The beaches that time forgot
The unspoilt Albanian Riviera is a snapshot of the Mediterranean as it used to be – idyllic beaches, glorious sunshine and an unhurried pace of life, says Nick Easen
The state of the road heading in is the main reason the Albanian Riviera has escaped large-scale tourist development. That and land ownership. The road’s upgrade, with help from the World Bank, is the first major overhaul since the Italian Army built it in the 1940s. It is seen as a local vote winner for a population that is close enough to Corfu to know what tourism can bring.
The cliché that this 130km stretch of coastline is one of the last untarnished parts of the Mediterranean with deserted beaches is not lost on the deputy mayor of the sleepy seaside town of Himara. “Nature is the most important thing here, as well as the connection between the mountains and the sea,” Stefo Mato says, referring to the high karst mountains that kick their feet in the sandy shoreline. “But service for tourists needs to get better. There must be more things to do here.”
Then again, this is precisely why Albania’s Ionian coast is worth visiting now, before the parasols arrive and the jet skis drown out the cricket song. Any intrepid traveller to the region should head straight to the top of the Llogora Pass with views of the Cika mountains plunging 910 metres into the sea. The spectacle encapsulates the real “Mediterranean as it once was”. Pine trees interspersed with old stone farmhouses and citrus trees are all that interrupt the view.
In this coastal region inward investment, especially from overseas, is only beginning to trickle in. Land rights still remain an issue especially where the best beaches are located. And the Albanian authorities are still in the process of handing back property to owners from the pre-Communist era. Bogus title deeds and disputes over ownership have also stymied growth.
Endless curves of sand, remote Orthodox monasteries, small family-run guesthouses and roadside cafes with fresh trout on the grill are more prevalent than gaudy ice-cream boxes and adverts for suntan lotion. The only noticeable hoardings are the scarecrow dolls that hang above doorways to ward away the evil eye – this includes the unfinished hotels in Saranda.
You are more likely to chance upon old women in headscarves and long skirts ushering goats through the fragrant maquis than bronzed tourists. And interaction with locals is more likely to involve buying honey with roadside apiarists, since the bees here have more wild flower species to choose from than anywhere else in Europe.
The only tell-tale signs of old order Albania are the deserted collective farms of the Communist era and the concrete bunkers. The country has a grey “mushroom” for every four people. Hundreds of thousands dot the landscape thanks to Enver Hoxha, the long- term Stalinist dictator who was paranoid of invasion from the west.
Albanians are now using them in novel ways that tourists can experience. You can have a seafood supper under a concrete dome in Restaurant Bunkere on the seafront at Durres; on the road to Vlora, artists have painted their roofs in psychedelic designs. According to legend, the designer was placed in a prototype, which was subsequently blasted by a tank. The bunker survived, as did its shell-shocked architect – mass production began. Nowadays, it costs at least £5,000 to get rid of one of these pillboxes.
Saranda has the reputation of being one of the sunniest spots in Europe with more than 290 days of rays a year and midsummer temperatures around 30C. At present southern Albania’s biggest town looks only partially built with half-constructed apartments and hotels scrambling up the hillside. Much of the activity is being generated by Albanians working abroad and sending money back home.
Here palm trees flank the promenade shading elderly men as they sip their espressos, unhurried by the daily tourist influx. Many of whom are Brits, coming over on day trips from Corfu. Now they are being encouraged to stay longer.
A major attraction, which even Greek operators are touting, is Butrint, which sits on a cliff top overlooking the Greek island a few miles south of town. This UNESCO World Heritage site is a 2,500-year-old layer cake that includes a Greek colony, a Roman city and a Byzantine bishopric. This is ranked as the biggest of its kind, second only to Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
The fact is only 15% of Butrint has been uncovered, but then that’s indicative of the country as a whole, according to Nelku, Mato and others. They hope that Albania will become “a new Mediterranean love”, according to the country’s new international TV ads.
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