Albania, the hidden treasure
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Tirana, Albania - Mention that you have decided to visit the birthplace of King Zog and Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha, who shut the country off from the rest of the world for four decades, and people simply ask, “Why?”
Yet Albania, on the western side of the Balkan peninsula bordered by Montenegro, Kosovo, Greece and Macedonia, and 72km from Italy, has a surprising amount to offer – from sandy beaches to great food, a number of UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) world heritage sites, history going back thousands of years and 300 days of sunshine a year.
It wasn’t until after the fall of communism that Albania opened up, and it remains one of Europe’s undiscovered tourist hotspots. It still suffers from a negative image, having exported Albanian gangsters who trafficked people, and the disastrous financial pyramid scheme that brought the country, already the poorest in Europe, to its knees.
It’s still very corrupt, but if you’re only going for a week, it’s a recherché and niche destination and safe for tourists, and while not wildly friendly, people are helpful even when you can’t speak Albanian and they can’t speak English.
My introduction began at Saranda, a 30-minute ferry ride across the Ionian Sea from Corfu. The lively port suffers from the initial growing pains of an unregulated and developing market – too many package-holiday style hotels.
In its favour, the country does have an outstanding coastline and is a foodie paradise, which is interesting considering that rationing existed from 1986 to 1992.
You do need to know where to go and what to order, but when you do, it is a unique experience with culinary influences from Greece, Italy and 500 years of Ottoman rule. Albanian wine can be unexpectedly delicious. Cobo (pronounced Chobo), both red and white, is as good as many Italian wines.
One of the many interesting facts about Albania is its history of religious tolerance, and in 1967 it became the first and only constitutionally atheist country ever to exist. Mother Teresa is the most famous Albanian, born in Skopje, Macedonia, which was once part of Albania.
During World War II Albania was a safe haven for European Jews.
With a population of 3.3 million, 30 000 Albanians died fighting the Nazis, and in Saranda are the remains of a 5th century synagogue.
The first night we drove to Gjirokastra, a Unesco world heritage site, known as the City of Stone, a perfectly preserved 13th century Ottoman mountain town and the birthplace of Enver Hoxha (pronounced Ho-jah).
Hoxha managed to get electricity across the country in 15 years. The rest of his accomplishments are more dubious. There is scant reference to him at the ethnographic museum, which was his home. The house sprawls across multiple levels and its rooms are airy and large, its wood staircases, ceilings, banisters and balconies artfully carved.
The medieval castle dominates the town, and has great panoramic views over the mountains.
It has an armaments museum, and an American plane captured in 1957 at the height of the Cold War. Ismail Kadare, one of this year’s Nobel candidates for literature, was also born here.
The first night I stayed at the Kalemi Hotel, not dissimilar in style to Hoxha’s house. Dinner was at Kujtimi, a small hillside restaurant serving local specialities. Try the qifqi, lighter-than-air meatballs.
In the morning, after great coffee, first at the hotel and another one in the city centre, we headed off to Tirana. If you have a penchant for former communist capitals, stop in Tirana for a day or two. It’s a mixture of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, possibly Istanbul, with a hint of Naples.
The boulevards are wide and leafy. You can see Benito Mussolini’s influence in the government buildings dating from when the Italians occupied Albania during World War II en route to Greece.
The National Museum has an evocative Socialist Realist mosaic on the outside, and the National Gallery, a prime example of early 1960s architecture, is full of Albanian communist era art, which is worth seeing. Due to lack of investment, there is very little upkeep.
The Block is the happening spot. This is where Hoxha and his crew exercised their power and during that time only government officials were allowed here. It is now full of trendy bars and restaurants.
This is a coffee-crazy culture and every leading Italian brand is available, but Lori Caffe is Albanian. I had my first one at Juvenilja Castelo, right near the forest of love. In communist times young couples would head to the woodlands; people use its hilly paths as a place to jog or run as they did in the past.
Boutique hotels have started to make an appearance in the city. I stayed at the Sokrat, located right near The Block. It is clean, efficient, with great apricot jam-filled cronuts (croissant-doughnuts) for breakfast, and excellent, strong iced latte, but it’s not one of the boutique hotels. It was standard, no lifts and lots of stairs, but staff are friendly, helpful and accommodating, which makes up for the gaping holes. When it comes to the service industry, there is a long way to go.
Two hours from Tirana, at Dhermi, is a 12th century monastery with magnificent frescoes of icons. Shen Meria is worth a stop as you drive along to the coast.
A further two hours over the mountains, the sapphire-blue waters turn a pale azure where the Adriatic meets the Ionian sea, and where swaying palms, isolated rocky coves and inlets dot the coast.
The beaches from Saranda to Vlore offer the best of the Albanian Riviera, a combination of Greece, Italy and the south of France, and every bit as beautiful. One of my favourites was Llaman. It’s small, quieter and classier than the trendier Dhermi resort, if you ignore that giant plastic sea creature parked between the beach loungers.
Eating is a big part of the culture and there are great bars and restaurants to sit and watch the world go by, and as we spent a week in Albania we travelled to several different beaches, including Ksamil.
While the natural landscape is undeniably beautiful, the towns lack sophistication. However, the hills and mountains provide a fabulous backdrop and the sea is an incredible blue, as well as being warm, clean and picturesque.
There are so many extraordinary beaches, coves, and islets but one outstanding discovery was Pema e Thate. We found a secluded part of the sandy beach with clear, warm blue water, far away from the music and the inevitable screaming of children on holiday. You could stare for hours at the islands and water that drifts off to the horizon.
We stayed at the family-run Hotel Villa Park Bujani in Ksamil village. It’s clean and popular, and the family is as accommodating and sweet as can be. The plumbing is still a bit Stalinistic, as is the décor and local architecture.
About a 10-minute drive away is Butrint National Park, an amazingly preserved ancient town and another Unesco site. It is quite astounding to think that Julius Caesar arrived in 44BC and Virgil gave an account of it in his epic poem, The Aeneid. They say about Albania that every 1.5km there is a historical site, and it’s sad to think that so much gets looted.
We barely touched all there is to do, and that includes visiting the Albanian Alps, going white-water rafting, horseback riding, and hiking. For food lovers it’s good to know festivals are starting to proliferate. - Saturday Star
l I travelled with Past & Present, (www.pastandpresent.al), who offer bespoke trips. The company managing director Dritan Xhengo’s forte is arranging political tours, which provide an insight into this fascinating destination on the rise.