Wild Albania: Coming in from the cold

Ignore the forbidding reputation. This beautiful country, scarred by history, begs to be explored, says Alex Wade

Albania's forbidding reputation was recently given an endorsement by A A Gill. Writing in a Sunday newspaper, Gill described Albania as "the Asda of mayhem", a place "of vendetta and vengeance" which is, apparently, the hub of both the European sex trade and illegal arms dealing. Gill's visit to the country its inhabitants call Shqiperi (the land of eagles) was, it seems, inspirational only for a series of cheap shots.

I read Gill's piece with dismay, turning to astonishment. I have visited Albania four times, and, yes, it is a country scarred by a remarkable history. But is it "a tragic place", deserving of little more than contempt? No. Albania is a beautiful, vibrant country, only half the size of Scotland, with wild mountains inland and pristine beaches washed by the Ionian and Adriatic seas.

What's more, it has a rapidly developing tourism infrastructure, one which comes naturally owing to the centuries-old tradition of hospitality embedded in the Albanian psyche.

Nowhere is its appeal better illustrated than in the south, where the resort town of Sarande lies within an hour's drive of the spectacular Lunxheria mountains. Arriving on the daily ferry from Corfu, I was struck by its mellow charm. A neat promenade, flanked by palm trees, stretched along the seafront. Nearby was the Hotel Butrinti, a modern five-star hotel set among prickly pears, oleanders and hydrangeas. Children scampered around as elderly men sat in the shade, talking and drinking coffee. Given that Sarande is favoured by more than 290 sunny days a year, with summer temperatures at a near-constant 30C, the town's sense of unhurried pleasure is easy to understand.

I had arranged to meet a guide, Gjoni Marko. A thick-set, fluent English-speaker, Gjoni whisked me off to a restaurant at the top of a hill, overlooking the straits of Corfu. The views were wonderful, but Gjoni dropped in a sinister slice of history. "It's a two-and-a-half-mile swim," he told me. "In the Hoxha days, Albanians used to swim it to escape. Not everyone made it."

Communist dictator Enver Hoxha, a devotee of Stalin, ruled Albania for 40 years from 1945. He banned Albanians from going abroad, stopped everyone else from visiting and abolished private property. When he died in 1985, handpicked successor, Ramiz Alia, did his best to fend off the tide of reform sweeping eastern Europe, but was deposed in 1992. The demise of Communism brought chaos. Many Albanians went on a rampage - destroying almost any physical remnant of the old regime.

Things went from bad to worse in 1997, with a pyramid-selling fraud that left thousands out of pocket. Riots ensued in many parts of the country, but in the past five years things have begun to settle down. The courts may be tied up with land ownership disputes dating from the Hoxha era, but at least Albania now has a developed legal system and a Ministry of Justice. Visitors will be struck by how westernised it has become, as politicians bid for European Union membership. Last June Albania signed the European Union Association Agreement, which gives a framework for co-operation between EU and non-EU countries.

Albania hopes to join the European Union between 2010 and 2015, along with other countries from the Western Balkans. Gjoni was optimistic: "There is so much here that is positive, so much that can be done," he said.

The most rewarding trip in the area is to Butrint, one of the great classical sites of the Mediterranean. The Greco-Roman-Illyrian settlement is on a wooded peninsula and is home to turtles, frogs and water snakes as well as perfectly preserved mosaics and Byzantine remains. Visitors can walk among the sites of a small theatre, baptistery, basilica and a nymphaeum dating from the second century, as well as baths and villas, one of which has inscriptions bearing the name of the Roman orator Cicero. There are also the remains of a medieval tower and a small fortress built by the 18th-century ruler Ali Pasha of Tepelene, to protect shipping lanes in the Ionian sea from the French fleet.

Since Albania abandoned Communism - the last European country to do so - Butrint has become increasingly popular, particularly with British visitors, thanks largely to the Butrint Foundation, set up to preserve the site by Lords Sainsbury and Rothschild.

Some 30 miles away is Gjirokaster, a slate and stone town dating from Ottoman times. Gjirokaster is the birthplace of both Hoxha and Albania's most celebrated writer, Ismail Kadare. Kadare's Broken April tells the story of Georg, a young man from the mountains who, in accordance with the Kanun - the code of the blood feud that dominated ancient Albania - has to set out on a mission to avenge his brother's death.

As I reflect on various trips to Albania, I recall sitting on a veranda in Gjirokaster, sipping a glass of raki, watching the sun set on the Lunxheria mountains. I think of swimming in the glistening Ionian sea, drinking coffee in Tirana, wandering among the exquisite ruins of Butrint.

I remember all the instances of friendliness from Albanians, and I think of Byron's words: "[The Albanians] are brave, rigidly honest, and faithful ... perhaps the most beautiful race ... in the world."

And it seems to me that A A Gill has done Albania a grave disservice.

THE COMPACT GUIDE

HOW TO GET THERE: Opodo (0871-277 0090; opodo.co.uk) offers return flights from London via Athens to Corfu from £240. The ferry to Sarande leaves Corfu daily at 9am (check the night before). A visa can be obtained on board for around £7. (Hand passport to port authorities).

Reality and Beyond (01285 750888; realityandbeyond .co.uk) offers seven-night tours to Butrint and Gjirokastra starting at around £1,250 per person.

FURTHER INFORMATION: See albaniantourism.com.

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