As part of its “Mediterranean Masterpiece” cruise, the Crystal Serenity last Wednesday stopped in Sarande, Albania. This is a new port for the luxury cruise line; indeed Sarande is still growing as a destination and its denizens are just learning the importance of tourism. Dubbed as part of the “Albanian Riviera,” Sarande has long drawn sun worshippers, but it seems as if the Brits have just set their eyes on it and, as a result, a number of condos and new hotels are sprouting up around its Ionian shores.
Our particular land excursion took us to the Castle of Lekuresi, which was built in the start of the 17th century. Because we knew so little about this destination, we were overwhelmed by the loveliness of the views from the castle’s location, which is high above the sea, giving off stunning views of Butrint Lake, the Ionian and Adriatic seas and the coastline of Corfu, which you can nearly reach out and touch from some locations near Sarande.
Crystal had also prepared an “experience” for its passengers by supplying a trio of folksingers who greeted us when we arrived at the castle and a host of local dancers who charmed the entire crowd with regional Balkan dances. We even tried our hand at sampling some Albanian beer, which tasted remarkably like many of the typical beers back home.
I had read that Sarande gets quite hot in the summer, but during our time in port there was a gentle breeze blowing all day. Throughout our drive, we saw glimpses of the Albanian flag hanging from buildings. It is red with a two-headed eagle adorning it. Our guide told us that the red stands for the blood of the Albanian people while the eagle motif indicates that one of the birds is actually injured, the other is helping it. “So that means that, in Albania, we are always helping each other out,” our guide, Aliana, told us.
Indeed, Albania has quite a history. It was one of the first countries occupied by the Axis powers at the outset of World War II. Living under occupation for five years, Albanians can boast that they were the only Eastern European country to push out the Nazis without assistance from the Soviets. The country then fell under the leadership of Enver Hoxha, a leader of the Communist Labor Party. As a result, Albania lived in communism for more than four decades, during which time its leader forced it to lead an isolationist existence in Stalin-esque fashion.
Today, the country has just been a democracy since 1990. It is admittedly one of the poorest countries in Europe and, since its democratization, many of its denizens have immigrated to the United States, Greece and other nearby countries in search of a better life. Most of Albania’s churches were destroyed during the communist period since practicing religion was forbidden. Today, the country’s inhabitants enjoy a freedom to worship any number of religions and the various faiths may intermarry without any problem.
Note: The unit of currency in Albania is the Lek (ALL) and the current rate of exchange against the U.S. dollar is 77.47ALL. If they go, your clients will most likely have to exchange their money on shore, since most shops don’t take the dollar. We also recommend you sign your clients up for a shore excursion (another could include a visit to Butrint, a UNESCO World Heritage site), since Sarande’s port area still has a ways to go in terms of creating dynamic attractions for visitors. However, a walk around this area will give your clients the chance to sample a destination that is unsullied by commercialism and, as a result, provides those seeking an authentic destination a true sense of place.
We give our visit to Sarande two thumbs up.
— Ruthanne Terrero