I climb the steep, undulating trail, stopping only to admire the panoramic views, before emerging at the top of Leusë, a mountain village in Gjirokastër County, in the south of the country. Albania. Here I find the once-secret Orthodox Church of St. Mary, with religious frescoes dating back to the 1800s. The only sounds are the crowing of a rooster and the clicking of goats’ hooves on the mountainous terrain.
I think of the citizens who lived here under the atheist regime of communist dictator Enver Hoxha.
“The practice of religion was strictly prohibited,” Arjan Dimo, 49, a guide with Exodus Adventure Travels, the tour operator with whom I am traveling, tells me. “My mother lit a candle in secret at Christmas and Easter, but it was dangerous: if she was discovered, she risked two years in prison.” Dimo knows other people who have been imprisoned after sneaking into an abandoned, disused church to pray.
Albania was isolated from the outside world during Hoxha’s 40-year rule until his death in 1985.
The island regime, followed by a civil war in 1997, prevented Albania from experiencing the tourist boom of its neighbor, Greece.
In recent years, however, foreign visitors have flocked to the country, particularly to the beaches of its Riviera. Albania recorded 5.1 million tourist arrivals in the first seven months of 2023, compared to 3.9 million for all of 2022. The Albanian Tourism Board expects to attract 10 million visitors by the end of this year. easyJet, Ryanair and Wizz Air have all recently launched flights from the UK to the capital, Tirana.
Besides its beautiful beaches, Albania has mountains that rival those of Italy, archaeological treasures as impressive as those in Greece, cave churches to match those of Turkish Cappadocia and Islamic architecture, including a mosque reminiscent of the Blue Mosque of Istanbul. Then there is hospitality.
In the idyllic mountain village home of 54-year-old Landi Koci in Dhoksat, Lunxhëri region, I enjoy homemade food and wine. There’s a Mediterranean salad, with a generous helping of beetroot, as well as byrek – a traditional snack of crispy filo pastry stuffed with spinach and cheese.
Raki, the Albanian version of absinthe, is also presented. The party is accompanied by views of the valley. The whisper among my tour group is that if this had been in Provence, it would have easily become a five-star wine retreat.
However, according to our host, the village is facing depopulation, with residents leaving to seek opportunities elsewhere. Landi adds that in 30 years the village “could be abandoned – unless there is tourism“. However, with the booming town of Gjirokastër just a 25-minute drive away, a visitor boom is increasingly likely.
Exodus Adventure Travel has reported a 45% increase in bookings for 2024 compared to 2023 – its June “Albania Highlights” departure is already sold out. Negative attitudes linked to the old regime, or other stereotypes about the country, are also starting to fade.
Among my group of 16, ranging in age from their 30s to 60s, is 72-year-old Andrew Hingston. “Albania is a country that has had negative connotations throughout my life, but I knew there had been major changes over the past 20 years, and I wanted to see it for myself,” he told me.
Meanwhile, Anna Skyba, 68, noticed construction sites, new hotels and road improvements. “You could say it’s growing quickly,” she says.
We learn about the country’s complex culture on a 10-day itinerary led by Dimo, an archaeologist. Among our stops is Butrint Archaeological Park, in Vlorë County, southern Albania. Here at the museum, Dimo shows off the objects he has unearthed. The ancient Greek colony, listed by UNESCO, was once a place of pilgrimage dedicated to Asclepius, the god of medicine.
A forest hike in Llogora National Park takes us to the point where Julius Caesar won the battle against Pompey, while there are ruins at nearby Apollonia, revealing a Roman town dating from the 3rd century BC. There are also well-preserved works of religious art: clues that the works come from Ottoman culture include an illustration of The last supperwithout knives or forks on the table, explains our guide.
In Berat, a town in central Albania, and in Kruje, a town 20 kilometers north of the capital, the call to prayer regularly rings out from mosques (up to 60 percent of Albanians describe themselves as as Muslims in the country’s latest report). census). Our hotel in Kruje offers views of the castle and minarets.
Tirana, where I began my tour of the country, has neon orange, green and yellow buildings, some with geometric patterns. The color was introduced by the current mayor as an antidote to Tirana’s gray and communist architectural heritage. However, a huge pyramid designed by Hoxha’s architect daughter still stands out.
Later, I stroll through the artists’ village of Voskopoje, stopping in front of its churches. Treasures were stolen and destroyed here during the war against religion, but an iconography museum has preserved works of art and altar decorations hidden from that era.
I find that there is so much to discover beyond the white sand beaches of the Albanian Riviera.
My highlight is Benja, just over an hour’s drive from the southern town of Permet. As I bathe in hot springs gushing from tectonic fissures, with mountains and waterfalls all around, I consider my luck: experiencing all this before the masses arrive.
How to get there
The 10 days of the Exodus Albania Tour Highlights from £1,579 per person. Includes flights, transfers, accommodation, specified meals and excursions accompanied by a local guide.