The Easy Route into Albania
This autumn, we fancied a bit of sun, good food and culture for little money.
Would we find it in Greece again?
Looking at the cheapest available flights for the last week of November, we found flights to Corfu, Venice and Bari for around 100EURO. Not exactly a bargain, but my boyfriend isn’t the one for spontaneous bookings well ahead. „Corfu“ my boyfriend said. Since I already had my little ego trip this year, I agreed without any discussion and bought two flights, noticing the proximity of Albania and the ferry line drawn into the map. Maybe we could go on a little trip to Albania from Corfu. Albania has been hailed as a cheap, exciting destination for some years now, and also, hast wo UNESCO World Heritage Sites in close proximity to the port of Saranda.
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Hopping to Albania from Corfu
So, fast forward to six weeks later – we left Berlin in a drizzle and 9 degrees on the emptiest Easyjet flight I have seen in a while, and arrived on a balmy night devoured by mosquitos. Airport Bus 15 was still running, though on an extremely reduced schedule and dropped us off right by the Hotel Atlantis.
Our at the Atlantis was small, spartan and somewhat nondescript. We enjoyed a great view into a back street and a pizza parlour. It’s not really a place where I would like to spend my entire holiday. But, for overnighting before leaving by ship in the morning – perfect!
How to get from Corfu Town to Albania
Early next morning, we observed Kristi, the ageing Kometa hydrofoil operated by Albanian Finikas Lines, slide into Korfu Harbour. Buying tickets in the off-season is very easy: basically, there are two companies, Ionian Seaways/Finikas Lines and Joy Cruises which both operate a once-daily return crossing between. In late October, Finikas operates only Kristi and no slow ferry, whereas Joy operates a small car ferry but no hydrofoil. Both offices are close to each other opposite the New Port, about 50m from the Atlantis hotel.
We paid 19 EURO per person fort he hydrofoil, then went for an overpriced coffee in the only cafe between the hotel and the port. Bear in mind you will need ID even for purchasing a ticket.
Then we slowly walked through the port to the Customs building. Further out, two huge cruise ships were already berthed, while a third one was just coming in. I’ve heard Corfu gets swamped by day visitors from cruise ships in summer, but in low season, Corfu Town was not really crowded. And of course we arrived well early, ready to look at the rusty bits of Kristi. When we were finally let in, the interior did not evoke a sense of trust either, so we quickly looked for seats by a hatch and checked how far the hatch would open. We travelled in light wind and wave, maybe a Force 4, and it was totally okay. I couldn’t locate any sick bags on the entire vessel (bring your own bag!) and I’m pretty certain they keep that little back door closed at sea.
On the way back, a few days later, we were ready to entrust our safe passage back to Kristi, only that the wind was a bit fresher, and we were offered ferry tickets as soon as we stepped out of the hotel that morning, with people telling us there would be no other boat. We had by now learnt that Albanians are generally very serious and trustworthy, but we checked the schedule, and indeed, there would be a hydrofoil in the afternoon… and we wanted to go to Butrint. So, when on our return, we were sold tickets in the Main Office of Finikas by the harbour, charging us for the hydrofoil but not promising the fast boat, and maybe departing one, two hours maximum later, we bought them in the good faith that we had not been ripped off in our short time in Albania…
Oh well. The boat that was promised turned out to be a private charter, giving priority to six coach loads of day trippers, cramming them all in where I had my doubts that we’d fit on safely, and then setting off into the storm. We had spent the last five hours in the small Finikas Office and then, as the boat had turned up, in the dreary departure lounge of the ferry terminal. I had a flu and it felt ten-fold shitty hanging around there in rubbish weather. We checked out of the country. Until whoever had the say on this boat decided not to take the 20 regular passengers, leaving us wait in the rain and wind until finally informing us of their decision.
At which point we decided to throw the towel, but not before returning to the Finikas Office, demanding our money back (which we did, without much discussion) and returning to the hotel we had checked out of six hours earlier.
After that, we had enough of fickle Kristy and Finikas altogether and bought tickets for the Saranda Express. It cost almost the same but took a heck of a lot longer. What looks like a hastily welded bathtub turned out to be a tidy small car ferry with the cleanest bathrooms I have seen on public transport since Japan. I made a beeline for the downstairs padded benches we only shared with some older ladies and slept beautifully for two hours.
In the summer, you will get lots of organised day tours, but these usually come with a bus tour, so if you want to travel independently, or stay overnight, the scheduled ferries would be better.
So, what do do once you get there?
The ferry will call a the port of Saranda. The port is in the middle of town, and a large number of hotels and restaurants are just a 5-minute walk away. We stayed at the Hotel Vila Margarit , a tiny hotel less than 100m from the beach. As you can see int he picture below, Saranda has a small core around the port and bus station, then a ton of hastily built identikit high-rises close to the shore line, going in some ugly concrete ribbon about 5km down the coast. Nevertheless, in low season, Saranda is a pleasant, almost sleepy seaside town great for a few days relaxation. The water is so clean, it would probably okay to swim from the narrow town beaches. Many hotels and restaurants close for winter, so while the number of visitors is greatly reduced, so is the number of restaurants, but in the more local area closer to the fishing harbour you still find plenty.
Once you get to Saranda, you’ll find a small number of exchange offices in the road leading up from the harbour but not a ton. The road parallel to the one running along the beach leads to Friendship Park. This is also the inofficial bus station and has some banks with ATMs. Not all cards work on Albanian ATMs but cash is king in Albania – we always bring some EURO with us and found that EURO will work well in Albania. The exchange rate for the past 5 years has been 120-140 Albanian Lek to the EURO. We just asked someone on the boat for the going rate – chances are you’ll get an honest answer.
The UNESCO site of ancient Butrint is very easy to reach and feasible even on a day trip. Buses run every hour from the bus stop by the plane tree on the intersection between the road coming up from the harbour and the coast road, then go through the centre and further out, make frequent stops on the coast road and in Ksamil. Fare is a 100 Lek, just get on the bus and wait until the conductor finds you. The bus will drop off at the entrance of the site; its the last stop before the bus returns to Saranda.
Butrint has been almost continuously inhabited since the 12th Century BC, but its most important ruins date back to the Roman and Byzantine era.Its famous mosaics, the ones you see in every tourist brochure of Albania, are sadly covered with sand – and only revealed every few years.
For me, the highlight on our very brief Albania trip, and an easy one to reach, though I highly recommend spending one night there. To get there, just pitch up in friendship park – one side of the road is also the towns bus station – and ask any bus or minibus heading to Fier or Tirana. If they don’t find enough passengers for the full fare quickly, they usually take you. There may sometimes be larger buses, to, but they don’t seem to run to a fixed schedule/schedule is not really publicised. Roughly, there should be one bus or minibus per hour.
Gjirokastr is an Ottoman-era hill town, also on the UNESCO World Heritage List, and its old town is an atmospheric jumble of stone and slate houses. Add cool mountain air and a tourist-friendly infrastructure with practically zero ugly new development like in Sarande, great food, friendly people, and a few low key museums, and you got a wonderful destination for the culturally minded. Although it certainly has a touristy centre, it all felt very low-key. Few people spoke English (it’s a matter of luck), but it was never really a problem. We had pre-booked a room at the tiny Hotel Gjirokastra and just took a taxi uphill from the main road where the bus stops. A taxi is a must, really, as the uphill walk is on a tarmac road and plain boring and quite long, although as friendly as Albanians are, you might just find someone stops to take you up the hill as you walk on. This was my favourite lodging on the entire trip. Although the building looks new, they take their traditional style very serious, and our bedroom was beautifully and tastefully decorated with lovely woodwork and tons of the most gorgeous Albanian textiles while still managing to look fresh and contemporary.
Getting to Corfu
Charter and budget airlines fly to Corfu from spring to autumn. Olympic and Aegean fly from Athens and some other Greek destinations all year round. We paid 113 EURO for a flight in late October. Corfu Airport is very close to town – on one hand, you could easily walk to the centre with light luggage only, on the other hand, if aircraft noise bothers you, it may be better to avoid hotels in the MonRepos/Kanoni area in high season.
Ferry Companies to Albania
The most convenient sea route to Albania from Greece is from Corfu Port to Sarande in Albania.
There are basically two large operators, Ionian Seaways/Finikas and Joy Lines Albania. Both publish their timetables online. From how I understood, Ionian Seaways/Finikas only operate a daily hydrofoil and Joy a small car ferry once daily in low season, whereas in high season there are at least two crossings daily. For late October, there were plenty of tickets available when we turned up at the office (conveniently located 50 metres from the Atlantis Hotel) on the same day. A hydrofoil crossing takes about 40 minutes and a ferry closer to two hours. Albania is an hour ahead of Greece – bear that in mind if you have onward travel or are on a day trip. In low season, we paid 19 EURO for a single trip on the hydrofoil and about 15 EURO on the ferry. In calm seas, I recommend using the hydrofoil. Anything from Force 5-6 and it’s probably safer to take the ferry. We were sold tickets by the Finikas Main office under the promise that a boat would definitely run, only to be fobbed off from hour to hour while sitting around in the harbour, and finally giving up about six hours later.
Another option would be to take a more frequent ferry from Corfu to Igoumenitsa, but onward public transport to the new Qafë Botë border crossing is a bit thin on the ground. In fact, I doubt there is any, only a bus to the border at Kakavia leaving Igoumenitsa roughly four times a day, and that means a massive detour if you’re heading to Sarande, though quite convenient for Gjirokastr. So it would only make sense in a larger group, then hiring a taxi in Igoumenitsa, possibly another one on the Albanian side.
On the Corfu side, I recommend the Hotel Atlantis. It is pretty much the hotel closest to the commercial port – you can enter the port by the Sette Venti cafe (just don’t sit down for breakfast there, it’s pretty overpriced) and walk along to the Customs Building.
In Saranda, you have a lot of choice as the passenger port is right in the centre. We stayed at the Hotel Vila Margarit for an astonishing 18 EURO per night. It’s 5-minute walk from the port, and next to the market and the Butrint bus stop as well as less than 100metres from the sea. For that price, the perfect choice for us. It’s clean, extremely friendly, and all rooms are decent size and have sea-facing little balconies. Beds are really comfy, even in this price bracket.
We stayed at the Hotel Gjirokastra in Gjirokastr. I mention this here because it was my favourite lodging on the entire trip. Although the building looks new, they take their traditional style very serious, and our bedroom was beautifully and tastefully decorated with lovely woodwork and tons of the most gorgeous Albanian textiles while still managing to look fresh and contemporary. All this for 30 EURO per night including a truly home-cooked breakfast. But then, a quick search on Booking.com will reveal a handful of equally gorgeous-looking small hotels and guesthouses, some in old Ottoman buildings.
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