“… I had never been there before and I knew nothing about it, and neither did anyone else,” Paul Theroux wrote of Albania in 1995 in The Pillars of Hercules. “… here on the most heavily beaten path in the world, the shore of the Mediterranean, it was still possible to travel into the unknown.” Still remote, Albania – for 40 years the most isolated country in communist Europe – is blooming. Tourism is flourishing, and Frommer’s just rated the Albanian Riviera the Top Value Destination 2012:
Unsung, undeveloped and eminently affordable, the Albanian Riviera has all the natural attractions of its Croatian counterpart further north but without the crowds and considerable expenses. Here you have white-sand beaches, crystal-clear waters, and Mediterranean villages barely changed since long before King Zog.
That’s a stretch. Albania is no Croatia. Nevertheless, its southern Ionian coast is both affordable and spectacular. Pristine Dhermi is the jewel, a favorite summer destination for Albanians and Kosovars. The village sits between high mountains and the turquoise Ionian Sea, with a long beach. Though new hotels are going up, Dhermi has little by way of accommodation and entertainment, but that’s its charm: A private beach is a short coastal hike away.
Farther south, Saranda is a developed town with better hotels, dining and nightlife. Its beach is modest, but the nearby Butrint Roman ruins more than compensate. Even farther south, Ksamil is a tiny but beautiful stretch of beach and islands just north of the Greek border. Popular with families, Ksamil overcrowds despite its remoteness, but it’s worth a visit, if only for the beachside cafes, which serve the best fresh fish on the coast and Greek specialties like tzatziki.
I’ve traveled extensively in Albania and am often asked if the country – which the spin-doctors in Wag the Dog deemed sufficiently remote to fake a war to distract the media from a presidential sex scandal – is safe. For the most part, yes. Albanians are warm and hospitable, and outsiders needn’t fear crime or harassment. In his history of Kosovo, the scholar Noel Malcolm quotes an Austrian visitor to Ottoman Albania: “If you observe the customs of the land, you can travel more safely in Albania than in any other country in the world.”
Albania is also recovering from the legacy of Enver Hoxha, the communist dictator who ruled for 40 years until his death in 1985. The self titled Comrade-Chairman-Prime Minister-Foreign Minister-Minister of War-Commander in Chief of the People’s Army, Hoxha banned private automobiles because he didn’t want people leaving the country. Roads deteriorated to the point where the drive from Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, to Albania’s capital Tirana took roughly 10 hours until a new highway was recently built. Now it takes four.
However, this passage from Frommer’s rings false: “A coastal road, reconstructed in 2009, allows you a relaxed and jaw-dropping drive from Llorga National Park in the north to Lukove, close to Corfu, in the south.”
This summer some friends and I drove the roughly five hours from Tirana to the Ionian coast. The views were jaw-dropping. But the only thing relaxing about a drive in Albania is the moment you step safely from the car at your destination. The roads have improved, but who knows what you’ll encounter: goats, cows, children dashing back and forth. Rounding a sharp turn in a village a few hours from Dhermi, we had to swerve around a legless man begging in the middle of the street – as did an 18-wheeler in the opposing lane. Between Dhermi and Saranda, the coastal highway winds through narrow mountain passes where drivers overtake up the mountain, down the mountain, around blind mountain turns.
“Your clutch goes and that’s it,” a Kosovar told me in Dhermi before insisting I continue to Saranda.
After two days in Saranda, we headed north for Prizren, Kosovo. Driving on a new highway through Albania’s stunning, mountainous north, we suddenly saw a plume of flame, like a gas explosion, just off the roadside. A man, perhaps unconscious, lay flat on the ground, and we pulled over. My Kosovar friend asked some men walking along the highway to dial emergency.
“Emergency?” they responded.
Shrugging, the men said we would pass a police checkpoint in a few kilometers. But there was no checkpoint, and we returned to find the injured man gone. He had been fishing, a bystander said, and accidentally touched his pole to an overhanging power line. “A car picked him up and drove him off,” he told us. To where, he did not know, and, for the record, we didn’t pass a police checkpoint for another 70 kilometers.
Photo of Saranda from Wikimedia Commons. All other photos by the author.