Overstaying in Albania

I've been to Albania a couple of times in 2019 for short visits, or on my way to somewhere else. I was looking forward to spending time on the coast, so finally in March 2020 I managed to head out for a month-long stay. Or so I thought. Not long after I arrived, the coronavirus lockdown began. As 3 months approached, I emailed local authorities and quickly obtained a visa extension 'until travel restrictions are lifted'. After a while commercial flights from the capital to some other countries started to run, and I wasn't sure how long I could push my overstay (usually, the fine for overstaying is €500 per day!). But lots of expats kept telling me it would be fine. Around the 4 month mark I was stopped by police in town and asked for ID, and fortunately had my printed visa extension email on me, which was enough for them, so then I was less worried. In the end I needed to head back to the UK for other reasons, and stayed in Sarandë for five months in total.

For the first few months of lockdown, everything was closed and there was no public transport, so I wasn't able to see much of the country. Later when inter-city travel restrictions lifted I took a couple of cautious road trips.

In any case, there were definitely worse places I could have been stuck.

Where?

I spent most time this year in Sarandë. It is a smallish seaside town, quiet in the off season, and a little smelly and loud in the town center from an excess of construction and road traffic. After a week in the center I snapped from this, and managed to move south to the outskirts. It's also smelly in the more rural outskirts from locals burning trash. But at least it wasn't so loud. My new place was right in front of the sea, close enough to hear the crash of the waves from the balcony, and a short scrabble from a little rocky beach that was mostly empty until July.

There was no disadvantage in my opinion to being a 30-40 minute walk from the town center. When running, the local buses stop nearby. There's a surprisingly well stocked supermarket very close, and plenty of restaurants and cafes. Which would have been nice, if everything wasn't closed for most of my stay.

It's easy to find a cheap (€150/mo up) and decent (nicely furnished, sea view) place to stay here, in town or outside, for medium-term lets depending on season. Most of this town is empty apartments, of varying quality. Skip Airbnb and contact some of the local estate agents who manage many short term or holiday rentals, or look for facebook groups for expats and locals if you're into that sort of thing.

In Sarandë there's a small but busy and friendly expat community. I met more of them when the lockdown restrictions lifted. Often people arrange to eat out in groups, watch movies, go for hikes, and there are a disproportionate number of yoga classes. Bob's bar, American Blue (aka the Balkan Education Experience), is one of the major expat hubs (and also has great wifi speeds). Hang out there and you'll be integrated into the community in no time.

In June, things started to open again, but on a much quieter scale than normal. By July most seasonal restaurants and private beaches were up and running, and local tourists were visiting at weekends. 'My' beach started to see more people, even early in the morning. But I'm told it has been absolutely nothing compared to the tourist season in a normal year. I'm quite lucky to have been able to enjoy the weather and the sea without the usual crowds.

Clear seawater reflecting the sun

On calm, warm days it was lovely to swim from my beach to Secret Beach, past the Santa Quaranta pier. Secret Beach is not at all secret, that's just the name of the cafebar built over it, though you can climb over some rocks to get to a more sheltered part. The other direction, towards the public beach in south where the river flows into the sea, also makes a nice swim. Before the crowds came and they started charging for umbrellas, jumping into the sea from Santa Quaranta pier was a good change of scene too. And the flat rocks between the Santa Quaranta hotel beach and my beach were slippery and mossy and can be used as slides to get into the sea. Getting out again can be a challenge. There's a small pool there too where the sea washes in and out of which is nice to sit in, and standing rocks in the water to paddle and clambour around.

There's not a ton to do in Sarandë besides chilling out on the beach, but that's part of the charm. There's Lekursi Castle on a hill overlooking the bay, which is worth climbing up to. And on the adjacent hill is the Monastery of the 40 Saints, which Sarandë is named after, offering similarly good views and ruins. There are quiet coastal trails to hike to the north of the town and rolling hills inland towards Finiq village.

View from a hill over a small city lining a bay, backed by mountains A cow grazes on a rocky trail with the sea and Corfu island in the background Grass and scrub roll into the distance to meet mountains

Since it was lockdown for most of my stay, I appreciated that I was in a place where I didn't feel like I was missing out on much by staying inside all the time. I got to know my immediate surroundings very well. Here is every photo of the beautiful sea and sky I took from my balcony. On the balcony of an apartment in the building next door, lived an enormous beautiful fluffy dog who I called Fluffydog. We would sit and watch the sea together. Fluffydog only barked at night, very very occasionally, and sounded like two plastic cups being hit together. Another regular auditory presence was Chickendog, a huge alsatian who lived in a seaview kennel near the entrance to my building, so named because a family of chickens lived with him and they were often seen together. And then there was Boop and Borp, the two guard dogs of Hotel Visad who greeted me loudly every time I went to my beach. Eventually they started to recognise me, and stopped barking just to stand and wag their tails. I could often hear them all night though. Later on in my stay I met Banksy, who was attached to the Salad Farm cafe across the road. Banksy is very sweet and would bring other peoples' trash that he wanted to eat, but needed human assistance to open. He chases cars, which is not healthy.

A short drive out, along a well-signposted road, is the Blue Eye, Syri i Kaltër. It's a natural spring of unknown depth, with crystal clear waters and sapphire-blue dragonflies. You can't swim, and there's no hiking around as far as I can tell. There's one restaurant and one hotel nearby. It's worth a visit, but don't plan to spend all or even half a day there. It's on the way to Gjirokastër though..

A glowing blue pool framed by trees and leaves with a brilliant blue dragonfly perched in the foreground A view across a bright blue bubbling spring with trees around and mountains in the background

The Sarandë port also, under normal circumstances, provides fast access to Corfu all year round. The ferries stopped at the first sign of lockdown though, and didn't restart again while I was there.

Where else?

Sarandë is wonderfully placed for access to Ksamil and Butrint to the south. The former has beaches galore and islands you can reach by swimming. The latter has an ancient city and secret beaches if you venture far enough. They're hike-able from Sarandë (3.5 hours to Ksamil if you march straight there, or 8+ if you stop at every cove on the way..) but there's also an hourly bus (100 lek each way). You can read about my hikes to and around Ksamil and Butrint here.

Sarandë is also the end of the Albanian Riviera. I had the opportunity to follow the coastal road north to discover many beautiful towns and villages with gorgeous beaches, hills, castles. It's worth stopping in most of them. Borsh has miles of sandy beach (and a fab castle); Himarë has a lovely promenade and great hiking around; in between Jalë and Dhërmi are more coves and beaches you can only get to by boat or scrambling. I wrote more about a roadtrip along the Riviera.

At the top end of the Riviera is the Llogora mountain pass, an intense switchback that made my ears explode at the change in pressure. The Llogora national park is a different world to the coast, with alpine forests and cool air. There are miles and miles of hikes, with marked trails, and some lovely guesthouses to stay in. See photos of some hikes in the Llogora national park here.

For another change of pace, I went inland to visit Përmet and Gjirokastër. Përmet sits on the Vjosë river which is a bright crystal blue, and you can get down to sit on the rocky beach or paddle. It's a small town that seemed to come alive at night. The town is a moderate hike or a short drive from the Langarica canyon which has really beautiful hiking trails. Oh, and natural thermal springs. The water is not hot, but it's not cold, and the various different pools supposedly have different minerals for various healing benefits. Here is a post about my trip to Përmet.

I didn't stay long in Gjirokastër; enough to look all around the castle and the museums inside, which are worthwhile, and to have a delicious lunch. I think it'd make a good base for a longer stay, if you can stand to be away from the sea (more photos of Gjirokaster).

Sloping paved streets with white walls, open shop fronts, mountains in the background and a blue sky A view over a small mountain town with white walls and brown roofs Stone walls and clock tower of Gjirokaster castle with mountains in the background

In the north of Albania, I visited Shkodër last summer, which was definitely one of my all time favourite cities. It has lots of history, a beautiful lake, and a pedistrian- and cycle-friendly city center. It's a common stopover for people embarking on Balkan mountain hikes to the north. It's considerably cheaper than Sarandë. But so is everywhere.

And of course, the capital, Tiranë, is an interesting place. I've passed through a couple of times but never for more than a long weekend. I mostly walked around the center, ate at the one vegetarian restaurant, and hiked between bus stations. There's lots to see though in terms of museums, architecture and historical buildings. There's also an artificial lake, and it is in close proximity to good mountains. It's a short drive or bus ride from the seaside city of Durrës. I'd really like to spend more time there, but not at the expense of all the other places to visit in Albania..

Practicalities

Public transport is haphazard but pretty frequent across the country, and well-used by locals. You'll struggle to find information online. In most cities, just turn up to the bus station and ask around. There might be signs. They may or may not represent reality. In Tirana there are several bus stations all located very inconveniently far from each other and the city center, serving different parts of the country, or international routes. Look up the latest on wikitravel, I'm sure anything I write here will be out of date soon enough. The buses themselves may be large coaches, but are more likely to be little minivan things, even for long journeys. They are cramped and hot and only have limited luggage capacity.

Currency is Albanian Lek, ALL. Things are cheap, even by Balkan standards, and Sarandë is the most expensive place by far. Many places don't take card, or they might try and fail. Most ATMs charge extortionate fees, but Credins Bank did not for my TransferWise card.

Languages people speak will vary depending on where you are of course, but I've mostly encountered people speaking very good English, or if not, willing to try and smile and point. On the coast, you'll find people who speak Greek and/or Italian as well. It's been quite hard to pick up correct pronunciation of Albanian greetings by listening to locals, because people clock foreigners at once and say 'hello'. As with anywhere, you should at least learn to say thank you and hello in Albanian..

I don't normally get local SIM cards unless I have a particular reason to. In this case, once lockdown started I was unable to go to cafes for backup wifi, and I needed for a while to be able to send SMS to get permission to go out. Fortunately phone shops were considered essential enough to be allowed to open. Vodafone however would only do topups and not sell me a SIM. ALBTelecom claimed I needed a residence permit to buy a SIM. But T-mobile have a bunch of monthly packages for good prices. I had to show ID to buy it, but could only pay cash. Initially I got 10GB of data, plus tons of local and international minutes and SMS for about €16. I topped up a month later with 1.5GB plus 20 international minutes (and essentially unlimited local minutes and SMS) for less than €8.

I haven't any problems with wifi - bar very minor dropoffs for a couple of hours at most - at any of the places I've stayed so far though. The local supplier for Sarande (1-click.al) is reliable and speeds are good, so it's great for digital nomadding.

Keeping up to date with local happenings during the pandemic, AlbanianDailyNews and Exit were super helpful.

Weather is very different between the north and south, mountains and coast. It probably all evens out in the summer, but if you're in Albania in the winter I definitely recommend Sarande region.

There are a lot of stray dogs, big ones, but by and large seem more friendly and calm in Albania than a lot of other countries. They generally ignore you, but might walk with you for a bit. Feed one once and they're your best friend for life. Once I was escorted all the way home from town by Scabbydog, a limping, scrawny, pockmarked thing, because I was walking with someone who had been with someone else who had given the dog sausages in a completely different part of town some weeks prior..

Food

Eating out in Albania, outside of Tiranë, does not offer as much variety as even other parts of the Balkans. International cuisine is is not abundant. But that's okay, because Albanian food is delicious and tends to be made from fresh, local, seasonal produce. Options are more limited if you have a restricted diet, and to eat at Albanian restaurants a lot as a vegan can get repetitive. It's cheap though!

Other than pizza-pa-djäthë, my go-to was stuffed aubergine and stuffed peppers. They have both been slow baked; the aubergine is stuffed with itself, and a rich, herby, tomatoey mix with garlic, peppers and onion (patëllxhane të mbushur or Imam bayildi); the peppers are filled with rice. In theory either could be with meat, but they were the vegetarian option at every single place I ate around the country. It's definitely better to ask for no cheese though, just in case. To be honest, I have never been disappointed by a stuffed aubergine, and could happily eat it every day.

Bakeries are good and cheap. Byrek - phyllo pastry - with spinach is easy to come by. In Sarande my favourite was from Furre Kosova by the bus station.

Occasionally I found fasule, some sort of white beans in stew or sauce. Stewed or grilled vegetables and potatoes were simple but tasty side dish I could combine into a meal. I also had some excellent side salads (and some soggy ones), fantastic bread and the next best chips (chunky fried potatoes) after those in the UK!

Read more about being vegan in Albania.

Next time...

Before I got the message to go to the UK, I was half-heartedly thinking about planning a move to Macedonia. The small town of Pogradec is near the border (walking distance, from the south of Lake Ohrid) and I'd definitely have liked to visit on the way. There's the lake, and not a lot else that I can see. It looks peaceful.

Vlorë is the Big City just up the coast from Sarandë. It has beaches and a beautiful lagoon, as well as being a major port, and residential areas trail off away from the coast into the mountains.

Everyone drinks Korçë beer. It's inland, nestled in the mountains, and I've heard great things.

Berat is a famous (by Albananian standards) mountain town, the City of a Thousand Windows. I almost went there on my road trip, but they had a spike in coronavirus cases so I decided not to. It's a shame though. There's a lovely hostel, and guesthouses with amazing views.

The longer you spend in a place, the more you realise there is to see, and the longer you need to stay...

🏷 travel albania sarande lockdown coronavirus covid19 tourism castle beach

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