Caroline Shearing steps back in time on a day trip to Albania, and finds a warm welcome, sublime seafood and Butrint, one of Europe’s most important archaeological sites.
Sunlight glinted off the water as pleasure boats bobbed in the bay and the carefree squeals of children launching into the sea from a nearby jetty carried on the breeze. “English?” A trio of waiters descended on our waterside table to top up glasses of the quaffable local wine and delight in our satisfaction with the grilled sea bass (sublime), selected on arrival from a bed of ice displaying that day’s catch. So far, so perfect day in the Med.
Except that as this lazy summer scene was playing out a lone man beaded in sweat was battling to contain a fire at a nearby property with little more than a dribbling hosepipe. The unfolding drama went largely ignored as plumes of acrid brown smoke poured forth. Indeed, as the air and throats thickened, the only crowd to congregate was a dozen plastic bottles and a clutch of bloated carrier bags at the water’s edge. Eventually, no sirens blaring, a fire engine trundled into view to extinguish the blaze.
Welcome to the seaside town of Saranda and the contradiction that is Albania.
It had been apparent on arriving some hours earlier at Qafe Bote, a coastal border crossing between Greece and Albania, that this was to be no ordinary day trip. The first glimpse of the mountains that back Qafe Bote had been sobering: verdant and lushly carpeted on the Greek side, but barren and devoid of vegetation on the Albanian. My guide, Vasiliki, explained that the communist regime that ruled Albania from 1945 to 1991 encouraged its citizens to chop the trees down in order to spot any Greeks sneaking into the country in search of a “better” way of life – the reality being that the authorities instead wanted to make it easier to catch any fleeing Albanians.
The stark mountains of the border soon gave way to a pastoral plain dotted with fig and olive trees. The hot air buzzed with bee-eaters as we passed a woman leading a reluctant goat. This was followed by the surreal sight of an open‑mouthed fish wobbling towards us as a man riding a bicycle struggled to keep a one-armed hold on his large, slippery companion.
The smooth, grey ribbon of road that had transported us to the Albanian border had now become a potted track, and there was a sense of not just having crossed a geographical divide, but of stepping back in time.
Butrint ancient ruins
We arrived at the banks of a river alongside which stood a hut proudly displaying a mural of the distinctive Albanian flag, a double-headed eagle set against a shock of red. The hut was the command post for a pulley system attached to a wooden platform, held together with planks and nails that looked as though they had seen better days, for the short journey across the water to Butrint, a Unesco World Heritage site dating from 8BC.
Virgil, the ancient Roman poet, wrote of Butrint: “I saw before me a Troy in miniature.” Today, with its ancient Greek theatre, Roman baths and Venetian tower, Butrint is considered a “microcosm” of Albanian history. I soon discovered, as I looked out across a green-blue lake to marshland and distant mountains, that it is also one of the best preserved – with much yet to be excavated – archaeological sites in Europe.
Sara, the charming guide we had hired on arrival, brought its history to life with pride and enthusiasm. Yet in the height of summer the site was far from overrun.
On the journey from Butrint to Saranda we came across a different kind of ruin: unfinished buildings, their concrete frames contorted into twisted and toppled states. “Does Albania suffer a lot of earthquakes?” I asked Vasiliki as we passed the third such shell. She explained that it was likely the result of unauthorised building work.
Butrint ancient ruins
Just 20 years ago Saranda was a fishing village dotted with traditional terracotta-topped stone houses. Today most of the stone houses are gone and in their place loom high-rise blocks that sprawl the length of Saranda’s crescent-shaped bay. Albania is, perhaps not unsurprisingly given its history, a country in a hurry, and nowhere was that more evident than in its glorious landscapes strung with concrete telegraph poles.
Much of the Albanian Riviera, enviably located at the mouth of the Adriatic, is still undeveloped, with a string of soft-sand beaches backed by towering mountains, but more needs to be done to protect the coastline if the country wants to avoid environmental and architectural disaster.
Saranda thrummed with Italians, Russians and moneyed Albanians – the town’s parking bays gleamed black with rows of Mercedes-Benz cars. But I also met a British couple at Butrint who cited the desire for a low-key European summer holiday with a difference as their main reason for choosing Albania. A difference that became even clearer when the bill for lunch arrived: a feast for four at just under €50 (£35).
Our final stop was Ciflik, a sleepy mountain village close to the border with Greece. I stepped from the car and a woman in a brightly-coloured headscarf appeared from the upstairs window of a house opposite. This was followed by three more similarly attired women from other stone houses lining the street, which was bedecked, like many of the towns and villages I had passed through, with the Albanian flag.
I made for what would have once been the grandest house in the village, but was now in a state of disrepair, and was encouraged by way of pointing and nodding to step through its dilapidated gates. Inside I found an elderly woman watering a lovingly-kept vegetable garden. I immediately apologised for the intrusion and turned to leave but she beckoned me with a toothless smile and picking a tomato the size of a grapefruit, washed and dried it before handing to me. “Dhuratë.” Gift.
Shortly after leaving Ciflik the green mountains of Greece came into view once again. Arriving at the border the Greek passport official was indignant: “English? Why you come to Albania?!” (sic). He scanned my passport incredulously. I bit my tongue and savoured the sweetness of the perfectly ripe tomato that I had devoured en route from Ciflik. I wondered how soon it would be before I could taste Albania once more.