Venture out to Albania and you'll find a country only just opening up to tourism and alive with Roman and Greek history
For a European country that has been an independent nation since 1912, it is surprising that many people know so little about Albania. Mention the country to many people and they might even struggle to place it on a map. It is well worth making the effort, though, to discover this compact Mediterranean nation, which, sandwiched between Montenegro to the north and Greece to the south, still remains well off the beaten track.
What Albania lacks in fame it makes up for with a sweeping coastline, a sprinkling of Roman and Greek ruins, food that is often organic and a welcome that is second to none, from a people who have been forgotten by Europe for so long. Albania endured more than its fair share of political and social problems in the 20th century, but these days the country is on the up and is really pushing to attract tourists to its new hotels and restaurants. There are teething problems, such as ramshackle roads and poor transport links, but the reasons for visiting are manifold.
I started off in the capital Tirana. Once the hub of communist power in the dark days of dictator Enver Hoxha’s regime, these days there is a buzz about the city. The old ‘Block’, which used to be the exclusive preserve of ‘The Party’, is now awash with restaurants, bars and pavement cafes. From my hotel room high above the streets below, I watched the main square radiating with life, young students savouring an ice cream and kissing couples relaxing on benches.
In Tirana and the rest of Albania I was greeted with broad smiles and handshakes, the sort of welcome you would never get in London or Paris. It was not just a case of being hassled as a tourist for money, but of locals being keen to know how and why was I there. Zabas, a student from the capital, explained the enthusiasm: ‘Many people here have just not met foreigners before, so you are a novelty. Others just want to help you like Albania.’
I didn’t need any encouragement to like Albania, with a flurry of world-class historic ruins, which I headed out of Tirana to explore. Apollonia was founded by the Corinthians as far back as 600BC. As I took in sweeping views of the Adriatic and the surrounding hills, it was easy to see what first brought them here. The arena is still intact and the bouleuterion has been reconstructed so you really get a flavour for how the city must once have looked. Only 10 per cent of the site has been excavated and Apollonia will be even more impressive when the international teams uncover yet more Corinthian and Roman gems.
Heading further south, I arrived in the UNESCO World Heritage-listed city of Gjirokastra. There is much more to Gjirokastra than being the birthplace of Enver Hoxha, as it boasts a dramatic citadel that sits high above the town. Below it, stone-walled and slate-roofed houses tumble down the hillside, inviting aimless strolling around the old world streets.
Gjirokastra Castle itself dates back to the 13th century, and the town is alive with a real sense of living history. Its past is awash with tales of marauding Ottoman armies and battling knights, and I felt like I was peeling back the centuries as I roamed around the streets taking it all in. If this had been France or Italy, a town as attractive as Gjirokastra would have been mobbed with tourists, but the streets were pleasantly quiet.
Then it was on to the Albanian Adriatic coast. My favourite place was Durres, a city that is popular with holidaying Macedonians and Kosovars looking for a beach break. I found its port-city buzz and socialist-era monuments much more interesting than its beaches. There is a real Mediterranean ambience about Durres, with the streets alive with mopeds and honking taxis, while in quieter corners old men play cards and chess in a scene as timeless as some of the city’s older buildings look.
Durres was once the Roman city of Dyrrachium, a vital and prosperous trading hub on the artery that linked Rome with Byzantium. The Roman, as well as the Greek and Illyrian, legacies can still be keenly felt. I had the whole of the well-preserved Roman arena to myself, before visiting the ruins of the Roman baths and forum. I finished off by checking out the local Archaeological Museum, where many Roman, Greek and Illyrian remnants help illuminate Durres’ rich history.
My last stop was, fittingly, Butrint, at the start of another world, where the Adriatic finally lets go of its grip of the coast and hands over to the Ionian Sea. For me, Burint is the most impressive historical site in the country, and well deserves its place on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The indelible traces of the Greeks and the Romans emerge in the well-preserved arena, basilica and baths.
The abandoned city is charmingly set on its own peninsula, with myriad walking trails delving around the ruins and the shady trees. Meandering around Burint’s herb-laden forests, with water shimmering all around, is a sublime experience. Layers of history loom in and out, revealing themselves in the crust of a Roman amphitheatre or a half-forgotten church, before sinking again beneath shrubs and water, a fitting metaphor for a country whose history and culture are so fluid, but whose people, cuisines and landscapes are never anything less than compelling.
Albania may not yet top most people’s list of dream holiday destinations, and tourism is still in its infancy, but that is all part of the charm. In this scenic and deeply historic nation, I felt like a pioneer discovering a part of Europe that is thankfully no longer shut off from the rest of the world. Head there soon, and you can experience the same feeling before the tourist hordes discover this compelling country.
Where to stay
Tomorri Hotel: the best hotel in Berati. Views from many of the rooms and also sweeping panoramas from the rooftop terrace pizzeria. (Rr Kryesore)
Sheraton Tirana: this five-star retreat is arguably the city’s finest hotel and the choice of visiting international movers and shakers. (Sheshi Italia)
Kalemi Hotel: the chance to stay in a traditional stone 11-bedroom Gjirokastra house is on offer at this modest abode. Don’t expect any luxuries, but for historic ambience this is the place to be. (Rr Kerculles)
Butrinti Hotel: head to the coast for a slice of Albanian resort-living. A new hotel for the new millennium, this is one of the country’s few five-stars. (Saranda)
Where to eat
Sky Club: get above it all, literally, in this restaurant atop a skyscraper. It slowly revolves, but the menu stays pretty much the same, with traditional Albanian cuisine backed up by international comfort food. (Rr Deshmore e 4 Shkurtit)
Rozafa: if you like seafood, then head here for as-fresh-as-can-be fish and shellfish brought in from the nearby Adriatic coast. (Luigj Gurakuqi 2)
Kalaja e Lekuresit: just outside the centre of Saranda, this restaurant in a castle attracts its fair share of tourists, but with good reason, as the views are sublime. (Lekures, signposted on Sarand-Delvina road)
Kerculla: traditional Gjirokastra food can be hard to come by even in the town itself, but this eatery excels in it. In the colder months, dine around the fire. (Lagja Palorto)