Mark Stratton from The Telegraph saw an Instagram post a while back describing the coastal town of Ksamil in Albania as the ‘Caribbean of Europe’. It bore more than a passing resemblance, with its palm trees, dazzling beach, azure sea and thatched parasols. With the current preoccupation over Albanian migration simmering away, he began imagining an alternative narrative of sun-starved Britons flocking in the opposite direction to seek a little ‘Caribbean’ sunshine. So he decided to pay a visit, to see how the comparison stacks up.
It’s certainly quicker and cheaper to reach than Barbados. He flew to Corfu, the closest Greek island to the Albanian Riviera, which runs for 100 miles along the eastern Ionian Sea coast. From Corfu Town it’s a 40-minute ferry crossing to Sarandë. “It’s very safe and peaceful over there,” opined the taxi-driver taking me to Corfu Port. “All their mafia are here or in your country”.
In Sarandë, tour guide Gezim Shimi laughed when he related the taxi driver’s comment. “All publicity is good publicity,” he says. “Over the last few years, I’ve guided many Britons curious to see what Albania is really like.”
They drove 30 minutes south of Sarandë to Ksamil, which sits just above Northern Greece’s border. Ksamil didn’t exist until Enver Hoxha’s communist regime established it in the 1960s as a base for olive oil production. “It’s just a few miles to Corfu so only those from trusted political backgrounds lived here during communism,” said Gezim. With parallels to what is occurring today in the Channel, he said Albanians used to risk life and limb by taking small boats, or even swimming, to Corfu, to flee Hoxha’s Stalinist lunacy.
The sea’s color and the prices
Ksamil is a small yet growing town in a scalloped bay shielded by three green offshore islands. The beach has hotels, restaurants and bars, separated for each establishment’s private use – although most were closed when he arrived during early season and being spruced up for the summer. Just a smattering of people loafed on sunbeds under thatched umbrellas.
Poda Boutique Hotel is open though and he met the perpetrator of the Instagram post that drew me here, Anna Poda, managing director of this 20-room family-run establishment. “You can see the turquoise sea and white sands are quite Caribbean,” she says cheerily, before confessing that their palm trees are imported. Britons, she said, are buying into her hype as they featured among the top three arriving nationalities last year, alongside Germans and Italians. “People come for 310 days of sunshine each year in Albania and really good prices,” she adds.
She certainly has a point about both the sea’s color and the prices. Sediment from the surrounding marble mountains create a white sandy sea bottom that lends a striking milky blueness. And the half-board double room, with its magnificent balcony view towards Corfu, cost just £80 per night. Throughout, the riviera of Albania proved to be outstanding value, especially the Italian-influenced, seafood-heavy cuisine. At the hotel, a three-course meal of Greek salad, mussel linguine, and grilled sea bass, cost only 2,250 lek (£17).
Butrint and Gjirokastra
There was nothing Caribbean, however, about the next morning’s light drizzle. Fortunately, a historic landscape as good as anywhere in Europe is within striking distance of Ksamil, with the Greek, Roman and Ottoman civilizations all leaving their mark.
Butrint, a stone’s throw from Ksamil, is one of Albania’s three Unesco World Heritage Sites and an archaeological palimpsest. Virgil mentioned it in The Aeneid as dating before the fall of Troy but it’s true glory began around the 3rd century BC with the Romans swaggered in and left characteristically sublime structures, including a 3,000-seat theatre with Latin inscriptions warning spectators not to put their feet on the chairs.
An hour’s drive took us into the mountains to Gjirokastër, whose three-storey Ottoman stone houses and Windsor Castle-sized fortress have scarcely changed since the 18th century. It’s part of Unesco since 2005. The hearty cuisine of this town in Albania has Ottoman influence. For lunch, he ate Imam bayıldı (literally “the imam fainted”), a dish named after a Muslim cleric who consumed too much stuffed aubergine and passed out.
Further Ottoman influence and less developed beaches came the next day on a drive north. Ksamil may be undergoing a Klondike rush of development, but we find wilder spots like Pigeon Cove, where the sea is incandescently turquoise and bookended by strikingly white cliffs.
Elsewhere, Porto Palermo beach is watched over by a thick-walled fortress built by Ali Pasha de Tepelenë for the Ottoman Sultan as a bulwark against the British in Corfu. Ali Pasha, however, was trading arms from the British to further his own ruthless territorial enrichment; the sultan eventually grew tired of him and lopped off his head.
A submarine base with a mile-long hillside tunnel
Porto Palermo also has an abandoned submarine base with a mile-long hillside tunnel. The guide Gezim said it took 30 years to build, largely because Hoxha fell out with both the USSR and China, who were bankrolling its construction. By way of compensation, he refused to return four Soviet submarines.
There’s no doubt Hoxha’s would’ve fumed at a new development further up the coast at Palasë. Here, Albania’s richest man is constructing Green Coast – a development of five-star hotels and luxury villas. It’s a monumental and characterless eyesore that might, Gezim worried, be a future vision for this Albanian Riviera.
“I’d say come and see this coast now while it resembles how Corfu looked 50 years ago,” he urged.
He dropped him off for a final night near Vlore, where the Ionian Sea becomes the Adriatic and the Hotel Paradise Beach has huge sea-facing doubles for £75. The evening air was warm, the sea an inky blue, and the staff treated me like a long-lost friend. Never mind the Instagram puffery, who needs Caribbean calypso when you’ve got a glass of raki (not rum) to hand to toast a sunset turning distant Greek islands into silhouettes?