By John Telfer
Having spent the previous week hiking across the interior of Corfu, I was drawn by the not-so-distant views of Albania. Jagged limestone peaks rose from the plains, separated from where we were standing by just a kilometre or so of choppy water. I nipped over the straits in a Flying Dolphin hydrofoil crowded with Polish tourists who assumed I was an Albanian (modern dress has never been my strongpoint).
Jumping onto the quay I rushed through immigration (note to future travellers: some guidebooks say there is a visa fee â€“ there is not but the local officials will happily take the money). Waiting outside was my taxi driver Gezim. Gezim was a huge man both in girth and personality. He spoke about 20 words of English and I 10 words of Turkish common to the modern day Albanian - the linguistic remnants of centuries of Ottoman misrule. Whatever we lacked in terms of comprehension was more than compensated by Gezim bellowing at me. Eventually I succumbed and ended up shouting back. To a bystander we must have appeared to be a rather dysfunctional couple.
We drove north along empty roads, perfect for a cycling tour of Albania, past hillsides littered with thousands of bunkers. The bunkers were built by the former dictator Hoxha as a paranoid response to the threat of foreign invasion (or maybe not so paranoid considering Kosovo). The majority of traffic seen was that of shepherds and their flocks, wending their way to higher pastures. I was introduced to a local lumberjack who took me trekking up through dense pine forest to a point where we looked down 2000m into the clear blue waters of the Mediterranean.
The following day we visited the Roman site of Butrint â€“ beautifully perched on the side of a lake â€“ then inland to Gjirocastro to visit Drago, the hospitable owner of a family run guesthouse we have been using for EXPLORE! tours for many years. He picked grapes from his vines and brought them up to the balcony of his 19th century house â€“ here we drank ground coffee whilst overlooking one of the most traditional towns in the Balkans. To send us on his way we were given parcels of cheese pastry for the journey back to the coast, typical of the hospitality I encountered on my adventure holiday in Albania.
My last memory of Albania was sitting at a cafĂ© beside the port of Saranda, sharing a bottle of Rakia with Gezim (who had wisely left his taxi at home). He had showed me so much on the way â€“ stopping at the roadside to pick herbs or to fill our water bottles from one of his favourite springs. When he just had to explain something he would dig out an English speaker.
As the sun set, the dusk call to prayer echoed all around. We spent the evening feasting on excellent local seafood â€“ before finally saying (or rather shouting!) our farewells.
Explore offer cycling, trekking and cultural tours of Albania. All are escorted by local (English speaking not shouting!) leaders