An Albanian Adventure
When I agreed to lead a tour to Albania I was both excited and anxious. I was sure it would be a great adventure, but I was concerned about the quality of the hotels and the food. I arrived on the ferry from Corfu in the tourist capital of Saranda. My first impressions were good, as the town was modern and attractive, and featured an excellent restaurant in a lovely location by the sea. Watching over the town is the sixteenth century Lekuresi Castle, built by Sultan Suleyman to protect the coastline from invasions from the sea when Albania was part of the Ottoman Empire. Today the castle is a restaurant, with a large terrace overlooking the naturally stunning coastline.
My first night in Albania was spent in Gjirokaster, also known as the silver city. On arrival it was immediately apparent why it had been given this name as the dying rays of the sun lit up the old traditional buildings that crept up the sides of its valley home. While in Gjirokaster, I visited the impressive Fortress of Argyro, built by Ali Pasha Tepelena, an Albanian hero I was to encounter on several occasions on my journey through Southern Albania. Ali Pasha built a castle for each of his seven wives. These include the castle at Porto Palermo that he built for his youngest wife.
Inside this castle I was treated to a memorable performance of the unique Albanian iso-polyphonic music now protected by UNESCO. Around this castle another notable Albanian personality, the dictator Enver Hoxha, has left his mark. Hoxha was obsessed with a fear that an invasion of his country was imminent. The slopes above the port are dotted with some of the seven-hundred thousand mushroom-shaped bunkers he had constructed and covered in spiky Agave to shred the parachutes of invaders.
I visited some fascinating ancient treasures, which included the Ancient City of Apollonia. The ruins of this city are enhanced by their setting in a large archaeological park with sweeping views of the surrounding countryside. Founded by Greek settlers in the seventh century BC, this once busy and important harbour was damaged by an earthquake in the third century BC, which also altered the course of the Vjosa River causing the harbour to silt up. Butrint National Park preserves an area that had been inhabited since prehistoric times, but was then abandoned in the Middle Ages due to the development of marshes there. The area was flooded when I visited the park due to heavy rains the previous night, so it was easy to understand why it had become uninhabitable.
There are also some great natural attractions here. The Blue Eye National Park has developed around the Blue Eye spring that wells up from the depths of the Blue Eye Lake. Walking around the lake, the colour of the water changes from vibrant green to a profound blue where gushing waters emerge from the forty-five-metre-deep spring. This lake is set in a forest of trees, some bearing hazelnuts, walnuts and cherries. Today visitors can enjoy a beautiful walk around the lake – an experience preserved for the elite during the Communist regime.
I loved the wild and wonderful Narta Lagoon nestling in the salt pans of Narta. Walking around the lake, I could just about make out some of the grey flamingos that live on a lake that is famous internationally for the large number of sea birds that call in there during the migration period. A rickety-rackety bridge stretches most of the way across the water to Zvërnec Island. To complete the journey to the other side, visitors have to rely on the availability of a local boatman to cross the gap. I arrived early one evening by which time the boatman had probably joined the anglers who had settled down for a spot of fishing.
During my stay I went on a jeep safari to the old shepherds’ village of Piluri. The inhabitants of this tiny village live on fresh produce including feta cheese, yoghurt, olives, figs and walnuts. The freshness of the produce from this village is so famous that people drive up from the nearest town, Horta, to buy it. The feta cheese is particularly good here. My journey through the mountains was spectacular and I kept wanting to shout to the driver to stop so that I could take yet another photograph. It was a wonderful day out and the whole trip was a great adventure.
Inspired to create your own Albanian adventure, or already have a trip to Albania booked? Don’t forget to take out suitable travel insurance, our Annual Multi-Trip policy covers you for multiple trips in a year.
Read more from Valery at http://experiencedtraveller.co.uk