Expectations had been low even before I set foot in the country. It wasn’t just me, many of my friends and family responded in exactly the same way, ”Albania?!”. ”Where even is that?’ I had to agree, whilst I could just about pin it on a world map in roughly in the right spot, its history rich treasures and breathtaking mountainscapes meant nothing to me. Even the name of its capital eluded me.
It was about 20 minutes before landing that it struck me. The cabin crew on our small embraer jet had just about swept up the foil and crumbs from my complimentary packet of pretzels. The air hostesses dazzling red lipstick wry smiled back at me as I thanked her. The colour of her trousers matched. Looking out of the window and through the cloud I genuinely ‘wow’d’ out loud to myself. I saw the turquoise blue sea fringed with dark rocks; a flat fertile patchwork of rectangles stretching further inland for miles and the dots of tractors ploughing the land. All encircled by the jumbled and jagged mountain peaks appearing to pierce the earth shooting skywards. I did not expect this from Albania.
In my first days I stumbled across forgotten ruins, left slowly crumbling to the elements of the earth. I drove through valleys, climbed up mountains passes, ate my body weight in feta and sipped raki to the setting sun. It was almost perfect.
It wasn’t until I ambled through the alleys of a forgotten village that i experienced the beautiful hospitality of the Albanian people. Narrow cobbled pathways polished smooth from years of footsteps. The first spring flowers and weeds grow where they can forming a green blanket. The houses were mostly abandoned and crumbling – I am sure they have so many stories to tell. I walk past a small, walled garden. Inside, vegetables are growing on small slices of dark earth; spring onions, garlic and lettuce. I spot the bright red of a chilli plant and a flash of yellow from a single lemon growing on a tree in the corner. An old lady with white hair is half bent picking the weeds from the lettuces. I stop to speak with her, whilst I know she doesn’t speak English we smile at one another and I ask her what she is growing. She points all around the garden, shrugging her shoulders and speaking to me in a Greek. We both laugh at one another over our incoherent situation, so classic that we cannot verbally understand one another but yet understand perfectly through the use of just a few arm movements and the expression on our faces.
She gestures for me to come inside her house just across from the garden. Pulling back a plastic chair I take my seat. She moves away from courtyard and returns a few moments later with an empty Fanta bottle three-quarters full of a clear liquid. Short glasses accompany the bottle on a plastic tray as they are put down on the table. The syrupy liquid is poured while a plate of home made feta appears from nowhere and is neatly placed alongside. I sit there for two hours with her; nibbling feta and drinking raki while we continue to chat like long lost friends.
My Albania holiday confounded any expectations I previously had. I encountered the very essence of Albania – idyllic and diverse countryside and warm and welcoming hospitality. It is certainly emerging as one of the most fascinating countries in the Balkan Peninsula and is very far from the stereotyped socialist satellite that one might expect.
There is no denying Albania has a long way to go but if you thrive on being one of the first, then I urge you to explore it now.