Easily one of my favorite experiences from the past year and a half was an impromptu trip to the Balkans at the end of the summer. When Western Europe was getting a little harsh on the budget and same-y, the Eastern Bloc countries with their unpretentious vibes and complicated history provided a much-needed reprieve.
Especially Albania. There’s incredible scenery, great hospitality, an interesting mix of Islam and Christianity, shockingly good food, and uhhh Albanian beaches are like whoa.
At the risk of sounding cheesy and all “I’m out here finding myself,” have you ever been somewhere you just felt instantly comfortable and at ease? That’s how I felt in the little coastal village of Dhërmi. Like I’d returned to a past life. Okay, now we’re getting really heavy. I’ll stop. It was so calm and stunningly gorgeous, and the people were so welcoming and friendly that I genuinely felt like I could just stay there. I’d read, I’d sit on the beach, I’d learn to make sheep’s cheese and bread from the lady who owned the small hotel where we stayed. All that is to say… I’ll have to return.
It was the epitome of laid back. And that’s probably due to the fact that we visited in September, when high season had all but died down. There were fewer restaurants to choose from (not to mention fewer dishes available on the menus) and less people on the beach, but it was still such a cool experience. To be honest, I’d love to return in high season and see it when it’s really hoppin’.
Old men drink tiny glasses of rakia in the morning, coffee is incredibly cheap (and strong), and wine is sold by the carafe. You can see the Greek island of Corfu as you sit on the shores of the Albanian Riviera eating salads with fresh vegetables and crumbly cheese while you drink beers that are one-quarter the price. And those beaches are some of the best I’ve visited.
Albania just opened up to tourism in the 90s, so it’s incredibly unique to experience a culture that was so closed off until relatively recently. The government was communist up until 1992 and you can still see the concrete bunkers that were built all over the place by a paranoid isolationist dictator.
Travel To and Around Coastal Albania
Logistics in Albania, however, are no joke.
The road (singular) up the coast from the main beach town of Saranda to the village of Dhërmi and onward to the capital of Tirana is windy and sits cliffside. There’s occasionally livestock in the street, and nearly every car you pass is a Mercedes. It makes you think there might be something to those mafia rumors…
We arrived in Albania from Macedonia. It was a bit of a task to find an overnight bus from the lake town of Ohrid to Saranda, but after finally winding up at the correct bus company (Galeb), we managed to snag one of the last buses of the season doing this route. After a night of speeding, windy travel, a border crossing, and a little bit of sleep, we made it to Saranda in the early, early morning. Luckily we’d managed to make friends with an Australian couple on the bus who was also headed north up the coast (to Himarë) and we split a taxi with them.
Allow me to explain. Buses in Albania do exist. There are big ones and there are mini-buses, and all along the coast the latter seem more common. However, many of them don’t depart from actual bus stations.
They have a designated street corner where certain buses park before leaving for their destinations. Locals seem to know the system well, and if you find someone to ask or a travel agent (it usually takes a few people), they can either sell you a ticket and/or point you to the right corner. (The app Maps.Me does a pretty good job at naming the right street corner too, surprisingly.)
As far as we knew, it seemed the only bus from Saranda to Dhërmi left at around 2 PM from a random city street that we’d not yet discerned. And since we’d arrived around 6 AM, the four of us shared some coffee (80 cent macchiatos!) before begrudgingly splitting the 50-euro cab ride to our respective beach towns.
(This did turn out to be the correct price, confirmed by the owner of our hotel and several taxi drivers. It was a long ride – like nearly two hours so that’s understandable. It felt good to know that we weren’t getting ripped off right upon arrival.)
Beaches in Dhërmi
For once, we’d booked ahead and after that tough early morning drive, we arrived at the Hotel Imperial in tiny little Dhërmi, just a short, steep walk down to the beach and restaurants nearby.
The Albanian couple that owned our hotel was super friendly, and our splurge of 25 euros per night got us a suite (yes, two rooms) with a balcony overlooking the sea. Each morning, we got a breakfast of fresh bread, homemade butter and fig jam, sausages, eggs, and fried salty sheep’s cheese.
The owner cooked for us and came out for an occasional chat. She explained how so many families in the village have at least one son or daughter (and grandkids) living and working in the U.S. and how rarely they get to visit with them. (Sure enough, our driver on the way back to Saranda showed us videos of his grandkids who lived in Chicago.)
Dhërmi Beach was literally right down the hill. It’s long and wide and filled with sun loungers, and though it was obviously just shutting down for the season, we were still able to find a great lunch, beers, and dinner on the water.
And we even discovered our own private beach. Well, it was private until a few others joined us for sunset.
Inspired by Silvia’s excellent blog post about Albanian beaches and our limited by time in Dhërmi, I had to decide on what I thought would be the BEST beach for our next outing the following day. And as you can see by her photos and these that follow, Gjipe Beach is one of the most stunning… ever.
We met up with our Australian friends and walked to Gjipe all the way from Dhërmi. It’s quite a ways, but the hike down from the main road is totally worth it.
It’s dramatic, you can’t see it from the road, and it’s quite a ways down.
On the beach itself, there was a small van where you could buy beers, and you could pay a small amount for sun loungers (like 150 Lek, or $1.23 USD), so you’ve got pretty much all you need for an afternoon. The water is cool and clear and well, it’s pretty amazingly beautiful. Sorry about the overload of photos. I am unable to cull them down because I’m so in love with this place. Sorry about the informative blog post you hoped to find, this is now becoming my scrapbook.
This would also be where I’d insert the cat emoji with hearts for eyes. Because it’s one of my favorite beaches ever.
You’re in a little cove, surrounded by cliffs on three sides and the Ionian Sea on the other. And even though there were two cars on the beach, holy cow I can’t imagine that ride in… because we walked it back. The return route – around one of the cliffs instead of up it- passed through the woods, by a monastery, and even alongside a herd of goats.
The scenery of the walk there and back though – passing through little towns and just catching a glimpse of everyday life – is a good enough reason to do it on foot. Every garden seems to have fruit trees, olive trees, or grapevines, and even the dilapidated and crumbling parts of town are just beautiful. It doesn’t hurt that you’re looking up into the mountains or down across the sea the whole time either.
Upon our return to Dhërmi, we treated ourselves to wine, marinated roasted vegetables, and cheese…
But after a few nights in Dhërmi (which is totally not enough), we had to head back to Saranda to see what the most happenin’ beach town in Albania had to offer.
I was totally going to make Albania into one blog post… but now I’ve written too much, so stay tuned for my time in Saranda and nearby Ksamil.
Albania, I’ll be back for you. And that salty cheese.
Where to Stay in Dhermi: Hotel Imperial. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this lovely couple’s place. It’s walkable to the beach and town, a great value, and comes with a great breakfast and huge rooms. Just off the only main road up the coast, it was a super convenient location, since our taxi driver could drop us right there and we could catch a mini bus headed south from the side of the road.
Where I Ate: While many places had limited options, we didn’t eat anything bad in Albania! We had a seafood pasta and salad at Restaurant Luciano next to Dhermi Beach, and then wood-fired pizzas next door where you can find the “secret” beach just down their steps. There are a few sun loungers and umbrellas down there too. In the town there were only about two restaurants open at the time, and that’s where we went for the marinated vegetables and wine.