Is Albania Eastern Europe's Answer to the Amalfi Coast?
By Thomas Harding
Albanian Daily News
Published February 6, 2018
One of Albania's most spectacular beaches, Borsh CREDIT: GETTY"Albania" my barrister friend exclaimed when Mrs Harding divulged our holiday destination. "What have you done wrong?"
The answer, in short, was that we were taking a punt on the word of a politician. In a political interview I did for this newspaper with Edi Rama, the country's prime minister, he'd mentioned in passing the "Albanian Riviera" and how unspoilt it was compared with Italy. Albania typically conjures up a raft of preconceptions, few positive. But in Tirana, the capital, I'd found a delightful city: wide boulevards, good, inexpensive restaurants and - one project of Rama's - modernist pastel painting on drab Soviet structures.
The prospect of a hidden gem proved alluring: was there a European coastline as dramatic as Amalfi's, but without the crowds and price tag? With some reservations, Mrs H was persuaded. But how would the children react?
The older two - Darcy, nine, and Charlie, eight - were on the fence, having loved a three-week Kenyan safari and a spell of Dubai bling, but being somewhat wary of my taste after a disastrous camping trip in France. Four-year-old Barnaby wouldn't know Albania from Aberdeen, and was quite happy to be going anywhere.
Getting there was the next hurdle. There are direct flights from Gatwick to Tirana, but the prime coastline is a five-hour drive to the south. Happily, Corfu is mere miles from Albania, and has an airport well serviced by easyJet, and plenty of ferries, which deliver you to the Albanian port of Saranda.
Our ultimate destination, the small town of Dhermi, was a 90-minute drive away, passing mountains climbing up from the sea. The land appears virtually unchanged from the 19th century, when Lord Byron travelled here. In this way, communism worked to Albania's advantage. Enver Hoxha, who ruled as a dictator from 1944 until his death in 1985, declared the coastline a military zone, cut off to all, including developers. The houses that now dot the rocky land are more functional than pretty, but they don't dominate. Only a few bits of litter seem to go uncollected - but the water remains pristine.
In the charmingly old-fashioned seaside town of Qeparo, we settled into our villa, which we chose from an Albanian agency. In many ways, tourism is in its infancy, still. We chose the villa, sight unseen, because the price was right. True, the price of seclusion was a hike down a precipitous track, but the reward was a terrace with a fine sea view, and its own private pier.
We spent long, happily isolated days on the beaches of Qeparo, Dhermi and Borsh. One day we broke up the monotony with a trip to Jale Bay, where Albania Adventure (albania-adventure.com) takes families on a large paddle board along a coast of secret caves and secluded beaches - a more active version of powerboating and, with life jackets, ideal for kids. All for £28. The stops retained communist-era names - Beach One, Cave Four - but the beauty was timeless.
Another day we booked a boat trip to Sazan, Albania's largest uninhabited island, which is strategically located between the Adriatic and Ionian Seas. Granted, this isn't a typical beach holiday activity, but I am a former war correspondent, and my children indulge me. Even my wife seemed game as we drove along a spectacular mountain road - used for Top Gear's Albanian Road Trip - to the port of Vlore, in pursuit of the ship, which would take us to the beaches of the Karaburun Peninsula, a marine reserve cut off by road, and to Sazan.
Ominously, our ship was christened the Black Pearl (blackpearl-albania.com). It failed to impress my wife. "It'll be all right," I said, as my flip-flops squelched off the beer-abused planks. Staff steered us towards the lower deck; the top deck was reserved for bikini-clad teenagers, big speakers and a DJ. Once we docked, a dozen bodies dived from the top deck into the sea, a dance beat echoed off the nature reserve's slopes and the water filled with bubbles from the foam party raging above. It seemed wise, then, to abandon the Black Pearl and for €25 (£23) persuade a local speedboat owner to power us to the intriguing island of Sazan.
When we arrived, we found Sazan's tree-lined cliffs dotted with 7,000 round concrete bunkers that once housed Albania's crack troops intent on keeping (unspecified) invaders at bay. In the harbour, there are abandoned cranes, and up the slopes lie ruined homes, schools and an open-air cinema. It is a stark reminder of the communist era within central Europe - like the Berlin Wall, but more attractive and peaceful.
We returned to our villa, where we dived off our pier to seek out the secret beach just round the headland. Sticking close to the shore, we kicked out, with a sense of triumph on arrival at the small, horseshoe-shaped cove, before some rock-clambering, then the return swim. For our two eldest, this was the highlight of our trip. Like most children, their lives are consumed with schedules - what fun, then, to spend an open-ended afternoon exploring the world, as a family, from the sea.
Later that evening, we sat on a wooden terrace at Luciano's restaurant in Dhermi, overhanging the Ionian Sea, as the sun set - the beauty left even the children in contemplative silence.
No wonder the Italian couple on the next table regularly sailed over to Albania. "The seafood is so cheap and delicious," they crowed. But they were clearly surprised to find us here: "We've never seen an English family here before," they said. "Why Albania?"
Because it's somewhere different in Europe. It is not the Amalfi Coast, but it has a great charm of its own, and it was heavenly to be so isolated. Still, I cannot help but think Albania's innocence will be trampled on when its secret is out.
The Hardings hired a villa for £700 a week via uliksi.com (00355 699 730 220). EasyJet (easyjet.com) flies to Corfu from £308 return. The Corfu-Saranda ferry (ionianseaways.com) costs from £22 per person.
(Source: The Telegraph)