"ARE you from Cork? I recognised your accent. I used to live in Wilton. My wife is Irish.”
Living up to the ultimate cliché of the Irish abroad in the vertiginous UNESCO world heritage city of Gjirokastër, 70km inland from the Albanian Riviera, as dusk falls on the cobbled streets, is a satisfying feeling.
Stopping for a chat, chairs are gathered around and our near-neighbour joins us for a coffee.
Albania is a majority Muslim country, and although there are bars and clubs of dubious appeal in the resort towns, it’s the betting shops, or “sports bars,” as they are known, that are the haunt of locals in the cool of the evening.
The men may have a tiny shot of eye-watering Rakia with their coffee, and smoke many cigarettes, but from Shroder in the North to Ksamil, close to the Greek border, not a single display of public drunkenness can be seen.
“Why?” we ask our new-found friend and cultural guide.
“It would not be done,” he shakes his head.
“The Albanians are very family-spirited. It would be too much shame, even for a young man. His father would not permit it.”
Albania’s coastline, stretching along the Adriatic and Ionian seas, has grown in popularity as a budget sun holiday destination for Italian families in the last decade.
With rugged mountains and ancient olive groves stretching down to the sea, it’s every bit as beautiful as the Greek landscape.
The sun is hot, the sea is warm and welcoming and the prices are low.
Dogged by decades of isolationism under dictator Enver Hoxha’s paranoiac communist regime that saw 700,000 concrete bunkers, which still dot the landscape today, built at enormous cost, Albania’s poverty gives it a bad reputation.
The drawbacks — poor infrastructure and terrible litter problems — are still evident today, but the advantage is a unique, culturally distinctive travel experience.
If you have exacting standards when it comes to service and accommodation, Albania isn’t for you.
But if sun, incredible fresh produce, friendly down-to-earth people, abundant and carelessly curated historic landmarks and a slightly haphazard approach to things are right up your street, then the Balkan state whose government was toppled by a pyramid scheme in the 1990s should be on your to-do list.
In rural areas, tourists are welcomed as a curiosity, while on the beaches and in the resort towns of the Albanian Riviera, which stretches from a dizzying serpentine on Mount Çika at the edge of Llogara National Park to Ksamil in the far south, tourists are welcome for the business they bring.
It’s not quite the unspoilt backpacker’s paradise it was a decade ago.
Seafront developments are popping up at an alarming rate and finding a spot without the obligatory beach umbrella charge and pounding disco music can be tough, so the answer to finding some of the remaining idyllic spots is to have your own transport.
“We were isolated for so long that now we really want to welcome people,” Romeo the real estate agent sits on the railing outside his office in the bustle of downtown Sarandë, the biggest resort town on the Riviera and the arrival point for ferries from Corfu.
He’s selling apartments to English, Scandinavians and Italians, he says, and at €35,000 for a seafront holiday apartment it’s not hard to see why.
If days lazing under a sun umbrella at a beach bar and nights clubbing to dodgy dance anthems are for you, then Sarandë is one of your best ports of call.
It caters well to tourists, with a wealth of options for eating out, a crowded seafront, ice-cream shops and tourist information points.
A visit to the covered market close to the port, where looped strings of dried figs vie with bunches of lavender and fat, sun-warmed grapes, is definitely in order.
Albania’s chequered history of occupation is nowhere more evident than in the cuisine; Ottoman influences are in the ubiquitous Byrek shops, serving savoury and sweet pies stuffed with a variety of different fillings, and Greek salads join Italian pasta and pizza dishes on the menus of most restaurants in tourist-friendly towns.
With Sarandë, or possibly smaller but no less tourist-friendly Himara as a base, the beaches and innumerable sites of interest in the region are all within reach.
Gjipe beach is idyllic and remote; accessible via a long drive down a narrow, winding mountain road through fragrant olive groves after the town of Dhermi on the main road, a steep trek of 2km brings you down the side of a steep mountain gorge and into a picture-postcard bay, complete with a shack bar populated with a friendly bunch made up of young locals and tourists persistent enough to make the trek.
How to get there
Fly Dublin to Corfu, via Athens, and get the ferry to Sarandë, where you can rent a car from one of the many portside rental companies.
Alternatively, fly to Tirana, the capital city, rent a car and drive 280km south: the advantage is that car rental is cheaper in Tirana and you enter the Vlorë region through Llogara National Park, with stunning views of the Ionian Sea.
However, the road infrastructure is poor and you can expect to meet horn-honking traffic jams in the larger towns along the way. Public transport is not recommended.
B&B accommodation is plentiful and ranges between 4,200 and 6,700 Lek, the equivalent of €30-€50 per night, for a double room. Hotel accommodation is more expensive but doesn’t deliver an accompanying rise in standards.
AirBnB is cheaper, and comes with the added advantage of meeting local hosts, who are exceptionally friendly, proud, and are mines of local information.
In Dhermi, a bumpy drive down a dirt track past the busiest beach bars and numerous hotels is rewarded with a little patch of paradise; the basic but adequate Vila Vasil Strakosha B&B is the last accommodation on the beach road.
Beyond, the din of beachgoers fades and a secluded beach of polished white marble pebbles is accessible only by a rocky scramble or a short swim. It’s even more difficult to leave: you’ll want to stay forever.
What to see
The spring known as The Blue Eye, the source of the Bistricë river, is located 20km from Sarandë.
A steady 10 degrees all year round, if you arrive early in the morning before the tour buses, the brave may be tempted to a chilly dip in the pristine azure waters, which are unfathomably deep; divers have delved as deep as 50m into the karst cavern beneath the blue eye, but its true depth remains a mystery.
Gjirokastër’s stone roofs and breath-taking castle, a relic of the rule of Ali Pasha of Tepelenë, the Muslim Albanian ruler of the region in the late 18th century, are an absolute must-see.
For a charge of 200 Lek, around €1.50, you can tour the eerie subterranean maze under the city, dug for the upper echelons of the communist party bureaucratic class to retreat to in the advent of nuclear war.
Gjirokastër warrants more than one day’s stay, and Hotel Kalemi, centrally located in two of the ancient UNESCO protected houses of the old town, is a charming and highly recommended stopover.
Porto Palermo is another destination with strong ties to Ali Pasha, where a scenic fortified castle lords it over a tiny island within sight of communist-era sea tunnels that used to house Enver Hoxha’s twin submarines; Lord of the Rings meets James Bond.
Finikas Lines run day tours by sea to Porto Palermo and nearby Krorez beach, as well as tours to the Roman ruins of Butrint, another must-see destination.
Mare Nostrum, next to Sarandë’s promenade, has developed quite a reputation for its Mediterranean-inspired fusion cuisine.
Avoid the ubiquitous Spaghetti Frutti di Mare, which in lesser restaurants is at least a safe and cheap bet, and splash out on dishes like whole baked sea bass or lamb-stuffed baked melon.
Mare Nostrum is one of Sarandë’s more expensive options, but a meal for two, with wine, still comes in at an average of around 4,200 Lek, or €30.
On the main road between the towns of Borsh and Lukovë, the Ujvara Veranda café is famed for its setting; it’s built over a huge natural spring.
The main building sits on piles over the rushing water and behind, tables are dotted between rivulets, mini waterfalls and tiny footbridges on the hillside where the water rises. On a hot day, it is bliss to sit and enjoy a drink amidst the cool bubbling waters, but make it a coffee pit-stop: the food is dull at best.