What a way to start the day! Beautiful sunshine, a spectacular view – and Albania’s most dangerous road ahead. The steep ascent the previous day had been exciting, but that which lay ahead was allegedly one of the most dangerous in the country. Internet stories of stressed drivers turning back, landslides and potholes are plentiful. The SH75 had a fierce reputation.
At first, I wondered what the fuss was about. I have driven through other mountain passes in Europe, including the much exalted Stelvio, without mishap and this seemed no worse. Driving around the winding slopes, I paused to take pictures of the breathtaking views when the opportunity to pull in arose. Groups of workmen working remotely from their old workhorse of a car (Mercedes of course), waved cheerily as the hire car passed. Shepherds with their flocks gazed in idle curiosity.
And then the road ran out. The relatively smooth surface stopped abruptly, and as what passed for a road rose steeply ahead it became more cracked and twisted, with loose stones and steep banks on either side that looked ready to slide. Albania had given me slow food, and slow lifestyles. Now I also had slow driving!
Nevertheless, I could not ignore the spectacular scenery. Surrounded by mountains, every turn of the road seemed to show a different face of the landscape. Native woodland, mountain meadow, pine forestry, craggy rock face, and so it went on and on. Sadly my geological knowledge is almost non-existent, but the ranges of rock formations and exposed geological strata were impressive even so.
This countryside is also blessed with plentiful water. Deep down in the valleys, wide, stony riverbeds wound their way through the surrounding hills. Evidence of much higher water levels spoke of raging torrents earlier in the year. Streams still ran swiftly down to meet the rivers below and roadside watering places abounded in the form of rustic drinking fountains built into the hillside. I had witnessed travellers refilling bottles at these springs in other parts – further evidence of the sustainable culture that prevails through necessity rather than fashion.
Continuing south on this torturous road, I reached the turnoff that would lead to the Greek border. Immediately the road surface improved drastically and along the way I encountered the occasional cross-border truck. Having gone as far south in Albania as possible, my road turned northwards once more and I looked forward to following in Lord Byron’s footsteps through the dramatic Kelcyre Gorge between the towns of Kelcyre and Tepelene.
Much has been written about how Byron, on his Grand Tour of Europe, was so inspired by Albania that he penned the romantic tale of “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”, which subsequently made him famous. I had looked this up during my pre-trip research but found it rather lengthy! Passing through these mountains now myself, imagining how he would have ridden up goat trails on horseback, with a mule train carrying his luggage, I fully understood how this inspirational landscape had driven him to write in such volumes.
At Tepelene, where Byron was greatly entertained by the legendary local ruler Ali Pasha, both men are celebrated in statue and plaque. Surrounding the remains of Ali Pasha’s castle lies a fairly modern town, so here it was hard to appreciate the fortress of old. Pausing only long enough to pop into the local patisserie to sample the local pastries, my journey headed south once more towards my destination for the day.
Gjirokastra, was this destination, but as I neared the town a lakeside cafe looked a likely place to find some thirst quenching Chai Mali (mountain tea) and a shady seat to rest in. Opening the car door, I could hear what I took to be birds chirping, but couldn’t see them in the trees. Eventually, I tracked the noise to some frogs, of which there was a huge number around the edge of the lake. As I enjoyed my tea, tiny lizards ran along the fence nearby and stealthy searching resulted in recordings of the frogs! Once again my identification skills came up short, but the pleasure was simply in hearing this wonderful sound of nature so close to a major tourist destination.
Gjirokaster, one of several Albanian UNESCO sites, was to be my first brush with true tourism in Albania. Thankfully May is still fairly quiet, but the small bazaar area was quite busy with Italians and Germans. The architecture here is ancient and intriguing, though much is still under restoration. At least here, the town’s youth may find employment close to home, rather than having to head to the distant capital, Tirana.
Settling in for a pleasant evening in a guesthouse clinging to the hillside between castle and town, I was entertained by one of these youths. The host’s 10-year-old son, spoke to us in perfect English, much to my surprise. They do not teach English in his school, so he has taught himself by watching the Youtube channels – evidenced by his broad American accent! His parents still struggling with the language called on this bright young lad whenever their own vocabulary ran out and he had even taught his 5-year-old sister.
As I chatted to these delightful children, I was struck by how unspoilt they were in comparison with many to be met in other countries. The boy hopes to visit Florida some day. His sister, adorned with sparkly necklaces and flowers in her hair is typical of her age and told me of her recent birthday party. Other children we met in the street were also refreshingly friendly and polite. In these young hands, surely Albania has a good future ahead.
As I planned to explore this ancient city next day, this stop was to be for two nights. Gjirokastre is a place to explore at leisure, with more good food to be enjoyed and pleasant patio’s from which to write. Tomorrow was to uncover yet more of Byron’s footsteps. I could feel the inspiration stirring already!