As the crow flies - and Google Maps authoritatively confirmed - the coast was just a matter of miles away. An easy drive and we'd be lolling in the Mediterranean. Instead the car lurched along dirt roads, stopping for the odd goat or donkey cart, our driver chuckling at our surprised reactions in the rearview mirror.
Suddenly the temperatures plummeted as we began an ascent into mist-wrapped mountains, a conifer-clad peak thrusting its nose into the clouds. Hello, Google Maps?! The car slowed to a crawl, passing beekeepers selling jars of honey from the side of the road. And then we broke through the swirling, rain-dense clouds and spied the sea glittering far below. Gesturing triumphantly, the driver brought the car to a screeching halt at the scenic overlook. We sprang out to drink it in.
My sister and I had been looking for a Mediterranean destination for a short summer break. The only criteria? Not a blow-the-bank vacation, but an adventure that would afford plenty of pretty beaches, open-sea swimming and culture. Albania, or Shqiperia as the locals call it, delivered in droves. While lunch for two in nearby Corfu, a popular holiday destination in Greece, could easily cost $60, in Albania we had a dinner feast for less than $20.
And then there were these epic road trips - totally unexpected in a country the size of Maryland. We would learn that the Llogara Pass, where we now stood, is one of the highest paved roads in Europe - a thrilling trip through different climates - from the heat of cypress-dotted Mediterranean landscapes to fog and evergreen forests. Down below, we could see a fringe of powdery white sand on the Ionian coast. These undeveloped crescent beaches are some of the prettiest you can find on the Big Blue.
Outside, the cicadas loudly buzzed and the scent of sun-baked oregano wafted through the car window. We descended from the clouds onto the Albanian Riviera. A pearl-like string of beach towns extended south toward the Greek border. The Albanians can be a party-loving bunch with electronic club music shaking up the beach clubs until the wee hours.
Even if you're not a night owl, you can find bliss along this idyllic stretch of coastline. We found it in Qeparo, a sleepy village wedged between the mountains and the sea. We joined the local Albanian holidaymakers on the beach loungers ($5 for the day) and stared across the water to where - according to Homer's great legend - Odysseus washed ashore on Corfu.
But let me sing to you of Shqiperia, "the land of the Eagles," a country haunted by age-old legends and a colorful cast of characters including a gallant, 15th-century warrior called Skanderbeg, a 20th-century king by the name of Zog and a communist dictator, Enver Hoxha, who sealed the country's borders for 40 years while he erected concrete bunkers in every nook and cranny across the countryside. (Maybe he wasn't paranoid; Hoxha reportedly survived 50 assassination attempts.) When his communist regime fell in the 1990s, citizens fled the country in droves. Today, Albania is a time capsule of ancient traditions mixing with modern ambitions.
From the beach at Qeparo, we strap on backpacks for a hike up into the hills hugging the Ionian coastline. We stop hesitantly at a fork in the road. A trio of elderly gentlemen, seated outside at a cafe, urge us on, crooking thumbs in the uphill direction. Waving our thanks, we start a climb that will lead us into the fragrant wilds of the Mediterranean's sunny scenery, the steady hum of cicadas interrupted only by the singsong calls of a goatherd. A breeze carries the scent of lavender, mint, and verbena; the distant peal of village church bells rings across the valley. And then the old village of Qeparo looms into view: a centuries-old bastion of stone clinging to a hilltop, the sea shimmering far below.
Here, as we meander through the alleyways, shaded by grapevine trellises, we pass elderly ladies draped in traditional black garments. The "new" town of Qeparo is set on the coast far below, but this old, forgotten village still exists in all its ancient glory. Bees buzz, laundry flutters from clotheslines, pink oleander blossoms contrast with whitewashed walls.
... We have walked into a time warp.
We're startled back into reality at the sight of a parked car painted as a giant red Albanian flag, the black eagle's wings stretched across the car's hood. According to legend, the great general Skanderbeg carried a banner of a two-headed eagle into battle against the Ottomans in the 15th century. The eagle flag is a symbol of fierce national pride today. The country itself is utterly unique; the Albanian language is unrelated to Slavic tongues or Latin-derived romance languages and occupies its own branch of the Indo-European language family. One of the smallest countries on Earth, Albania was never part of Tito's Yugoslavia.
Later that afternoon, we get another history lesson courtesy of the Greek Orthodox manager of a waterfront restaurant. The stylish Barbarossa serves delicious seafood and traditional dishes, like wild spinach sautéed with foraged herbs.
The manager's family fled Albania when the communist regime fell, and he picked up his restaurant savvy while working on the Greek island of Paros. "You know about the Albanian connection to Aeneas? We Albanians want to claim certain historic figures from antiquity as our own," he explains with a grin, presenting a generous platter of watermelon for dessert. The ancient city of Butrint in southern Albania was famously founded by Trojans fleeing the fall of Troy. As described in Virgil's "Aeneid," Butrint was constructed to look like a mini Troy.
A few days later, we find ourselves scampering over Butrint's archaeological ruins, which were declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992. Dating back to the eighth century B.C., it's a hauntingly beautiful place, a forested nature park filled with eucalyptus groves and washed by sea tides. Even the crowds of day-trippers who take the ferry from Corfu can't diminish its mystique. There are Hellenistic gateways, an ancient Roman theater and baths, a Great Basilica from the early Christian period (sixth century) and a Venetian castle from the 14th century.
After hours in the midday heat, we cool off in the nearby town of Ksamil, every inch of its coastline dotted with beach clubs. From here, you can swim to three small islands offshore, floating in the Mediterranean next to revellers' giant inflatable unicorns and paddleboats with slides.
A romp through books by Albanian author Ismail Kadare, who won the inaugural Man Booker International Prize in 2005, is an immersion in folklore, tradition, and quirky expressions - such as "the starved goat with its tail held high" - not to mention blood feuds and machismo. Kadare makes ample references to the Kanum of Leke Dukagjini, the ancient code of Albanian laws based on honor and hospitality. "Our house belongs to God and the guest," proclaims an old saying.
This hospitality is manifest in Berat, known as "the town of a thousand windows," a magnificent legacy of the Ottoman Empire situated in central Albania. Recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site, Berat is known for its white Ottoman houses clinging to a hillside above the river Osum. The city fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1450, but its castle dates back to the 4th century B.C.; the resulting cultural mix is visible in the ensemble of Byzantine churches and mosques.
When we arrive at the family-owned Hotel Mangalemi, housed in 18th-century mansions, we are greeted with welcome drinks and grins as wide as the new Albanian tourism motto ("Smile from Albania!") Hotel Mangalemi offers a warm welcome, not to mention a terrific restaurant and panoramic terrace - for a mere $45 a night.
As if to prove that hospitality is the rule of the land, we later stumble upon a restaurant inside the home of a local guy named Lili. He ushers us to a backyard table while his wife prepares traditional specialities like byrek (spinach-stuffed pie) and fergese (a mix of peppers, tomatoes and cheese), to wash down with wine produced by his father. We didn't anticipate the complimentary cups of a stronger spirit Lili pours after the meal.
Before flying out of Corfu, we stay in the popular holiday resort of Saranda, a convenient gateway to Albania's southern coast. Upon arrival, it appears to be a sweeping development of garish high-rises towering over the beach. But this port has a fantastic vibe. In the early morning, locals swim enormous lengths across the bay - never mind the boat traffic. Colorful beach umbrellas pop up in the pebbly sand, and the restaurants are buzzing and delicious.
In the evening, a loud commotion brings us to our hotel balcony to investigate. Peering down toward the waterfront promenade, we see a parade of people - grandparents, toddlers, love-struck adolescents - slowly sauntering by the sea as the summer light fades into darkness. In Albania, the "Xhiro," or nighttime promenade, is a sanctified ritual and recreational activity.
Historic blood feuds be damned. How could we not fall for a country whose national pastime is the evening stroll? We run down the stairs to join them.