It took a while for Ervin, our driver, to get us out of Tirana. The roads were packed with cars plus there was a festival happening that brought many people into the city. We headed east out of town towards Durres, then south into the heart of the country. Our first stop was at the Castle of Ali Pashe in Tepelenë. The castle, more of a fortress really, overlooks the Aoös River. I found it interesting that in communist times the leaders let people build homes in the interior of the fortress walls, although there are plans to possibly remove the homes and restore the monument.
Afterwards, we followed a branch of the river south to the town of Gjirokastër. Gjirokastër sits on one side of a lush valley. The homes originally were sloped on a steep mountain but have since spread into the valley as the town grew. On top of the mountain is the Gjirokastër Castle. Unfortunately, the castle wasn’t open to the public when we were there so we didn’t get to check it out. In fact, a lot of things were not open in the village that normally would be packed with tourists. It seemed like we were the only tourist there, and we might have been.
Howard and I had been talking about going to Gjirokastër for the last 2 years. We met the owner of a little hotel in town in a Facebook group about the area and his place looked like a great place to stay. Zeko Paradise Hotel is located at the top of the mountain in the older section of town. Ervin did an amazing job driving his van up the steep, narrow, cobblestone roads. The cute, artsy hotel is more like a bed & breakfast and has the most amazing views of the valley and the fortress. Remi, the hotels purveyor, was more than accommodating and provided us with homemade snacks, a delicious breakfast, and of course, a raki night cap.
The following day we left Gjirokastër and headed up a steep windy mountain pass. This road was the only way to get to Sarandë, unless we had driven down the coast. It can be sketchy and scary with all the cars, freight trucks and tour buses, even scaring some of the tourists as it is a sheer drop of on one side of the road. There is a new tunnel and highway being built that will make getting from Tirana to Sarandë much quicker and easier, but it will completely bypass Gjirokaster. On the day we traveled, it was not a problem though. There were hardly and cars or trucks on the drive. This cow was even lounging in the middle of the road towards the top of the mountain.
We descended down the other side of the mountain and turned down a very bumpy dirt road. About 2 km down the road in a thick, lush forest, was the Blue Eye. Syri I Kalter, as it’s called in Albanian, is a natural spring and popular tourist attraction. I had heard about this place before and all the photos showed tons of people swimming and lounging by this beautiful water source. However, we had the place to ourselves. The whole area, including the other side of the mountain where Tepelenë and Gjirokastër are, has many natural springs that provide fresh drinking water to the area. Ervin filled up a bottle to take with us when we left.
Our next stop was Lëkurësi Castle overlooking Sarandë and the island of Corfu Greece. Closer to the ocean the terrain was dryer, more like high desert. This fortress provided amazing views of the Ionian Sea and was a strategic point for the surrounding areas.
Along the coast to the south was Ksamil and one of the most beautiful beaches on the Albanian Riviera. There were white sandy beaches and small islands you can wade or walk to. Of course, we had the place mostly to ourselves. Ervin said it was usually impossible to find parking there on a nice day.
A little farther south was Butrint National Park at the point where Lake Butrint meats the ocean. There is a Venetian Tower and a Venetian Triangle Castle there. There is also a really interesting cable barge that takes people across the water way. The cables make it impassable to boats so Lake Butrint is a pretty peaceful place, marked only by several mussel farms. It was getting late so we didn’t spend much time there but Howard and I may go back if we have time.
Our last stop of the day was our Airbnb in Sarandë. We had finally made it to the beach condo! This day was one of our best travel days we have had. We saw so many great places and can really appreciate the beauty and diversity of Albania. Ervin was a fantastic tour guide and driver. He made our day amazing and we will never forget it. I highly recommend his services to anyone coming to Albania, weather it’s a 2 day tour like we did or just a ride from the airport. If interested, you can reach him on WhatsApp at +355693719577.