Editor’s note: I am so proud to host another amazing piece from Sam Spector, the traveling rabbi! For more of Sam’s writing, visit his index here.
If you are like me, you have probably had a trip… or three… canceled by the COVID-19 outbreak. Also, if you are like me, as you have been touring every room in your house, you have also been thinking about where you would like your first post-pandemic trip to be. As soon as we are able to travel again, it is important to remember that the threat of the virus will not be fully over for a while. That being the case, no way will you find me standing in a long line for the Louvre or crammed into the Sistine Chapel with hundreds of other people breathing the same air. No, I want to be outdoors and in a place not overrun by tourists. Hmmm… maybe Scandinavia? No, wait. The pandemic’s effect on the economy took a shot at our bank accounts. Scandinavia and Western Europe are out of the question. But alas, there is a solution that can give you the perfect European vacation on a budget where you will not be surrounded by other tourists. This place is called Albania.
It has been a while since I was in Albania, and since then, the nation has started to land on the radar of tourists, getting a total of five million international visitors last year. Yet, the four days that I spent in the southern part of the country were some of the best of anywhere I have been.
I arrived into the town of Gjirokaster via an overnight bus from Athens. This town has a lovely charm to it that feels like a truly medieval European experience akin to being in the Transylvanian Alps. The town is dominated by a giant fortress with a clock tower atop of a hill peering out over the entire city and surrounding area. While walking through the UNESCO World Heritage Old Town and up the cobblestone hill to the fortress, I was struck by how nice the locals were. The owner of a local pizza restaurant ran out to tell me to take my backpack off and store it for free at her restaurant just as her way of thanking me for visiting Albania. I noticed in climbing the hill that I passed the headquarters for the local communist party and various posters devoted to the communist cause were strewn across the hills.
Gjirokaster’s clock tower
Upon reaching the top of the steep climb, I found that I had the fortress all to myself and stunning views of the mountainous, green Albanian countryside. The fortress itself is a fascinating place, not only because its origins date back 900 years, but also because the theme of reverence for communism continues here. There are relics of anti-aircraft weaponry used to fight Nazism during World War II and an American spy plane that was captured in 1957 during the Cold War. As I climbed down the mountain and the sky darkened, little lights illuminated the path in front me as hundreds of lightning bugs whizzed about.
Gjirokaster from above
Had I just gone to Gjirokaster, my trip to Albania would have been a success, but little did I know it was just beginning. From there, I traded the mountains for the coast in the charming seaside town of Saranda. When I got off of the bus, this rabbi (me) did a double take as there was a square of ruins in the middle of town with a sign that said “Synagogue.” Right in the heart of the city are the ruins of a massive synagogue that dates back to the 3rd century CE with a mosaic floor that features a menorah. The religious history of Albania continues to be complex to this day with the country being approximately half Muslim and half various forms of Catholic, Christian and Eastern Orthodoxy. Aside from being historic, Saranda has beautiful beaches right on the Ionian Sea and a great bar scene. Right in the heart of town, I stayed in one of the best hostels of my life, the oddly named Hairy Lemon hostel, which is a converted apartment. The Hairy Lemon has incredible 180 degree views of the sea and the nearby Greek island of Corfu. Corfu is considered to be one of the most historic and beautiful Greek islands with six ferries daily to and from Saranda, a nice combination to your trip.
Synagogue ruins in Saranda
Just a half hour city bus ride from the center of Saranda is Butrint, an ancient Roman city on a lagoon. Butrint is one of the most beautiful, largest and best-preserved Roman cities that I have had the pleasure of visiting, and unlike other Roman cities, it happens to have shade, making it enjoyable to visit. Additionally, there are medieval castles and the second largest Byzantine Basilica after the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul. Much like the Gjirokaster fortress, another tremendous perk was that I had the entire archaeological park to myself as this gem had not yet been discovered. As of 2020, the cost of admission was $6 USD for foreigners, which brings me to one of my favorite aspects of Albania: it is dirt cheap. Massive, incredible meals are easy to find for under $10 and accommodations are cheap too.
On my way back from Butrint, I stopped at the resort town of Ksamil, right in between Butrint and Saranda. There, I found my favorite beach in Europe, which again, I had to myself. When I show people pictures of Ksamil, I ask them where they think this beach is located; the answers that I usually receive range from Thailand to the Caribbean. When I tell people that the picture is from Albania, the reaction is consistently jaw-dropping disbelief. Though I was incredibly tempted to call my graduate school at the time and tell them that I was dropping out to start a new life in Saranda, I begrudgingly carried on and took a bus up to the capital, Tirana, to catch my bus over to Macedonia.
Yeah, this is Albania!
Coming from the traditional southern villages of Albania, I was shocked to find myself in a cosmopolitan city with modern architecture where tall, modelesque students dressed in fashionable clothing walked past murals and statues dedicated to national revolutions and heroes.
Modern architecture in Tirana
Sadly, I only scratched the surface of this tiny nation of three million inhabitants, slightly larger than New Jersey. I did not get the opportunity to visit the port city of Durres, hike the Albanian Alps in the north, or the multi-color Instagramable Blue Eye spring and natural phenomenon in the south. I guess I will have to happily return, but hopefully before Albania gets discovered as one of the world’s best kept secrets and your post-COVID destination. If you want the history, beaches, and scenery of Western Europe without the crowds or prices, then take a jump, skip, and a hop from Italy, Croatia or Greece and go to Albania.
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