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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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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