For those unfamiliar with southern European geography, Albania is situated on the Adriatic coast behind the stilettoed heel of Italy’s shapely foot.
Though small (about the size of Wales) it encompasses a varied range of terrains, including alpine peaks in the north, lower ranges further south, and a long stretch of Adriatic coast.
BY EDWINA TAN
Vast level valleys, through which rivers trickle idly over shallow stony beds in the hot season, surge in torrents after the spring meltwater flows down from the limestone hills above.
Towards the sea, a broad plain stretches from the northern border with Montenegro to the Greek border in the south, roughly level with Corfu Island. The historic coastal city of Durres was probably visited by St. Paul during his travels, as attested in his letter to the Romans. It is a place of history and romance, the Illyria of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
Our excuse to go presents itself when our firstborn was posted to Tirana for work. Intriguing reports invite our arrival at Mother Theresa Airport on a mild (24C) October evening, with five days to spend. We begin the next morning with a walking tour of Tirana, led by a local history graduate, commencing in Skanderbeg Square. This vast public space, redeveloped after the fall of Communism in 1991, is paved with stones from every region of Albania, and cooled in summer by an inventive irrigation system. Pleasant gardens are flanked by elegant Italian- influenced municipal buildings from the pre-Communist era. Dominating the massive central square, national hero Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg is immortalised in imposing bronze, wing-helmeted and mounted on a massive warhorse.
The scanty remains of Tirana castle have been thoughtfully incorporated into an upmarket development of high-class restaurants and shops. It is pleasant to walk around the spacious tree-shaded avenues of Blloku, formerly an area of nightclubs, restaurants and other capitalist amenities designated for the entertainment of the Communist elite.
Nowadays, the cheery features of Colonel Sanders grin directly opposite former dictator Hoxha’s ghostly house. The irony of this Communist vs Capitalist face-off is not lost on the locals, our guide points out. Similarly, a new and light-filled orthodox Cathedral juxtaposes the sinister House of Leaves, the former headquarters of the notorious Sigurimi, now the museum of secret surveillance whose shadowy interior we visit another day.
We lunch at Ejoni on grilled lamb, cheeses, a rustic salad and bread hot from the oven, oozing with aromatic olive oil. Service is rendered with finesse in a walled garden beneath vines dripping with grapes. Two courses and drinks for three cost €16(RM74). Afterwards, cramming onto “the blue bus” with the locals (only one blue bus in Tirana) we head for the Austrian-built cable car station at Dajti Mountain. The ride is impressively long. With amenities at the top, and views across the city as far as the coast on a clear day, it is a popular outing with the locals as well as foreign tourists. For the fitness enthusiast, the final metres to the summit can be achieved on foot. Later, we dine sumptuously at Era, where the full-blooded house red goes down as smoothly as the silver service, at around €30 (RM138).
Next morning, an electric “green taxi” conducts us to the north bus station, where we board the bus for Kruje. National hero Skanderbeg’s historic fortress is situated about 40km from Tirana. The bus ride is a cultural experience in itself. As the road climbs through the villages and olive groves, our driver negotiates the hairpin bends with a skill we are forced to admire. The museum of ethnography at Kruje Castle reveals a time capsule of 17th and 18th century life in a prosperous Ottoman home, complete with its own hammam, mosque and quarters for the resident dervish. There simply isn’t enough time to do the recommended Skanderbeg museum as well.
We end with a weekend stay in the ancient city of Berat, reached by a hired car. A picturesque rustic inn in the merchants’ quarter provides excellent accommodation. At the precipitously steep hilltop, the walled castle encompasses a village still inhabited today. The settlement, encircled by panoramic backdrops of Mounts Tomorr and Shpirag, traces its origins back 3,000 years. Hobbling down after our cobbled walk, we succumb to the charm of a couple selling succulent figs and home- made jam from their garden gate. An afternoon visit to Cobo winery, where the tasting tour is conducted by a daughter of the house, provides revelatory insight into the high quality of Albanian wines. Why haven’t we seen these before?
The Kashmer and mighty Reserve 2012 rival the big reds of Italy or France; we find the local Shesh grape highly palatable. Too soon it is time to leave. Albania has both charmed and surprised us; we hope to return. As the locals say, Faleminderit!