Albania was an isolated and closed communist country until 1990, dissociated from neighboring nations with a Stalinist-type dictatorship. The country suffered from violence and anarchy in the late 1990s but is now opening it doors to tourism.
Sarandë (pronounced and sometimes spelled Sa-ran-da) is a small town on the Gulf of Sarandë, situated between the mountains and the Ionian Sea. Corfu, Greece is easily visible across the sea and ferries between the two points are frequent. It was a beautiful day for Holland America’s maiden call to this port. The Prinsendam was anchored and we tendered a short distance into the port.
While researching this port, it was difficult to find any current information on the web about Sarandë. We took the ship’s “Saranda, Lekuresi Castle and Blue Eye National Park” shore excursion.
After tendering the short distance into port, we boarded buses and headed up a steep and curving road to Lekuresi Castle, 1,800 feet above the city. This was the spot for amazing views in all directions, and for taking photos of the Prinsendam anchoring in the bay below.
Next we drove about 1 hour inland to the National Park of Blue Eye. Along the drive, we saw small military bunkers or pillboxes everywhere. A remnant of the communist era, our guide said there were 20,000 of them in a country with only 28,000 square kilometers. The countryside is very rural, with our bus sharing the road with a flock of sheep and goats at one point.
Blue Eye National Park has some 18 natural springs, two of which are quite large. The pools of water are a remarkable deep blue color at the distance, while the water is crystal clear up close. This park was previously the private retreat of the top communist leaders of Albania and has only recently been opened to locals and tourists. A small concession offered sodas, coffee, beer and ice cream. The bathrooms were rudimentary and similar to those found in China.
After driving back to Sarandë, we had a brief walking tour of the town with our guide, who took us to one small gift shop as he showed us around. According to our guide, the country is 75 % Muslim, 15% Catholic and 5 % Orthodox and 5 % other. Religion was discouraged under communist rule (as our guide put it “under Communism the religion was Albania, nothing else”). New construction is occurring everywhere with many three-to-four story buildings with only one floor finished. This is due to a lack of financing and floors are completely as the family saves enough money.
At the end of the tour, we decided to stay in town. The waterfront has a nice beach with crystal clear water. New hotels line the waterfront, along with cafes and bars. Curious, we priced a waterfront balcony room in one of the new and modern hotels – 40 Euros per night including breakfast. What a deal!
Edward, our tour guide, was quite informative over a beer, and got us the “local” price.
With John and Maureen, we walked the rest of the waterfront, stopping for another beer near the tender pick-up.
On one of the last tenders back we met other “country collectors” who had also enjoyed this port to the last minute. While many guests didn’t like the rustic nature of Sarandë, it was one of our favorite ports.
Those who enjoy exploring new ports undeveloped with tourist attractions will love this port and the friendly people. For those looking for plentiful shopping will be disappointed. We think the Albanians will someday soon figure out how to market this beautiful and inexpensive area.