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Thu Jun 09 2016: The Albanian Riviera

I've heard of the French Riviera, the Mayan Riviera, but never known of the Albanian Riviera. Until now.

We've spent the last month traveling slowly down the beautiful Dalmatian coast, the rugged shoreline and sporadic pebble beaches giving way to the flatlands of northern and central Albania. That's where we headed inland to enjoy riding in the mountains. It was only when we headed back to the coast at Vlorë that we picked up the familiar scenery we last saw in Croatia and Montenegro - the same scenery that flocks of Polish, Czech and other Eastern European tourists have already discovered.

With accommodations and food priced at a tenth of the costs of the French Riviera, the Albanian Riviera represents a huge bargain for beach holidayers. It's just a matter of time before the rest of Europe and the world finds out about this hidden jewel.

Beach at Sarandë

We arrive at Sarandë, the unofficial capital of the Albanian Riviera in the late afternoon. Cheap as Albania is, we still save a lot of money by finding accommodations away from the beach. It's just a half km walk to the shoreline, and we take in the old buildings and streets in our neck of the woods.

Our neighbourhood may not be the swankiest, but that doesn't mean there aren't Mercedes-Benzes parked up and down the street! :)

This is where we're staying!

Our hosts don't speak a lot of English, so once again, we're relegated to pantomiming. Everywhere we go, I make sure to learn the one basic phrase we need to show that we're civilized people: "Faleminderit" - "Thank You". Perhaps many people don't make an effort to learn any Albanian, because every time I pull out the "faleminderit", I get a smile or a laugh. Or maybe it's because it's so unusual for the only Asian tourist in Albania to speak any Albanian at all! Seriously, I haven't seen one brotha or sistah the entire time we've been here! :)

Walking down the boardwalk in Sarandë

After unpacking, we head straight down to the beach to try to catch the last rays of sun before dinner. This is where the city has put most of the money into. The boardwalk is very pretty and it seems everyone in town is hanging out right here.

Sarandë used to be a fishing village before it became the tourist mecca of the Albanian Riviera

Boats coming in at sunset, tourists apartments line the shore in the background

Neda prefers the pebble beaches to sandy beaches because it reminds her of Pula

Locals hanging out at the beach

Taking a little stroll on the boardwalk

Neda and I love people-watching. So interesting to see what common facial features define an ethnicity. In Albania, it seems to be a prominent forehead, mostly in the men. I noted that in all cultures, ethnic features seem to magnify as people age. Apart from the obvious differences in hair and skin colour, we all look pretty much the same as babies. As the cartilage in our noses and ears continues to grow in old age and the skin on the face starts to crinkle and wear in a set pattern over time, it's like the DNA in our cells exaggerate these ethnic differences. I'm fascinated by this racial blueprint in our genes.

We found a nice restaurant right on the beach and we watched the sun slowly set on Sarandë,
then we strolled back to our apartment along the boardwalk

Although much of the scenery is still reminiscent of the Adriatic coast (I suppose technically it still is), Albania has been such a surprise to me. I didn't think it would be this pleasant and inviting. While the infrastructure is not as developed as Croatia, Albania still has the same pebbly beaches, deep aqua-marine waters and picturesque sunsets. Except without the crowds and at a fraction of the price. We love it!

Riding on the road next to the boardwalk, heading out of the city. Past more Mercedes-Benzes

I read something funny the other day. It was a mock advertisement for tourism for the country: "Come to Albania! Your Mercedes is already here!" :)

Our last visit to archaeological ruins didn't quite pan out. We're going to try again at another site called Butrint

Butrint is the site of ancient ruins dating back through several periods in history. We ride just a half hour south of Sarandë, along the coast and on a thin spit of land where the structures are situated. It's been a Greek colony, a Roman city, an outpost of the Byzantine Empire and part of the Venetian Kindom in the middle ages, and the remains of all these empires are all in this one place.

Right at the entrance of Butrint National Park is the Venetian Tower built in the late 1500s

Neda is giving me the history of Butrint as we enter the back of the Roman Theatre

Neda is one of the most studious people I know. She loves reading and researching stuff. Quite the opposite of me. Every new place we go to, she's avidly soaking up all the information in the signs and brochures, while I am wandering around snapping pictures. If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't know anything about the place we visit, except that they look kinda cool.

While Neda is learning about the history of Butrint, I take pictures of turtles.

The Agora, a gathering place for the citizens of Butrint

Neda checks out the Roman Theatre. She yells over at me, "This one is not as good as the Pula Amphitheatre!"

I think Neda should seriously consider being a tour guide when we're done traveling. She's really good at it.

The Butrint site is on a spit of land, this is the view across the waters

We found a secret entrance!

Museum in the Venetian Fortress

Neda explaining to me how the plumbing works in one of the bath houses

In turn, I take pictures of a Balkan Green Lizard! So well camouflaged!

The Baptistery, the most famous monument at Butrint... and the most disappointing!

There is a beautiful mosaic floor hiding underneath all that gravel in the Baptistery. It used to be a Roman bath house until it was remodeled in the 6th century. The tiles have been wonderfully preserved and it's supposed to be the signature piece of Butrint. Unfortunately for us, they periodically cover the mosaic to preserve it, and this is one of the times that the tiles have been obscured.

So disappointed! :( If you Google "Butrint Baptistery", you can see the beautiful mosaic floor.

The Basilica beside the Baptistery

Still, it's a very cool site! But now we're jumping on our bikes and heading to a country that's basically the king-daddy of all ancient ruins!

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