My ‘fast & furious’ Western Balkans Trip – 3 Countries in 6 Days (Part 3)
Day Three: Albania (Vlora – Butrint – Gjirokastra)
After an early-morning start (forget about sleeping-in, this was a research trip, not a vacation), we headed south along the Vlora Bay (the largest in the country). With the Karaburun Peninsula looming on our right, we ascended to the Llogara Pass – a spectacular winding road overlooking the Ionian coast which is also the highest point (3,420 ft.) on the main coastal route between Vlora and Saranda.
All along, we enjoyed the majestic views over the forests of the Llogara National Park and the azure waters and golden beaches of the Ionian Sea. The scenery is truly spectacular, with brooks running from the mountain and down to the beaches, some of the Greek Ionian islands visible in the distance, and terraced hills covered with orange and olive groves.
From the top, a series of hairpin bends lead down toward to coast and local people sell honey and dried mountain tea (iron wort) alongside the road. Further south, my guide pointed out an abandoned naval base and a submarine pen which was clearly noticeable from the road.
Our next stop was at the Porto Palermo Castle. I am simply a sucker for castles and citadels and would not have missed it for the world. It was built on a small island (which was later connected to the mainland by a causeway) in the early 19th century for Ali Pasha Tepelena – a local feudal ruler who at the time controlled much of the territory of present-day southern Albania and north-western Greece and who hired European military engineers and architects to build fortresses, bridges, and mosques throughout his domain.
The English poet Lord Byron visited with him during his journeys through the region. The triangular fort was built of limestone blocks and is beautifully preserved; it was still used after the Second World War as a prison and a military garrison.
After a brief stop in Saranda to pick up our local guide, we continued further south to the UNESCO-protected archaeological site of Butrint. You do not have to be an archaeology buff (but I am) to enjoy the ruins from several periods – Illyrian, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, and Venetian, as well the site’s location on the Lake Butrint and the channel which connects it to the Ionian Sea.
In Antiquity, a settlement was established here by Greek colonists and prospered thanks to its sanctuary dedicated to Aesculapius (the god of medicine) and its strategic location near the Straits of Corfu. Later, the Romans significantly expanded the city and built the forum, the aqueduct, and the public baths. Destroyed by an earthquake, Butrint was brought back to life by the Byzantines who rebuilt the walls and added early-Christian buildings like the basilica and the baptistery. The site gradually lost importance and by the 19th century had been uninhabited for centuries and surrounded by marshes caused by the rising water levels.
As is often the case when touring archaeological sites, it is always a good idea to have a local guide with you who can not only give you all the historical background and point out the highlights, but also help bring the ruins back to life so that you can imagine what everyday life used to be for its inhabitants centuries ago. I especially liked the huge stone blocks with inscriptions announcing the freeing of slaves.
Next, it was finally time for late lunch, and what a meal it was – a true seafood extravaganza at the Guvat restaurant in Ksamil. The setting was gorgeous – overlooking the beach and the nearby islands, and the food and wine were exceptional (or maybe just felt that way as I was starving).
The owner met us himself and helped us select from the extensive menu. We ordered everything to share – a huge salad with seafood, mussels sauteed in wine and butter, grilled feta, and then another huge seafood platter, all accompanied by the excellent house white wine.
With our tummies now full, we continued with our drive to Gjirokastra – our final destination for the day. En route, we made a brief stop at the Blue Eye – a natural underwater spring bubbling up from a deep pool which gives the water its distinct blue color. It could have been a very beautiful spot to just relax and enjoy the nature, if it was not for the spring’s surroundings which are covered with trash and visibly badly maintained.
It was not until the evening when we finally reached Gjirokastra, just before dark. After a quick dinner (no one was that hungry following that huge lunch), we retired to the Gjirokastra hotel. The rooms were rather basic, but after such a long day, we really did not care, as long as they had beds and showers (which they did).