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Route & Roads
Most of the sights below can just be seen in a three-day road trip, though you'll be driving a lot, and an extra day will allow you to do it all at an easier pace. With only two days to spare, a return trip to Berat or to Llogara Pass and Dhërmi is possible.
On day one, start early and head to Durrës (driving time 45mins) for a quick look at the amphitheatre and perhaps the museum. Then drive south to Fier (1,5hrs) for lunch and a visit to the excavations at Apolonia. Then it's on to Vlora (30mins) and up to Llogora Pass (1hr). You can either spend the night in the forest up in the mountains, or descend to Dhërmi (1hr) for a hotel overlooking the beach. On day two, drive to Saranda (2hrs) to visit the Butrint excavations. Then head on to Gjirokastra (1hr) for the second night. On day three, drive to Berat (2-3hrs), following signs to Fier until the turnoff just after Patos. Then drive back to Tirana (2hrs) via Durrës.
The roads along this route are quite good. After following the relatively fast highways between Tirana, Durrës and Lushnja, you'll hit the worst stretch of road on this trip north of Fier. The road on to Saranda is reasonably good and is currently being widened around Dhermi, but it's still narrow and windy. That's part of the fun: this is as romantic and old-fashioned as a Mediterranean coastal road gets.
Fuel is easy to get as there are hundreds of petrol stations along the road; beware that between Vlora and Sarande there are only stations in Dhërmi, Himare and Borsh.
This route can also be done by public transport, though you'll need a few days more as the going is slower. Also, don't count on many late afternoon or evening departures; Albanians like to travel early. You will only need a taxi to visit Apollonia from Fier, and perhaps to reach the upper town of Gjirokastra if you get dropped off on the main road down in the valley. There are regular buses running between Vlora and Sarande along the coastal road.
For the In Your Pocket feature text on Durrës, click here.
Just 12km west of Fier along the road to Plazhi i Semanit lies one of Albania's most impressive ancient sites. Set on a hill overlooking the lagoon towards the sea, Apollonia was founded by Greeks in 588 BC and originally had a large harbour for seagoing ships. Aristotle wrote about Apollonia because of its complete lack of democracy (so it seems nothing much has changed politically). Agriculture and slave trade made the city rich, and after being taken over by the Romans in 229 BC it became a essential part of the Roman road system and a centre of education. Earthquakes and the silting up of the harbour meant the end of Apollonia's prosperity.
Not too much is left of the town, but archeologists have reconstructed the impressive six-columned facade of the bouleterion. Apart from that, you can see a Roman amphitheatre, view the foundations of Roman houses, the remains of a Roman bathhouse, and wander around the huge Byzantine walls ringing the complex. The nearby Monastery of St. Mary (200 lek) is well worth a visit. It was started in the 13th century and contains elements of Greek and Roman buildings. It now holds the Apollonia Museum and a pretty church.
Vlora and the Llogora Pass
Situated in a curving bay sheltered by towering mountains, the port city of Vlora has few sights apart from the main mosque, but boasts nice beaches lined by seafood restaurants, and perhaps Albania's best xhiro (evening stroll). A good place to stay is the Hotel New York, directly on the sea, a short drive south of the city, just before the tunnel (Rr. Uji i Ftohtë, tel. 033 256 49, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.hotelnewyork-al.net).
Following the coast south, you pass former Party member holiday villas (Enver Hoxha's one is the torched ruin perched on a cliff) before heading inland at Orikum.
The newly surfaced road ascends rapidly from sea level to the Llogora Pass, at 1027m. The forest just before the pass is a National Park, and is home to wildlife as well as several popular restaurants specialising in delicious grilled meals.
After the pass, the landscape becomes even more dramatic. The forest suddenly makes place for a bleak, rock-strewn landscape, and there's a mind-blowing view of the Albanian Riviera coast a kilometre below. In the distance you can see and the Greek islands of Erikkoussa and Corfu in the glistening Mediterranean sea. From the pass, the road twists down the steep mountainside in a series of hairpin bends towards Dhërmi, visible deep below.
You could spend the night at the Tourist Village at Llogora Pass, a complex of comfortable four-person wooden chalets in the woods (Fshati Turistik, tel. +355 (0)68 202 77 46 or +355 (0)689 208 03 79, email@example.com, www.llogora.com; €65 per chalet).
Dhërmi, Himara & The Riviera
Increasingly popular among Albanians and Kosovars - and the odd foreigner - the Albanian Riviera around Dhërmi and Himare is a relatively undeveloped stretch of stunning Mediterranean coastline, with plenty of nice beaches.
The road here is like roads used to be in Spain and Italy before the tourist and concrete invasion: narrow and winding, linking small villages clinging high above the coast.
Many villages here are populated by ethnic Greek Albanians, and you'll see some optimistic political slogans (omonia - unification) painted along the road here and there. Dhërmi is a pretty Greek mountain village with some ancient churches, but its main attraction is the long, clean pebble beach, signposted from the main road.
There are some good seafood restaurants here overlooking small coves along the waterfront; further out on the beach is the tropical-style Havana Bar (tel. 068 22 41 981), where you can sip cocktails seated on pillows amidst wafting curtains.
Accommodation is not cheap here, with some Albanians now opting to go to Turkey where better deals can be had. The best hotel on the beach is Villa Milton (tel. 068 22 35 962; doubles up to €38). On a quieter beach a few kilometers north is the Drymades Hotel with reasonable rooms and cabins (€40-50, tel. +355 69 364 60 58). Back up in the village, Kozma Beja offers cheap, basic rooms near the northern end of the village (tel. 068 27 62 430; singles/doubles €25).
The town of Himara has an unspectacular upper town but a lively harbourf area with the seafront Magjia e Chimerës restaurant (tel. 039 322 63, 068 407 60 57) and the lovely Rapo's Resort Hotel (www.raposresorthotel.com) as good places to eat and sleep.
Saranda & Butrint
For the In Your Pocket feature text on Saranda and Butrint, click here.
For the In Your Pocket feature text on Gjirokastra, click here.
For the In Your Pocket feature text on Durrës, click here.
Enjoy the trip - but before you go, have a look at the Albania In Your Pocket videos of the Albanian Riviera: