TRAVEL / Sunshine and shadows in the Balkans: James Pettifer went to write a book about the new Albania

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The Independent Culture
GJIROKASTRA citadel, which dominates the Driflos valley in southern Albania, 20 miles from the Greek border, is a vast, sprawling Byzantine and Ottoman fortress that has fascinated Western travellers since Byron and Edward Lear first ventured here in the 19th century. It is an easy target for the guidebook writer; the setting has everything: grandeur, drama, history, violence . . .

Mr Rama, the castle museum custodian, beckons us up a set of steps into sepulchral gloom. We emerge, blinking at the sunlight, on an exposed roof. This route is not shown in the official guidebook, a relic from the Communist period.

That is not surprising, for on top of the fortress the dictator Enver Hoxha built a prison. Hoxha was born in Gjirokastra; it was his power base and the citadel was used for liquidating his enemies within the Communist Party. After forced labour in the pyrite mines they died here. Mr Rama recalls the sound of firing squads from his school playground in the town below.

Forty tiny cells squat on the roof, in the bitter north wind blowing from the snow-covered Buret mountains over the valley: chilled bones, then the firing squad. The corpses sometimes fell over the edge, Mr Rama explains, into the grey limestone scree hundreds of feet below.

But is this material for tourists, for guidebooks? Albania as a mountainous ex-gulag, that is the easy stereotype. But part of the reason for writing about the country is to give a rounded picture rather than reinforce old images: to make the eagles rising on thermals, the wildflowers, the very good red wine as real as the gulag. So I started from the glories of the past: the Classical sites, the Ottoman town of Berat, the majesty of the Prokulit Male ('Accursed Mountains'), and worked gently towards the present, balancing the two. But the balance was sometimes difficult.

What about the lethal quarrels of the present? Even if, say, Berat is the finest medieval citadel in the Balkans, as many think, is it worth the risk of getting there? Not if travel is about warm Utopias, sun, sea and sand. But some people have always thought the Balkans worth it, with their unique history, beauty and landscapes. And there has always been a degree of danger.

Pre-First World War Baedekers spent pages telling the Victorian and Edwardian traveller how to cope in the disintegrating Ottoman world: whether with the extortions of the dragoman (an early tour guide), dishonest horse boys, polluted water or the threat of highwaymen. Albania is the poorest country in Europe by far, with average wages of pounds 17 a month, and it would be silly to pretend that from a health and personal security point of view a visit today does not need preparations somewhat similar to those needed then.

Travel in some areas is dangerous; more than 20 people, mainly Albanian shepherds, were killed near the border with former Yugoslavia last year, mostly by Macedonian border guards. The Greek-Albanian border has seen the revival of traditional patterns of Balkan banditry and some of the small towns with 80 per cent unemployment near Serbia and Montenegro are off-limits to everybody except war correspondents.

This is not an aspect of Albanian life that the government is keen to dwell on. In their eyes, Albania is a paradise of unspoilt countryside, beautiful beaches on the Adriatic, wonderful mountains and so on. But that is not all there is, unfortunately for their efforts to boost tourism. Numbers of visitors are still small, actually fewer than in the late Communist era: about 9,000 people last year, compared with 30,000 in 1988.

Albania was never comfortable and, judging by the descriptions that Byron's friend Hobhouse left in his memoir A Journey through Albania, life has changed little in some parts since 1810.

A few miles from Gjirokastra is the ancient Classical site of Phoinike, in beautiful, remote countryside, uninhabited except for a few shepherds. But in Albania you are rarely alone for long. A huge truck with Dutch numberplates negotiated the hill. Seeing us, it ground to a halt. Then an English voice. The lorry fridge was opened and cans of Coke passed all round. The driver was called Peter. Background, British army, including a spell in the SAS, he claimed. Then a need to go abroad, rather quickly, for some undisclosed reason. He had set himself up in Rotterdam, with a lorry. What was in it?

'No, no, not hardware. If that's what you are thinking . . .'

He sounded unconvincing. Hardware means weapons, software ammo. The lorry contained something else even more profitable, he said. Perhaps sanctions busting, running up to Monte-

negro via the border crossing at Hani i Hoti. Cases of Scotch for the Milosevic regime, maybe.

But even with all the problems of the Balkans, travel is possible, and a people who have been isolated for 50 years are emerging into Europe. The most important images I recall are not those connected with war but of people such as the family at Shamolli who conjured a meal out of nowhere at a few minutes' notice, with yoghurt and the fiery spirit raki consumed under a picture of Skanderbeg, the 16th-century national hero; or Baba Reshat in Tirana, making light of 20 years' forced labour as he struggled to restore the mosque of the Bektashi Muslims; or indestructible Ilir who drove eight hours across mountain dirt tracks without ever appearing tired.

Albania is rediscovering itself after 50 years of Communism. It is a muddled, wonderful, painful rediscovery in many ways, but it is one worth sharing. However, there is a lot to be said for taking an organised tour, at least on a first visit, not because anyone minds you wandering around on your own, but because it makes life simpler.

James Pettifer's 'Blue Guide: Albania' is published this month by A & C Black at pounds 12.99.

Travel companies: Regent Holidays, 15 John Street, Bristol BS1 3HR (0272 211711); Exodus, 9 Weir Road, London SW12 0LT (081-675 5550).

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