For years a locked-down communist state, today Albania offers wild landscapes, lovely beaches – and the chance to have breakfast between Miss Serbia and Miss Madagascar
Mushrooms the size of cars pepper the hillsides and plains of Albania. Sometimes they’re in ones and twos, others are in lines of ten or more, stretched out across the fields. When Enver Hoxha, Albania’s communist dictator, went to the great politburo in the sky after 40 years in power, the statues and slogans were quickly destroyed – but he left a legacy: more than 700,000 crude, domed bunkers, built during the height of his paranoia, to protect the country.
Driving south from the capital Tirana, communist and capitalist-era concrete do battle. If it’s not another clump of mushroom-style bunkers invading the landscape, it’s the skeleton of a half-built hotel. Everyone is building, but most of these edifices were constructed without planning permission and have been declared illegal.
“In the past everything was so regulated,” said Raimonda, a TV producer I met for lunch in the town of Vlora – one of the first places to rise up against the dictatorship. “We lived in our own little world, surrounded by so-called enemies. We used to say we were ‘dancing in the mouths of wolves’.
“Now the door is open. All the bottled-up energy is bursting out,” she continued, bellowing over the deafening tannoy music. “There’s no time to wait for people to pass laws. We have to get on and do it. People on the outside see Albania as a stopped clock, but that’s quite the opposite. If anything the hands are whizzing round so fast they might drop off!”
There’s indeed a sense of gold rush about urban Albania. People are ambitious and frustrated. They feel like they’ve been left behind.
But as I headed south from Vlora by minibus, the landscape changed. Concrete gave way to tile-roofed cottages with fat vines and bright washing hanging from the rafters. The knuckles of a vast mountain range rose green and precipitous from the plains. The road wound upwards, following the tight contours of the hillside; a loopy series of hairpins offered sudden views of hazy sea glistening in sunshine; a donkey brought us to a sudden halt.
The clock with the whizzing hands had stopped. The road had become a narrow track. On the map it looked like we were a short hop from Saranda, our destination, but it took us four winding, grinding hours to get there. We rocked and wheezed through tiny villages clinging to rock faces; ancient olive trees dotted the hillsides below and huge stony peaks rose stark behind. Running alongside us the blue Ionian Sea sparkled invitingly.
The scenery was tremendous, but by the time we arrived in Saranda it was pitch black and each lurch of the minibus made me feel just a little more queasy. Our hotel, though, delivered a pleasant surprise. Who’d have thought I’d be staring into the brown eyes of Miss Albania over dinner?
By chance our hotel was hosting Miss Globe – a spin-off from Miss World. The restaurant was overrun with gorgeous girls, each wearing a sash with the name of her country, providing hours of fun for the goggle-eyed guys. “I reckon she’s Miss Nigeria. And she’s definitely Miss Singapore,” I wagered as two Miss Globes stood with their backs to us. “Oh wow!” said one of my companions. “Have you seen Miss Denmark?”
In the name of serious journalistic research I asked our guide to invite Miss Albania over for a chat. Hard to believe, but her ambitions were to travel the world and work with children. “Hosting the Miss Globe competition is a great thing for Albania. The show is being televised worldwide,” she told me.
We bumped into the girls again at breakfast. It added a veneer of excitement to the dawn of a new day, waiting at the coffee machine alongside Miss Serbia and passing a yoghurt to Miss Madagascar. But away from the glamour of international modelling, I was meeting Ben Sipa – one of a band of passionate locals opening up his homeland to eco-tourism – for a trek into the countryside. And it’s the unspoilt scenery that’s the real star of Albania’s show.
We started our exploration on a deserted beach, where a row of bunkers stood looking grumpily out towards Greece – the two countries were officially at war until 1987. These concrete domes, however, had been painted a host of blues, pinks and yellows. They looked like Teletubby toadstools.
Leaving the beach, we started up a rocky pathway, overgrown in places with scrub. Within moments I was sweating, glad for the walking stick Ben had provided. An hour later we reached a tiny, virtually deserted village, all tumbledown stone walls and narrow pathways, overhung with vines full of grapes, and trees heavy with figs and walnuts.
A cat soaked up the afternoon sun sprawled on the path, while a tap in the wall dripped a trail of dampness across the old white cobbles. Three hundred families used to live in Qeparo i Vjete (Old Qeparo), which lies just outside the coastal resort town Qeparo. Now there are less than 100 people, and all of them old. The younger generation has left for the cities – mainly across the water to Greece.
As we tramped on Ben pointed out a concrete slab in a rock face – the village bomb shelter looked totally out of place amidst the tranquillity of the countryside. Another half hour of lung-bursting climbing – pungent wild herbs dusting us with their scent as we brushed past – brought us onto a high meadow strewn with long grass and tiny yellow and purple flowers. A boisterous dog came bounding up. Across the way was the shepherd with his sheep and goats, the bells round their necks providing a lilting background jangle.
We stopped at another tiny village, Kudhes, for a drink in the shade of a maple tree and chatted to some locals. One old chap assured me that dictator Hoxha was the best thing that ever happened to Albania; everyone else laughed out loud.
Dusk was already just across the hilltops as we left. Ben traced the trail from memory, occasionally spotting red arrows spray-painted on rocks – markers he put down last time he did the trek. It was dark by the time we hit another high meadow. Our resting place for the night was Pilur – another old village, but slightly livelier with a tiny bar that doubled as the local store. We drank a beer, chatted with the locals and stayed the night in the village with Ndreko and his wife Mali, both in their 70s.
“We don’t care who’s in power. We’re totally self sufficient,” Ndreko told me as we ate cheese made from their goats’ milk and lip-smacking grapes from their vines. He’d been harvesting them all afternoon and his fingers were stained black by their juice. The mutton that followed, huge hunks of meat on the bone, he’d raised and slaughtered himself.
I asked how many children he had. “Six,” he replied. “But none of them lives here anymore. Five live in Greece and the other lives in the city.” I asked if things ever changed. “The old days were little worse than now,” he said. “There’s always someone at the top benefiting; the rest of us just live our lives.”
They gave up their bedroom so I had a room to myself for the night. I slept well after a day tramping and several rounds of homemade raki, which burned on the way down but left a taste of honey sweetness in my mouth.
The trek continued for several more days filled with dramatic scenery and yesteryear villages, but I was bound for Berati. While Albania’s untouched countryside is its main attraction, there are also several ancient fortress towns that are worth discovering and Berati – a craggy castle on top of a steep hillside with a forest of houses spread out below – is the most picturesque.
It’s called ‘the town of a thousand windows’ because the houses are bunched together, their windows all facing the same way in long lines. Many people still live in homes inside the old castle walls.
As we wandered around the battlements, kids were kicking a football around the ancient keep; a haphazard goal mouth painted on the eons-old wall in yellow paint. The views from here were tremendous, but the most arresting site of all was the dark interior of a tiny old church.
During the Hoxha years, Albania was declared the world’s first atheist state. Churches were turned into civic buildings and priceless religious artefacts were destroyed. But Theofan Popa, the Director for Monuments and Culture – now hailed a hero by local historians – single-handedly saved some of the very best. He prised precious icons from their frames in churches, cataloguing and storing them safely away for a day when the madness was over.
We sat in virtual darkness in a power cut, rain pattering on the ancient roof of the Church of St Mary as our guide told us Popa’s story. Suddenly the thud of a portable generator kicked in above the noise of the rain and a row of bare lightbulbs flickered into life.
There, dancing out from the gloom, came some of the most ornate and delicate icons I’ve seen. A feast of gold leaf, rich reds and blues – ancient pictures of the saints, the Virgin Mary and the Christ child, and totally exquisite. It was a magical moment.
Here then, was Albania in a nutshell: unexpected treasures unearthed by the flickering of haphazard generator-light.