“A Diamond In The Rough”
My first impressions of this beautiful somewhat out of the way place are exactly that, a diamond in the rough, but with a little polish this seaside community will continue to grow and flourish as it has in the past 10 years. I am a newly minted retiree who has lived an active lifestyle in the communities of northern Utah for the past 40 years. I still hike, bicycle and ski in the winter.
My original plan was to go to the northern Andes mountains of South America and use that as a jumping-off point to see things there on that continent. Then Covid-19 hit and after a few months in New Hampshire helping my son and his family, I knew it was time to find an alternative.
A quick review in July of the list of countries allowing U.S. citizens into their country told me that the opportunities were very, very limited. My son had been to Albania for work and shared with me that the people were warm and very friendly and the prices for things like dinner out were very reasonable. So I started doing my own research. After watching about 50 videos (some on other Balkan countries) and joining three Expat groups on social media, I took the leap of faith and bought a ticket.
Just getting here was a bit tricky as even during normal times there are no direct flights (Saranda does not have its own international airport yet). I flew to Nikola Tesla International Airport in Belgrade, Serbia from JFK in New York, and the flight was like any other international flight except we all had to wear masks.
I changed planes in Belgrade for Tirana (Mother Theresa International Airport) and then had a driver meet me there for the 4-hour drive down to Sarande. Just 20 miles or so north of the Greek border, Sarande sits in a bay that enjoys a beautiful view of the Island of Corfu, Greece.
I chose a modest apartment using an online vacation rental platform that was in a local neighborhood called ‘Kodrra’. It was in my price range and I am literally a couple of hundred yards from the water. I’m on the port side of the bay near the ferry terminal in an area where locals live.
My landlady and her family have been more than generous, even walking me over to the better market on this side of town. All locally grown produce and although different than a “supermarket” in the U.S. it has everything I need.
The water is, of course, the Mediterranean. Officially recognized as the Ionian Sea, that beautiful azure blue you see in the brochures and a rocky coastline that has its fair share of coves and inlets where boats can toss out a lightweight anchor for an afternoon dip in the warm crystal clear waters. Or if you want, find a resort in town, rent a beach chair and umbrella for the day and just relax and enjoy the fantastic views. There are always free public beaches as well, which is where I go to practice my snorkeling.
Nearby, and right in the city center are historic sites that range from six hundred years old to as old as fifteen hundred years. I was awestruck at the faded images on walls inside a cave-like structure at the Monastery of the 40 Saints. Just above the city, a 10-minute taxi ride brings you to an ancient monastery that just can’t be believed. A single attendant takes a modest entry fee and you are free to walk this religious site all alone.
The day in early September a companion and I visited, we were the only ones there! This area as well as the entire country has sites like this waiting to be discovered and explored.
During the communist era, Albania, unfortunately, lost a lot of its history. Many locals I spoke with have said they know how important and valuable it is for them to recapture this wonderful ancient history. As old as Greece yet untouched and closed off for almost half a century, the opportunities are almost limitless.
A list of places to visit as well as a wealth of other information is readily available online. I encourage all to do their own research and decide from that if this is a place to try. I have purposely left out the specific names and websites I used for my research as things are changing all the time. Some quick facts about Albania in general and Sarande specifically are:
- Albania 110,000 square miles in area
- Population 2,845,000
- GDP 42.59 Billion
- Borders Greece, North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Kosovo
- U. S. Passport holders One year on a simple tourist visa
- Currency Lek 10 to 1 USD (this fluctuates) most items are priced in Lek and Euros
- Sarande Population 40,000 (+/-)
- Economy Tourism 90 % (estimate)
- Time Zone Central European Time (CET) or GMT +1
- Weather (Sarande)
- January average High 57F Low 40.5F Precip. Jan 4.9 inches
- March average High 63.5F Low 45.1F Precip. Mar 3.9 inches
- June average high 85F Low 67.5F Precip. June 0.8 inches
The above information was taken from Wikipedia.org. Albania is as of this writing still allowing US passport holders in for one year.
There are some challenges with developing countries like Albania as any experienced traveler well knows. In my opinion, the pluses far outweigh the minuses and opportunities abound. I am currently shopping for a more long term place to live and prices are very, very affordable.
Although I have not settled in and calculated a budget, $1,000.00 USD seems to be a very attainable goal. Possibly even less for those who can do without some luxuries like AC, high-speed internet, Mobile Phones, Cable TV, etc. etc.
To reiterate I am an active, healthy 63 years old who enjoys the challenge of figuring out new places and cultures on my own. If you are not able to easily walk across a hilly town with lots of steps and some uneven surfaces this may not be the place for you. I hope you enjoy doing your own research and look forward to seeing you soon in beautiful, sunny Sarande!