachfront cafes and grilled to perfection before your eyes for less than $8 per person. Fresh fruits and vegetables, grown in roadside fields, are for sale at stands for pennies. In the hills behind the charming little coastal villages are towns that date back to Greek and Roman times.
My wife, Pamela, and I begin our trip from the north in the capital, Tirana, an hour’s drive east of DurrÃ«s and work our way down the coast. DurrÃ«s is effectively Albania’s Marseilles, a thriving commercial container-seaport. Boats have been landing here since at least the seventh century BC. The Roman imprint is still visible in a mini-coliseum built to entertain those ancient colonizers. The Amfiteatri, at barely a third the size of Rome’s Coliseum, is a pocket-sized replica uncovered only in 1966. Today, modern apartments surround it.
Pamela rushes down into the grottoes, with me in tow, arriving in a series of “green rooms” for the Roman gladiators, who could see through tiny slit windows up into the arena where they’d shortly emerge before 15,000 cheering, bloodthirsty fans. It’s a chilling experience in more ways than one, and a relief from the 80-degree heat above ground.
Once we pull out of town headed south, we get our first real taste of the coast and its beachfront. Much like Nice or some other Riviera towns, there are stretches where new apartments face the sea (and go for less than $100,000). They’re lined with sand-and-pebble beaches.
To the left, we spot the first of thousands of small domed, concrete pillboxes set into the hills. They’re among the few visible legacies of Enver Hoxha, the paranoid communist dictator, who’d counted on them to repel invasions from the sea that he saw as imminent. Other similar legacies remain. Embedded in the rocky hills lining the tiny inlet of Porto Palermo halfway down the coast are two deep tunnels – safe havens for the Albanian submarine fleet.
We make nightfall at the town of Vlora, mid-point of the coast and check into the Hotel Vlora International. Although its balconies overlook the Adriatic, right in front of it we spy a newly renovated vest-pocket jewel, the Bologna (for a third the price), which is just accepting its first guests and from whose terrace we can step right onto the seashore. So that night, we dine at the Bologna’s seaside cafÃ©. We leave our choice of dishes – whatever has been caught that afternoon – to the young English-speaking waiter, one of scores of college students eager to try out the language on “real” Americans. We’re not disappointed. As we watch two old men reel in their dinner from the beach in front of us, dish after dish appears – thinly sliced carpaccio of octopus marinated in native olive oil, a huge steaming bowl of fresh mussels and a platter of whole grilled redfish that we easily fillet.
Seafood is certainly the food of choice, and the next day, as we work our way down the coast toward the Riviera’s southern anchor at Saranda, we fly past tiny seafront cafes interspersed with beaches lined with chaise lounges and colorful beach umbrellas – all largely empty in the early summer days. We’re eager to reach Saranda since a half hour outside of town is the UNESCO World Heritage site of Butrint, whose impeccably preserved or restored remains span more than 2,500 years. Past the row of olive trees and a 16th-century watch tower, built by the Venetians, who then ruled the Adriatic, to ward off Ottoman attacks, we stumble into a 3rd-century B.C. Greek theater. The town spirals outward from there as it changed hands to the Romans, who built bathhouses and villas four centuries later. We stand at what would have been the theater’s center stage, my actress wife gazing up in awe at what might have been an appreciative audience.
That afternoon, back in Saranda, we stumble on another ancient site – Mosaica, a 5th-century synagogue complex that was once the center of a thriving Jewish community, including a Yeshiva. From there, it’s a short stroll down to the palm tree-dotted concrete boardwalk that winds along the beachfront, lined with yellow awnings and delightful cafes.
We return to Tirana through the mountainous interior, stopping off in Gjirokastra, another UNESCO World Heritage site whose striking stone homes date back 200 years. We begin with the hilltop citadel. As we poke our heads into ancient stone prison cells, used most recently by Hoxha’s communist secret police, we stumble upon an American woman of Albanian origin, whose father himself had been imprisoned here for nearly four decades for being a threat to the state. Together we stroll through the castle, emerging finally on a small grassy knoll where the hulk of a World War II-vintage American jet trainer is resting. An American spy plane brought down by the Albanian air force was the story at the time. The truth is more mundane: it developed engine trouble, was forced to land at a nearby airfield, was then seized and the pilot quickly released.
Heading “home,” we encounter some truly challenging roads in the process of being rebuilt or desperately needing work. So there are two choices for visitors. Wait just a few years until it’s smooth-sailing from end-to-end with prices to match. Or visit now when there are still gems to be uncovered for a song.
If you go
Getting there: You can fly into the capital, Tirana, and rent a car (there are trains and buses but they are painfully slow). Avis, Hertz and Eurocar all operate there. You can also fly into the Greek island of Corfu and take a hydrofoil ferry to Saranda (a 30-minute trip) which, depending on the time of year, ranges from $25 to $40 each way. There are also ferries that take both cars and passengers from Brindisi, Italy, to Vlora, though round-trip by car costs more than $400, compared with barely $100 for a passenger, so you’re better off renting the car on the Albanian side.
Most of the coastal towns are sufficiently compact that you can easily walk from end to end, but taxis are also available and a trip from town down the coast to a seaside bistro is less than $10. Make sure you have small bills since few can change large denominations.
Where to stay: If you are staying for a week or more, you may want to make your base in one of the hundreds of apartments that face the Adriatic. Companies like Rent Holiday Homes have apartments ranging from $30 a day to $900 a week depending on the size and the season, with discounts as high as 25% for multiple weeks in low season. For hotels, try the Vlora International where a double with an ocean view ranges from $80 to $120. The smaller, recently renovated Hotel Bologna is half the price. For a real bargain, try the Hotel Paradise Beach, 10 miles south of Vlora, for for $27 to $55 a night. Nearby, at the Sunny Beach Hotel, a family room with fridge that sleeps four is $80 in high season ($20 in off season) per day, or $33 a day when booked by the month. It’s difficult to book in an advance for any but the top hotels, since many don’t have a website. But all are family-run and if they can’t accommodate you, they will lean over backwards to find you a congenial spot nearby. In Saranda, the Hotel Butrinti, at $90 to $120 a night, is just across the road from a beach and some lovely beachside cafes. It’s within easy walking distance of the town center and has a magnificent view across the bay to Corfu from the balconies in most of its rooms, which are small.
Where to eat: Just about any place along a beach has fresh-caught fish and shellfish. For the most part, stay away from the hotel dining rooms which are expensive with spotty service. The exception is the wonderful beachfront cafÃ© of the Hotel Bologna in Vlora where fresh seafood is the order of the day. About 12 miles down the coast road from Vlora is the Ibiza restaurant where a meal of squid, octopus, clams, mussels and fresh tomatoes followed with homemade cinnamon ice cream with fresh strawberries costs about $25 for three. Atop a hill overlooking Saranda and its harbor is the 16th-century Castle of LÃ«kurÃ«si with a marvelous bar/restaurant, where during the high season service is out on the spacious terrace overlooking the countryside and the Adriatic far below. There you can feast on seafood and grilled meat for $10-$15 a person. The Italian influence in the region is quite clear and there are pizza joints up and down the coast. Choose one on the beach overlooking a beautiful view of the Adriatic, like the Pizzeria Limani in front of the Butrinti Hotel. Thin crust with fresh toppings goes for less than $10 for an enormous pie that serves two or three healthy appetites.
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