‘It’s like stepping back in time’: an eco-tour across the wilds of Albania

<span>Divjakë-Karavasta national park, two hours’ drive south of Tirana, is a lagoon ecosystem rich in biodiversity.</span><span>Photograph: Dmitriy Gura/Alamy</span>
Divjakë-Karavasta national park, two hours’ drive south of Tirana, is a lagoon ecosystem rich in biodiversity.Photograph: Dmitriy Gura/Alamy

In the hills above Tragjas village in Vlorë, south-west Albania, I’m running after a farmer called Sofo, with a glass of raki in one hand and a triangle of pan-fresh petulla in the other. Dusk is leaching daylight from the sky, we’re late and the goats need to be milked.

Sofo and his wife Dhurata are hosting us for dinner at their rustic “restaurant”. We walk to the farm from the road through knotty grass, gorse and rampant sage – and are greeted with lashings of raki. Dhurata hands me a wedge of petulla filled with homemade goat’s cheese (a traditional dish of fried dough, it’s made when a baby is born – and a new niece is being celebrated) and I hurry off behind Sofo. Before we sit down to platters of grilled vegetables, meatballs and zgara (grilled meats), there’s milking to be done.

“This is what happens in Albania,” says our guide, Elton Caushi. “People want to give you things all the time and it slows you down.”

It’s true. Everywhere we go, doors open and conversation and the offer of refreshment follow. Travelling around I meet hikers, campervanners, a group of students from the University of Bristol exploring by car, and a semi-retired British couple who are cycling the country from top-to-toe. All of them have nothing but praise for Albanian hospitality.

I’m here with tour operator Intrepid, to sample part of their nine-day trip, run in partnership with Meet (the Mediterranean Experience of EcoTourism). Meet encourages residents in protected and vulnerable areas to develop authentic experiences that benefit conservation projects and local communities. Accommodation is in guesthouses, small hotels and agriturismos, and experiences are locally led.

In recent years Albania has begun luring sunseekers to seaside resorts including Sarandë, Himarë and Vlorë. But it’s a country of impressive natural beauty and ecological importance, as our visit soon reveals.

The full itinerary takes in the teal waters of Lake Koman and tranquil, beach-fringed Shala River in the north of the country for sublime dips. There’s also an optional hike to Mollë in the foothills of the Albanian Alps, as well as time in the capital Tirana and the beach resort of Vlorë.

Besides measuring and monitoring the visitor footprint, Meet’s involvement with the tour has increased engagement with local people and dispersed spend into local communities. Where we stay, our activities, what we eat and how we get around (by electric vehicle and on foot, bicycle and boat) has been forensically assessed.

Our trip includes a stop at Berat’s hilltop castle complex, which has roots going back to antiquity; it’s as lovely as any I’ve seen, with most of the buildings dating from the 13th century. The historic centre and two Berat codices discovered in the crypt of the renowned Onufri Museum are protected by Unesco. The city’s oldest church, Holy Trinity, has panoramic views over the Drinos river valley and furrow-footed Shpirag massif.

While Lake Shkodër (also Skadar and Shkodra), which is shared with Montenegro, is one of Europe’s largest bird reserves, we visit a lesser-known but equally important reserve at Divjakë-Karavasta national park, two hours’ drive south of Tirana. Rich in biodiversity, the park has identified about 25 species of mammals, 29 species of reptiles (including sea turtles), 29 of amphibians and 230 species of bird. Its bird rehabilitation centre, the only one in Albania, has treated pelicans, eagles, owls, buzzards and storks.

Karavasta’s lagoon ecosystem, within the park, is home to the under-threat Dalmatian pelican – one of the world’s largest freshwater birds – and a haven for migratory species. We spend a couple of days exploring its estuaries and paths by boat and bicycle, overnighting at the small three-star Hotel Pelikan hotel, on the edge of the park.

Our first view of the wetlands and birds is from the top of a wooden viewing tower over a picnic lunch. On the way there, Elton calls in at a village house for a wheel of lakror (a popular Albanian pie) and a jug of frothy salty yoghurt, or dhallë.

At the tower’s base provisions are distributed. “It’s an unorthodox venue,” says Elton, “But the scenery is great.” I follow him up, dhallë in one hand, cutlery in the other. Elton unrolls a rug and we sit in the sunshine eating flaky pastry stuffed with onion and tomato, washed down with tart milk. Afterwards a flamboyance of greater flamingos takes to the sky.

At the rehabilitation centre the ranger on duty, Ervin Allushi, tells us that the first group of British bird enthusiasts visited in 2016. “We have pygmy cormorants, little egrets and 255 pairs of golden jackal. One group came just to see those,” he says.

The number of Dalmatian pelicans has risen from 27 nests in 2014 to 85 in 2020, but news that a new airport is due to open late next year at Vlorë, 45 miles south of Divjakë-Karavasta and within the protected landscape surrounding a lagoon, has startled conservation organisations. Intrepid Travel’s Ance Švajnzger says: “Not only does the airport pose a potential risk to the wildlife, it also won’t have a positive impact on rural Albania unless travellers eat, stay and shop with locally owned businesses.”

We take a small boat along a brackish river delta to spot the birdlife, pausing to look through binoculars at the sandy island where pelicans nest.

The next morning we cycle on a boardwalk through a pine forest to Babunjë village, where Eva and Adriatik welcome us into their home. Adriatik, a woodworker and stonemason, shows us his workshop, and we drink Turkish coffee as we watch how he chisels stone.

Lunch is chicken pilaf, stuffed aubergine and duck in yoghurt soup. It’s certainly freshly prepared: “I killed the chicken and duck yesterday,” says Adriatik. “The wine is from my neighbour. My other neighbour is on holiday. Next time I’ll serve you his wine – it’s better.” We leave with armfuls of fresh pomegranates.

Our immersion in nature, particularly in the national park, has been a highlight; our insights into rural simplicity an unexpected bonus. At Sofo and Dhurata’s farm, where cheese is matured in a goat skin, pots cook over coal and teepees of flame and neighbouring farmers play the flute, I feel like I’ve stepped back in time.

Back in the UK, when I speak to Arnau Teixidor from Meet, he tells me he’s excited about the organisation’s partnerships in Albania – not just because of the work to protect Karavasta lagoon: “It has this uniqueness and a character that’s hard to find in Europe now – traditional ways of doing things and artisans that provide an understanding of the place.”

After five days in the country, I knew exactly what he meant.

The trip was provided by Intrepid Travel; its nine-day Albania Expedition starts at £1,280pp, including accommodation, some meals, activities and local transport