Written by Hugh Collins
You lived in Albania for 4 years and have been writing about the country for many more years now. What took you there in the first place and what keeps drawing you back?
In 1998, I was asked if I would be interested in a one-year contract in Albania. A new constitution was being drafted and the work my prospective employers had in mind was building public involvement in this process. It didn’t take me long to say yes! I had tried to visit Albania once before, in my undergraduate days, when I was hitchhiking to Greece (I was a Classicist, that was the sort of thing we did). Given that at that point it was one of the most closed countries in the world, it’s not surprising that this attempt was entirely unsuccessful; all I managed to do on that occasion was gaze wistfully at deserted Albanian beaches from the deck of a Greek ferry in the Corfu Channel.
I found I loved Albania and ended up staying four years. After the new constitution had been approved in a referendum, we developed a training programme which brought together young activists from across the political spectrum, the first time multi-party training had been attempted in politically polarised Albania. I still count many of the participants in this programme as my friends. I go back there partly to spend time with them, and partly because the country is so interesting and the people so friendly. As successive governments improve the road network, it becomes possible to get to parts of the country which were previously difficult to reach, so there is always somewhere new for me to see!
For those travellers who wish to explore wild remote areas in Albania where would you suggest they go to hike?
Albania is just about the perfect country for travellers who like wild, remote areas! There is nowhere else in Europe where you can get away from it all so uncompromisingly. Just a short drive from Tirana, you can feel quite far from civilisation – the hike up to the Pëllumbasi Cave, for example, or even Mount Dajti. I did a great hike a couple of years ago to Curraj i Epërme, in the Nikaj valley between Valbona and Thethi – it’s described in the book. The problem outside the far north is that there are no hiking maps, so in the wildest parts either you need a guide or you have to be a very confident and experienced navigator. One national park which has been mapped recently is Bredhi i Hotovës, near Përmeti, and you can do some ‘A to B’ hikes from there, for example to Çorovoda and on to Berati. The really good thing about Albania is that you can camp just about anywhere as long as it’s not in somebody’s cultivated field, although obviously it’s polite to ask permission if there is anyone around to ask.
Are there any trails you would particularly recommend for cycling?
There are loads of ancient tracks, all over the country, but the surface of the unasphalted ones is often very rough. I have heard of cyclists who have had to dismount and carry their bikes, and kit, over the worst sections. However, there are lots of surfaced roads too, which are probably a better bet. A bonus of all the road-building in recent years is that many of the old roads are now almost traffic-free. A lovely circuit would start with the road through Puka – the old road from the coast to Kukësi. You could then turn north to Fierza and put your bike on the Komani ferry, or south into Mirdita and back to the coast that way. In the south, the Riviera road is spectacular. The gradients in Albania tend to be steeper than one would expect, and the Riviera is no exception. There, however, you have the option of putting your bike on a bus for the hardest bits. Another great route in the south is the road along the Greek border, between Korça and Tepelena; I’m not a cyclist, but I’m told the gradients are easier in that direction, although obviously you could do it in reverse if that suited your itinerary better.
Butrint is the country’s best-known archaeological site but which other sites/cities would you particularly recommend for lovers of history?
Albania’s archaeological sites will be a revelation to anyone who’s used to fighting their way through the crowds at the sites of Greece or Italy. In all the times I’ve visited Byllis, I think the only time I’ve ever come across anyone else was when there were some French archaeologists excavating one of the basilicas. At Antigonea, local families sometimes go up there from nearby villages or from Gjirokastra for picnic lunches, but you’ll have almost all of Pyrrhus’s city to yourself. As for the Illyrian royal tombs at Selca e Poshtme, I’ve never met anybody else there at all. All of these sites are located on hilltops overlooking fabulous scenery, so even if you’re travelling with someone who’s not that interested in archaeology, they can enjoy the views while you are poking around Hellenistic shops or Roman cisterns.
As for history, the don’t-miss cities are the World Heritage Sites of Berati and Gjirokastra, plus the northern city of Shkodra with its fascinating castle.
How would you ideally spend a day in Tirana?
My days in Tirana usually involve quite a lot of rushing around, so my ideal day would be a lot more relaxed. If it was a nice day and not too hot, I’d walk down the Boulevard to the Big Park (Parku i Madh) and pay my respects to the SOE guys who died in Albania during the Second World War. In summer, I’d probably take the cable-car up Mount Dajti, where it’s cooler, and go walking in the forest. If it was raining, I’d probably take cover in the Archaeological Museum or the National Art Gallery, or maybe just spend the day browsing in one of the bookshops and meeting friends for coffee.
Describe a favourite Albanian meal and where you might enjoy this?
I’m not a big meat-eater, but I make an exception for spit-roasted lamb or kid. The absolutely traditional way to do this is to make a fire in a pit in the ground and roast the meat over that. The animals were of course running around the fields eating completely natural grass until they were slaughtered, so while you might feel a bit sorry that their lives have been cut short, you do have to admit that they taste delicious. There are lots of restaurants where you can enjoy meat roasted on a spit over a charcoal grill, which is nearly as traditional – they are usually on the road-side, for example on the old Tirana-Elbasani road or at the Llogoraja Pass, and some of them are listed in my book.
I’m usually keener on fish and, with such a long coast-line, Albania has plenty of that. The small, family-run restaurants at the beach are the best places for that – they’ll just grill you whatever they landed that morning. Non-carnivores will feel more comfortable with the default Albanian salad – tomato, cucumber, green pepper, sliced onion and maybe some salty home-made feta-style cheese.
What has been your most exciting experience in Albania (could be an activity, adrenaline high or a cultural experience or a wildlife encounter)?
Oh, that’s a hard question – I’ve had so many exciting experiences in Albania! I saw a wildcat once, hiking in Puka – there are Balkan lynx in Puka too, although they’re very rare and very elusive. We only know they’re there because they’ve been snapped by camera traps. As for activities, there was the Christian’s Cave, also in Puka, which you can only get to by boat and then climbing up a cliff to the entrance; or the first time I took the Komani ferry and saw those winding canyons and towering cliffs; or the boat trip out to Maligrad Island on Lake Prespa, past all the pelicans and cormorants; or the drive up the eastern side of the Tomorri range, to and fro across the river (luckily quite low), to the teqe of Abaz Aliu.
Cultural highlights? Most recently, the newly restored Onufri frescos at the church at Shelcani, near Elbasani. In most Albanian Orthodox churches, the frescos have been damaged and the colours are faded. At Shelcani, expert restorers have cleaned the fragile 16th-century paint and brought the colours back to life. It’s jaw-droppingly beautiful.
If you had one tip to share with other travellers to Albania what would it be?
Expect the unexpected! Flexibility and patience are the key qualities you need for independent travel in Albania (frankly, even if you are on an organised tour, they’ll probably come in handy from time to time!). You’ll find the bus-driver has taken the day off; or there’s been a landslide and the road is blocked; or the museum you had made a special trip to see is closed for repairs; or the church with the beautiful frescos is locked and the keyholder is at a wedding and won’t be back until Monday morning. If you try to stick to a fixed itinerary, you’ll just end up feeling frustrated and miserable. Far better to ask around for other things you could do in the area, or move on somewhere else and perhaps come back a few days later.
What is the most lasting image you retain from your time here?
Another difficult question! I think it might be my farewell party in 2002, which my friends from the training programme arranged in the Dajti Hotel in Tirana (now closed and derelict). There were people from a dozen different political parties there, all laughing and drinking together. A couple of years earlier, one of them had told me that, until the first training weekend which began the programme, she had never even been in the same room as anyone from the opposing party. So it’s a combination image – that lovely historic hotel, my friends around me, and the knowledge that I had made a small contribution to making Albania a less angry and polarised country.