Following our favourable coverage in the Financial Times, we were deluged with an email from Hilary Dennison, who booked our Northern and Southern Tours in June. Hilary told us she never travelled in groups – luckily for her she was our only client on the northern stretch, before being joined by two others in the south. Here are her impressions…
“I’m someone who travels a lot, almost always independently, whether alone or with friends. I began looking at Albania because it’s enticingly off the beaten track and a safe place for a single female traveller, with a countrywide transport system. I hesitated when I read that the main roads are modern, fast and can be dangerous and that the towns are often despoiled by litter.
“Then I read about Drive Albania in the Financial Times. It seemed to me that with travel mainly off-road, the journey would take us through the quieter, more remote, beautiful and unspoiled parts of the country. I would be in a vehicle and with a driver I could trust (and easily communicate with) and we would visit all the spots I had fancied from the guide book without following a heavily trodden tourist trail.
“And so it proved. In advance of the trip, all my questions were quickly answered. On the journey itself, our days were full and varied. Both Ed and his young Albanian colleagues made excellent company – the conversation was stimulating and informative. Instead of covering long distances between places of interest with little to see in between, we ventured, lumbered, sometimes inched up and down the twisting tracks of undiscovered rural Albania, ensuring glorious views of spectacular mountain countryside at every turn. We were entertained by local people in remote villages and farmhouses. We climbed and descended rough tracks along steep precipices and crossed rivers and streams of the clearest water I’ve ever seen – its colour inexplicably turquoise even under a rare cloudy sky.
“Evenings in town were a pleasant contrast: on foot we would often do some relaxed sightseeing. The lively streets would be full of people taking the air, dining on restaurant terraces or sipping the excellent local raki with their friends.
“A delightful surprise for me was the food. As a non-meat-eater, I expected to be occasionally bored, if not downright hungry, as the Albanian diet is very solidly meat based. Indeed it was clear that some of our private hosts were initially disconcerted by the unheard of concept of vegetarianism – but the result of advance planning (thanks Ed!) was always something tasty like a good bean soup and a plethora of delicious dairy products accompanying the usual copious quantities of fresh salad. Restaurants – including several trout farms – frequently provided excellent fish and, in some places, as good a selection of vegetarian dishes as might be expected anywhere.
“I had decided to combine the Northern and Southern Tours and I have to say I would find it difficult to choose between them. A broad-brush distinction might be that the former reflects a greater emphasis on wildness and nature, while the latter offers the best of Albanian history and culture.
“For me, particular highlights of the first part would be our nighttime visit to the hot springs at Peshkopi (star-gazing as I’d never experienced it before), a grilled fish picnic by the river on our way to a lively night in Kosovo, driving and walking the Albanian Alps in and around the lovely mountain village of Theth, and the atmospheric old town – and very comfortable hotel – of Kruja, near the capital.
“Outstanding in the south were the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Berat and Gjirokastra, with their magnificent Ottoman architecture, winding, cobbled streets and beautifully converted hotels. Add to that the fine, refreshingly shady, archeological site of Butrint. And a special evening on a secluded beach (only accessible by four-wheel-drive) with a bonfire under the moonlight, fresh fish on the barbecue and our handsome local guide playing for us on the violin.
“On both tours the off-road driving was a delight, fulfilling my highest expectations and distinguishing this journey from any other I might have chosen.”
Hilary Dennison, June 2015.