Sunday, 6 October 2013

Albania: Hidden Gems & Mercedes-Benz (Part 2)

On a day that had a distinctly Sunday-like feeling - and that actually, now I think about it, was indeed a Sunday - I left Tirana on a bus bound for Berat: The City of a Thousand Windows; The City of Two Thousand Steps; The Museum City; The City of Lots of Names. 

Tucked away in a mountainous region of central Albania, Berat has none of Tirana's vibrancy, but all of the warmth. Upon arrival it was eerily quiet; only a few lonesome men shuffling down the main street and stray cats basking in the sunshine. Everything seemed to be moving in slow-motion. Even the river couldn't be bothered.

According to an Albanian legend that I have absolutely no reason to doubt, the Osum River which flows through Berat was formed by the tears of a local girl mourning the death of a giant who died fighting some other giant. Subsequently, the perished giant turned into a mountain. On top of this mountain now stands a two-and-a-half-thousand year-old castle that, though tired-looking, crumbly and everything else you'd expect an age-old castle to be, still has people residing within its walls; in homes that date back to the 13th century.

Unfortunately, here, just like most of Albania, they are lacking an effective waste disposal solution, meaning some of the ancient decaying turrets double up as rubbish tips. Down the hill, towards the more modern part of the city, are the graceful, white window-happy houses of the Ottoman era that earned Berat its City of a Thousand Windows nickname. When you think about it, a thousand windows isn't an incredible number for a city to boast, but you get the sentiment.

The preserved Ottoman-era buildings of Berat © Ryan Chapman
After a comforting dose of English football, having watched the North London Derby in a dark and dingy betting shop with more televisions than Berat has windows, I emerged into the early evening and witnessed something quite bizarre. Almost the entire population of Berat spilled out of their homes and headed to the main street to partake in the traditional xhiro, which happens every single night, at roughly a quarter of an hour before sunset.

The xhiro has it's roots in communist times, when entertainment options were somewhat limited, and so walking and talking became the most popular social activity. All they've done is come outside for fresh air, chit-chat and a bit of a wander, and there's a lovely warm atmosphere as news of the day is shared and pleasantries are exchanged with friends, family members and acquaintances. 

Kids drive pedal cars, weaving in and out of the crowds, whilst old men play chess on upturned cardboard boxes and street vendors sell flutes of pumpkin seeds to anyone who fancies a snack. Mostly, though, people are just walking back and forth, up and down the main street ad infinitum. Well, not really ad infinitum, just until bed time.

After a couple of days in Berat, lazing around the hostel, picking the sweetest of grapes off countless vines, exploring the squeaky cobbled streets (but mostly lazing around with the never ending supply of grapes) it was time to head to the coast. 

There were whispers on the traveller's not so grape-abundant grapevine of unspoilt, remote and deserted beaches better than anything else in Europe: a real backpacker's paradise. So, I eagerly packed everything I could find that I thought might be mine I boarded a bus - possibly the oldest Mercedes yet - and headed west.

A deserted beach near Dhërmi with Corfu on the horizon © Ryan Chapman
As I watched the world go by from the bus window it was easy to forget I was in Europe, passing through scenes more synonymous with South America or Asia: a bustling village market where women in traditional dress carried dead chickens by their necks; Patos-Marinza, the biggest onshore oil-field in Europe, scarring the landscape for as far as you can see in every direction, with oil-wells and other industrial eyesores; winding mountain roads where a lapse in concentration could quickly become a fatal drop. 

Five or so hours later, after a particularly long ascent, we emerged from the clouds and were welcomed by a view of Dhërmi, a village way down below by the turquoise coloured waters of the Ionian Sea.

Every so often when I travel I come across a place that makes me so immeasurably happy I wonder why on earth I would ever leave. The hostel-style campsite I found, a mile down the coast from Dhërmi, is one such place. It was indeed a backpacker's paradise and offered everything I could possibly want: a comfortable bed, hammocks strung between trees, warm-ish showers and a bar. 

I rented a roomy ready-pitched tent in a shady spot, with a foam mattress, fresh bedding and two meals per day included, all for less money per night than a pint of cider and a packet of crisps at my local pub back home. I fell asleep each night to the sound of waves lapping up against the shore and woke every morning to glorious sunshine and a salt water bath. 'Home' couldn't have felt any further away.

The sun setting into the Ionian Sea © Ryan Chapman

Days were wiled away on isolated, picture-perfect beaches, playing card games, dice games and games of run-like-a-lunatic-into-the-sea. In those moments I wanted for nothing that couldn't be fetched from a fridge. Nights began with spellbinding sunsets which gave way to spectacularly star-filled skies unlike anything I'd ever seen. It didn't take many shooting star sighting before I ran out of wishes.

Sometimes there would be no more than a handful of people to a mile of coast-line. In stark contrast, just on the horizon and within a fitter person's swimming distance of Dhërmi, is Corfu: the package holiday capital of Europe. Another world. I couldn't help but feel smug about the fact that, here I was, just several miles away, in such a relative paradise. No postcard stands, no fake designer brands, no beauty-spot turned tourist-trap, no shops selling tacky over-priced crap. Not least, no rowdy Brits disturbing the peace. Not even me.

Albania is one of Europe's last remaining frontiers of adventurous travel. Only since the early 1990's, since the fall of the communism, have foreigners been able to enter freely. It offers the backpacker a unique and challenging, yet ultimately rewarding, travel experience. Albania has emerged from its dark age and even brighter days are on the horizon. If you want to experience it before the inevitable tourism boom I suggest you go now.