In May 2015 we were asked to arrange a short Albania private tour for Tessa Prior-Thompson and four friends. We were slightly intimidated as Tessa turned out to be the owner of one of Africa’s most well-regarded safari lodges, Waterberry Lodge in Zambia (with five stars on TripAdvisor), and Albanian hotels (even the best ones) can be a bit hit-and-miss in terms of décor. After a lot of emailing we put together a tour starting in Tirana and with the final night in Corfu, just a short hop from Saranda in southern Albania. These are Tessa’s impressions…
“We wanted to do something really different to celebrate a friend’s BIG birthday, and were at a complete loss until we heard about Drive Albania from a friend who had just returned from one of their tours. We were short of time – we had a four-night-long weekend to spare – but Ed Reeves of Drive Albania quickly proposed a whistle-stop Albania private tour that was second to none for adventure, cultural experience, good food and sightseeing. An all-in-all excellent birthday celebration that left us looking forward to a return trip.
“We started with an easy afternoon BA flight from London Gatwick to Tirana, were picked up by Ed and his colleague, taken straight to a really lovely Italian villa hotel and out to dinner at an excellent restaurant. It was the first of many surprises – we’d persuaded ourselves we were going somewhere slightly edgy, that the food would be pretty poor quality and we might even feel a bit unsafe in the capital city. Entirely the opposite was true. So, without writing a book about our trip (I could but I don’t write well enough), here are our impressions…
“We knew nothing at all about Albania except some bad vibes (‘You’re going WHERE???’) and a vague recollection of its dictator Enver Hoxha. One of the shocks / surprises was to find out that virtually all the Albanians we met, and there were many, had spent their entire lives being told that the rest of the world was anxious to invade, suppress and overcome Albania. There were no reference points to show the population that this was not true until their liberation in the 1990s. The result is that in part this beautiful country and wonderful people are caught in a time trap – farming by hand and with animals, living a totally traditional way of life. Not necessarily good news for the population, but it makes for an astonishing, unique experience for visitors.
“On our first morning we were taken to an extraordinary private studio with Socialist Realist paintings from the communist era, where artist Robert Permeti showed us the works he was encouraged (instructed) to create to demonstrate the glories of the Hoxha regime. They are masterpieces of historical illustration – anyone who travels to Albania should try to persuade Ed to make an appointment with this remarkable man. We left him understanding so much more of what we were to see.
“The mountains… we travelled from Tirana to Berat to Gjirokastra to Butrint crossing mountain passes. It was at times a serious off-road experience, with skilled driving by Ed and his Albanian colleague Ilia along winding unmade tracks. The scenery is breathtaking and the farming scenes reminded us of what we used to see in Greece years ago when we were backpacking teenagers. It’s hard to describe how beautiful the country is. Spectacular mountains, huge vistas across wide river valleys, forests, alpine pastures, the odd café where the owner would open up for us and offer his homemake raki.
“The food… Traditional farming leads to traditional cooking and we ate so well, especially when Ed took us to places like the small restaurant in Berat where the owner’s wife cooked us her choice of Albanian specialities. It was wonderful, a real privilege to eat where every single item is made fresh. It set the standard for the food all through our trip.
“The culture… We saw the history of centuries in our brief visit – ancient fortresses, ruined towns from when Albania was on a major Roman trade route, the icon museum in Berat, the mountain range where the name of the megalomaniac ‘ENVER’, written large on the mountainside, had been changed to ‘NEVER’, really beautiful villages and towns, old mosques and Christian churches.
“Our accommodation… We expected to rough it, because of our ignorance of Albania. Everywhere we stayed was excellent – all different – ranging from the Italian villa in Tirana to an amazing stone roofed house in Gjirokastra. The service was friendly and the people were without exception absolutely charming.
“The language… Oops! Apparently there are 36 letters in Albanian; someone wrote them down for us. Don’t even try – it doesn’t sound like anything you’ll recognise.
“And finally, Drive Albania… I can’t speak highly enough of our experience. From the first idea of having this trip, to planning a route Ed thought we would enjoy, being met at the airport and looked after all the way. We could do what we wanted, when we wanted. Nothing was too much trouble (even if we did our best to stress Ed out by being late for virtually everything; not our fault as it was all too interesting). The roads we travelled were a challenging adventure, and we had complete confidence in our drivers Ed and Ilia. We went to amazing places and were virtually alone there, with no crowds of tourists. We made new friends and, probably the most important thing, we discovered Albania. Ilia wrote to me afterwards. ‘Thank you for appreciating everything you experienced in Albania – I am sure you will be ambassadors of Albania in the UK’. I am – and I’d go back in a heartbeat.”
Tessa Prior-Thompson, May 2015.