Admittedly, my article on day trips from Tirana is unlikely to inspire anyone to go. The mountains are gorgeous of course but there are better places to experience them than tourist town Kruja and Mount Dajti. As far as I’m concerned, the south of Albania is where all the action is. This is the part of the country I suggest people go, not just to the beaches, but also to see historic cities Butrint and Gjirokastra as well as the tranquil beauty at the Blue Eye spring.
These three destinations are easy day trips from Saranda and I love and recommend all of them.
Gjirokastra: Slate Roofed Ottoman Houses
Gjirokastra shares UNESCO status with Berat. It also shares a similar aesthetic, both are Ottoman cities perched upon a hill. But Gjirokastra has such a different look and feel to Berat. The city’s stone Ottoman houses are larger and more refined, with the grey slate rooftops being their standout feature. Wandering the back streets, the locals looked at us with curiosity, often asking us if we needed help with directions. But you don’t need directions in Gjirokastra, it’s the kind of town you want to get lost in. It’s also one of the cheapest cities in Europe, another reason to visit Gjirokastra.
Once a prison for political prisoners, the city’s castle is now a military museum full of weapons from the past and a cool US spy plane shot down during the communist period. It’s the best place to view Gjirokastra’s mountains and beautiful countryside.
Butrint: The Remains of an Ancient World
When reading about the history of the Balkans just about everyone’s name comes up; Illyrians, Greeks, Romans, Venetians, Ottomans and many more. It’s the same story in Butrint. Occupied by almost everyone, it had its glory days but many more in decline. All that remains are ruins, the old market place, a grand basilica, city walls plus a well preserved theatre and Venetian castle.
But Butrint isn’t just an archeological site. The surrounding national park and wetlands are included in the UNESCO listing (currently at risk) as is the seaside town of Ksamil.
Blue Eye: An Obscure Natural Spring
Syri i Kalter. The sign meant nothing to me but F asked, “do you want to go?” Why not I suppose. Blue Eye is the English translation, a mysterious name for a natural wonder. After paying a small fee which goes towards ‘maintenance’ we slowly drove along the banks of a dam. Hoping that wasn’t the main attraction, we drove deeper into the forest. Just as I was thinking we were on a road to nowhere we saw signs of life followed by the prettiest green and turquoise water in Albania.
After crossing a couple of dodgy footbridges, I performed a quick test on the water. Frigid. No chance of swimming at this idyllic location. The water comes from more than 50 metres below then bubbles to the surface. Looking down at the deepest part it looks like a menacing eye staring at you from the centre of the earth. Blue Eye.
Lazarat: The Crazy Side Trip
You can smell Lazarat before you get there. Albania’s most precious crop blankets the hills around Gjirokastra. From a distance the shrubs almost look like Christmas trees but as you get closer the unique leaves give them away as the valuable Cannabis plant. Thousands and thousands of them. Visiting the village of Lazarat is probably not the wisest thing to do. It’s a lawless mini-state and they don’t appreciate tourists stopping by to take photos. It could make for a crazy side trip though.
Where to Stay
When I visited southern Albania I spent a week in Saranda, taking in all the local sights and beaches followed by a week in Himara for more beach loving but no day tripping. If you don’t want to be based in Saranda, which is fair enough as it’s an overdeveloped tourist town, then look for a place to stay in nearby Ksamil. You could also base yourself in Gjirokastra and travel from there but then you’re a bit far from the beach and the incredible sunsets. Here’s a list of places I stayed in and recommend. More tips on visiting Albania can be found in my mini guide to the country.