‘Full steam ahead’ was the cry as the spotters sat out front looking for the first sign of land. Okay, maybe this happened more in my head than reality, but we certainly felt excited as we slowly approached Albania from Corfu.
Albania opened its doors to the rest of the world in the 1990’s, after decades of harsh communist rule but it’s only now tourism is becoming more popular. We’d read about Albania’s mountains and beaches, but outside of that we had no idea what to expect, so it was an adventure into the unknown for us.
If you can judge a country by it’s flag – we were going to love Albania!
Albanian Lesson No 1. There’s friendly – and then there’s Albanians.
The one thing we had read a lot about before arriving, was the Albanian hospitality. Honour is a very important part of their culture, and a big part of the honour system is looking after guests.
We experienced the famous Albanian hospitality as soon as we stepped off the boat. We’d read a lot about Tomi, the owner of our hostel in Saranda, but actually meeting the myth himself, we were blown away by his energy and eagerness to help.
We were in town for 4 days in total and every time we saw him, he made sure to ask where we were going and could he help us out with any information, he wrote notes in Albanian for us so we could get the bus driver to stop where we needed, and was just generally awesome without being over the top. It was also helpful to have someone to pester with our questions about Albania, as English is not commonly spoken here.
The Albanian tourist board really couldn’t have asked for a better person to welcome people to their country. If this was a sign of the famous hospitality we’d heard about, I think we’re going to be very happy here.
Albanian Lesson No 2. Let’s promenade you say?
There were two sides to Saranda. During the day there was a laid back feeling to the town. Men would be sitting outside coffee shops drinking their espressos, there were families at the beach and a few people eating in the restaurants. At night however, the town came alive and the thing to do was to get dressed up and go promenading. No I haven’t made that up, it’s a real thing!
The promenade in Saranda stretched from one end of town to the other and was lined with bars, restaurants and market stalls. The instructions for promenading are simple, just walk up and down along the promenade. We had no idea where all these people came from, but as soon as dusk hit the town, the street was packed.
We saw couples, families and friends all enjoying their evening stroll, teenagers flirting as they passed each other in the street and the older generations watching the passersby from the seats.
People stopped to talk to friends, or to buy an ice-cream or grilled sweetcorn from street vendors, enjoying the cooler temperatures in town at night.
It was a fun way to see Albanian culture close-up. People watching in new countries is always very interesting, so we joined the crowds and went with the flow down the street.
Albanian Lesson No 3. Fah-lehm-meen-what??
We always learn to say at least hello and thank you in a new country when we arrive, but in Albania this was a challenge. The word for thank you has FIVE syllables! And there is no shortened version of the word for ‘thanks’, so you need to remember the entire word, and then get the whole mouthful out when you want to thank someone, before they’ve walked away. Have a try?
Thank you in Albanian = Faleminderit (fah-lehm-meen-DEH-reet)
When Albanians thank you, they often also put their hand over their chest, palm to their heart and look you in the eye as they say Faleminderit. Possibly a small thing in their culture, but to us felt like such a nice and honest gesture, as if they were saying thank you from my heart. Even though we’d only bought a burek for $50c or a beer for $1.
The town of Saranda wraps around the busy port, sunbathers enjoy the small sections of beach along the bay and the mountains provide the backdrop. We had a fantastic view from our apartment and enjoyed watching the coming and goings of the port throughout the day.
Saranda isn’t the most beautiful place and there’s not a lot to do in the town itself, but it’s the perfect base for exploring the surrounding area. We visited the Unesco town of Gjirokaster with its famous old town and castle, the stunning beaches of Ksamil and the ancient Greek ruins at Butrint (posts coming soon). All just short bus rides from Saranda.