Today I’m sitting on our rooftop balcony looking out over Gjirokastra, still I haven’t been everywhere in the city but from the rooftop I’ve seen it all. It is really amazing and I’m so thankful for being here in this lovely little city. I’m just back from a trip to the cost Mehran and I did this weekend. We went to the coastal towns of Saranda, Ksamil and Butrint to check out the surrounding areas and put Gjirokastra as a tourist destination in a context: What kind of tourists comes to the coast and what activities are offered there? How can Gjirokastra use this to build tourism products that will attract them?
To get to the coast we took a more or less organized bus ride. In the corner of the big cross road downtown in Gjirokastra there are a couple of private minivans parked, the owners of which are standing around shouting “Saranda, Saranda, Saranda”. When the van was full it left. The road winding south through the Drino Valley where Gjirokastra is situated and then up and through the mountains. On the other side we saw a completely different landscape and climate. From our barren bushy mountainous area, the leafy green on the other side of the mountain almost hurt our eyes. It was as if going from winter to spring within a 2 min ride. We followed a perfectly clear turquoise colored mountain stream all the way to the sea.
But we came to Saranda and were utterly disappointed. Concrete buildings were popping up everywhere without any particular style, there were no walkways, no parks or trees, no lamps, just dust and concrete. It was apparent that this was a new city were city planners were nonexistent. Neighbors didn’t seam to care about each other instead competing: building so to cover the ocean views for each other. It seemed very “boom and bust” cyclic with no long term commitment of turning this into a charming coastal town. All other Mediterranean cities I’ve been to have had their charm, a soul and energy around them, but here that was nowhere to be found. Why this have let happened I have no idea but it was sad to see.. We walked on the beach and were surprised that the water was still clear considering the amount of pipes they had going directly into the ocean. What saved the hours we spent there was the lovely Italian coffee we had and the sun and warmth of spring.
Later that day we went to another little town we had heard about: Ksamil, about 30 min further to the south. We went there expecting something similar to Saranda but thankfully we were mistaken – it was beautiful little village! Empty white sandy beaches, turquoise water and a beach promenade. There was a kind of bustling noises and hammering coming from everywhere as the restaurants and bars were fixing up for the summer. Ksamil is like Saranda still in a developing face but thankfully not as bad…yet.
However between the new and old buildings we saw an surprising amount of half destructed modern concrete ruins with steel sticking out. It looked weird and we couldn’t get our minds around it. We met up with Tylers friends Ivy and Tani and had some coffee with them. Tani comes from north Albania but has been living in Ksamil running his own hostel for many years. We asked them about the buildings we’d seen and they told us this story:
During communism time this area was undeveloped and a part of a huge orange state farm. After the fall some farmers built their houses here and being so close to Saranda tourists came down from there and saw the potential. Nobody owned the land so anyone could (and can) just start building anything anywhere. This was the reason for the chaos in Saranda too. Now in the last couple of the years the government has started to realize the chaos problem and have started giving out building permits. But these are expensive and corruption exists even here so some people decide to build anyway. And these buildings (from 2007-2013) are now being demolished. What makes it so sad is that the buildings are lierally the bank for generations of money: After the pyramid bank schemes in 1997 (people lost all of their money, anarchy, civil war) people didn’t trust the banks anymore so they put all their salary savings into buildings instead, bying and building a little as soon as money was there.. So houses take many many years before they finish, but now they’re being torn down within an hour with all the families’ moneys lost in the dust. Many leave and try starting over somewhere else. Tanis neighbors three storey building was crushed and he hasn’t seen his neighbor for three years. Crazy. And now there is rumors that all buildings in all of Ksamil are going to be torn down as some resort has bought all the property and is planning to build a superkomplex resort there…
Well it was very interesting meeting Ivy and Tani to get a picture of the situation of the coastal towns. It seems that history and culture was sparse there, and this is an opportunity to use for promoting Gjirokastra for those who wants to experience Albanian traditions and history.
While we were down there on the coast we decided to visit the world heritage site of Butrint as it was only 4 km away from Ksamil. And once again we were amazed. The ruins of Butrint was a huge area that took us 2.5 hours to walk around. This was apparently a big city once upon a time: a peninsula perfectly positioned between a big lake and the ocean.
The history in short for those interested: First is served as a healing sanctuary to the god Asclepius, then a roman colony founded by Caesar. It then suffered from vandal raids, was occupied by Christians, Normans and finally in 1386 it was bought by the Venetian Republic to be used as a military outpost of the Venetian Corfu. In 1572 it was abandoned to become a simple fishermen’s village but from the 18th century it was discovered by the grand tourists, European painters and diplomats. It is now a world heritage site that is still being excavated.
”Butrint folder and site map”
It is not hard to see the reasons for this attention towards the peninsula: on one side the ocean, in front fields of lush green and yellow, to the back views over villages on mountain tops in a far distance, and to the south the view of the lake with its stunning green blue waters with picturesque fish and mussel cultivations. Mehran went looking for seahorses – apparently they are endemic to this lake – nowhere else to be found in the world! But they are shy and like warm water so we didn’t see them…
We sat down to enjoy the view, on the other side on the channel the wind and rain were fighting over dark clouds but on our side it was beautiful springy: sunny, warm with a little breeze. We walked among the ruins for maybe 2-3 hours and considered us for that period of time to be among the happiest people on the planet. It was mindfulness at its peak. We strolled around on paths taking us from church to city walls ruins, baths and all kinds of parts and pieces of this once grand city. Still it’s being excavated every summer by American and English archaeologists. We saw so many nice things here and always with the view over the sea or the fields in a hundred shades of greens. Inside our world we walked in lush grass clad with white and purple flowers. Butrint was really the most beautiful place I’ve seen in Albania so far.
We made our way back to Gjirokastra that late afternoon with peace of mind. We are beginning to see the picture of south Albania and where Gjirokastra fits in the mix. There surely are a lot of things Gjirokastra has to offer that Saranda and Ksamil doesn’t have. Even if Butrint has history and culture that city is abandoned while Gjirokastra is alive and vibrant. We will have this in mind now when we start working on our project next week.
And that is what the next post is going to be about! So stay tuned!