Discover the Balkans – Part 2
Half a day’s drive south on one of the country’s few highways, you’ll come to the UNESCO world heritage city of Gjirokaster. With an extensive complex of cobblestone streets and stone houses that riddle the city’s hillside, all in the shadow of a gargantuan castle, it’s easy to see the historic value of this millennia-old metropole. For a quiet stay just minutes from the center of the old city, try the Hotel Palorto on Rruga Ismail Kedare. It would be hard to get more value out of a hotel than you can out of the Palorto: A quaint-yet-modern guest house with balconies that overlook the hundreds of stone roofs further down the hill is watched over by a lovely host who cooks a fantastic Albanian breakfast, all for less than $45 a night.
During the day, be sure to tour the Gjirokaster Castle and explore its endless tunnels, vestibules, dungeons, clocktowers and passageways. Just below the castle, the Old Bazaar has all the treats, knickknacks, drinks and entertainment you could ask for. Come dinnertime, however, head up from the Bazaar to Taverna Tradicionale, where the owner flits around on tip toe with complimentary aperitifs, trays of watermelon, and some of the finest rice-yoghurt-lamb dishes anywhere.
Serandë, a resort town just a stone’s throw from the Greek island of Corfu, offers a perfect home base from which to explore the surrounding Riviera. Book a room at the perfectly located Demi Hotel, which has both its own private beach and easy access to the city center and all the excitement that entails; alternatively, check out the more affordable Hotel Ilyria for a quieter stay a few blocks from the water.
Once you’ve had your fill of the beaches in Serandë’s downtown, and strolled the magnificent promenade enough times, pack up the car for a day of adventure. Head south to Butrint National Park, where an $8 entrance ticket will let you wander to your heart’s content through a 2500 year old city: built by Ancient Greeks, rebuilt by the Romans, captured by Venetians and repurposed by an Ottoman warlord, the layers of Balkan history are nowhere more visible than in this breathtaking park.
On your way back up the coast to Serandë, stop off in Ksamil, a town of beaches like no other. Though the public beaches in Ksamil are few and far between, it usually worth paying the fee for a spot on one of the private beaches, from whose white sand you can swim to a collection of nearby islands or rent a paddleboat to visit the further off ones. If you’re lucky, you’ll find the island with a cash bar on it!
Back in Serandë for dinner, cap off your sojourn with a meal overlooking the sea at the Restaurant Haxhi. This family establishment serves up only the freshest seafood, cooked with a delicate touch that lets the ingredients shine. The whole grilled dory and the spicy shrimp are particularly good, and the octopus is fantastic.