Gazing into the Blue Eye, Albania

The unbelievably clear water of Syri i Kalter (‘Blue Eye’) in the South of Albania is beautiful, but it is not easy to reach. You have two options: 1) a laborious 5-hour journey along dilapidated roads from the airport at Tirana, or 2) arrive by sea.

It is the latter option bringing the majority of foreign visitors to the Blue Eye – many of whom are passengers on huge cruise liners that descend on the port of Sarandë every couple of days. Some holidaymakers take a day-trip from nearby Corfu. But even with daily ferries coming from Corfu, Albania is still a relatively little-known tourist destination. For now.

I was told of the Blue Eye while travelling south to Sarandë . We were the only foreigners in a rickety 15-seater mini-van (into which at least 22 people were tightly packed) coming from Tirana. The young man behind me pointed out the entrance as the van careened wildly around yet another blind-bend.

You must visit the Blue Eye’ he said, ‘it is the most beautiful place in Albania’.

We promised that we would.

Getting to the Blue Eye

Even from Sarandë, the Blue Eye is hard to find. The local bus to Gjirokastra will drop you on the road near the entrance. From here it is a 2-kilometre walk to the water. That doesn’t sound too bad, we thought, as we headed into town to catch the bus.

Unfortunately, our plan failed when it turned out that nobody could tell us where the bus would leave from, or at what time. Most people agreed that if we waited ‘by the road’ for an unspecified amount of time then, eventually, the bus would pass by.

After an hour of standing in 40° heat beside a busy road (unsure if it was even the right one), we admitted defeat and asked a loitering taxi-driver if he would take us. This plan hit a snag when it turned out that, despite foreign tourism still being relatively new in Albania, taxi drivers already demand highly inflated fees from foreigners. We refused his extortionate offer and sent a message to the owner of the apartment we were renting. Thankfully, she and her husband agreed to drive us at a much-reduced rate.

Albanian Life – Past and Present

With the countryside whizzing past the car windows, our hosts told us about Albania. They are high school teachers who rent out a stunning apartment right on the seafront. They love meeting their guests and are pleased that foreign tourists are coming to Sarandë, which is already an immensely popular holiday spot for Albanians. The rapid expansion of hotel developments in the area is impossible to miss.

The port town of Sarandë faces an increase in foreign tourism

They pointed out interesting buildings, as well as the ubiquitous bunkers that pepper the countryside. They talked of how Albania is opening up. Describing life under Communism they explained how it still feels strange for them to drive to the Blue Eye, which was once reserved solely for the use of Party officials.

Enver Hoxha had 173,371 concrete bunkers constructed throughout the country

The Blue Eye

When you arrive at Syri i Kalter it is easy to see why unscrupulous government officials wanted to keep the place to themselves – it is outstandingly beautiful. The water runs fast and so clear that you can see right down to the foliage and stones on the river bed.

In some places it doesn’t even look like there is water there at all – in the picture below all of the greenery you see in the foreground is beneath the water.

There is a car park, a café, a restaurant, and some stalls, but other than that, the Blue Eye is ill prepared for mass tourism. However, it already draws huge crowds. If you are visiting, it is best to avoid days that cruise passengers are around.

The Blue Eye is a short walk from the car park. The river meanders towards a pool where the turquoise waters surround a small spring of the deepest blue – it resembles an eye, thus giving Syri i Kalter the name.

Albania, Blue Eye

It is smaller than I imagined it to be. Really, it is not much larger than a child’s play pool, but what it lacks in circumference it makes up for in depth. By most accounts the spring is over 50m deep, but divers have never been able to fathom its sapphire expanse. The water flowing from the spring is a frigid 10° Celsius; which for some reason challenges tourists to dive into it.

Tourists Behaving Badly 

The ‘No Swimming’ signs are not subtle…

Attempting to protect the water, the local council placed signs forbidding swimming and bathing. The reason for this, we were told, is simple. Over time, a cocktail of sweat, perfume and lotion could distort the incredible clarity of the spring.

The beautiful blue water will turn milky, and the eye will go blind.

Despite the signs (and the cold water), skimpily dressed tourists plunge into the spring and pose for selfies. There was a constant line of people waiting to dive in when I visited.

A young woman dives into the Blue Eye

Because of its minute size, photographing the Blue Eye without people in it is difficult even on quiet days. On busy days, it must surely be impossible to see the pool clearly; you may as well watch a group of people waddle around a paddling pool.

This group of tourists did not move off this rock the whole time we were there

Unfortunately, it seems that the Blue Eye will become a victim of its own success – tourists come to enjoy its spectacular beauty, but in doing so become part of the destruction. It is simply not big enough to withstand the demands of mass tourism; and this is a great shame.

“It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature” – Henry David Thoreau

But for now, at least, it is still (just about) possible to gaze into Albania’s Bluest Eye.

Have you visited the Blue Eye in Albania? What do you think about tourism that harms the sites people come to see? 

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Runaway Brit

Comments

6 Comments
  1. posted by
    Natalia
    Jan 3, 2018 Reply

    This looks beautiful. Great photos!

    • posted by
      Runaway Brit
      Jan 5, 2018 Reply

      Thank you!

  2. posted by
    Perri
    Jan 15, 2018 Reply

    Wow the colours in that water are amazing! You found a real gem there. Its such as shame that people don’t respect the locals want to keep it clear, so you can’t swim.

  3. posted by
    Mark Wyld
    Jan 15, 2018 Reply

    Albania looks amazing its definitely on our list for next years trip to Europe. Its a damn pity that tourist disregard the rules and put at risk such a beautiful place as this.

  4. posted by
    Eloise
    Jan 15, 2018 Reply

    The clarity of this water is stunning. As you wrote, it seems there is no water at all. I love it. It reminded me of a place I visited in New Caledonia. I could watch the water for hours, it’s stunning.

    I feel very sad that the place isn’t prepared for the number of tourists it receives, and frustrating that visitors don’t respect the rules.
    Taking care of the natural resources that drive tourism is crucial. Signs are unfortunately not enough when a place like that becomes too popular. I hope they will realise that and react before the water is too badly impacted.

  5. posted by
    Candy
    Jan 15, 2018 Reply

    I have never heard of Albania’s Blue Eye and it is breathtaking. It’s sad to see that tourists are blatantly avoiding the signs. The struggles in the beginning with trying to find a bus, and then getting extorted by a taxi driver sound so frustrating. Glad to hear you were picked up eventually 🙂

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