Soaring and diving in the land of the eagle
Sitting with the sun on your skin on the long stretch of Durrës beach you can turn to look inland along a road which was the ancient Via Egnatia which connected Rome to Istanbul. The legacies of these empires are all around you.
Albania’s food and its culture are a delicious mixture of the Mediterranean and the Oriental. However, the country’s unique experiences since it declared independence over a century ago also offer the traveler the chance to visit a culture that developed in isolation for much of the twentieth century, and where there are still hidden valleys, sparkling surprises and beauty spots unspoiled by tourists.
The mountains form part of the mega-trail of the Via Dinarica which connects Albania to the rest of the Balkans, and as far north as Slovenia. Hikers come for the chance to walk for days between small villages like those of the Valbona Valley, accompanied only by sheep and the mountain pastures scent of marjoram. They come for the dizzying views or the sense of transcendence which comes when you are above the clouds. They often stay for other reasons – an extra night here, where the home-made filo-pastry cheese pies crumble in your hands like old parchment, an extra night there, in a home-stay cottage where toasts are drunk late into the evening in home-brewed raki spirits.
Others engage with Albania’s rugged beauty in different ways - throwing themselves at it on a raft in the Osumi canyon, paragliding, or just flinging themselves on one of the secluded beaches that can still be discovered in the south near Dhërmi and Himara.
The chance to be able to hop like this from crag to coast within one holiday is an attraction in itself for many visitors whose wanderlust thrives on diversity. An Albanian itinerary can be an eclectic mix of historical sites and contemporary cocktails. Butrint, for example, is a UNESCO World Heritage site with amphitheater and mosaics dating back to the time of Ancient Greece, but it’s an easy day trip from the bustling beach party of Saranda.
Other visitors will be tempted by the sun-warmed stones of Albania’s religious sites, in a country where Muslims and Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians live peacefully together. This respectful cohabitation was the reason given for Pope Francis’ choice of Albania as the destination for his first European visit outside Italy. The religious mix offers opportunities to see world-class icons (for example at the Onufri Museum of Berat) and frescoes (notably in the now sleepy town of Voskopoja, once the largest city in the Balkans), delicately painted mosques (such as the exquisite Et’hem Bey Mosque in Tirana), and Catholic churches in small devout mountain communities like picturesque Theth.
Secular strands of Albania’s history are reflected in the UNESCO World Heritage Site “museum town” of Gjirokastër with its impressive fortress set above the town’s charming streets and Ottoman-era houses built into the hillside. To understand how these homes would have been furnished, you can take yourself to the bazaar in the cobbled town of Kruja. Set on an escarpment over a dramatic plain you’ll find an antique market glowing with textiles and wrought metal and offering traditional costumes, Communist memorabilia, carved wood, rugs and felting and where you can buy a unique piece to take home as a souvenir.
If you’re interested in Albania’s more recent history, you’ll find that Communism left an artistic legacy which can be appreciated in the vast canvases of socialist realist art of the National Gallery in Tirana. To understand the experiences and suffering under the dictatorship there’s also an innovative “Bunk’art” museum in the nomenklatura’s former nuclear bunker on the outskirts of the capital.
Albania’s history might take some digesting, but what you’ll be served on your plate during a stay here will go down much more easily. For the gourmand, there are both restaurant and home-cooking opportunities to eat food which pays loving homage to the wealth of local ingredients. Albania has a strong export market for herbs which are used to delicious effect in local dishes, and there are surprises from fermented pomegranate juice to pickled sunflower root, as well as sweetmeats such as the Përmet “gliko” entered into the worldwide “Ark of Taste” as a unique regional delicacy. As you’d imagine with the blessings of Albania’s climate, the local wine is also excellent. Look out for Kallmet reds, or treat yourself to a tour and tasting at the Kokomani vineyard. Better still, sample wines together with the food served at the Tradita museum-hotel-restaurant in Shkodra, or with witty and creative presentations of mouth-watering local food at Mullixhiu restaurant in the capital, Tirana.
The ecosystems which offer such tasty fruits of the land are unsurprisingly also home to some special wildlife. In Albanian, the country is called ‘the land of the eagle’ and although sightings of such huge birds of prey are rare, the Dalmatian pelican with its distinctive messy hair-do and massive wing-span is endemic here and can be seen in the misty lagoons of Karavasta. Lake Shkodra is a wetland of international importance, which is home to 270 bird species and lovers of still waters should also visit Lake Ohrid, one of the deepest lakes in the world, comparable to Lake Baikal and Lake Tanganyika.
Are you starting to wonder why you haven’t heard of Albania before? This is Europe’s best-kept secret, an easy leap from neighboring Italy or Greece, and a gateway to other countries of the Balkans. It’s a country served with excellent international flights, warmed with a Mediterranean climate and the welcome of a people who treat hospitality as a duty and a pleasure rather than a corporate tagline. Here you can make your own itinerary and forge your own adventure, learning Albanian spontaneity as you take a trip through a country you’ll be proud to have had the chance to explore.
View the video about Albania below: