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HomeU.S.AInto the solar: Albania’s seashores, mountains and historical cities

Into the solar: Albania’s seashores, mountains and historical cities

“It was once uncommon that journalists would come right here,” says Elton Caushi, head of tour operator Albanian Journey, who I meet within the capital, Tirana. “After they did come, they solely wished to speak about blood feuds and sworn virgins.”

The traditions that after dominated tribal politics in Albania’s mountains are attention-grabbing, however I’m right here to probe a newer view of the south-east European nation. Due to its seashores, Unesco-stamped cities and mountain climbing routes, previously communist Albania is being lauded as a “scorching new” European journey vacation spot past backpacking and darkish tourism.

{Photograph}: Graphix/Graphics Guardian

For many years, Albania had a fame as a harmful, no-go nation, thanks largely to its being politically remoted underneath dictator Enver Hoxha, who died in 1985. After Albania’s 1997 civil warfare and the tip of the Kosovo warfare in 1999, extra guests progressively began coming to Albania, attracted partly by costs decrease than in Greece and Italy. In 2009, 1.9 million vacationers travelled to Albania; in 2019, the final full pre-Covid yr, the determine was 6.4 million.

The meals right here could also be an element on this shift. I’m with Caushi in a anonymous restaurant at 1001 Bardhok Biba, a avenue near town centre. “The vacationers haven’t discovered it – it’s primarily drivers consuming right here,” he says. I breakfast on luxurious tasqebap – a soupy mixture of veal, garlic, onions and tomato sauce – earlier than Caushi takes me for 9am dessert at Mon Amour, a Parisian-style patisserie. We pay a non-Parisian 390 lek (£2.80) for espresso and baklava pastries with ice-cream.

After breakfast I drive to Dhërmi, a village that has seen myriad inns pop up alongside its coast over the previous decade. I arrive in the beginning of Kala, certainly one of many small dance music festivals which have sprung up alongside the Riviera, with dancefloors on the sand.

The 18th-century Mesi Bridge.
The 18th-century Mesi bridge in Shkodër, constructed by an Ottoman pasha. {Photograph}: Nick St Oegger/Alamy

Dhërmi’s major, non-festival seashore is clear, neatly coated in sunbeds and flanked by eating places. All high-quality when you simply need to lie again and plough by way of your Kindle. The small seashores north of right here, resembling Splendor Del Mar and Empire Seaside Resort, really feel gloriously Balearic compared. Swimming within the clear, turquoise sea off Splendor is clock-slowingly tranquil. I haven’t had a greater dip outdoors Asia.

Later, on a stroll to close by Gjipe seashore – sandy, beautiful, remoted, with zero lodge growth – I spot a concrete bunker and stare at this dome with a sea view: a gray lump of chilly warfare paranoia on an in any other case idyllic coast.

A church in Thethi village.
Theth nationwide park. {Photograph}: Alamy

I see one other bunker. Then one other, within the hills after I drive again to Dhërmi. I start counting them, however quickly realise bunkers are as widespread right here because the sunbathing skinks. About 173,371 had been reportedly in-built Albania between 1975 and 1983, as Hoxha ready for potential assault.

Caushi warned me that the touristy cities of Durrës and Sarandë had been already attracting sufficient holidaymakers to make them unpleasantly crowded. I cease as an alternative in Gjirokastër and Berat: two smaller cities of famend magnificence.

I put together by studying Chronicle in Stone, the 1971 novel by Ismail Kadare – Albania’s famous writer and Gjirokastër resident. Within the e book the romance of Gjirokastër’s steep, bumpy paths, snaking round buildings resembling Skenduli Home and Zekate Home – owned by elite households and now museums – shines by way of his story of Nineteen Forties bombardments.

His ink covers town – my lodge is on Ismael Kadare Avenue. Nonetheless, Gjirokastër was as soon as as well-known for hashish as Kadare, in line with Blero Topulli, who works within the citadel of Gjirokastër. “It was thought of one of the harmful factors in Europe – we had a village producing tonnes of hashish,” he says. “After I was a toddler within the 2000s, to see a vacationer was like seeing an alien.”

We meet within the citadel overlooking the village of Lazarat, which was rife with unlawful drug manufacturing till a police crackdown within the mid-2010s.

Tirana has a rich cafe culture.
Tirana has a wealthy cafe tradition. {Photograph}: Andfoto/Alamy

Due to its historic structure, Gjirokastër grew to become a Unesco web site in 2005, however Topulli says vacationers didn’t arrive in important numbers till the hashish gangsters had left. We stroll the bazaar streets, renovated 5 years in the past for this tourism tilt, nevertheless it’s simple to flee this mildly Disneyfied pocket of town. Topulli takes me uphill to observe the sundown, passing mansions depicted by Edward Lear within the mid-Nineteenth century.

“Pay attention: the wind within the timber appears like the ocean,” says Topolli. He’s proper: it laps my ears because the citadel’s lights flick on, a relaxing comedown after Kala’s seashore events.

Additional north in Berat, additionally a Unesco-listed metropolis, I stroll as much as the citadel. Berat has an analogous historic richness to Gjirokastër – and equally steep climbs – however feels extra rugged.

The breezy lack of well being and security issues in Berat makes it much more pleasing. On the Crimson Mosque ruins, I scurry up the scarily skinny tower’s pitch-black inside, popping my head excessive so vertigo can override my rising claustrophobia.

Berat by night
Berat. {Photograph}: Fani Kurti/Getty Photos

“I got here to Albania as a result of you are able to do seashore, cities and mountain climbing in every week,” a US vacationer tells me. Certainly, after a two-hour drive to Tirana it’s a two-hour bus trip to Shkodër, gateway to the Albanian Alps.

I do a traditional trek: the 17km route between Valbona and Theth within the Valbona Valley nationwide park. To get within the temper, I learn Edith Durham’s Excessive Albania, the British author’s doc of the area’s tribes, primarily based on her 1908 treks. The toughness of the climb, with horse-dotted woods giving solution to craggy half-paths, threatens to outmatch the wild great thing about the world. However three hours in I attain the height, and the forest-splashed views work their magic: it’s Swiss-level beautiful.

In mountain-cradled Theth, my guesthouse pancake breakfast is soundtracked by the tense “click-click-click” of diggers. The snaking street to Shkodër was surfaced with asphalt for the primary time final yr.

Caushi says that some worry Theth’s new freeway might result in overtourism. “However I’m completely happy for my mates there: 15 years in the past you’d see a cow, a rooster, a cornfield. Now they will get to high school sooner, to the hospital … it’s good for the locals.”

Skenduli House, Gjirokastër.
Skenduli Home, Gjirokastër. {Photograph}: Aliaksandr Mazurkevich/Alamy

Good for me too, I believe, as my bus to Shkodër glides over asphalt.

I end again in Tirana, staying at Resort Boutique Kotoni within the metropolis centre, then the quieter Morina lodge, subsequent to the Grand Park of Tirana. Being the capital metropolis of a rustic with an anti-capitalist regime till 1992, Tirana didn’t get correct bars till properly into the Nineties, in line with Caushi. After a building growth within the 2000s, town now has a inhabitants of 560,000. Hoxha’s opulent former residence has a stylish cafe instantly in entrance of it.

I’m in Tirana fleetingly, however go to Bunkart 1, Hoxha’s underground advanced, which is now a museum and artwork area. Exhibitions define a long time of dictatorship, interspersed with artwork installations. Wrongly balanced, the combo of darkish historical past and video artwork might come throughout as distastefully hipster-ish, nevertheless it’s captivatingly transferring.

One other reminder of how shortly a spot can change.

Lodging in Dhërmi was supplied by Kala; Tirana lodging supplied by Resort Boutique Kotoni (doubles from €100 B&B, together with Albanian Journey and Radisson Assortment Morina lodge (doubles from €80 room-only

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