With its jumble of rugged mountains fringed by pristine curls of beach, Albania’s south is the most appealing part of the country. The interior route boasts the rewarding towns of Beratiand Gjirokastra, each home to whole swathes of Ottoman buildings. Heading on down the Ionian Coast instead, you’ll find one of Europe’s only unspoilt sections of Mediterranean shore, a near-permanently sunny spot where the twin blues of sea and sky are ripped asunder by a ribbon of grey mountains – on a clear day you’ll be able to see Italy from the 1027m-high Llogaraja Pass. Both routes converge at the beach town of Saranda, while further south are the fantastic ruins of Butrinti.
There are few better places to be in Albania than standing on the footbridge in the charming, easy-going town of BERAT. From this vantage point, you’ll be surrounded by huddles of Ottoman houses, their dark, rectangular windows staring from whitewashed walls like a thousand eyes. On the south bank is the sleepy Gorica district, kept in shadow for much of the day by a muscular backdrop of rock; to the north is the relatively sun-drenched Mangalemi district, from which steep, cobblestoned paths lead up to the hill-top Kalasa, an old citadel whose wonderful interior is up there with the best old towns in the Balkans.
You’ll have great views of Berat from the fourteenth-century Kalasa, a splendidly restored citadel citadel (daily: April–Sept 8am–8pm; Oct–March 8am–5pm; 100L or free out of hours) towering above town, which is accessed via a steep, cobbled road. This is still a functioning part of town and home to hundreds, yet almost nothing dilutes its centuries-old vibe; visit at night and you’re in for a wonderfully eerie treat. There were once over thirty churches here but just a handful remain; oldest and most beautiful is the thirteenth-century Church of the Holy Trinity, sitting on the slope below the inner fortifications. Churches remain locked for most of the year, but the key-keepers are usually hanging around nearby. Also within the grounds is the Onufri Museum (Tues–Sun 9am–4pm; 200L), dedicated to the country’s foremost icon painter, famed for his use of a particularly vivid red. Heading back down the access road, you’ll come across the diverting Ethnographic Museum (daily: May–Sept 9am–1pm & 4–7pm, Sun 9am–2pm; Oct–April 9am–4pm, Sun 9am–2pm; 200L) and the first of the centre’s three main mosques.
Sitting proudly above the sparsely inhabited Drinos valley, Gjirokastra is one of Albania’s most attractive towns, and home to some of its friendliest people. It was once an important Ottoman trading hub and today a sprinkling of nineteenth-century Ottoman-style houses lines the maze of steep, cobbled streets. Gjiro is also etched into the nation’s conscience as the birthplace of former dictator Enver Hoxha, and more recently the world-renowned author Ismail Kadare.
The Old Town’s centrepiece is its imposing citadel (daily 9am–7pm; 200L), which is clearly visible from any point in town. Built in the sixth century and enlarged in 1811 by Ali Pasha Tepelna, it was used as a prison by King Zog, the Nazis and Hoxha’s cadres; the interior remains suitably spooky. There are also tanks and weaponry to peruse, but most curious is the shell of an American jet that was (apparently) forced down in 1957 after being suspected of espionage by the Communist regime. Other than the castle, Gjiro’s most appealing sight is its collection of Ottoman-style houses; a prime example is the eighteenth-century
The Old Town’s centrepiece is its imposing citadel (daily 9am–7pm; 200L), which is clearly visible from any point in town. Built in the sixth century and enlarged in 1811 by Ali Pasha Tepelna, it was used as a prison by King Zog, the Nazis and Hoxha’s cadres; the interior remains suitably spooky. There are tanks and weaponry to peruse, but most curious is the shell of an American jet that was (apparently) forced down in 1957 after being suspected of espionage by the Communist regime. Other than the castle, Gjiro’s most appealing sight is its collection of Ottoman-style houses; a prime example is the eighteenth-century Skenduli House (daily 9am–7pm; 200L), where the owner’s daughter gives English-language tours of its wonderfully preserved rooms throughout the day.
On the way between Gjirokastra and Saranda is the wonderful Blue Eye, an underwater spring forming a pool of deepest blue. Its setting in a cool, remote grove is quite spectacular – the water is delicious, and you can swim in it until you get the chills (it won’t take long, even in summer). Hop on any bus or minivan plying the Saranda–Gjirokastra route, and ask to be let off at the Syri i Kaltër; the pool is 20min from the road on a decent path.
Staring straight at Corfu, and even within day-trip territory of the Greek island, sunny Saranda is perhaps Albania’s most appealing entry point. A recent building boom has eroded some of the town’s original genteel atmosphere, but it’s still a great place to kick back, stroll along the promenade and watch the sun set over cocktails. There are beaches in town, but better are those nearby Ksamili, some 20km to the south.
Splendidly sited on an exposed nub of land, the isolated ruins of Butrint (daily 7am–7pm; 700L) offer a peek into over 2500 years of history, and are a delight to explore on its eucalyptus-lined trails. The area was first developed by the Greeks in the fourth century BC, and the expansive theatre and nearby public baths were built soon after. Butrint then reached its zenith during Roman times – Julius Caesar stopped by in 44 BC – though most of the statues unearthed from this period are now in the museums of Tirana. You can see most of Butrinti’s sights on a looped footpath, though do head up to the Acropolis for wonderful views and an excellent museum full of unearthed artefacts.
The small coastal village of KSAMIL within Butrint National Park has a smattering of lovely public beaches lapped by spectacularly clear waters. Each cove is overlooked by a restaurant serving reasonably priced seafood (Guvat is the best of the bunch). The beaches are beautiful but busy in summer, and there are a few small islands close enough to swim to if you want a little extra space.
Top image: Saranda, Albania © Aleksandar Todorovic/Shutterstock