The Albanian coastline has grabbed the attention of shoe-stringers and luxury-oriented travelers alike in recent years.But, its bays, islands and turquoise waters have left their mark throughout history.
They have been located far away from the reach of travelers for decades, waiting to be discovered by adventurous souls, fearless of walking unknown paths.
Between the waters of the Croatian coast and the Greek shore, the Albanian Riviera stretches for almost 500 kilometers across rugged mountains. Intimate beaches have been shaped by the calm waters of the Adriatic and Ionian seas offering an unparalleled raw experience.
The Albanian Riviera was well known in antiquity by the likes of Julius Caesar, who set foot around 48BC on one of its most beautiful beaches, Palasa, in search of Pompey. Out of rage, the legend says that Caesar threw a wine cup into the beach before ascending the meandering Llogara Pass. Some search for the wine cup to this day. A part of this pass is nowadays referred to as Caesar’s Pass (Albanian: Qafa e Cezarit).
The serpentine road of Llogara takes you up through craggy mountains and down to turquoise beaches. This national park, full of sunshine for two thirds of the year, is also a common vacation spot for many Albanians who come from the capital Tirana looking to escape the urban noise. The plateau at the top of Llogora is a cheering stage for para-gliders setting out into the horizon.
Possibly even more ubiquitous than the olive trees covering the rugged mountains of Albania are the bunkers in unexpected places. An estimate of up to 700,000 bunkers were built by the communist dictator Enver Hoxha after World War II as protection from a nuclear attack and a Soviet or American invasion.
They dot the landscape and serve as a reminder of a not so distant past, when the country was ruled with an iron fist. While the majority of bunkers nowadays serve as ‘ornaments’ on the country’s mesmerizing landscapes, some have been converted into cafes, restaurants and even bed and breakfast sites. For local artists, the bunkers seem to be a favored place to try out their palettes.
Bunkers keep you company as you descend down the path amid the bushy trees leading down to the hidden beach of Gjipe. This is a secluded gem that lies between Dhermi and Himara. Accessible only on foot or a 4×4, Gjipe resembles the Thai beaches featured in Danny Boyle’s film The Beach – minus the sharks!
A heavenly crystal clear beach, Gjipe is a favored campsite for local and international backpackers. The intimate beach with its straw umbrellas, stone fireplaces and a mountainside eco-friendly campsite rewards the adventurous traveler with an unrivaled experience. You can imagine a sky full of stars at night and the calming sound of waves lulling you to sleep.
The Albanian Riviera also boasts a number of islands, which can be accessed by boat, kayaks or even swimming. A couple of hours south from Gjipe, the town of Ksamil is nestled on a bay with three small islands. Here you can truly get lost in the wilderness of green trees and blue waters.
Ksamil is very close to Greece and Corfu looms on the horizon; it was virtually impossible to visit the town during the Communist regime. One needed a special permission, which was granted only to very few. Many tried to escape Albania by swimming to Corfu. A handful made it, but many others perished in the sea.
The infamous Sazan Island, part of the Karaburun-Sazan National Marine Park, is less than an hour away by boat from the mainland. Under Italian occupation until the end of World War II, the island became home to several fishermen families who had been relocated from Italy’s region of Apulia.
During the Cold War, the Soviets built a submarine base and a chemical/biological weapons plant. Nowadays, an Italian-Albanian naval base keeps eye on contraband between southern Italy and Albania.
The Karaburun-Sazan National Marine Park is also known for the Haxhi Ali Ulqinaku cave, the largest one on the Albanian coast with a height of 60 meters. Topography within the cave revealed that it was used in antiquity for defense from pirates, who would roam the peninsula to steal livestock.
Another notable cave is “Shpella e Pirateve” (Pirates’ Cave) in Dhermi. Made popular in a novel by Albanian writer Petro Marko, the cave is a marvel worthy to be explored while snorkeling.