Why Albania should be high on your travel list
From a trading city founded in 8th century BC to stunning Unesco World Heritage Sites: Why Albania should be high on your travel list (and not just for the Adriatic beach parties)
As the sun went down, a line of men in felt hats, baggy shirts and scarlet sashes performed a joyous dance on the terrace of a hilltop castle.
Across a narrow ribbon of sea, the silhouette of Corfu ebbed into purple shadow. I had to remind myself that this wasn’t Greece but its less visited neighbour, Albania.
A two-hour taxi ride along roads lined with oleander bushes had brought me across the border from Greece’s Preveza airport.
Sheep and goats grazed under olive groves – a timeless pastoral scene were it not for a few small domed concrete bunkers on the hillside, survivors of the 700,000 built by Albania’s obsessively isolationist dictator Enver Hoxha.
How much had Albania changed in the 30 years since his death, I wondered?
Arriving at the Adriatic resort of Saranda, pulsating techno music, squeals of children delightedly dodging a giant foam gun at a beach party, and people on jet skis zipping over an improbably blue sea suggested an answer.
From Saranda we set off for Butrint, a trading city founded in the 8th century BC, according to legend, by people escaping Troy.
From there we wound through stark limestone mountains to Gjirokastra, a Unesco World Heritage site, where a massive oval fortress squats over a jumble of steep, narrow lanes and stone-roofed Ottoman houses.
The fortress is intact, but what surprised me most was the collection of First and Second World War weaponry displayed in its high-vaulted rooms.
From Gjirokastra we followed a river valley northwards to Tepelene, where a plaque commemorates the visit of Lord Byron to the castle of warlord Ali Pasha.
Continuing along quiet roads with fruit sellers dozing in the shade, we reached Berat.
So many limestone Ottoman homes cluster the steep, cobbled streets that their windows have earned it the name ‘city of a thousand eyes’.
Berat’s fortress also has eyes – 27 watchtowers.
On an adjacent mountainside is the word ‘NEVER’ – a rearrangement of stones which once spelled Hoxha’s first name, and an affirmation that the bad times must never return.
That night at my hotel, I drank merlot from Berat’s Luani winery.
It went down very well with the buttery pumpkin pie and lamb’s liver cooked with tomatoes and herbs.
In fact all the food I tasted was delicious, especially the fried mussels, known as midhje.
Peach and melon vendors hawked their wares along the road to Albania’s capital, Tirana.
Driving in, I looked for signs of its communist past.
A few dour barrack-like buildings remain, but modern Tirana seems lively and upbeat, with wide roads, sleek new buildings and smart shops.
My week was nearly over but a final pleasure remained – the coastal drive south back to Saranda. The shoreline was at times wild and rocky, at others dulcet and full of golden sands.
I hadn’t known what to expect of Albania but I was very glad I’d come.