Albania, the untouched beauty that time forgot

The Sunday Times Travel, Britain’s most popular travel magazine, has published Tristan Rutherford’s Albania tourism story: ‘Protected’ from tourism by its Communist rulers, Albania is the untouched Balkan beauty that time forgot.

Tristan Rutherford has heaven to himself.

Photography: Jon Attenborough

I’m the only tourist on the beach. Two beaches actually. The first section of Krorez beach is a white-sand idyll, lapped by the same Ionian blue found 15 km south in Corfu. The second section is a long banana swoosh perfumed by rosemary and pine, with sand as soft as in Puglia, the Italian region across the water on a clear day. It’s the same gorgeous waters, perfect sand- at the 50=odd other beaches that stud Albania’s 360 km coast, each of which knocks the socks off those in northern neighbour Croatia. I do a little jig. As there’s no one in sight I secrete my trunks in a tree, then swim a naked kilometre through limpid sea. Well, it’s what Robinson Crusoe would have done.

At sunset, I find my swimmers again. Then pad virgin footsteps to Krorez’s sole beach bar. It’s run by snaggle-toothed Albanian hippy, Evangelis, who sports a crucifix made of driftwood. As it took me an hour to hike this secret sandy stretch, I slip him 5 pounds to sail me to the jetty further south, where I parked my hire car. We shove his battered speedboat into the sunset surf. Evangelis guns the outboard engine, which is fuelled by a plastic Coke bottle half-filled with petrol, and we slap-slap-slap across a warm inky sea.

I’d come to Albania on my tod. Regular holiday pals didn’t believe me when I talked up blissful beaches and Unesco sights. Well, they could stick to pricey niceties of the Greek Islands, and the 10-a-day cruise ships of Dubrovnik, both a short hop away. I wanted a sunny break with a backstory. Tumbling ruins without tour buses. I planned a seven-day loop from Albania’s beach-fringed west to his historical hinterland.

You won’t find many twits with wristbands bumbling off the cruise bus at Butrint. Albania’s most popular attraction, which I hit on day two. Imagine a best of selection of Ephesus and the Acropolis on a lost island, hidden from passing ships by watery wetlands. Ruled by four different empires in turn. It’s an open-air museum of the Mediterranean greats. Greek agora, check; Roman bath, check; ninth century Byzantine basilica, check. For lunch, I steal a fig off trees. Then beat a barely trodden path to a vine-choked Ottoman hammam, where I snooze under an olive-tree. Later on, I hire a speedboat plus driver for the laughable sum of 12 pounds to take in Butrint’s scale. Herons stand guard as we putter past, while kingfishers flirt by like iridescent darts of blue. You can’t do this in Pompey.

My clifftop view on day three pans the entire Albanian Riviera. This, the country’s sandiest stretch of coast, ribbons for 100km from the Greek border at Butrint to Cape Karaburun near Vlore. Like the Cotê d’Azur a century ago, it’s pinch-yourself patchwork of lonely beaches, where sunbathers are outnumbered by grazing donkeys. Some like Monastery beach hosts an Italian-run bar that dispense massages and Aperol spritzers. Others, like Zhavobel beach, are sun-licked curves of sand that Julius Caesar – who rocked up nearby in 48BC- would recognize today. That’s because until 1991 Albania was a Communist hermit kingdom. Europe’s answer to North Korea left its gorgeous coast deserted home-grown capitalist reactionaries tried to escape. Tourist development is in its infancy – my mum would snort at the health and safety; my kids would baulk at the lack of hotel pools – but so it was in Croatia 20 years ago. Archaeologists, adventurous couples and those searching for the next Corsica or Montenegro will fit right in.

Lunch at a coastal café typifies the nation’s naïf charms. It’s surrounded by citrus groves, shaded by quince trees and cooled by a sea breeze. You can buy a chilled Peroni or a Turkish coffee, the latter arriving with a complimentary glass of rakia distilled from the grape skins of the terrace’s overhead vines. Such a potent cocktail sums up Albania’s unrealised potential. The flavours of Italy blended with the bounty of Ancient Greece. As the language barrier is an ever-present drama – we’re not in Mallorca now – my order is taken twice. I end up with four doughnuts, two freshly pressed grape juices, two Greek salads, a vast platter of Adriatic prawns, a six-egg omelette, – plus half of the chicken that laid them. Nevertheless, I fill my boots on this 6-pound blowout.

The nation’s newest seaside attraction was off-limits until 2017. Sazan Island had been a high-security military base for a century, during which no civilians – Albanian or otherwise – could set foot on it. This 5 km Eden even has its own cloudless microclimate that affords it the vegetation of subtropical Tunisia. On day four, the ominously named Black-Pearl ferry carries me and a piratical group of student day-trippers across from the port of Vlore. I gaze out as the towering island rears ever larger, a Lost World where Aleppo pines tumble into azure seas. IF a T-Rex barked out a mating call, it would come as no surprise.

The wild undergrads and I disembark on to a battered military jetty to be silenced by Sazan’s eternal stillness. An obligatory short tour details the island’s military history: 2800 Soviet bunkers dot the forest like concrete mushrooms. On any other Adriatic island, such as Paxos or Hvar, they’d build a five-star hotel. The sun belts through a canopy of juniper to mark swim time. I may be the first Englishman to front crawl from St. Nicolo Bay beach near the port. That’s Albania-any visitor automatically becomes a pioneer. As the deep topaz Ionina meets the shallow navy of the Adriatic right here, the swim is an aquamarine dream. Farther out, the wrecks of Greek, Roman and WWII ships tremble on a seabed, undisturbed by scuba crews.

On the chug back to the mainland, the Black Pearl calls at an unnamed, unmarked silver of sand on the Karaburun peninsula. This beach, like 20 others I saw from the boat, is fine, tickle-your-toes shingle. As I’ve been spoiled by Albania’s unsullied shores, the two-dozen beachgoers render the sand too busy for me. So I hop over limestone blocks weathering by lapping waves to another curve of sand. It’s mine, all mine. IF I didn’t have to wait three hours to Instagram the scene (cellphone signals are as rare as Missioni swimsuits in these lonely climes), I’d be in beach heaven.

Inland Albania is as pretty as Provence, with just as many timeless sights. With two days to go, I plough 90 minutes east through vineyards and citrus orchards, stopping at Cobo Winery. Garrulous vineyards boss Muharrem Cobo leads me around his hi-tech cellar, where we crack open the first -ever bottle of his latest experiment: Albania’s premiers sparkling rosé. Such first to try experiences are commonplace in the once-reclusive country, where both foreign visitors and private winemaking were effectively banned until 1991. The wine’s silken legs slip down the glass like splashing surf, colouring my wine-goggle eyes for the sight ahead: Berat.

One part of a twin Unesco city, Berat’s ruined castle rises like a Disney redoubt atop a spaghetti-western landscape. I park up, not by a ghost city, but by a living museum of stone homes and panoramic cafes that has been continuously inhabited for 3000- years – longer than Rome or Istambul. When the Roman and Byzantine empires crumbled, Berat became the centre of Christian learning. This is evidenced in the Onufri Icon Museum, an array of golden frescoes that bling like an Emirati throne room and hypnotizes the rare foreigner that gets this far. As dusk falls, I hit a rampart restaurant for curd soup, pickled tomatoes, shepherd’s salad, grilled lamb intestines, a swirly-whirly spinach pastry and a mixed grill. A steal at 7-pounds, including wine, plus three varieties of homemade rakia grappa.

Berat’s sister city is two hours south through badlands that once welcomed Lord Byron on a horseback tour. The boundless castle of Gjirokaster looms through my rakia headache. Five centuries-worth of white Ottoman houses, each a palace of stone, tumble down a ravine like Turkish sugar cubes. Poverty and obscurity have kept this former centre of empire pristine. Even the town’s wondrous selection of hotels is housed in ancient palazzos with frescoes and wooden ceiling rosettes. I’m informed that it would take six months to see Albania’s 100-odd other such archaeological sites, each frequented only by lizards and butterflies, where tortoises make love on amphitheatre terraces. Alas, I’ve got more beaches to see.

The three tiny Ksamil islands close my seven-day Albanian circle. Imagine the Maldives with trees. A dial-a-boat taxi scoops up sun-seekers from the shore the whizzes them to these emerald gems for a 3-pound ride. Hols oaks and bay laurel shad 5-pound beach beds, which drip into sapphire seas. You can swim between the islands or kayak out for quitter contemplation. Braver souls could paddle the two kilometres across to Greece. But why bother? This lost Riviera is paradise found.