Treacherous bends and ghost hotels: what I discovered on a road trip through Albania

·6-min read
Albania road trip Lada 4x4, driving holidays, Albania tours
Albania road trip Lada 4x4, driving holidays, Albania tours

The Lada 4x4 lurched and jostled over the rocks on the rutted track as the sun was setting, bathing the valley to our left in a gloriously warm glow. Our goal was on the other side of a deep ravine: the village of Fshat, which, in Albanian, means… well, village. Albania might not be your first thought when it comes to a fly-drive – but after the last two years, what exactly is the norm? Forget Orlando and Andalucia; getting off the well-trodden path is the new black. And you don’t get much more remote than a week driving in Albania, from the capital Tirana, through the mountains of Diber, up along the border with North Macedonia and Kosovo, before swooping back to the coast to relax all by yourself on off-season beaches.

Tirana, Albania - Luis Dafos/Moment RF, Getty images
Tirana, Albania - Luis Dafos/Moment RF, Getty images

On the remote road

And as I discovered after a week in the country, there are three standouts: the hospitality, the scenery, and the food. All this was possible thanks to Englishman Ed Reeves who arrived here seven years ago and stayed. He now runs driving tours in Russian Ladas and UAZs (like a Soviet-era VW Camper) with his business partner Ardi Zhugjeli – both of them powered by multiple espressos and 60 hand-rolled cigarettes a day – and the office dog Bubi, the most laid-back hound in the Balkans, who often goes along for the ride.

After leaving Tirana airport and the increasingly expanding suburbs, our first port of call was the village of Shengjergj and its small hotel, Villa Disha. Altitude and six glasses of raki meant I slept like a baby. But not before dinner, for which the owner’s mother had gone outside to pick a live chicken for the pot, which we ate around a roaring fire in the middle of the restaurant.

The next morning, daylight revealed high hills dotted with haystacks and corn fields. After pausing to review the villa’s bookshelves that groaned with the collective works of former communist leader Enver Hoxha, we ate a breakfast of small, flat doughnuts called petulla, with cherry jam, fried eggs, and salty cheese. Delicious.

So far, the roads had been similar to those in some of the more remote parts of Britain, but things took a more Balkan turn as we rose higher into the mountains away from the village. We dodged boulders around blind bends, engaging the 4x4 and cruising at an elegant 20km per hour so as not to smash any parts on the underside of the Lada. We passed simple houses with tin roofs made from the pallets dropped by Special Operations Executive forces during the Second World War.

Albania road trip - Will Hide
Albania road trip - Will Hide

When it came to my turn to drive, I felt Ed’s eyes burning into the back of my neck as Ardi’s imaginary brake kept pumping and his knuckles turned white gripping the door. Only Bubi seemed unconcerned as we swayed left and right avoiding ruts and rocks. I tried again that afternoon before we reached an unspoken agreement that maybe I was better as a passenger.

We stopped mid-afternoon for lunch with the Mayor of Xiber, a man with a moustache dyed orange by nicotine, who rocked a natty suit-and-trilby hat combo. A lack of front teeth seemed ideally suited to inhaling cigarettes, coffee and raki, one of which was always in his mouth. He was excited because a new highway was about to bring Tirana much closer: from the current bone-rattling four hours to around 30 minutes. Free-spending weekenders from the capital will head this way, while local potatoes, tomatoes, apples, pears and walnuts will head in the other direction. “There’s no growth without infrastructure,” he told us, sagely, lighting another cigarette.

The Mayor of Xiber, Albania
The Mayor of Xiber, Albania

That evening we were in Fushe-Bulqize, an idyllic-looking village surrounded by hilly pastures and rust-coloured trees that put the autumn shades of New England to shame. We stayed in a 200-year-old tower converted for tourists by its owner Luli Hupi. His wife had prepared a lavish banquet that could have fed four times our number: beans with air-dried meat, slices of plump, flaky burek, salad, deliciously-runny cheese with melted butter, and fat chips. Only when I was completely stuffed did I realise these were just the starters.

Heading east, then onto the Adriatic coast

The next morning Luli proudly showed me round his domain, past fields of quince and walnuts, by the village mosque and along forested hills to a small waterfall. Almost as an aside he told me that his dog had recently been killed by a bear nearby. (There are wolves in the hills as well.) He too was excited by the new road and envisaged summer visitors using his babbling stream as a mini lido, and there had been an oversized screen in his field showing al fresco Netflix shows in the evenings.

We headed east, back on asphalt roads, skirting North Macedonia in the near distance: I was told its citizens rarely cross the border, put off by blood-thirsty Albanian stereotypes, which gave me a wry smile as I thought about the deluge of friendliness I’d experienced so far. And on into the picturesque Drin Valley, which in a few years will be swallowed up by a huge new dam. On the way we paused at a remote café, where four men consuming the usual buffet of cigarettes and raki refused to let us pay for our drinks when they found out two of us were English. Yes, they were happy with the dam, they told us. It was progress and some people who would be affected looked forward to a new apartment in Tirana.

Looping north around snow-capped Mt Korab, we had spent the night in Fshat, where the guesthouse owner’s son, visiting from Wembley, played clarinet for us after dinner. The following day we paused in Kukes and examined the ghoulish remains of a now-trashed communist-era hotel, whose architect went to prison because of his decadent choice of Yugoslav chandeliers.

A beach in Albania - Irlind Pllumbi / EyeEm/Getty images / EyeEm
A beach in Albania - Irlind Pllumbi / EyeEm/Getty images / EyeEm

After a night in a delightful agro-tourist hotel, Mrizi i Zanave, we collapsed for a day on the beach at Cape Rodoni, where the sun loungers were about to be put away after summer had lapsed into autumn. Ed and Ardi lit cigarettes, I slept, and Bubi defended the sand from cats and seagulls before too settling down for a snooze. Apart from the sound of lapping waves, everything was perfectly tranquil in our little corner of the Adriatic, far from the madding crowd. Far, in fact, from anybody at all.

How to get there

Will Hide travelled as a guest of Drive Albania (drivealbania.tours) which can tailor-make trips. For example, a four-night Villages of Diber itinerary, similar to the one described, costs from £550pp (based on four travelling). The price includes accommodation, most meals, Lada rental and a guided hike of Mt Korabi, but not flights. British Airways (ba.com), easyJet (easyjet.com) and Wizzair (wizzair.com) fly to Tirana.

Covid rules: As of the 1st May 2022, there are no entry requirements, the borders are fully open to everyone.

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