Albania, the Adriatic's bargain beach bliss, by Tristan Rutherford
Sunday Times Travel Magazine, September 2018
I’m the only tourist on the beach. Two beaches actually. The first section of Krorez beach is a white sand idyll. It’s lapped by the same Ionian blue found ten miles south in Corfu. The second section is a long banana swoosh perfumed by rosemary and pine. The sand here is as soft as in Puglia, the Italian province visible across the water on a clear day. The same goes for the 50 other beaches that stud Albania’s 200-mile coast, each of which knocks the socks off those in northern neighbour Croatia. I do a little jig. As there’s nobody in sight I secrete my trunks in a tree, then swim a naked mile through limpid sea. Well, it’s what Robinson Crusoe would have done.
At sunset I find my swims. Then pad virgin footsteps to Krorez’s sole beach bar. It’s run by snaggletoothed Albanian hippy Evangelis, who sports a crucifix made of driftwood. As it took me an hour to hike to this secret sandy stretch I slip him £5 to sail me to a jetty further south, where my hire car is parked. We shove his battered speedboat into the sunset surf. Evangelis guns the outboard engine, which is fuelled by a plastic Coke bottle half-filled with petrol, and we slap-slap-slap across a warm inky sea. This moonlit adventure was the most dangerous part of my seven-day loop from Albania’s beach-fringed west to its historic hinterland. But it was pretty darn fun.
When I came to Albania last September I was certifiably on my tod. Regular holiday pals didn’t believe me when I talked up blissful beaches and UNESCO sights. Well, they can stick the pricey niceties of the Greek Islands, and the 10-a-day cruiseships of Dubrovnik, both a short hop away. I wanted a sunny break with a backstory. Tumbling ruins without tour buses.
You won’t find many twits with stickers bumbling off the cruise bus at Butrint, Albania’s most-visited attraction, which I hit on day two. Imagine a best-of selection of Ephesus and the Acropolis on a lost island, hidden from passing ships by watery wetlands. If Indiana Jones were here he’d stumble on a secret passage and nick a priceless artefact. Ruled by four different empires, it’s an open-air museum of the Mediterranean greats. Greek agora, check. Roman bath, check. Ninth-century Byzantine basilica, check.
For lunch I steal figs off trees. Then beat a barely trodden path to a vine-choked Ottoman hammam where I snooze under an olive tree. Later on I hire a speedboat plus driver for the laughable sum of £12 to take in Butrint’s scale. Herons stand guard as we putter past, while kingfishers flit by like iridescent darts of blue. You can’t do this in Pompeii.
My clifftop view on day three pans the entire Albanian Riviera. The country’s sandiest stretch of coast ribbons for a hundred miles from the Greek border at Butrint to Cape Karaburun near Vlore. Like the Cote d’Azur a century ago, it’s a pinch yourself patchwork of lonely beaches where sunbathers are outnumbered by grazing donkeys. Some, like Monastery Beach, host an Italian-run bar that dispenses massages and Aperol spritz. Others, like Zhabovel beach, are sun-licked curves of sand that Julius Caesar – who rocked up nearby in 48BC – would recognise today.
That’s because until 1991 Albania was a communist hermit kingdom. Europe’s answer to North Korea left its gorgeous coast deserted lest home-grown capitalist reactionaries tried to escape. Tourist development is in its infancy – my mum would snort at the health and safety, my kids would balk at the lack of hotel pools – but so it was in Croatia 20 years ago. Archaeologists, adventurous couples and those searching for the next Corsica or Montenegro will fit right in.
Lunch at a coastal café typifies the nation’s naïf charms. The eatery is surrounded by citrus groves, shaded by quince trees and cooled by a sea breeze. You can buy a chilled Peroni or a Turkish coffee, the latter arriving with a complimentary glass of rakia distilled from the grapeskins of the terrace’s overhead vines. Such a potent cocktail sums up Albania’s unrealised potential. The flavours of Italy blended with the bounty of Ancient Greece. As the language barrier is an ever-present drama – we’re not in Mallorca now – my order is taken twice. I end up with four donuts, two freshly pressed grape juices, two Greek salads, a vast platter of Adriatic prawns, a six egg omelette – plus half of the chicken that laid them. Most sad. Nevertheless I fill my boots on this £6 blowout. The following morning I’m kicking back on the Mediterranean’s most secret beach bar none.
The nation’s ‘newest’ seaside attraction was off-limits until 2017. Sazan Island had been a high security naval base for a century, during which no civilians – Albanian or otherwise – could set foot on the country’s largest island. The three-mile Eden even has its own cloudless microclimate that affords it the vegetation of sub-tropical Tunisia. On day four the ominously named ferry The Black Pearl carries me and piratical group of student daytrippers across from the port of Vlore. I gaze out as the towering island rears ever larger, a Lost World where Aleppo pines tumble into azure seas. If T-Rex barked out a mating call, à la Isla Nublar in Jurassic Park, it would come as no surprise.
The wild undergrads and I disembark onto a battered military jetty to be silenced by Sazan’s ethereal stillness. An obligatory short tour details the island’s military history: 2,800 Soviet bunkers dot the forest like concrete mushrooms. On any other Adriatic island like Paxos or Hvar they’d build a five-star hotel. The sun belts through a canopy of juniper to mark swim time. I may be the first Englishman to front crawl from St Nicolo beach near the port. That’s Albania – any visitor automatically becomes a pioneer. As the deep topaz Ionian meets the shallow navy of the Adriatic right here, the swim is an aquamarine dream. Farther out the wrecks of Greek, Roman and WWII ships tremble on the sea bed, undisturbed by scuba crews.
On the chug back to the mainland, The Black Pearl calls at an unnamed, unmarked sliver of sand on the Karaburun peninsula. This beach, like the 20 others I saw from the boat, is fine tickle-your-toes shingle. As I’ve been spoiled by Albania’s unsullied shores, the two dozen beachgoers render the sand too busy for me. Truly, the hard bleeds. So I hop over limestone blocks weathered by lapping waves to another curve of shore. It’s mine, all mine. If I didn’t have to wait three hours to Instagram the scene (cellphone signals are as rare as Eres swimsuits in these lonely climes) I’d be in beachey heaven.
Inland Albania is as pretty as Provence, with just as many timeless sights. With two days to go I plough 90 minutes east through vineyards and citrus orchard to Berat, one part of a twin UNESCO city. Its ruined castle rises like a Disney redoubt atop a spaghetti western landscape. I park up not by a ghost city, but by a living museum of stone homes and panoramic cafés that has been continuously inhabited for 3,000 years – longer than Rome or Istanbul.
When the Roman and Byzantine empires crumbled, Berat became a centre of Christian learning. This is evidenced in the Onufri Icon Museum, an array of golden frescoes that blings like an Emirati throne room, and hypnotises the rare foreigner that gets this far. As dusk falls I hit a rampart restaurant for curd soup, pickled tomatoes, shepherd’s salad, grilled lamb intestines, a swirly-whirly spinach pastry and a mixed grill. A steal at £7 include including wine, plus three varieties of homemade rakia grappa.
Berat’s sister city is two’s hour south through badlands that once welcomed Lord Byron on a horseback tour. The boundless castle of Gjirokastër – a stone-clad monster the size of Game of Thrones’ Harrenhal – looms through my rakia headache. Five centuries worth of white Ottoman houses, each a palace of stone, tumble down a ravine like Turkish sugar cubes. Poverty and obscurity have kept this former centre of empire pristine. Even the town’s wondrous selection of hotels is housed in ancient palazzi, with frescoes and wooden ceiling rosettes. I’m informed that it would take six months to see Albania's 100 other such archaeological sites, each frequented only by lizards and butterflies, where tortoises make love on amphitheatre terraces. Alas, I’ve got more beaches to see.
The three tiny Ksamil islands close my seven-day Albanian circle. Imagine the Maldives with trees. A dial-a-boat taxi scoops up sun seekers from shore then whizzes them to these Emerald gems for £3 a ride. Holm oaks and bay laurel shade £5 beach beds, which drip into Indian Ocean sapphire seas. You can swim between the islands or kayak out for quieter contemplation. Braver souls could paddle the mile and a half across to Greece but why bother? This lost Riviera is paradise found.
Tristan Rutherford is the one of the few travel journalists to write extensively about Albania.