The sweet taste of the hid­den Mediter­ranean

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Albania -

Caro­line Shear­ing steps back in time dur­ing a brief – and fruit­ful – visit to Al­ba­nia

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 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 brown smoke poured forth. 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 on­earmed 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.

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 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.

Just 20 years ago Saranda was a fish­ing vil­lage dot­ted with tra­di­tional ter­ra­cot­tatopped 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 soft­sand 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.

The Greek am­phithe­atre at Butrint, top, a site con­sid­ered a ‘mi­cro­cosm of Al­ba­nian history’; and Saranda, above

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