I hadn’t originally planned on a stop in Corfu during my 3 week tour of the Balkans.
But I did want to visit Albania while I was in the region and the options for getting there were somewhat grim (no trains, limited flights). When I discovered that a popular way to get to Albania was via ferry from Corfu, it seemed like a sign. A sign that it was time to get back to the Greeks.
Corfu seemed the perfect place to base for the weekend and as a bonus, I’d get to spend a full day in Albania. There would be sun and sand and gyros (not together, hopefully), it was the perfect plan. I am travel genius, hear me roar.
I flew out of Sofia, connected in Athens and by 10pm Friday night touched down on the island of Corfu for what I fully expected to be the perfect weekend.
As luck would have it, smugness gets you nowhere.
When I emerged from the arrivals area, I quickly learned that there were no taxis due to a strike. No problem as there was a city bus into town which was only about 2 miles away. Probably would have taken that anyway!
I caught the bus and arrived in the main square of Corfu Town about 30 minutes later. I knew my hotel was in town and figured it couldn’t be hard to find on foot. After all, I use instinct for navigation all the time, how hard could this be?
My first mistake was not having a map. My second mistake was greatly underestimating the size of Corfu Town…it is huge. After wandering around for a bit, I stopped in a shop and asked for directions. Turns out, my hotel, the Sunset Hotel Corfu, was on the “outskirts” of town and definitely not walking distance from where the bus had dropped me off. Swell.
The shop owner said I could take a different bus from the same main square that would get me pretty close. So I headed back to the bus station and waited for the right bus. There were at least 100 other people waiting for the same bus – which would be the last of the night since it was after 11pm now. I just hoped I’d make it on since I didn’t exactly have a Plan B.
When the bus arrived, I squeezed on and told the driver where I was going – he nodded. I wasn’t sure how many stops we were making or where exactly I was supposed to get off but figured I’d either get off where everyone else did or I’d see the hotel from the road.
Wrong and wrong.
After we’d been on the bus for a while and made a dozen stops, I was still clueless about where to go. I managed to make my way back to the driver through the crowd and again said the name of my hotel. Of course, we had already passed it but he was really nice and told me to stay on the bus after the last stop and he’d take me back.
So, finally, around midnight I walked into the Sunset Hotel.
I knew I wanted to take the ferry to Albania the next day but had no idea what time it left. The guy at the front desk was very nice but didn’t speak much English so when I inquired about ferry times he told me the girl in the morning would know. I decided I’d better set my alarm for 7am so I would have time to get the information in the morning and get to the port in time.
Day 2 – A Day Trip to Saranda, Albania
I awoke at 7am needing at least two more hours of sleep. But I didn’t want to miss my chance to go to Albania, so I dragged myself out of bed and down to the front desk to inquire about ferry times.
The morning girl was indeed very helpful and told me the ferry was at 9am but I’d need to be there by 8:30am and I’d also need to take the bus to the port since, of course, the taxi drivers were on strike.
I caught the next bus to the ferry terminal and bought my ticket for the ferry ride to the resort town of Saranda, Albania for the day. It was just a short 30-minute hydrofoil ride and our passports were checked in transit. When we docked in Albania I couldn’t have been more surprised by Saranda, it was beautiful!
After disembarking from the boat, I knew I wanted to head out to the archaeological site of Butrint, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I’d read there was a bus that took you right there but I didn’t see a bus station anywhere.
After walking for a few minutes, I noticed an old, run-down bus on the side of the road with a sign in the window that read, “Butrint.” Alrighty, I thought, this looks like a winner.
I walked up to the driver to inquire how much and whether they accepted euro (I hadn’t changed any money yet) but he didn’t seem to speak English and just waved me on. So, I boarded and hoped for the best.
Once we were underway, a girl came around collecting money for tickets. I handed her 1 euro hoping that would suffice and it did. (Which was a lucky break since I really didn’t want to be put out on the side of the dirt road we were currently on.) About 45 minutes later we arrived in Butrint.
Considered a microcosm of Mediterranean history, Butrint covers the rise and fall of great empires from 4th century BC to the Ottoman defenses created in the early 19th century. According to classical mythology, Butrint was founded by exiles fleeing the fall of Troy. Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid, recounts Aeneas visiting Butrint on his way to Italy.
By the 19th century, Butrint had become a small fishing village clustered around a castle. Over the centuries the ancient town had all but disappeared under layers of silt and vegetation but in 1928 an Italian archaeological mission began excavating the site. Over the course of the next 10 years, they uncovered the grand monuments visible today.
In 1992, the site was named to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The Albanian Riviera
After my visit to Butrint, I took the bus back into Saranda to spend some quality time checking out the beach areas. The 80-mile stretch of coastline between Saranda and the city of Vlore has become known as the “Albanian Riviera” and is marketed as a budget alternative to Croatia and Italy.
Truthfully, it looks more like Greece than Corfu does! Or, at least what I’ve seen of Corfu so far which is mostly city.
The white-pebbled shoreline is lined with hotels and cafes and on this summer Saturday afternoon it was bursting with beachgoers. I spent some time walking along the beach enjoying the beautiful day before settling into a seaside café for lunch and a sampling of the local brew.
By 4pm it was time to catch the ferry back to Corfu. All in all, a splendid day in Albania.
Corfu – Day 3
For my final day on the island, I decided to spend my Sunday morning strolling through the streets of Corfu Town.
Corfu is part of the Ionian Islands and was one of the first Greek islands to open its doors to tourism. The name Corfu translates as “city of the peaks” and the island is divided into 3 districts by two well-defined mountain ranges. Corfu’s history is laden with battles and the legacy of these struggles remains in the two fortresses that surround the capital. It is the only city in Greece to be fortified in this way.
Long controlled by Venice, the Venetian influence is profound in Corfu Town.
In fact, walking through the labyrinth of winding, cobbled alleyways you’d almost believe you were in Venice rather than Greece. Absent are the white-washed buildings clad with bright blue shutters, replaced by the warm pink and yellow hues that define the Venetian blend of Gothic and Moorish architecture.
In fact, to be honest, it doesn’t feel like Greece either. It’s not just the architecture that’s different, it’s the entire vibe. Even the food is different. I love a good gyro and they are ubiquitous street food elsewhere in Greece.
In Corfu I had to search for a gyro stand and the two that I did find were both disappointing. As was the Greek salad I ordered which had (horrors!) lettuce. Perhaps I should have tried the Italian food.
At 227 square miles, Corfu is a huge island and getting around without your own wheels is a challenge. Especially when you arrive in the middle of a seemingly endless taxi strike (it had been going on for a week when I arrived and was still going strong when I left).
Call me crazy but I like my Greek islands small, quaint and easily navigable. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.
The few rentals cars that were available were pricey so that left the bus. Aggravating the situation was my choice in lodging – the Sunset Hotel. While it was a perfectly lovely hotel and the staff were extremely helpful, the hotel was not in Corfu Town proper, as advertised.
In fact it was not walking distance from anything. Luckily, there was a bus station right outside and by day two I’d pretty much mastered the bus system thanks to my struggle from the airport the first night.
I wanted to get out of Corfu Town and check out some of the beaches but without transportation and with only one day, my options were limited. I’m sure there are more beautiful parts of Corfu but, sadly, I didn’t get to see them.
Honestly, I spent the better part of the weekend just trying to figure out how to get from one place to another. Not exactly a relaxing weekend.
I spent most of my Sunday wandering the narrow alleyways of Corfu Town and visiting both the new and old fortresses before walking (yes, walking) two miles to the airport for my flight to Bucharest. The taxi drivers are still on strike and, as I learned the hard way, the buses are very infrequent on Sundays. Fantastic.
It wasn’t at all what I’d envisioned for my weekend back in the Greek Isles. But perhaps Mykonos has spoiled me. Next time I’ll stick with the islands of the Cyclades…or Albania.
Next up, my final stop of the trip, Romania!