Albania: bedazzled, not bunkered

by patandliza

A week's budget travel by bus - with the occasional splurge - in Albania. Castles, ancient sites, historic towns and beaches create a heady mix of adventure

“The hotel is down the beach beyond the concrete bunkers,” pointed out the helpful bus driver, who had deposited us at the turn-off to Dhermi. But this was not the signal to reach for the camcorder and prepare for an appearance on “Holidays from Hell”. By now we were becoming attached to these gaudily painted concrete bunkers, relics of Albania’s paranoid past, which were stationed throughout the country.

Bunkers suggest a defensive attitude but instead, people everywhere gave us a dazzling welcome during our week’s trip around Albania.

Tirana, the capital, has a quirky, engaging quality – for instance an electric go-kart circuit operates in the middle of the main square – and is gradually consolidating its recovery, having broken free from a communist dictatorship in 1991. Rapid changes are underway; former government offices have been renovated and the commitment to tourism is underlined by the informative displays in the National Museum of History. Britain’s involvement in the Balkans is noted here but more poignantly commemorated in the tiny Commonwealth Graves cemetery sited in a corner of the main city park

Hotels suit all budgets although most taxi drivers assume you are staying at the Tirana International. We opted for Vila Tafaj, (double with breakfast 9000 lek; €1 = 135.8 lek)), which boasts an enchanting garden restaurant populated by tame rabbits and exotic birds, fortunately not considered local delicacies.

Spectacular views, whilst sipping cocktails, from the revolving Sky Tower, allow you glimpses of the fashionable area of the city and help you to appreciate how planners, with limited resources but using all their ingenuity, have brought colour to the surrounding grey facades of administrative buildings. Meals are rather pricey here so it is far better to eat at a traditional restaurant such as Oda (rr Luigj Gurakuqi; 249 541); delicious specialities, like goat’s cheese and peppers followed by baked lamb, with beer, will only cost for two, 2000 lek.

Using local transport, our aim was to focus mainly on exploring the culture and history, but we could always be seduced by the charms of a beach. Bypassing the busy resort of Durres we spent a few relaxing days by the clear blue Adriatic in Dhermi at Luciano’s (4800 lek a double with terrace and sea view).

A reliable and cheap bus system, complemented by an effective shared taxi service, gives easy access to the historic sites. Skanderberg, the mediaeval national hero, whose statue dominates the main square in Tirana, is celebrated in his fortress at Kruja. The castle perched on a hillside has wonderful views; informative museums; ethnographic displays; and the best souvenirs in Albania. On the climb to the castle it looks like you will have to run the gauntlet of the traders but the experience is hassle-free.

Further south, Saranda, opposite Corfu, is a thriving beach resort which has gone through astonishing changes in the last ten years. We stayed in the very comfortable Hotel Kaonia (5400 lek a double with a sea view and breakfast). Our waiter at the Paradise Restaurant confirmed the growth in prosperity but worried whether something might be lost. In the old days he said everyone was united against the government, but now he wondered whether this togetherness would remain.

Reflecting on that thought, we took the town bus 18kms to the Graeco-Roman site of Butrint. This is the jewel of Albania in an idyllic forested setting by a lake. Strolling around the deserted Greek theatre, it was easy to agree that this experience alone justified the trip to the country.

For the next few days we became castle groupies. In Gjirokastra we were welcomed at the stylish Kalemi Hotel where you can sleep in a room gazing up at an intricately carved wooden ceiling, which would not go amiss in a stately home, at the modest cost of 5400 lek for a double including breakfast. Outside, the forbidding castle broods over the nineteenth century houses and to drench yourself even more in the town’s atmosphere it is worth reading Broken April, Ismail Kadare’s novel, detailing the vendettas of the past.

Priceless sixteenth century icons were Berat’s attraction, an Ottoman town which has an attractive old quarter. We were staying at Hotel Mangalemni (5500 lek a double including breakfast), which had a deserved reputation for friendliness and good food. First though the castle had to be conquered.

After an arduous climb, you are rewarded by treasures in the form of small churches and museums within its grounds. The curator, full of enthusiasm, explained the finer points of iconographic art. Back in the town we were fortunate to find open an ornate prayer hall created by a Dervish sect, which left us marvelling at the level of craftsmanship, as well as sensing that the town contained many other hidden gems.

As the sun sets an ideal place for a meal and the perfect panorama is Ajka Restaurant, run by an Armenian family, which overlooks the river and the old town.

Albania is the new Europe but a left field tourist destination where you can retain the excitement of exploration. Everywhere there was a friendly welcome, good value accommodation was readily available and an intriguing culture proved a real delight.

Behind the bunkers there are treasures waiting to be discovered.