Protected’ from tourism by its Communist rulers, Albania is the untouched Balkan beauty that time forgot. Tristan Rutherford has it all to himself
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 15km 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 visible 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 360km 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 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 necklace made of driftwood. As it took me an hour to hike to this secret sandy stretch, I slip him $8 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 own. Regular holiday pals didn’t believe me when I talked up blissful beaches and UNESCO sights. Well, they could stick to the 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 its historic 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 figs 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 $18 to take in Butrint’s scale. Herons stand guard as we putter past, while kingfishers flit by like iridescent darts of blue. You can’t do this in Pompeii.
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 Vlorë. Like the Côte d’Azur a century ago, it’s a pinch-yourself patchwork of lonely beaches, where sunbathers are outnumbered by grazing donkeys. Some, like Monastery beach, host an Italian-run bar that dispenses massages. Others, like Zhabovel beach, are sun-licked curves of sand that Julius Caesar — who rocked up nearby in 48BC — would recognise today. That’s because until 1991 Albania was a Communist hermit kingdom. Europe’s answer to North Korea left its gorgeous coast deserted lest 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 drink 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 $10 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 5km 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 Vlorë. 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.
Inland Albania is as pretty as Provence, with just as many timeless sights
The wild undergrads and I disembark on to a battered military jetty to be silenced by Sazan’s ethereal stillness. An obligatory short tour details the island’s military history: 2,800 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 Ionian 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 the seabed, undisturbed by scuba crews.
On the chug back to the mainland, the Black Pearl calls at an unnamed, unmarked sliver of sand on the Karaburun peninsula. This beach, like the 20 others, I saw from the boat, is fine, tickle-your-toes shingle. As I’ve been spoilt by Albania’s unsullied shores, the two-dozen beachgoers render the sand too busy for me. So I hop over limestone blocks weathered 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 Missoni 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 vineyard boss Muharrem Cobo leads me around his hi-tech cellar, where we crack open the first-ever bottle of his latest experiment: Albania’s premier 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 rosé colours my 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 3,000 years — longer than Rome or Istanbul. When the Roman and Byzantine empires crumbled, Berat became a centre of Christian learning. This is evidenced in the Onufri Icon Museum, an array of golden frescoes that blings so much as to hypnotise 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 $11, including ample drinks, homemade rakia grappa among them.
Berat’s sister city is two hours south through badlands that once welcomed Lord Byron on a horseback tour. The boundless castle of Gjirokastër 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.
Berat’s ruined castle rises like a Disney redoubt atop a spaghetti-western landscape
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 then whizzes them to these emerald gems for $5 a ride. Holm oaks and bay laurel shade $8 beach beds, which drip into sapphire seas. You can swim between the islands or kayak out for quieter contemplation. Braver souls could paddle the two kilometres across to Greece. But why bother? This lost Riviera is paradise found.