Europe / 21 January 2019, 5:30pm / Mary Winston Nicklin
Suddenly, we began an ascent into mist-wrapped mountains, passing beekeepers selling jars of honey road-side. Then we broke through the rain-dense clouds and spied the sea far below. We drank in the scene.
My sister and I had been looking for a Mediterranean destination for a break. The only criteria? Not a blow-the-bank vacation, but an adventure with beaches and tons of culture.
Albania, or Shqiperia as the locals call it, delivered in droves. Lunch for two in nearby Corfu, Greece, could easily cost $60 (R823), but in Albania our dinner feast cost $20.
And then there were the epic road trips. We learnt that the Llogara Pass, where we admired the scene, is one of the highest paved roads in Europe - a thrilling trip through different climates. Down below, the iconic Ionian coast beaches.
Shqiperia, “the land of the Eagles”, is haunted by age-old legends and a colourful cast of characters including a gallant, 15th-century warrior called Skanderbeg, a 20th-century king by the name of Zog and a communist dictator, Enver Hoxha, who sealed the country’s borders for 40 years while he erected concrete bunkers across the countryside. (Maybe he wasn’t paranoid; Hoxha reportedly survived 50 assassination attempts.) When his Communist regime fell in the 1990s, citizens fled the country in droves.
Today, Albania is a time capsule of ancient traditions mixing with modern ambitions.
From the beach at Qeparo, we hiked into the hills hugging the Ionian coastline . And then the old village came into view: a centuries-old bastion of stone clinging to a hilltop, the sea shimmering below. Here, as we meander through the alleyways, shaded by grapevine trellises, we pass elderly women draped in traditional black garments. The “new” town is set on the coast far below, but this old, forgotten village still has all its ancient glory.
A parked car is painted as a giant red flag, the black eagle’s wings stretched across the car’s hood. Legend has it that the great general Skanderbeg carried a banner of a two-headed eagle into battle against the Ottomans in the 15th century, a symbol of fierce national pride today.
The country is utterly unusual; the Albanian language is unrelated to Slavic tongues or Latin-derived romance languages and occupies its own branch of the Indo-European language family.
Later, we get another history lesson, courtesy of the Greek Orthodox manager of a waterfront restaurant. The stylish Barbarossa serves delicious seafood and traditional dishes, like wild spinach sautéed with foraged herbs. His family fled Albania when the regime fell, to the Greek island of Paros. “You know about the Albanian connection to Aeneas?” he asks.
The ancient city of Butrint in the south was founded by Trojans fleeing the fall of Troy. As described in Virgil’s Aeneid, Butrint was constructed to look like a mini Troy. A few days later, we find ourselves scampering over Butrint’s archaeological ruins, declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1992.
Later, we visit the town of Ksamil, its coastline dotted with beach clubs.
A romp through books by Albanian author Ismail Kadare, who won the inaugural Man Booker International Prize in 2005, is an immersion in folklore, tradition, and quirky expressions not to mention blood feuds and machismo. Kadare makes ample references to the Kanum of Leke Dukagjini, the ancient code of Albanian laws based on honour and hospitality. “Our house belongs to God and the guest,” is an old saying.
This hospitality is manifest in Berat - “the town of a thousand windows”, a magnificent legacy of the Ottoman Empire in central Albania. Recognised as a Unesco World Heritage site, Berat is known for its white Ottoman houses clinging to a hillside above the river Osum. The city fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1450, but its castle dates back to the 4BC; the resulting cultural mix is visible in the ensemble of Byzantine churches and mosques.
At family-owned Hotel Mangalemi, housed in 18th-century mansions, we stay for a mere $45 a night. We also stay in the popular holiday resort of Saranda, a gateway to the south. This port has a fantastic vibe. In the evening, a loud commotion brings us to our balcony. On the waterfront promenade, grandparents, toddlers, love-struck adolescents - all slowly saunter by the sea.
In Albania, the “Xhiro”, or night-time promenade, is a sanctified ritual and recreational activity. How could we not fall for a country whose national pastime is the evening stroll?