Saranda (Sarandë) has become the “unofficial capital” of the Albanian Riviera . Located in the south of Albania, close to the border with northern Greece. It is a destination that has become fashionable in Albania in recent years due to the recent arrival of several cruise ships in its port. Tourism comes mainly from Italy, Macedonia, Kosovo and Greece, and Albania’s attractive prices make it a jewel.
View of Sarande Bay
Quiet but at the same time lively, the port city is making a name for itself in cruise tourism in the Mediterranean, especially in the Adriatic and the Greek Ionian Islands. The Sarande cruise terminal has undoubtedly opened the doors of tourism to the city, as well as being located opposite the island of Corfu, just two nautical miles away.
HISTORY OF SARANDA
In antiquity the settlement had the ancient Greek name of Onkosmo (or Anchiasmos ), inhabited by Hellenes of the Caonian tribe, who used the coastal port to supply the Caonian capital of Phoenice (modern Finiq in the hinterland).
Archaeological excavations testify to Mycenaean influence in Sarande, or at least to trade with these peoples, thanks to the presence of 15th-17th century BC targets
Several Roman chroniclers such as Cicero and Strabo mention the city, surrounded by walls two metres wide. According to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, the real name of the place was the Port of Anchises, named after Anchises, the father of Aeneas. Probably due to this tradition, the name Onchesmus assumed the form Anchiasmus or Anchiasmos under the Byzantine Empire.
Saranda is considered to be the first place where Jews built a synagogue, in the 4th or 5th century AD. In the 6th century the Jewish temple was replaced by a Christian church. The city was probably raided by the Ostrogoths in 551 AD and suffered raids by pirates who came to its coast.
In a medieval chronicle of 1191, the settlement appears to be abandoned, while its former name (Anchiasmos) is no longer mentioned. The name Saranda comes from the Byzantine monastery of Agioi Saranda (Greek: Άγιοι Σαράντα), meaning “Forty Saints”, after the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. Religious legend has it that a group of Roman soldiers of the Legio XII Fulminata (Lightning) were martyred in 320 AD near Sebaste in Armenia.
In the early 11th century it was conquered by the Bulgarians, and after almost a century it passed into the hands of Robert Giuscardi’s Normans who came from Sicily, being replaced by the Venetian expansion in the Adriatic.
Under Ottoman rule, the town was known as Aya Sarandi and later Sarandoz. Due to Venetian influence in the region, it was often referred to on western maps as Santi Quaranta .
In the early 19th century, during the rule of Ali Pasha, the British diplomat William Martin Leake reported that a small settlement by the name of Skala or Skaloma existed next to the harbour. In the last years of the Ottoman period and until the Balkan Wars (1912-1913) Sarandë was only a sparsely populated port.
In the 20th century it became part of the Albanian state in 1913, but suffered invasions by Greeks defending the creation of the Autonomous Republic of Northern Epirus in 1913 and 1914-16, and by Italians in 1916 and 1920. The city’s greatest development came during the reign of King Zog I in the 1930s.
During the Italian occupation of Albania in World War II, Benito Mussolini changed the name to Porto Edda, in honour of his eldest daughter, making Sarande a strategic port for Italy’s Fascist forces.
During the Greek-Italian war, the city came under the control of the advancing Greek forces. The capture of this strategic port further accelerated the Greek penetration northwards. As a result of the German invasion of Greece in April 1941, the city returned to Italian control. In October 1944, the city was captured by a British commando group under the command of Brigadier Tom Churchill. However, the British troops soon withdrew from the region, leaving the region to Albanian communist forces. Eventually, after the restoration of Albanian independence, the town regained its Albanian name Saranda.
As part of the policies of the People’s Republic of Albania (1945-1991), a number of Albanian Muslims from northern Albania settled in Sarandë and the Greek Orthodox lost population. Still Sarandë is, together with Gjirokastër, considered one of the Greek minority centres in Albania.
WHAT TO SEE IN SARANDA
Sarandë has become a place to relax on holiday. Relaxing in the sun on the beaches, shopping, having a drink in the cafés and bars on the boulevard (lungomare), and of course, sampling the local gastronomy in the restaurants are all part of the pastimes, as well as of course, the excursions in the surrounding area such as Butrint.
The south-facing bay serves as a shelter for ships. From the ferry terminal in the harbour, the promenade leads to the monument of Hasan Tahsini…
Only the remains of the foundations of the Sarandë Synagogue, built in the 5th century, remain. They are open to the public without entrance, with the remains of mosaics, and are a reminder of the important Jewish community that once inhabited the city.
It is the usual place to walk along the coast of Sarande enjoying the sea.
Qafe Gjashta Mosque
The ‘Gjin Aleks Mosque” is curiously dedicated to a Christian. Built on the ruins of a 17th century church, it is still a temple of prayer. It is located on the outskirts of Delvina.
Monastery of the 40 Saints
The “Church of the Monastery of the 40 Saints” is located in the east of the city, from where you can enjoy a view of the city. Built in the 15th century, it offers an almost mystical atmosphere.
It is considered one of the rarest Byzantine monuments between the 11th and 14th centuries. From the former monastery only the ruins of the surrounding walls and a tower in the west remain. The monastery has almost completely disappeared. The church is a mixture of the old Byzantine style with Roman influence, and was built in the 12th century.
On the outskirts of Saranda, on the eponymous hill of Lekuresi, the castle dominates the skyline, with beautiful views of the Ionian Sea, the island of Corfu and the Butrint lagoon. It is actually a monastery fortified in the 16th century by Soleiman the Magnificent, the walls and a tower are preserved, as well as some 20th century cannon batteries on the outside. The castle’s restaurant offers a suggestive sunset overlooking the sea, and in summer there are concerts to liven up the evenings.
Lekuresi Castle and Sarande in the background
Sarande’s beaches resemble those of the Mediterranean in Spain or Italy, busy in summer with rows of umbrellas of holidaymakers seeking the sun and climate of the Albanian town.To choose the best one we can explore the surrounding beaches, such as Pulebardhat, Pasqyrat, Manastiri, or go to the reputed beaches of Ksamil .
How to get there
Because Saranda has no railway station or airport nearby, the only way to get there is by road. Buses and minibuses run to and from the larger Albanian cities.
Sarandë is 280 km from Tirana , the capital of Albania. To reach Tirana by public transport there are buses that cover the journey from 6 to 9 hours (depending on the stops). From other cities the distances are 124 km to Vlora and 61 km to Gjirokastra
Sarandë can be reached from Greece via the border area by land.
By road, follow these two routes: Tirana-Fier-Levan-Tepelena-Gjirokastra- Muzina or Tirana-Fier-Vlora-Llogara-Albanian Riviera.
If coming from Greece, you can enter Albania at the border of Tri Urat in Permet, Kakavija in Gjirokastra and Qafe Bota in Konispol. If you are coming from Macedonia and northern Greece the border points are Qafe Thana and Kapshtica and then either go to Elbasan-Rrogozhina-Fier or via Korca-Erseka-Leskovik-Permet-Kelcyra Gorge-Gjirokastra.
Arriving by ferry
There are ferry connections to other cities in Albania such as Vlora and Durres, or Corfu and Igoumenitsa in Greece. From the island of Corfu there are daily ferries linking the Greek island with the port of Sarande.
Although the Vriona airport is being built 1 km from the city, nowadays you can only fly to Tirana, the only international airport in Albania (Mother Teresa airport). Another option is to fly to Corfu International Airport and take the ferry to Saranda. It takes more than an hour by ferry and 30 minutes by fast boat.
How to get to the centre of Saranda from the port
Saranda receives travellers who visit Saranda as a stopover on their one or two-day cruises. Some take the opportunity to visit the city, while others opt for excursions to Butrint National Park and other nearby destinations.
Although the distance between the port and the city centre of Saranda is about a 10-minute walk, some people opt for taxis.
MAP OF PLACES TO VISIT
ACCOMMODATION IN SARANDA
Being a very important tourist destination, the offer of hotels, flats and other accommodation options is wide and varied.
WHERE TO EAT IN SARANDA
Saranda’s traditional cuisine has Mediterranean, Greek, Italian and Turkish influences, but with its own personality. Besides the tasty mussels, some typical dishes are ‘kukurec’ (lamb intestines on a skewer), and different local fish. Two recommended places are Taverna Rrapo and Pizzaria Maria Madalena.
ACTIVITIES AND TOURS
From Sarande there are quite a few organised excursions to other touristic places in southern Albania such as the Butrint National Park , or the Blue Eye . They are usually offered to tourists arriving by cruise ship in the port.
Excursions from Saranda
Other places we can visit using Sarande as a “base accommodation” are the beach of Ksamil, 15 minutes away by car, one of the most beautiful beaches of the Albanian Riviera. There you can also visit the “mussel farms”, where mussels are “cultivated”. Another famous beach is Lukove beach, a little further away (45 minutes by car from Saranda), whose church of Aghios Ioannis is also worth a visit. If we spend even more days and are looking for more to do, there is a ferry from Sarande to the Greek island of Corfu, a two-hour boat ride away. And finally inland is the 13th century monastery of St Nicholas in the village of Mesopotam, the best-preserved Byzantine church in Albania.
Sarandë has a Mediterranean climate with more than 300 days of sunshine a year. During the summer, temperatures can rise above 30 degrees Celsius. However, a cooling breeze blows constantly. Winters are mild and sub-zero temperatures are rare. The wettest months of the year are November and December. Summers are very dry. The best times are April, May and September, when the days are long and sunny, but not as sweltering as June-August.
In the Lungomare there is a kiosk where they offer tourist information about the monuments, excursions and activities to do in Sarande