Normally the news of an imminent foreign trip is met with declarations of envy from family and friends, but no one wanted to come in my suitcase to Albania. By a strange kind of social osmosis, people who have never visited the place have the impression of a blighted land. Maybe this has something to do with its isolation from the world under the communist regime that ended in the 1990s. But anyone who has travelled there will tell you that it is a beautiful and fascinating land where visitors are warmly welcomed. In the south, the climate is clement and the coast is clear. Museum cities climb up the side of dramatic valleys, mountains soar towards the sky and little-visited classical ruins lay beside serene lakes.
The country's southern port of Saranda is not far from the Greek island of Corfu, where you can catch a boat from Corfu Town. On this occasion I boarded a Stingray-like hydrofoil that gave me the impression of slipping into the country, special agent-style, through the backdoor . On the boat I met a well-seasoned Balkan traveller who said that visitors to Albania are treated like kings and queens, largely because the locals are still curious about foreigners coming this way.
Arriving in Saranda, the attractive seafront curves round in a concertina of mini Spanish Costa-style buildings, some painted in bright pastel colours while others are already curling at the edges like aging paper succumbing to the salty air. Heading away from the main strip, dusty tracks and tatty markets squeeze into the spaces between concrete. There's a notable absence of globalisation: no Starbucks or McDonalds here. I walk along the gravelly beach picking my way between broken plastic chairs, rotting boats, bottles and other human detritus, and decide this is not the best place to take a swim.
Local men sit playing board games and drinking coffee in cafes or stand in the square chatting. When I enquire after the bus stop, an old gentleman smiles and leads me into a sparsely-stocked shop to a boy who can speak good English. The bus stop turns out to be a blank space on the corner of the square, and after an interesting sign-language session with two of the waiting bus drivers, I find a coach that leaves for the "museum town" of Gjirokastra in 40 minutes. Enough time for me to change some money with the touts by the garden square and explore the stone floor-plan of a 5th-century synagogue that has been uncovered next door. It sounds dodgy but changing money with street traders is common practice here and they will give you a better rate than the banks.
Set in stone
As I leave Saranda and development peters out, rural Albania quickly reveals itself. Long golden ears of corn dance beside the Bistrica River where a couple of pigs romp about at the water's edge. The bus speeds along a one-lane road up and down mountainsides, clinging to the edge of bare diagonal escarpments overlooking verdant valleys of oak. Bibbing on the hair-pin bends to warn oncoming traffic, I try not to think of Albania's road safety record and concentrate on the beautiful view, which puts me in mind of the Lake District's dramatic fells.
This region is not only steeped in history but it feels dominated by it. The foundations of the modern world seem particularly shaky compared with the past, which is literally set in stone. The UNESCO listed town of Gjirokastra is a perfect example. Top-heavy Ottoman houses with grey slate roofs pile down steep hillsides beside striped cobbled streets. A warren of dirt paths runs off to unnumbered tumble-down houses and allotment-style gardens with sheep, goats and chickens roaming about. Overlooking the town on a high outcrop is a vast 13th century citadel, one of the largest in the Balkans, where successive rulers have all left their mark. Overall the place feels like a medieval fiefdom from legend.
At first I think I need to adjust my eyes, as on the horizon the sky seems solid, then I realise I am looking at the grey and white tops of the distant cloud-scudded mountains. Tramping up the steep lanes, I'm greeted with genuine curiosity and warmth by the locals, who I rely on heavily for directions as my map doesn't do street names. The shops sell fresh local produce displayed loosely on wooden tables and, apart from the people sitting on doorsteps and outside the few cafes, the place is quiet. I find a traditional 19th-century home-turned guesthouse with a heavy bolted wooden door - Hotel Kalemi - and I'm welcomed in by Dragua - the hotel's proprietor.
Inside it's like a cross between a farmhouse and a manor house - little windows are set high in the kitchen's piled stone walls and roughly-forged brass pots and pans hang above a huge fireplace. A carved wooden staircase leads upwards to rooms with high wooden corniced ceilings and plush red furnishings. I'm the only guest and, apart from the owner and her mum, I have the run of the house and its balconies with views over the whole Drinos valley below to the Lunxheria Mountains beyond. The owner and her mum are lovely - later that evening the mother hands me a mug of what tastes like camomile tea and introduces me to Albanian soap operas.
Night at the museum
In the morning Dragua makes me a fresh Albanian breakfast of tea, bread, eggs, goat's cheese and what I think is fig jam. As I head out to visit the fortress, my vague impression of being the only visitor at an open-air museum is solidified by the strange sight of a British-style brown tourist attraction sign pointing the way to the castle. Entering through dark vaults filled with canons, I spend several hours exploring every inch of it, climbing crumbling staircases and peering into overgrown galleries. Eating my lunch on the terraces, I'm so awestruck by the panoramic views that I almost miss the tiny hummingbird moth hovering by my knee.
Gjirokastra is slightly eerie at dusk, as I discover when I get lost on my way back to the hotel. There's a mountain chill in the air, the smell of wood smoke and little sound apart from the odd barking dog. People huddle inside and there are few lights and few roads, the steep alleyways that connect them go in unpredictable directions, sometimes turning to scree-like piles of slate, leading to dead-ends and abandoned houses. Climbing the hill, I attempt to navigate using the outline of the fortress and the school as points of reference, but I emerge in the wrong place by an Ottoman mansion. I try to remain calm as a large dog runs up the path barking ferociously. I am sure it's going to bite me, but the owner calls it back in time and shouts something sounding apologetic in Albanian.
On the road between Gjirokastra and Saranda, you can ask the bus driver to drop you off at the turning to Syri i Kalter spring, known as the "Blue Eye" for its extraordinary gradients of blue and green hues. Shaded by trees and fringed with thick vegetation, the deep pool is darkest at its centre, which apparently reaches down to depths of more than 50 metres. I spend an idyllic morning frolicking in the rapids of the sun-dappled pool before I have to tear myself away to catch the bus to my next destination.
Alice in Wonderland
At the entrance to Butrint National Park, which encompasses parkland strewn with the well-preserved bones of a Greco-Roman city, a huge white hare stops to pose for pictures. As he hops off, seemingly leading the way, it puts me immediately in mind of Alice in Wonderland. Between the trees, the 2000-year-old amphitheatre stands deserted. I climb its stone tiers, set into a hillock, and gaze over a maze of stone ruins - the bathhouse, the forum, dwellings and shops, places of worship with mosaics still intact. It's an enchanted ghost town, its impression printed into the land.
The park is in a beautiful, tranquil location in remote southern Albania, surrounded by Lake Butrint, where the rising water level has turned some of the ruins into shallow pools. As well as having free roam of the classical ruins, I catch glimpses of the local wildlife including the little terrapins that live in the waterlogged excavations alongside clouds of pesky mosquitoes. I get lost - literally and figuratively - amongst them, and when daylight starts to fade the place becomes pretty spooky. Deciding against more travelling that day, I check into the remote hotel by the park.
The next morning I wait for the bus by an archaic river crossing. A remnant of a bygone age: a large wooden raft is drawn backwards and forwards across the Vivari Channel by cables. The warmth of the sun is the deciding factor in stopping off at the small coastal town of Ksamil to take a swim from the beach. From the main road, half-built buildings block my view of the coastline so I have no idea what to expect. Thankfully the pale sand and shingle beach is rather scenic - with aquamarine waters and a clutch of tiny green islands dotted around the bay - clean and much more attractive than the town beach in Saranda.
Arriving back in Corfu on "Stingray", I witnessed the same prejudice toward Albanians I had encountered back home. I was travelling with a new Albanian pal, Sazan, and his elderly father who was leaving the country for the first time ever and stood fingering his worry beads in the tediously slow queue at passport control. Most of the other passengers were Albanian and their interrogation from Greek officials reminded me of my first trip to Israel. But I, with my British passport, was waved through without a question. After being so well looked after by the curious and resilient Albanians, I ended the trip feeling quite protective of its people and eager to return to Albania soon.