Mushrooms the size of cars pepper the hillsides and plains of Albania.
When Enver Hoxha, Europe’s last communist dictator went to the great politburo in the sky after 40 years in power, the statues and slogans were quickly destroyed. But he left a legacy: nearly a million crude domed bunkers, built during the height of his paranoia, to protect the country from land attack. Sometimes they’re in ones and twos. Others there are lines of ten or more stretched out across the fields. Driving south from the capital Tirana, communist and capitalist-era concrete do battle. If it’s not another clump of bunkers invading the landscape, it’s the skeleton of a half-built hotel. Everyone is building and it’s all for sale. (Unfortunately For Sale in Albanian is – ‘Shitet’.) Most of these edifices were constructed without planning permission and they’ve been declared illegal.
“In the past everything was so regulated,” said Raimonda a TV producer I met for lunch in the resort town of Vlor, one of the first places to rise up against the dictatorship. “We lived in our own little world, surrounded by so-called enemies. We used to say we were dancing in the mouths of wolves.” The music over the restaurant tannoy was deafening. “Now the door is open. All the bottled-up energy is bursting out,” she bellowed. “There’s no time to wait for people to pass laws. We have to get on and do it. People on the outside see Albania as a stopped clock, but that’s quite the opposite. If anything the hands are whizzing round so fast they might drop off!”
There’s indeed a sense of gold-rush about urban Albania.
People are ambitious and frustrated. They feel like they’ve been left behind. But as we continued south from Vlor, the landscape changed. Concrete gave way to tiled roofed cottages with Sfat vines and bright washing hanging from the rafters. The knuckles of a vast mountain range rose green and precipitous from the plains. The road wound upwards following the tight contours of the hillside. A loopy series of hairpins the other side offered sudden views of hazy sea glistening in sunshine, sheep browsed the bushes along the roadside, a donkey brought us to a sudden halt.
The clock with the whizzing hands had stopped. The road had become a narrow track. On the map it looked like we were a short hop from our destination Saranda, but it took us four winding, grinding hours to get there. We rocked and wheezed through tiny villages clinging to rock faces; ancient olive trees dotted the hillsides below and huge stony peaks rose stark behind. Running alongside us the blue Corfu Straits sparkled invitingly. The scenery was tremendous, but by the time we arrived it was pitch black and each lurch of our minibus made me feel just a little more queasy. But Silvi made everything alright again.
Who’d have thought I’d be staring into the brown eyes of Miss Albania over dinner?
By chance our hotel was hosting the Miss Globe competition – a kind of spin-off from Miss World. The restaurant was overrun with gorgeous girls. Each wore a sash with the name of her country – a handy identifier for the goggle-eyed guys. It provided hours of fun. “I reckon she’s Miss Nigeria. And she’s definitely Miss Singapore,” I commented as two Miss Globes stood with their backs to us. “Oh wow!” said Nick, one of my companions. “Have you seen Miss Denmark?” In the name of serious journalistic research I got our guide to invite Miss Albania over for a chat. I know you’ll find this hard to believe, but her ambitions were to travel the world and do work with children. Silvi said hosting the Miss Globe competition was a great thing for Albania. The show was being televised worldwide.
We bumped into the girls again at breakfast. It added a veneer of excitement to the dawn of a new day, waiting at the coffee machine alongside Miss Serbia and passing a yoghurt to Miss Madagascar.
But away from the glamour of international modelling, I was meeting Ben Sipa for a trek into the countryside. And it’s the unspoilt scenery that’s the real star of Albania’s show. Ben’s one of a band of passionate locals opening up his homeland to eco-tourism. We started on a deserted beach. Here someone had painted the bunkers that stood there looking grumpily out towards Greece a host of blues, pinks and yellows. They looked like Tellytubby toadstalls. The two countries were still officially at war until six years ago.
Leaving the beach, we started up a rocky pathway, overgrown in places with scrub. Within moments I was sweating, glad for the walking stick Ben had provided. An hour later we reached a tiny, virtually deserted village, all tumble down stone walls and narrow pathways, overhung with vines full of grapes and trees heavy with figs and walnuts. A cat soaked up the afternoon sun sprawled on the path, a tap in the wall dripped a trail of dampness across the white old cobbles. 300 families used to live in Qeparo I Vjeter, now there are less than 100 people, all of them old. The younger generation have left for the cities – mainly across the water in Greece.
We tramped on. Ben pointed out a concrete slab in a rockface; the village bomb shelter – in case of invasion – totally out of place amidst the tranquillity of the countryside. Another half hour of lung-bursting climbing, pungent wild herbs dusting us with their scents as we brushed past, brought us onto a high meadow, strewn with long grass and tiny yellow and purple flowers. A boisterous dog came bounding up. Across the way was the shepherd with his sheep and goats, the bells round their necks providing a lilting background jangle. We stopped at another tiny village, Kudhes, for a Coke in the shade of an old maple tree and chatted to some inquisitive locals. One old chap assured me that dictator Hoxha was the best thing that ever happened to Albania; everyone else laughed out loud.
Dusk was already just across the hilltops as we left.
Ben traced the trail from memory, occasionally spotting red arrows spray-painted on rocks; markers he put down last time he did the trek. It was dark by the time we hit another high meadow. Our resting place for the night was Pilur; another old village, slightly more lively with a tiny bar that doubled as the local store. We drank a beer and chatted with the locals.
We stayed the night in the village with Ndreko and his wife Mali, both in their 70s. “We don’t care who’s in power. We’re totally self sufficient,” Ndreko told me as we ate cheese made from their goats’ milk and lip-smacking grapes from their vines. He’d been harvesting them all afternoon and his fingers were stained black by their juice. The mutton that followed, huge hunks of meat on the bone, he’d raised and slaughtered himself. I asked how many kids he had. “Six,” he replied. “But none of them live here anymore. Five live in Greece and the other lives in the city.” I asked if things ever changed. “The old days were little worse than now,” he said. “There’s always someone at the top benefiting; the rest of us just live our lives.” They gave up their bedroom so I had a room to myself for the night. I slept well after a day tramping and several rounds of homemade raki, which burned on the way down but left a taste of honey sweetness in my mouth.
The trek continues for several more days of dramatic scenery and yester-year villages, but Ben had a tour group to attend to and I was bound for Berat. Whilst Albania’s untouched countryside is its main attraction, there are also several ancient fortress towns that are well worth discovering. Berat is the most picturesque, a craggy castle on top of a steep hillside with a forest of houses spread out below. It’s called the city of 1000 windows. The houses are bunched together, their windows all facing the same way in long lines. Many people still live in homes inside the old castle walls.
As we wandered around the battlements, kids were kicking a football around the ancient keep, a haphazard goal mouth painted on the eons-old wall in yellow paint. The views from here were tremendous, but the most arresting site of all was the dark interior of a tiny old church. During the Hoxha years Albania was declared the world’s first atheist state. Churches were turned into civic buildings and priceless religious artefacts were destroyed. But Theofan Popa, the Director for Monuments and Culture, now hailed a hero by local historians, single-handled saved some of the very best. He prised precious icons from their frames in churches, cataloguing and storing them safely away for a day when the madness was over.
We sat in virtual darkness in a powercut.
Rain pattered on the ancient roof of the Church of St Mary as our guide told us Popa’s story. Suddenly the thud of a portable generator kicked in above the noise of the rain. A row of bare light bulbs flickered into life. And there dancing out from the gloom came some of the most ornate and delicate icons I’ve seen. A feast of gold leaf and rich reds and blues; ancient pictures of the saints, the Virgin Mary and the Christ child, totally exquisite. It was a magical moment. Here then, was Albania in a nutshell: unexpected treasures unearthed by the flickering of haphazard generator-light.
Fancy a walk on the wild side?
Get There: British Airways flies three times a week from London Gatwick to Tirana.
Find Out More: The Official Albania Tourist Board website – it was down last time I tried it!