Opposite the Greek island of Corfu, Saranda (Albania) is a quintessential Mediterranean destination, with five months of warm weather and a selection of dreamlike beaches up and down its coast. A typical scene around Saranda is a pebbly bay washed by clear turquoise waters and backed by limestone hills with aromatic scrub and olive trees. You can pick from tourist hotspots with family activities or secluded beaches in natural reserves. And if you need more than lazy days by the sea you can travel to quaint seaside villages, natural landmarks and, best of all, Butrint, a UNESCO-listed archaeological park.
1. The Town’s Bay
Saranda’s main beach is a horseshoe bay with a mix of sand and pebbles next to calm blue Ionian waters. The beach is public and brings you all the facilities of a European seaside getaway. You can hire paddleboats by the shore, sunbeds are provided, and the beach is skirted by a promenade. This walkway is fringed with lush palm trees that shelter ice-cream carts and pop-up bars selling their wares in the summer. If hunger strikes you can cross the road behind the promenade for a sit-down lunch at Saranda’s choice of front row cafes and seafood restaurants.
2. Mirror Beach
South of Saranda, on the way to the village of Ksamil, is this secluded natural bay rated by most visitors as the best on the entire Albanian Riviera. Despite this, holidaymakers to the area usually opt for the convenience of the urban beach at Saranda, so Mirror Beach, which doesn’t have much by way of services, remains pretty quiet throughout the summer. This leaves you free relax in this natural setting, protected by cliffs and with shimmering turquoise waters that are calmed by the limestone outcrops that lie just offshore.
3. Lekuresi Castle
Saranda is hemmed into the coast by tall hills, and atop one of these is a rambling old structure that goes back to Albania’s early Ottoman times. Lekuresi Castle was once a citadel that enclosed an entire village, but today lies in semi-ruin. What remains are portions of the walls and a crumbling watchtower looking out over the bay. Most people will make the steep walk to admire panoramic views that reach all the way out to Corfu and the Greek border.
Ancient Saranda had a thriving Jewish community, as the remnants of this Synagogue from the 200s attests. It had a whole network of buildings, with a school and community centre. Exploring the complex you’ll notice the ornate Jewish mosaics on the floor, the details of which revealed the identity of the building when it was first discovered in 2003. The mosaics depict the menorah, as well as a shofar (ancient musical horn) and etrogs (the citron fruit consumed during the Sukkot holiday).
Saranda takes its name from the Monastery of Forty Saints, which was constructed in the 400s on one of the hills behind the bay. “Forty Saints” refers to the story of forty Roman martyrs who were banished to die in Siberia when they wouldn’t renounce their Christian faith. The monastery is in a state of ruin due to war damage, but much of the stonework remains and you can enter the crypt if you contact Saranda’s town hall. You can also journey into the countryside to discover the Saint Nicholas Monastery in Mesopotam, so ancient that the stonework at the base pre-dates Christianity in Albania.
6. Syri Kalter
The Blue Eye in English, Syri Kalter is a natural spring and a mesmerising natural phenomenon in Saranda’s hilly hinterland. What enthrals people about Syri Kalter is the way the sunlight catches the spring on a clear day, creating a deep shade of blue that glistens like an eye. This effect is caused by oxygen bubbles rising up from the bottom of the spring, which is at least 50 metres beneath the surface but may be much deeper. The location is also gorgeous, with oak and sycamore trees around the water, and a wooden viewing platform positioned directly above the “Eye”.
A handy daytrip north of Saranda is the elegant resort of Dherni. The epic Ceraunian Mountains descend right to the water’s edge, and the village is perched on a steep slope. This suffuses the location with real drama, and at Drymades Beach you can look up to see clouds rolling over the peaks of the mountains, even while the rest of the landscape is bathed in sunshine. You can set off up the hills to visit two historic monasteries or instead embark on a boat trip to see the caves and islands around this rugged stretch of coast.
This village inside the Butrint National Park sits between the Ionian Sea and Lake Butrint. Ksamil is just a few minutes in the car south of Saranda, and it’s a good idea to set off early in the morning to spend the whole day here. The sea next to Ksamil is as calm as anywhere on the Riviera, and you can hire a motor boat for a small adventure exploring the little islands found a few hundred metres of the coast. You could weigh anchor in a hidden cove and spend an afternoon sunbathing and swimming in perfect solitude.
Just 14 kilometres south of Saranda, this UNESCO site is an opportunity that you can’t pass up. It’s the largest collection of ancient ruins in Albania at a location that has been occupied since the Stone Age. The ruins date back as far as 800BC when Butrint was settled by the Chaonians who occupied the coastal regions around western Greece and Albania. Much later it became a Roman colony, then a Byzantine city and in medieval times was trading hub for the Venetians before being abandoned. What remains are some excellent ruins, including an early-Christian basilica, a Roman theatre, a Roman temple and a Greek central square or agora with columns. Butrint’s museum is even housed by a medieval Venetian tower.
This seaside village between Saranda and Dhermi has the longest beach on the Ionian Sea, at seven kilometres. Despite the paradisiacal landscape mass tourism hasn’t quite arrived at the village, giving it a sleepy and easy-going feel. immediately behind the beach is a small plain with olive groves, and a little further back in the hills are the ruins of mosques and castles to check out. Ali Pasha is a Venetian fortress from the 1400s, illustrating how the Ionian was a key battleground between the Ottoman Empire and a succession of European armies, from the Republic of Venice to Napoleonic forces.