Albania in July is usually hot, but July 2015 was extreme, with temperatures of 40°C+ most days. However, our clients Paul Batho (chairman of the MG Car Club Magnette Register, no less), and his wife, acclaimed choral director Sarah Tenant-Flowers, braved the heat and joined us for a seven-day Albania road trip from Saranda, in southern Albania, all the way up to Shkodër, close to the Montenegro border. Here are Paul’s thoughts on the tour…
“It came about by chance – at a crowded Adventure Travel Show in London in January I found myself pressed against Drive Albania’s modest stand and got chatting to Ed Reeves. A couple of visits to Croatia and Bosnia just after the mid-90s war had whetted my appetite for the Balkans. Albania had always seemed a mystery worth exploring, but a challenging place to visit. First impressions were that Drive Albania was a refreshingly non-corporate operation and Ed’s clear enthusiasm and knowledge were infectious.
“Subsequent research and a series of e-mails with Ed convinced Sarah and I that this was the type of adventure we were after and that we had to go, so we booked a one-week Saranda-to-Shkodër tour for July.
“Flying Ryanair to Corfu, we spent a couple of days exploring the island before embarking on the slow, lumbering Corfu-Saranda ferry – somehow a fitting way to arrive in a country struggling to come to terms with the 20th, let alone the 21st, century. Ed was waiting at immigration, sweltering in 40⁰C heat, so we were delighted that the sturdy Land Rover Discovery which swept into view piloted by Ed’s Albanian ‘minder’ (and trainee-dentist!) Ardi was equipped with powerful air-con.
“A guided tour can insulate the traveller from the real world, with landscapes and people viewed as if on TV through the double-glazed windows of a luxury coach or hotel room. Not so with Drive Albania, where you really get under the skin of the country thanks to Ed’s encyclopedic knowledge of the history and geography of Albania, woven into an itinerary which encompassed experiences that no regular tour could provide. Any visit to Albania should not miss the World Heritage sites such as Gjirokastra, Berat and Kruja or a stay in Tirana and these were truly memorable places, but what really makes the difference is the people you meet and the chance encounters that pop up.
“There was Walter the Dutchman in Gjirokastra, distracted for a couple of hours from the mammoth task of converting a traditional house into a hostel by taking us on a personal tour of the sights that only a local would find – churches and mosques destroyed by Enver Hoxha, an underground bunker and a derelict 17th-century merchant’s house, inhabitants clinging on amid the desolation, fiercely guarded by a determined cur. There were the tiny, remote wayside cafés, often in unlikely crumbling concrete shacks whose owners could not have been more welcoming, with groups of locals shouting and gesticulating over their raki as if about to start a brawl – though we were assured this was just regular Albanian small talk. And we will never forget the hospitality of the Duka family on their tiny farm high in the Çermenika mountains – figs, cheese curd soup, lamb stew and yoghurt all prepared and enthusiastically served by Fisa, with limitless supplies of Naim’s home-produced raki aiding the digestion. On a hot summer’s afternoon a seemingly idyllic, bucolic existence but the reality is tough – not long before, wolves had killed their dog and in their 70+ years Naim and Fisa wil have seen more political turmoil and social unrest than most of us will ever experience.
“Albania has few ‘good’ roads and the tarmac usually runs out at the foot of the mountains. Ed has diligently explored the poorly-mapped alternatives – rocky tracks leading to areas than could only be reached by the sturdiest of 4WD vehicles – and most days involved heading deep into the mountains along such routes. Thanks to the capabilities of the Land Rover and Ed and Ardi’s skill at the wheel, we were rewarded with spectacular views on a par with anything in Europe, high mountains bisected by vertiginous river-carved gorges and remote valley floors densely cultivated mostly by hand, with the help of horses, donkeys and the very occasional small tractor.
“And, in contrast to the mountains was a relaxing day on the beach on the remote (but for how much longer…?) Cape Rodonit peninsular west of Tirana. Lunch at a makeshift beach bar comprised a huge grilled fish, straight from the sea – truly magnificent!
“At the end of each day we would overnight in some of the larger towns where we were led to some excellent local cafés and restaurants and stayed in comfortable and interesting hotels. To take but one typical evening, in Berat, a much-needed beer watching local life pass by was followed by a stupendous Albanian meal with Ed and Ardi at a little restaurant in the citadel, and wound up over a couple of rakis (there they are again!) on the hotel step with our charming host, Nasho, barrel-chested, bullet-headed and looking every inch the Albanian gangster.
“Seven days sped by and we were truly sorry to bid farewell to Ed and Ardi at the Montenegrin border. Our departure – crossing by foot through a grim border post past long queues of cars and trucks with more than a whiff of the old communist regime about it – seemed as apt as our arrival into the intriguing and utterly different place that is Albania.
“Altogether a laid-back, spontaneous and yet meticulously planned and executed tour. A fascinating experience in great company. Many thanks, Ed and Ardi, for a glorious week we will never forget.”
Paul Batho & Sarah Tenant-Flowers, July 2015.