We left Pristina by car before the rush on a Thursday afternoon mid-May and arrived in Vlora in good time for a beach-side grilled fish supper.
Vlora’s very name sounds attractively pastoral, and the place is well-known to Kosovars as the birthplace of Albanian Independence in 1912 and was, briefly, its capital. But, bucolic it isn’t, unless you like your sea-side resorts with vast natural beaches to be lined with unfinished blocks of high-risers and fume-choking cars, that is. Better then, in 2014, a place to stop, have an ice cream and then pass through unless you are able to obtain a pass to the naval base; the Bay of Vlora became the site of a World War II German and Italian submarine base which was later expanded by the Soviet Union until Albania pulled out of the Warsaw Pact in 1961. It is still an important Albanian naval base.
Nothing had been booked beforehand, but we stayed in the ‘New York‘, in a spacious fourth floor en suite room with a magnificent sea view terrace. Not only does the hotel offer safe parking, but it is the last one before the tunnel which takes you through the rocks to the sweep of the Albanian Riviera. We had been told that room rates can often be negotiated outside the peak tourist season of July and August, and we were lucky to be able to do just this as only eight rooms were in use. Our friend, who was travelling with us, jogged the long promenade before breakfast; he had stayed there in August last year and said that Vlora was virtually unrecognisable insofar as it was now peaceful, clean and relatively car-less.
The plan was to get a good start on the deep south coastal road immediately after breakfast the following morning, and be swimming later the same day in the Ionian Sea sailed by Odysseus. Our journey and contact with the water was rather more tame and less heroic than his, though we did swim that evening from the sandy beach at Ksamili to a couple of islands 9kms off the coast of Corfu.
Anxious about the prospect of hairpin bends, unknown road conditions and the distance to cover, I was keen to get going, and our first coffee stop was not long out of Vlora at the highest point of the Llogoraja Pass from where in silence we gazed down at the astonishingly beautiful white beach and crystalline sea, watching the swifts diving and darting between glorious flag firs.
I need not have worried, as, with the exception of buses to and from the archaeological Disneyland of Saranda, we were virtually alone on the road which was asphalted and in excellent condition all the way along the coast, and framed inland with succeeding biblical scenes of a shepherding culture. Thousands of terraced olive and lemon groves characterise this whole area and there were countless opportunities to buy fruit and oil. We drove from bay to bay, spoiled for choice about from which white beach we would dive into the sea and, after changing our minds about Dhermiu, eventually determined on an al fresco fish lunch in the central piazza at Himara, a small Albanian town set smack bang central on a beautiful sandy fishing bay which was entirely… Greek: language, colour of shutters, even the feta!
Arriving for the sunset in Ksamili, which is certainly no longer a “village”, my trusted travel book guided us to a gem of a beach bar restaurant called ‘Rilinda’ where we gorged on vats of local Butrint Bay mussels with beer, home-made chips and an enormous salad, and watched the setting sun.
Our small Hotel Artur, set on the edge of one of the tiny but impeccable sandy beaches nearby, cost €25, with breakfast. The adjacent, largely open-to-the-elements night club must surely, however, be more than just an irritation when it operates during the season.
The next day, after returning to the gorgeous beach bar for some proper matinal downtime sunning and swimming, we headed to Butrint, and, with Aurora as our official, but pay-me-as-much-as-you-wish guide, we wandered mesmerised all afternoon the UNESCO World Heritage Site dating from the Homeric era. One of the vast stone gates is called the Scaean, or Lake Gate, which is referred to in the Aeneid! It’s the sort of place that can be enjoyed by a young family with small children able to run safely amok among the ruins in and out of the shade of, inter alia, and rather bizarrely, eucalyptus and oak.
It put me in mind of the Simpson’s episode of the Odyssey, where Homer plays his namesake. Here, in this one magnificent site, can be seen the remains of Greek, Roman, Medieval and Renaissance civilisations, and even if not very interested in archaeology, no-one can fail but to enjoy the utterly unspoilt cool and calm of this extraordinary, stunning and complex site.
Crossing the Vivari channel by cable ferry and heading off into the agricultural Eden across country, we wanted to take in the natural wonder that is The Blue Eye which is situated in a natural beauty spot off the main road to Gjirokastra, our next stop. What this tiny secluded stream and pool is like in mid-season traffic and heat, I can’t imagine, but at this time of year we virtually had it to ourselves and managed to walk there and back to the car in five minutes before sweeping up through more magnificent mountains on the way to Gjirokastra.
The autobiographical novel by Ismail Kadare, (b. 1936) entitled ‘Chronicle in Stone’, is set in the inland ancient stone-built city of Gjirokastra which was also the home of the dictator, Enver Hoxha. (1908 – 85). The UNESCO upper old town clings to the steep sides of a hill topped by a huge fortress. So close to the Greek border, it was badly mauled by several armies during WWII – Italian, Greeks (supported by the RAF who bombed it) Italians again & finally the Germans! Unsurprising then that both its sons, with names now known throughout the world, could remain indifferent to their austere birthplace, though their legacies couldn’t be more different.
Although neither Hoxha’s nor Kadare’s homes are currently open to tourists, you can stay in a similar traditional stone-towered house. The ‘Hotel Kalemi’ www.hotelkalemi.tripod.de – don’t be put off by this advertising-strewn website – has the original double guest room of the fortified home and it still has its beautiful 200 year-old carved ceiling. Staying here was one of the highlights of my time in this region and it chimed perfectly with passages in Kadare’s book, particularly those opening pages about the flood of piped mountain rainwater which ran along the stone roof and down into the massive cistern under the house. For €25 we slept there under the huge wooden attic beams similar to those where the young boy in the novel creeps to secretly watch his grandparents’ young woman tenant perform her toilette. We ate breakfast of omelette to order, feta and homemade fig jam, in the stone-chilled room immediately above the cistern, which remains the source of water for the house. The large house key, the narrow defensive musket slits either side of the thick main door, the traditional wooden door bars of this huge, four storied vertical kulla-inspired home with its Mostar-like stone roofs was as much an atmospheric as a physical phenomenon, and it is sad to see many of these traditional homes in ruin for want of investment in this remarkable place.
A well-known restaurant in Boston (Massachusetts), sports the name ‘Vlora’. I haven’t eaten there but with lamb, pita and tava on the menu it’s easy to see which country inspires the fare. It also offers rice balls. Now I wouldn’t necessarily think of rice balls as an Albanian dish however, qifqi, or warm rice balls fried in herbs and egg, is a delicious south western Albanian speciality, and I sampled them in the delightful family-run restaurant of ‘Kujtimi’ outside in an ancient square under the plane trees in Gjirokastra on the night of the Eurovision song contest, though most of the local residents couldn’t have cared less about that. We three ate a range and variety of local dishes for a total 2,700 lek with 1€ at 140 lek, an exchange rate virtually unchanged since 2012.
A climb to the daunting and dark vaulted citadel the next day provided us with picture-perfect panoramas of snow-capped mountains and the expanse of fertile agricultural plain through which ran the main north-south road to Greece. To the north, however, are the communist blocks of flats and unchecked urban sprawl which may account for the 15 year moratorium in granting Gjirokastra UNESCO status only achieved in 2005.
Talking to the owners of the Kalemi house, it became clear that there is so much more of interest in this area, and I vowed to return properly equipped and with time to hike to Antigonea and to find the extraordinary city of Hadrianopolis which, though built between AD 117 -138, was only excavated in 2002 following a landslide in the Drinos Valley in the 1970’s.
We wended our way back north through ever more spectacular mountainous and valley scenes, like a place time forgot, one of which is on the cover of the current Bradt Guide, inadvertently following in the footsteps of Byron and the infamous Ali Pasha. Only when we much later reached the more gentle Adriatic coast and stood on Gjiri Lazlit Beach to take in the reddening sky in the gloaming before the final push on the drive home to Pristina, did I begin to reflect on what a terrific country is Albania.
For further information see also:
freytag & berndt road map of Albania (NB there is a very useful new motorway from Fier to Vlora, as yet unmarked on their latest map)
Bradt Travel Guide 4th edition 2012
‘Chronicle in Stone’ by Ismail Kadare (1971)
Albania in a few videos:
Albania from the sky http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0S2Bm1kXPHU
Mix of coastal scenes http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0cRFOSjtq7Q
Blue Eye between Saranda and Delvina http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gRRt3w3CeNk
A link to old submarines in the Pashaliman (Orikum) together with recent footage of an exercise with the Royal Marines http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JOicBjjomMU
Also an archive of this base http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9_g0EbBPo1k