If you’ve driven the tried and tested European routes and are ready for something different, Albania ought to be on your radar by now. Unexplored, unexploited and inexpensive – its perfect for a meaningful holiday where your holiday money will help the local economy. In return, you may reap the many rewards and delights of this slow-paced, organic land.
As the evening flight approached Tirana airport, lights could be seen scattered like gems across the dark landscape. The absence of street-lighting and large conurbations contrasted drastically with the Gatwick surround left behind just a few hours ago. Only a tiny number of strips of brightly lit road could be made out around this capital city.
First impressions of the people were of a tough but friendly and relaxed bunch – passing the ranks of taxi drivers touting for business, a resonating fart was followed by the call “taxi” aimed in our general direction, much to the amusement of all around! Faltering attempts at a few basic words of Albanian were greeted with surprised smiles and encouragement. The welcome everywhere seemed genuine.
Waking to full sun and welcome heat next morning, the surrounding mountains promised easier temperatures. So, after what I would find to be local breakfast – omelette, feta cheese and plum jam with fresh bread – the road to the East beckoned and I headed for Pogradec.
The pre-trip reading had warned of the dangers of driving in Albania. Firstly, the large Mercedes is king. As in many countries tooting the horn for many reasons is popular, though unaggressive, and as the car nosed out of Tirana on a new motorway, it was every man for himself! However, the tempo soon settled down and the presence of police at surprisingly regular intervals obviously kept the drivers’ more manic tendencies in check.
As the road wound through the craggy landscape, I was impressed how vital the land is for the sustenance of the people. Every possible tiny field, no matter how steep the slope, is planted with a crop. Traditionally crafted haystacks squat like overgrown “walnut-whips” amongst these green pockets. Mules and donkeys are still used as beasts of burden. Elderly men and women struggle up hillsides far from any apparent dwelling to nurture their produce, later to be sold at the numerous roadside stalls along our route.
Due to the poverty of these farmers, and the high cost of chemical fertilisers, all of this produce is organic. The temptation was too much and I was soon munching the freshest cherries and apricots along the route. Stalls offered a vast array of local artisanship including baskets of many shapes and sizes, terracotta pottery, and concrete garden ornaments. Luckily, the lack of space in my suitcase limited my temptation!
Passing through a small hamlet en route, we came across a growing crowd and a cheery local policeman waving all drivers to the edge of the road. Guessing what could be coming down the mountain route ahead passed the time as enjoyably as watching the antics of other drivers and their passengers. No regimented parking or tutting that would be the British order in such circumstances. Simply a “throw the car in and scramble out” Albanian assembly and an excuse for a chat with those already standing around.
Eventually, after twenty minutes of speculation and several leader cars and police outriders passed, the 75th annual Tour of Albania cycle race sped downhill and flew passed us all in seconds. There followed a general free-for-all as the whole group of waiting travellers unravelled themselves and their cars, some nearly deserting passengers not yet on board in their haste. As we joined the melee of tooting and revving vehicles in the charge up the hill, the scene was reminiscent of a film set for a Whacky Races production.
Once over the hilltop ahead, the traffic thinned and a panoramic vista drew yet another gasp. Lake Ohrid spread out below, with the mountains of Macedonia spanning the distant shores. Fishermen waved their catch at passing cars, hoping to sell from their roadside fishtanks. The natural lakeside environment enticed travellers to slow down, pause and relax by its clear waters. The raucous sound of reed warblers assaulted our ears from all directions and tiny, colourful fishing boats lined the shores.
Naturally fish was the first choice on the menu that night. Salad never tasted so fresh and flavourful. As the sun set behind our guesthouse, thunder rolled and lightning flashed in the dark hillsides around us. A truly dramatic spectacle seemingly laid on by nature for our evening’s entertainment. It had been a truly inspiring first day in this fascinating country. With a sense of gratitude for all I’d seen, and anticipation of what was to come on the mountain roads leading down the eastern borders, I said goodnight to our hosts. The scene was set for adventure yet to come.