Was it a wolf? As our car swung round yet another tight bend deep in the Albanian countryside, a gangly, shaggy creature watched from the edge. No doubt it was, as we had just left a nature reserve where a panel on local fauna portrayed an identical Canis lupus. Nor was it to be the only unexpected experience in the land of Zog (Albania’s only king, in the 1920s and 30s) which, under the repressive dictator Enver Hoxha, was hermetically sealed apart from the rest of Europe until the 1990s.
We had decided to start our journey in Corfu, to avoid the chaos and expense of the capital, Tirana. From across the strait, the mountainous silhouette of Albania came and went tantalisingly in a halo of cloud, so when the hydrofoil finally chugged into the port of Saranda, it was a shock to find a jungle of haphazard high-rises hugging the shore. This kick-off to the “Albanian Riviera” was not for us, however, as my partner and I had plotted our road trip deep into the rugged interior of the south, in search of Byzantine jewels, quaint Ottoman-era guesthouses, mosques, castles and restaurants dishing up delectable local produce.
“Albania only has one road – it goes all the way to Kosovo. You can’t get lost!” beamed our car-rental man at the port. Not exactly the case, in fact a map is essential. In this curious time-capsule where private cars have only been around for 25 years, double-parking, erratic driving and unclear road signs became part of the rich experience. Sturdy Mercedes and shiny SUVs were the norm, but when we swerved past an old man on a bike or a donkey, it was all about changing centuries.
Idiosyncrasies piled up, not least the Albanian habit of shaking one’s head to mean yes, and nodding for no. The language itself is unlike any other, though sprinkled with Italian imports. Some things worked in reverse: a copious breakfast started with cake and segued into feta, tomato and sculpted sausage before ending with eggs and, at last, coffee – with fruit on the side.