Along the Albanian Riviera

It is early in the tourist season anyway, and everything has been stunted by lockdown. A roadtrip along the Albanian Riviera revealed many quiet places - in some cases altogether deserted - along with grateful guesthouse and restaurant owners.

The Riviera stretches between Sarandë and Vlorë and is characterised by glorious beaches and charming villages situated in the mountainsides overlooking the sea. The road is in good condition and winds along with amazing views and some breathtaking cliffedges and sharp turns. I didn't manage to check out every single beach, but I saw plenty. There are lots of castles too, and places of historical interest.

I didn't get as far as Vlorë, but did stop in Orikum, the seaside town just to the south. There's a really long beach with (mostly closed) restaurants and bars all along. I can imagine it would be a bit of a party scene during normal times in the summer. It was pretty desolate though. Photos of Orikum are here.

The Llogora Pass is a steep switchback road towards the north end of the Riviera, with Palasë beach at the bottom and Llogora national park at the top. The national park is a different world, with pine forests and cool mountain air. There are plenty of well marked hiking trails, as well as Cesar's Pass, where Julius Cesar's army marched. I stayed in a friendly guesthouse in the woods. The owners run a restaurant with delicious homemade pasta, and kept bringing free dessert. I hiked to the top of Maja Thanassit (GPS trace, photos) and to Cesar's Pass (GPS trace, photos). Visibility was not good.

Palasë beach is renowned for being gorgeous but seemed to subject to a large construction project and not very accessible. The next one down is Drymades. Not a lot there, but nice sand. The next town over is Dhërmi, which is absolutely charming; white houses and cute windows set into the mountainside. Vuna a bit further down is also picturesque, a smaller version of Dhërmi. I'd spend more time there in future.

Gjipe beach is nestled in the base of a canyon. There are a couple of different trails to get there from the road. One is longer but gentle and runs along the coast. The other is more.. exciting.. along the top of the canyon. I took the former (GPS trace). As I arrived on the beach, a couple of other people turned up in a canoe, which is the other way this place is accessible. There's a hut there renting canoes and paddleboards, and a campsite, so I expect there's more action here normally. But for my visit, it was peaceful; here are more photos of Gjipe beach.

Himarë is the 'captial' of the Riviera, as a medium sized town right on the sea instead of up in the mountains. It has a nice promenade, and lots of restaurants and shops that function all year round. There are several beaches and you can follow the coast around quite a way for different vibes. Interestingly the main language spoken there is a Greek dialect, and there are Greek flags flying all around. There's also a castle on the hill overlooking town. I stayed a couple of nights in the hostel, which had no other guests, and was hosted by two stranded workaway volunteers and two small friendly dogs. I didn't get the impression there is much to do in Himarë itself, and on one of the days it rained heavily so I just bummed around the hostel. They had a massive abundance of orange trees so I made fresh juice every day.

When the rain let up I hiked from Himarë to Jalë beach, via Livadh. It's a really nice coastal hike with a variety of terrains and foliage, and the long beach of Livadh to break it up (GPS trace). Of course as soon as I arrived a torrential downpour began again. Eventually found an open bar and sheltered there with hot coffee and chips. Gave up on waiting for the rain to end, and got wet heading back, but made it in time for the clouds to part and a beautiful golden sunset on the beach in Himarë. Photos of the hike to Jalë and back.

The next stop around the coast is Porto Palermo, home to a castle of Ali Pasha. I was surprised, pleasantly, to be sold a ticket to enter and have a fast, mumbled guided tour with a comprehensive history of the entire place in mostly comprehensible English. It's worth a visit, and the views are lovely too. Here are photos of the Castle at Porto Palermo.

In between Porto Palermo and Borsh are many other little beaches to stop at. But at some point, they all start to look the same. I also skipped Qeparo village which I'd read has some amazing ruins in the mountains. Maybe next time. Borsh itself is in three parts; upper, middle and lower. The middle is the main bulk of the village with shops and restaurants. The beachfront has restaurants too, and lots of hotels. The beach at Borsh is the longest on the Riviera. I walked a good chunk of it and it seems to go on and on (here are photos of Borsh). It seems like it should be possible to walk all the way to Lukovë along the beach. Given a couple of days. There are lots of ruined bunkers. I stopped in the village at the Waterfall Restaurant for a coffee; I would have had a pizza but they'd only just opened and weren't ready for that yet. The setting is pretty unique - tables are among small cascades of water. It's loud, but in a good way.

Borsh Castle is amazing. The road towards Upper Borsh is a bit sketchy, but there's a tiny bit of parking at the bottom of the castle hill, and the trail leading up to it is surprisingly well maintained. It's a complete ruin and there's no fee to enter. The views are incredible, both inland towards the mountains and out to sea. I'll let the photos do the rest of the describing.

The road back to Sarandë winds away from the coast and passes through the villages of Lukovë, Shën Vasil and Nivicë. There are lots of tracks leading off to more secret beaches that are worth investigating one day... (boat tours will take you to some of these from Sarandë in the summer).

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