Heading South and East from Gjirokaster towards the coastline known as the Albanian Riviera. My first stop of the day was the mysterious National Monument of the Blue Eye. Photographs of this place generally look enhanced, so I had to see it with my own eyes.
The landscape in this area is a curious mix of lush vegetation fed by the river Karst and the much harsher, stoney maquis. As in most of Albania, wildlife thrives without man’s interference and wolf, hare, jackal, fox, and several rare species of bat are all to be found here. On yet another winding road, the traffic was light so I hoped to beat the crowds.
The Blue Eye, also known as “Syri i kaltër”, is a very photogenic, natural phenomenon, popular with the relatively few tourists who travel this route. Turning off the main road onto a rough muddy track, we were stopped by an official looking man collecting fees from visitors. Once the small fee was paid, the car splashed on down a muddy, puddled lane to park in a leafy clearing with a cafe on the waterside.
Other tourists were there, but not the potential hordes; though I have read since of coach loads coming from cruise ships on certain days. Following a well-walked path through the undergrowth to the bluest, clearest river I have ever seen I was also delighted by the abundant insect life. The air was teeming with beautiful, midnight blue damselflies. Other much larger dragonflies competed for my attention before I’d got anywhere near what I had come to see. Birdsong filled the air.
Then all at once, the shrubbery gave way to a wide clearing at the riverside, where visitors in shorts waded into the crystal shallows to pose for photographs. Everyone there eventually climbed to the raised viewing platform to look down on the “eye”, or “blue hole” as the locals refer to it. This unique natural feature, a spring that bubbles upwards from over 50metres below the water surface, looks like a dark blue eye when viewed from this platform.
I now knew those photographs hadn’t been “photoshopped”. This really is an incredible sight. The water is so clean and pure and very, very blue! At a sight like this one soon runs out of superlatives. My photography skills are very basic, but this place is a gift to true photographer’s. Wandering around the site, having seen the main focus, there is natural beauty wherever you look. Had there not been a sudden influx of Italian coach parties, I could have lingered a lot longer.
So, moving on towards the coast, the landscape changed at every corner, though always mountainous. I eagerly anticipated my first glimpse of the Ionian Sea. Yet it remained elusive right up to the last. Choosing an alternative to the main road to Sarande brought down the mountain range and around Butrint National Park, the descent providing a fantastic view of the wetlands around this historic site.
My route also included a somewhat decrepit chain ferry. This was recently made infamous by the television programme Top Gear, who hammed up their crossing with rather large cars. This carrier is little more than a wooden raft, with a little bench seat and parasol for the operator’s use. No more than two or three cars fit on at a time. The short passage is a fun and novel addition to the journey, past a Venetian Triangular Castle built to protect the fisheries of Butrint. Yet another of Ali Pasha’s many castles also lies a short distance from here.
As I neared the coastal village resort of Ksamil, the number of half-built dwellings and construction trucks grew. Cement mixers and aggregate suppliers attested to the growth of tourism. This is just a short drive from the bustling, main resort of Sarande, but is a quieter choice for a night’s rest, a walk on the sandy beach and a swim in the clear, calm waters.
The next morning took me back to the ancient ruins of Butrint, the second UNESCO site on my itinerary. Tourism, as we know it, may be a fairly new phenomenon for modern Albania, but this country has always been one that was visited and travelled through down the centuries. What is now a National Archaeological Park has been inhabited since at least the 8th century BC, yet was only rediscovered in the 1930’s, by an Italian archaeologist. The remains of settlements built by Greek, Byzantine, Norman and Venetian kingdoms, and the Ottoman Empire, nestle in the sub-tropical forest.
As I arrived at its gates, I was dismayed to see a long row of coaches parked outside, but once inside the site seemed to have swallowed them up! The closest, most accessible ruins had some viewers, the bijou museum a few more, but once out at the more remote areas, there was little evidence that I was in such a popular spot. Nature abounds here, with frogs and turtles in the water and turtle doves churring from every grove.
The Greeks built their temple to Asclepius here, as a place of worship and healing. As I wandered around the remains, relishing the tranquil and soothing atmosphere I could certainly see why they chose this place. Even if you are not interested in history or archaeology, the peace and spirit of this place will soothe and relax you. While it is recommended to take two or three hours to visit, a full day could be wiled away here, perhaps with a tasty picnic of local delicacies.
I eventually dragged myself away from Butrint, to return to the little beachside apartment at Ksamil. Here my attentive hosts presented me with freshly baked cake and bread and the family-run taverna plied favoured clients with Raki. This little bit of heaven was to be hard to leave, but next day was to be my first taste of true Albanian Riviera, en route northwards up the Adriatic Coast.