Albania was hidden from the world for 50 years – but this small and beautiful country is now revealing its magic, as Lesley Bellew reports.
It’s little further than Italy and nearer to us than Greece, but for half a century Albania might as well have been in outer space. Under the paranoid rule of the dictator Enver Hoxha from 1945 to 1985, it was a country that hardly anyone entered and even fewer were allowed to leave.
Democracy came in 1991, and tourism slowly began to develop. Visitors now account for six per cent of Albania’s national income, and the country welcomed 3.4 million tourists in 2014. Now, with cruise lines showing serious interest in the country’s relatively unspoiled Ionian coast, those numbers are set for a major boost.
MSC’s Poesia has scheduled weekly calls from April to November 2017, P&O’s Oceana will also make regular visits and Cunard, Holland America Line, Voyages to Antiquity, Seadream and Silversea are all choosing Sarande, just across a narrow strait from Corfu, as a port of call during Mediterranean cruises.
Sarande now has a smart promenade lined with chic hotels, bars and restaurants, and above the town is Lekursi Fortress, which offers a panoramic view over the pretty bay.
The town also serves as gateway to a wealth of significant archaeological sites. Cruise tours feature Butrint, an ancient Greek and Roman city on the Ksamili Peninsula. With its ancient Greek theatre, Roman baths and Venetian tower, Butrint offers a remarkable cross-section of Albanian history. It has been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status as one of the best preserved archaeological sites in Europe,
even though much of it is still unexcavated.
Nearby is the 12th-century Mesopotamian monastery and the intriguing Blue Eye spring on the River Bistritsa. The depth of the spring is a mystery, and many divers have unsuccessfully tried to reach the bottom. Take the Blue Eye spring challenge and throw a stone into
the centre – you’ll find that it will mysteriously reappear.
Another tour option is the UNESCO World Heritage town of Gjirokastra. Clinging to the Gjerë Mountains on the side of the Drino Valley, this former Ottoman merchant town offers some fine architecture to admire, not least a magnificent castle that dominates the view.
If you prefer just to relax, soak up the sun and take in some lovely scenery, Ksamil Beach is only 15 kilometres from Sarande. It’s the perfect spot for a leisurely walk along the soft white sand and a swim in the crystal-clear sea, before a snack at the small beach cafe.
Where in the world…?
Probably because of its decades in isolation, even the well travelled among us can struggle to point to Albania on the map. But there it is – just above Greece, with Macedonia to the east, Montenegro to the northwest and Kosovo to the northeast. The “heel” of Italy is a mere 45 miles away across the Strait of Otranto, which connects the Adriatic and Ionian Seas.
A potted history
Albania spent centuries as an outpost of the Ottoman empire, gaining independence only in 1912. The country was briefly a monarchy under King Zog I, who survived numerous assassination attempts between 1928 and 1939. After Axis occupation during the Second World War, the Albanian Communists, under Hoxha, seized power in 1945. Much economic and social progress was made during the Hoxha years, but the regime was brutally repressive and crumbled after the death of its founder. Today Albania is peaceful, still largely agricultural, and the country is a candidate for membership of the EU.
On the wild side
Albania is home to more than 3,250 species of plants – representing some 30 per cent of all European flora – and the country’s forests are a habitat for grey wolves, brown bears, wild boar, the Balkan lynx, wildcats, pine martens and polecats.
Rocky coastal regions in the south provide good habitats for the endangered Mediterranean monk seal, and if you’re very lucky you might also glimpse the national symbol of Albania, the golden eagle.
Albanian cuisine is simple but flavoursome, and strongly influenced by the country’s long history of occupation by the Greeks, Romans and Ottoman Turks. Excellent seafood dishes can be found in Sarande, and prices are favourable compared with many other Mediterranean resorts.
Rick Stein visited Albania during his recent Byzantine Odyssey road trip and he raved about the seafood and “comforting” meat dishes. He learned how to make lepur comlek, a rabbit and onion casserole, and Albania’s national dish, tavë kosi, or lamb with rice and yoghurt.
Stein also took a mule ride high into the mountains where he joined shepherds as they cooked lamb on a spit, and he was so enchanted by what he found in Albania that he made a pledge to return.
DID YOU KNOW?
- Mother Teresa of Calcutta was an Albanian Roman Catholic.
- Albania may be a relatively undeveloped economy but it has some of the fastest and cheapest internet in Europe.
- Albanians shake their head when they mean “yes” and nod when they mean “no”.
- The poet Lord Byron travelled through Albania during his Grand Tour of the Mediterranean in 1809, praising the country’s rugged beauty in his poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.
- Lazarat, a village in the southern part of the country, was once considered the cannabis-producing capital of Europe. In 2014, more than 800 police were deployed in a crackdown on this activity.
- Albania is dotted with concrete bunkers built during the Hoxha years because the dictator was fearful of attack. Most of the 750,000 bunkers were never used and many have been demolished, while others are being transformed into homes, cafes or museums.
- Sazan Island, a Cold War-era military installation, complete with a nuclear bomb-proof bunker, is being turned into a tourist attraction.
- The English cricketer and all-round sporting star CB Fry claimed that he had been offered the kingship of Albania while attending a League of Nations conference in 1920. It says something of the country’s volatility at the time that his account is still widely believed.
WHO GOES THERE IN 2017/18
Seven-night sailings from Venice or Bari, Italy, or Piraeus, Athens, every week from April to November, also calling at Katakolon/Olympia and Mykonos, Greece, and Dubrovnik, Croatia. See msccruises.co.uk
Seven and 14-night departures from Valletta, Malta (round-trip), during April and October. See pocruises.com
Twelve to 36-night sailings departing Venice, Rome or Barcelona on May 23, June 10, July 10, Aug 28 and Oct 16. See hollandamerica.com
Fourteen to 21 nights departing Piraeus, Athens, on July 15 and Trieste, Italy, on August 19 and October 9. See cunard.co.uk
Ten days departing Venice to Piraeus, Athens, on September 4. See seadream.com
MV AEGEAN ODYSSEY
Thirteen or 22 days departing on September 27. See voyagestoantiquity.com
Seven nights departing Rome to Venice on June 2, 2018. See silversea.com