For years, I gazed across the Adriatic from the Italian coast, into the infinite expanse of sea. What lay not too far on the other side was Montenegro, Albania, and Croatia- in uncertain geographical order. Last year, we took the ferry from Bari to Dubrovnik and noticed that there was another ferry, full of older women clutching outdated suitcases and wearing black house dresses. They eagerly pushed in line to board with a concern that was different than the mere vacation impatience. Where were they going? The looming white boat read "Durres," which seemed like a distant, unknown-land. So this summer we decided to go to Albania.
Albania, which opened its borders to tourism in 1991 after the fall of Communism, was not a traveler's destination until two decades later. It is now safe to say that the country proves to be an overall surprising and pleasant discovery. Albanians are disarmingly calm, respectful, and hospitable; the Albanian take on Mediterranean fare is fresh and local, and the mountain views rival the Alps.
Nonetheless, while traveling in a rental car through most of central, eastern and southern Albania we kept asking ourselves why there were so few tourists in this beautiful country, whose infrastructure and hotels are well-groomed for tourism. With only a guide book of Albania to go by, we followed the map's indications for "main road," and, in fact, conditions were fine, even at times smooth, with only a few potholes on the stretch along Lake Ohrid towards the Macedonian border. Lake Ohrid is a 300 meter-deep tectonic lake and home to several exotic species of fish only found in these fresh waters. If you like white sand beaches with few people on them find a hotel in Pogradec and take a beer to the beach at night to watch the symphony of stars.
This region of Central-Eastern Albania is a fairly predictable journey in a car, yet things become adventurous when you venture south. Our journey south began at Korҫё, a rather modern town near the Greek border and the largest in the southeastern region of Albania. Our plan was to drive to the Ottoman stone village of Gjirokastёr, following our guide book's map which indicated the road should be 200 kilometers of "main road." We should be there in four and a half hours plus a stop for lunch, right? Sorely wrong. Little did we know, road conditions in Albania are constantly in flux; construction and deterioration occur with no announcement or road sign. After a mere 5 kilometers outside Korҫё, the highway abruptly ended at the mouth of a mountain, revealing the rudimentary gravel phrase of a road one would prefer not to see.
No problem. Our spirits were high and we felt adventurous. "The road ends here," we laughed carelessly and started in the opposite direction, veering our modest Hyundai rental into a rural road cut between conifer trees. This was the last paved road we would see for another eight hours. Immediately, the road began to climb, winding through brush trees, offering at every terrifying hairpin turn a different view of the mountain landscape. There was no house nor car in sight. We passed an elderly farmer walking along the road carrying a sickle and squinted to see in which direction he was going. The next collection of roofs was a paint smudge in the mountain distance, so we decided to offer him a ride. He declined, pointing to the sickle. We insisted, rolling down the windows of our rental to show him that the large tool would fit inside. He accepted without a fuss or a word and rested the sickle on the ground, removing a smaller tool from his pocket. Silently, he hammered the metal sickle free from its wooden stick, then hammered it back in with the blade pointed down.
Further up the road, a man standing in the middle of a patch of wheat wearing sunglasses and shorts flagged us down. He was a jolly, well-traveled gentleman who spoke perfect Italian and German and needed a ride to the closest pharmacy to get medicine for his father. He told us he grew up in these mountains but now lives with his family in Vienna because people only leave these towns. After a nice chat about the joys of travel, we dropped him off in another patch of wheat were two unsaddled donkeys frolicked happily. Slowly, we began to realize why there were so many hitchhikers. The road conditions get poorer and poorer, the gravel got looser, and the roads narrowed so much that we could not accelerate above 20 kph, winding around hairpin turns through the woods at a 1,000 meter altitude with no guard rail. My heart was racing and I wasn't even the driver. We stopped for lunch at a wooden bungalow restaurant perched precariously atop the mountain and enjoyed plates of freshwater trout or koran, feta and tomato salad, yogurt, stuffed green peppers, and local wine.
The road from Lescoviku to Ҁarshovё became even more complicated. Nonetheless, the mountain view was so spectacular I oscillated between sensations of nausea and gasping at the sweeping beauty out the window. We were passing through the Gramoz Mountains, a jagged, unruly mountain range and natural border between Albania and Greece. Donkeys and goats were the only form of life we saw for a while, until we passed a town so remote that a young café waiter ran into the street waving a menu at us when he heard our car round the bend. At the summit, we turned off the engine, needing a rest from the curves. The hiss of cicadas filled the valley, a donkey brayed. We agreed to slowly wind down the steep incline, having no idea where we were. The next curve in the road opened up onto wide mountain scapes, high peaks nearing 2,000-3,000 meters soared against a perfect blue sky, exposing sheets of white rock untouched by miners. How did we get this high we wondered with a mix of giddiness and terror. A stream as blue as the Adriatic appeared in the valley below, rushing and unspoiled by industry. There was none in sight.
Finally a human! At a bend in the road, we picked up a young man named Eugene who needed a ride to Permeti to spend the evening with friends. He informed us that the topaz stream rushing below was the Vjosa River, one of the oldest thermal springs in Eastern Europe. Further down the road, a shepherdess with several goats approached our car. We imagined she was thirsty, but she pointed to a water pack, so we offered her fruit instead. She glanced at the sky, performed the sign of the cross, and accepted the fruit graciously.
Thankfully, the gravel road after Permeti even out into a paved one. We passed through the southeastern town of Kёlcyrё, which, in antiquity, was Upper Macedonia until the advancing Romans conquered it in the 2nd century BC. Kёlcyrё gave one the impression of peering into a forgotten world: donkey-drawn carts pulled head-scarfed older women and bushels of hay. I rolled down the window to ask a man sipping Turkish coffee in a café if we were on the right road. He glared at me as if I was from another planet. "Te lutem, Gjirokastёr?!" I tested my handful of Albanian words. He understood and nodded, pointing towards the mountains where a fairly large sow was foraging amidst some rotten oranges. "Po, po." Yes.
We arrived exhausted, yet elated to the town of Gjirokastёr shortly after sunset. With its unique geographical position, this charming Ottoman town has preserved its old stone roads, houses and roofs when it was declared a museum town during the period of Communism. Should one attempt to get there by car as we did, one should know that Gjirokastёr becomes steep surprisingly quick. The town peaks at a modest 300 meters above sea level but rises at such a steep incline that if you gas too hard you will end up on top of someone's roof. With the help of two teenage girls who look at us puzzled, we located the guesthouse where we were staying. "Why are you in this town? It's so boring!" they exclaimed. It was anything but. Soft grey slate roofs peaked traditional white-washed homes displaying intricately-carved window boxes of red and black: the colors of the Albanian flag. Excited to be on terra firma, we began gushing to the guesthouse owner about our long journey, the road conditions, the car illness, the hitchhikers, the views, etc. as he calmly prepared us a coffee. The composed local man half-listened to us without turning around, "Ah, yes, long road. Old map you have."
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