In May 2016 we escorted solo traveller Jennie Anderson around north Albania and Kosovo. Here is here in-depth review of the tour.
“Get yourself a small bright headtorch, borrow binoculars, and set off for the parts of Albania most visitors know least. Get there before the country has become just another tourist country: observe something of the ‘real’ Albania, an Albania they might too readily abandon, so many having suffered the long years of Communism and many having experienced the immigrant cultures of Germany, the USA and other places. It is hard for me to imagine the Communist past, which ended some 25 years ago, such is the welcome, the optimism for the future. But there you will meet a welcome and a warmth you might rarely encounter in the UK. There will be baddies – every country has them – but I haven’t knowingly met one yet, in three visits, unless he was a politician.
“The glorious Greek and Roman and Byzantine sites are to be found in the centre and the south, there seem to be few in the north. Many roads are slow, most are winding, but taken slowly, revealing. Many are much improved: you can get to the north readily (Albania is a small country) but don’t, please don’t, rush to see everything: you could miss twice what you will see and feel, and you are likely to want to return!
“You’ll find the noble: the mountain ridges, gorges with minute farms hanging on steep slopes, perhaps a boat with an outboard motor chugging to the apparently unassailable far side – shopping? You’ll find extreme beauty, you’ll find Alpine slopes, Alpine flowers in season, challenging walks (some maps available), glorious accessible pools in rivers, gorges on a scale unfamiliar to most. You’ll find glimpses of other faraway cultures, use of animals for transport, animals in a market town (Peshkopi), and the markets themselves, for instance. Among the more comical sights was a dining room full of Germans eating breakfast by candlelight; among the interesting, the cyclists, a couple or single on a push bike, negotiating traffic on roundabouts in heavy rain with an open umbrella held above their head in one hand!
“Transport could be a challenge and an adventure. Think of Edith Durham if you undertake to master the jigsaw of buses and minibuses to get to bases for exploration: Drive Albania can use its Land Rovers very flexibly, and, familiar with most routes and timing, assist on an itinerary to take you where you want to be subject to distance, time and accommodation. This is a boon for photography, and I assume, any special interests, and four-wheel drive adds a fourth dimension! The organisation was well thought out, offering some insight into towns of different sizes, and a few villages, some of which will be depopulated in perhaps 10 years. I’d return for more villages, and more of everything. For me they booked hotels of a medium grade, all acceptable, some interesting, some for two nights. Staff were helpful. Having two Albanian speakers, the driver and a friend, enriched the experience – though, two months later, I think of the right questions! It did entail crossing borders, and indeed the territory covered can be Balkan, not just Albania.
“We left from Tirana and drove via Burrel, Bulqize, Peshkopi, Prizren, Gjakova, (the last two in Kosovo), boarded the ferry at Fierze, passed through the gorges of Lake Koman, on to Shkodër, climbed and crawled to Theth (dramatic drive), returned to Shkodër, thence into Montenegro for return to Manchester from Tivat.
“I flew into Tirana, reluctantly via Istanbul (Turkish Airways) and out of Tivat (easyJet) direct to Manchester. This meant a drive up the coast of Montenegro, so adding to the expense, and may have worked out at a similar cost – my concern was to stay well clear of Istambul airport, but I was also glad to see the coast (and swim!).
“Shkodër, the regional centre for the northwest, I liked very much. No one should miss the Marubi Museum of nineteenth- and twentieth-century photography. The hotel was historic, its ancient yard full of Dutch motorcycles, the dining room full of their owners! Completely unexpected in a back street was a well established workshop making masks – yes, Venetian traditional masks for festivals, balls and perhaps export, in Venice. This was fascinating even if you’ve never cared about masks – the Albanian wage rate is lower, so the Italians take advantage.
“Snow fell on the ridges above Theth in mid-May this year. Just below the guest house, water plunged, frothed, hammered at the rocks in the river bed which looks as though it reconstructs itself annually – it took eight bridges in Theth in, I think, 2013. It’s almost Shangri La. The kulla, a tower used for attempts at reconciliation of sides locked in a blood feud, was very worth visiting with its owner-guide.
“You could meet the people, some keen to converse, children with mysteriously English accents, meandering home from school, shy, some keen to exchange a few sentences. One nine-year old whose English was remarkable is confident that he will be a heart surgeon in the USA: I was equally confident that he will be, but wish it was possible for him to say and ‘once I have experience, in Tirana! People can be honoured to meet you; some women have thanked me profusely for photographing them. I wish they had the email to receive the results! Perhaps you’ll sit on a wall and help with some homework. You could find a teacher hitchhiking 20km and back to the rural school with about seven pupils and views over valleys and mountains. These you will find only if you are cycling, on a motorbike, in a car or a four-wheel drive, or arrive by minibus (if you can cope with the ‘flexible’ schedules), but probably not if you are in a coach with a tour group. There is no railway system to speak of.
“Meals, especially if the driver, like my own, Nesti, is a gastronome, are generally excellent, the beer light but good. What you eat has probably been grown or fished within a dozen kilometres. The variety is amazing, profiting I assume from Mediterranean, Turkish, Italian, Slavic and Albanian traditions. You may find yourself at a table where not only the bread, but all the milk-based foods, butter (yes, butter!), yoghurt, curds; the eggs, all the jams and preserves, chicken, fish, meat (very fresh and the neighbour’s if not the host’s), vegetables, salad, herbs, fruit, nuts, are all grown or caught by your host. Other meals are sophisticated, with superb cooking encountered in both Shkodë, Peshkopi as well as Tirana. Fish restaurants seem to be exceptional. Every meal was fresh: a welcome contrast to English contemporary eating.
“I felt there was potential for B&B in remoter areas even in the near future: a chance to stay with a household and near the area you want to climb or explore; a chance for the hosts to earn in places where they struggle to wrest a living from the sea or the soil. Communication is of course, a principal obstacle, but in 2015 I met a 10-year-old girl who presented, in English, all the exhibits of a family museum on behalf of her grandmother, and answered questions creditably. In towns, accommodation commonly offers two bedrooms for an entire family, but perhaps it could be practical with some bilingual support, where the young family has moved on or emigrated.
“You’ll find some of the traditional transport: loyal Mercedes minibuses, in places it’s hard to believe anything but a four-wheel drive could reach, horses ridden and pulling a cart with enormous piles of hay, horses ridden by a couple, flimsy horse buggies, families piled in, whipping along the asphalt roads as well as the unsurfaced, and women piled high with produce as the husband walks unburdened beside her. All this you could find in many countries: what is different?
“I think it is the combinations of things we cannot but love which Albania offers. Unfamilar beauty, freshness of Alpine pastures, herds of goats and sheep which could sometimes number a thousand, with one shepherd and two dogs; markets full of everything for the working horse and mule, everything for milking, churns, butter making, wheels, parts for everything, bridles, festive bridles and decorative harnesses for high days, winter gear. Everything for ploughing and every phase of the farming cycle.
“A goatherd, with the inevitable mobile phone, an essential in the poorest parts of the world, tells us that the village had 40 houses lived in during the summer by families not many years ago, now only 10. It may be that getting children to school regularly is simply not practical, and in winter virtually all the population transplants. He takes us into a well-built stone hut with a heavy stone tiled roof. A wooden chute diverts the heavy water until milling starts. Inside is a mill wheel, small but heavy, like a flattened globe, stone and Stone Age. His mobile now in his pocket, he turns the mill wheel, shows us chaff at one side, last year’s we presume. The goats nibble their ways towards the mountain.
“So, of these combinations: interesting and varied places to stay, not always where you want them: we crossed to Kosovo in a large gap between guest houses, and in Peshkopi I stayed in an enormous former Communist hotel: monster bright orange suites on the vast landings, huge halls, wide stone stairs, wall-wide, delicate murals showed traditional wedding and customs. It was rattling-empty, but it provided an excellent meal on our arrival. Anomalies: the rail in wardrobes in several hotels appears to be missing: what is their fate?! One gorge, Lake Koman: a car ferry sedately conveys passengers from Fierze to Koman. On this occasion we sat in the car in heavy rain with cloud low, everything green, grey, misty, distant lightning, glimpses of amazing perched farms, access and rewards of this life are hard to credit!
“A river is crossed by two close bridges: one stone and ready for any load, the other two narrow planks, balanced on rocks near the surface of the water, shallow at that point. On the far side stands a man under a shelter: I gesture to query the possibility of coffee, he replies by gesture across the wide clattering river that his place is open and yes, coffee is indeed a possibility. We consider the narrow planks, but the river is wide and rumbustious, reject them, cross the stone bridge, and spend a couple of hours at the magical apparition of the café. It turned out that very small speckled trout were available too, cooked, with herbs and excellent bread and salad. We are mesmerised by watching the troutlets in swirling clear blue and green water below the quiet café: not our destination, the ‘Blue Eye’, a larger, more iconic pool, but this Eye was quite blue enough for us. One of us slept. All three wanted to return to swim in a warmer time. Children we found in the remote village, Rabdisht, were curious and friendly. There was a small shop. Brought up in the Cotswolds, never have I been anywhere so stony: grey and shining in the drizzle: cobbles, shining slates, roofs, a narrow alley between high walls, spiky fences, and some signs of rebuilding.
“Scattered about Albania are mineral springs. I’d like to explore any that are in use! Those on the outskirts of Peshkopi are a delight, deep enough to sit comfortably on the base, suphurous but a perfect temperature for exchange of observations, gossip, and no doubt politics. Men appear to be organising the world, women curious, commenting. It would have been a time for exchange of views! Even better on a starry night, they say.
“Albania is entrancing for the visitor, but I’ll have to return to find out more about how it is for Albanians.”
Jennie Anderson, May 2016.