Travel notes: Albania and Saranda

Albania reminds my husband Tedly of Mexico. I can understand that thought – there are parallels to these countries: you can’t flush the toilet paper, you can’t drink the tap water, the prices are cheap, the people are friendly, there’s a trash problem with much litter around, you’ll see a stray dog or two (or three) in the streets. I imagine these features are similar in any country without level of sophistication found in wealthy nations.

But to me, Albania reminds me of nothing. No other country. Albania has a different kind of pulse that is all its own. And yet: its history is anything but all its own.

Roman ruins dot the landscape. The Ottoman Empire stretched into this region. Visigoths, Slavs, and others invaded. Fascists pushed in during the 1930s and 1940s, and that set the stage for its communist leader Enver Hoxha. With his death in 1985, the collapse of other communist regimes in 1989, eventual protests swept the country and forced a government change in 1991.

It’s as if now, after hundreds of years of everyone else telling Albania how it should be, what religion it should or shouldn’t have, now Albania finally is asserting her own identity — she is finally allowed to create her own place for her uniqueness in this world. That is the absolute of beauty of democracy and localized representation. Albania has democratic challenges, sure. But don’t we all?

Albanians mostly love Americans.

This is quite different from our experiences around Europe. I have seen American flags flying at private businesses — not just tourist hotels. American flag stickers are on some shop windows. And even though Albania isn’t in the European Union yet, I saw many EU flags. Albanian license plates already have part of the EU logo — even though is some years from accession.

Albanian, European Union, and American flags fly at an Albanian roadside restaurant on the way from Tirana to Vlore in September 2018.
An American flag sticker is displayed on this suburban business near Saranda, Albania, in September 2018. I saw similar stickers on storefronts in Tirana.

I previously wrote a little bit about how badly Albania wants to join the European Union. As a candidate full of hope, they’ve already changed their license plates to have part of the EU logo, minus the stars, even though accession could be years away.

Albania has its own language, and I know only six or seven words after more than a week’s stay. Faleminderit. That I can pronounce: fah-lehm-mean-DEH-reet. Thank you. When I say this word to people – the servers, the clerks, the Airbnb hosts, the taxi drivers, the bus conductors, and more – they are surprised to hear an American try out their language. I see genuine delight in their smiles.

I also see genuine delight and deep gratitude for gratuities — more than any other country we have visited on the planet. It’s as if Albanians expect absolutely nothing, and when you give them extra, it’s like Christmas. Not that other people in other countries are not grateful – of course they are. It’s just different here.

Christmas surely is a bid deal in Albania with Catholic churches throughout the capital and the country. There also are Orthodox Catholic churches, and Muslim mosques all over. People who chose no religion are accepted, too. Albanians today promote religious harmony. From where I sat during my brief stay, the people mean that — they live it.

“Albania” is the internationally known word for the country. But its original name, its real name is Shqipërisë. It comes from the word shqiptarë – meaning sons of eagles. I cannot even pronounce those words. Hearing Albanian is like something between Greek and Italian and something else. It’s all its own.

The Albanian flag is brilliant red with a two-headed eagle. (See photo above.) Of all the countries we’ve been to, I have never wanted a souvenir T-shirt. But I want a T-shirt or a tank top that reads “I love Albania,” or – better yet – “I love Shqipërisë.” I couldn’t find a shirt with that logo anywhere — all shirts had the Albanian flag. So instead, I settled on a simple inward promise to myself to come back one future day and find that shirt in the future.

We have to come back to see things we’re missing, including great places like the Blue Hole and the Mediterranean forests, which are at such a high risk of disappearing the government banned cutting down trees for 10 years.

We’ve only been to the Tirana and Saranda areas, and saw places like Durres and Vlore just driving through.

I loved Tirana, the capital.

There’s so much to do and see there, and the prices are great for a budget traveler. My friend Pat has a post about the top 18 things to do in Tirana here. We met Pat through a Facebook group – he’s also a traveler – and he also was impressed with what he calls, Trendy Tirana – a hipster place waiting for the hipsters. I agree with that assessment.

We used furgons to travel between Tirana and Saranda, and I previously wrote about that experience here.

Saranda: the Albanian destination vacation spot

Saranda is a port city with cruise ships (though not every day when we were there in September) and frequent ferries to and from Corfu, Greece. There are a lot of tourists because it’s a beach spot, and the city markets itself as a vacation destination. Hey, that’s the capitalist way, right?

Saranda has a gorgeous waterfront walkway about a half-mile long inside a small bay.

Off of the main bay, there are tall buildings for more hotels and businesses under construction. One local told me he hopes they all get finished. Sometimes, building are started, financing isn’t secured, and the shell sits unfinished. Other times, the building is more or less complete, but tenants are slow to fill it in because it’s a buyers market.

New construction near the center of Saranda, Albania, near the water, in September 2018.

Off the water, up in the hills of Saranda, vacation hotels transform into vacation apartments. Further up, shops for locals thrive: bakeries, fish markets, corner stores, neighborhood restaurants that remind me of a foreign version of the old-fashioned neighborhood diner back home. Only, instead of a mini-music box in your polyester indoor, air-conditioned booth, you have animals rotating over heat in an open kitchen with outdoor seating.

A typical Albanian neighborhood restaurant in Saranda, a short walk from the main tourist area, in September 2018.
A lunch option at a typical neighborhood restaurant in Saranda, Albania, off the main tourist drag.

Near Saranda, Tedly took a day trip to explore the Roman ruins at Butrint and visit a nearby beach. There are dozens of sites to see in the area.

I took a mental health and physical rest day, and went to a beach in the Kodrra neighborhood to the west of the Saranda Bay to read a book and be lazy with the sea.

A typical beach near Saranda, Albania, shows the rocky shoreline and clear water. There are few, if any, ‘sandy’ beaches in this area.

It was a shame about the beach I picked – there were millions of cigarette butts stuck in the dirt and rocks – like a giant ashtray. It was windy, and occasionally a piece of plastic litter rolled across the beach and hit me while reading. That kept me out of a dreamy-beachy-state.

Casual observers like me note Albania has some challenges to overcome. It needs to do something about its trash problem before it gets even worse. Its infrastructure needs improvement. More people need more jobs, with unemployment at around 17 percent. Cancer patients sometimes have a hard time obtaining drugs – especially certain breast cancer patients (I found this heartbreaking investigation about a lack of drugs when as I researched my breast cancer treatment options).

Financing still is difficult to obtain (Kiva has more potential low-income borrowers in Albania than in Mexico, but not as many as Guatemala).

All countries have problems, and none of these problems I’ve listed are insurmountable for Albania, if the people work it out.

Locals tell us more tourists visit every year, and more people are buying seafront property. From the pictures I’ve seen, Albania looks vastly different from what it was like 30 years ago. And it likely will look different just 10 years from now, especially the beaches as more people discover the coastline.

(*Correction, September 28, 2018: the Albanian flag is one eagle, with two heads.)



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2 thoughts on “Travel notes: Albania and Saranda

  1. Great read Ellen. I am sorry now I did not get down south but who knows. Maybe later. I agree about the litter issue. It is in most Balkin counties. I see people every day just throwing stuff on the street. They need to start talking about it as some tourists are very particular about that.

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