The name of the lovely town of Sarande has changed throughout history to reflect the influence of the different cultures in the region. Originally the name derived from a Byzantine monastery honoring the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste which later, under the Ottomans, changed to Aya Sarandi. During Venetian rule Sarande was known as Santi Quaranta only to be changed during WWII to Porto Edda in honour of Mussolini’s daughter. The name was changed again after WWII, after Albania declared independence from Italy.
Sarande is located on the Albanian Riviera and has a lovely Mediterranean climate, mild in winter, dry and hot in the summer. It’s the best cruise port to see Albanian and Greek cultures coexisting peacefully together, evident in the city’s mix of Albanian and Greek architecture.
The first stop at this quaint town should be the Forty Saints Monastery, form which the city got its name, built in honor of 40 Roman soldiers who refused to give up their religion and as a result were sent to Siberia. The monastery was built in the 6thcentury and on two levels. Unfortunately the second level was destroyed during WWII. It is possible to see the crypt of the monastery but only with special permission from the town hall.
You might like to head out from Sarande to Butrint, a UNESCO World Heritage Site just 20km away, and on the way stop to admire beautiful views of Corfu and the Ionian Sea from the 16th century Lekursi Castle built to protect the country from invaders from the sea.
Butrint, an UNESCO site, was first mentioned as a military settlement when Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, established a port there, after defeating Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra. The medieval history of Butrint is marked by power battles between the rival Byzantinum, Ottomon and Venetian Empires who have all left traces of their culture on the city and made Butrint interesting to visit on ashore excursion from Sarande.
The whole area around Butrint is a National Park, protecting a huge national and cultural heritage of Ottoman and Venetian castles with Roman villas as well as unspoiled nature.
Lord Rothschild and Lord Sainsbury raised money to finance archaeological excavations at Butrint, such as the Greco-Roman theatre which is still standing but whose floor is filled with water in which turtles and fish live. Or the baptistery of a 6th century church which boasts a Roman floor mosaic of peacocks, vines, birds and wine urns as it probably originally a Roman’s private pool, the acropolis, the Greek Well of the Nymphs, the Temple of Aesculapius the city walls– but a huge proportion of the excavations have yet to be even started.
To the north of Sarande (around 90 min drive) there is a well preserved Ottoman town and UNESCO World Heritage Site, Gjirokastra, which is worth including on a full day shore excursion from Sarande. It lay at the crossroads of several important trade routes across Europe and the Mediterranean, and was protected by the formidable Gjirokastra Castle which is nowadays a Military Museum. The town is built on a hillside and is nicknamed ‘the town of a thousand steps’ but is immensely quaint and charming, with distinctive old stone houses clustered along narrow cobbled streets.
After enjoying beautiful sea views from the top of the hill head over to City Hall to see the 5th century ruins of the Jewish community Oncheasmos which once boasted a community center, school and a synagogue. Unfortunately most of the buildings were destroyed by earthquakes and invaders but you can still see some mosaic floors with animal designs, a menorah and other Jewish symbols among the tiles.