I scramble up the steep, hilly path, pausing only to take in the panoramic views, before emerging at the summit of Leusë, a mountain village in Gjirokastër County, southern Albania. Here I find the formerly secret, orthodox St Mary’s Church with religious frescos dating to the 1800s. The only sounds are the crowing of a cockerel and the clatter of goats’ hooves on the mountainous terrain.
I think of the citizens who lived here under communist dictator Enver Hoxha’s atheist regime.
“Practising religion was strictly forbidden,” 49-year-old Arjan Dimo, a guide for Exodus Adventure Travels, the tour operator with which I’m travelling, tells me. “My mother used to light a candle in secret at Christmas and Easter, but it was dangerous – if she was discovered, she’d have faced two years in jail.” Dimo knows others who were jailed after sneaking into an abandoned, disused church to pray.
Albania was isolated from the outside world during Hoxha’s 40-year reign until his death in 1985.
The insular regime, followed by a civil war in 1997, blocked Albania from the tourism boom enjoyed by its neighbour, Greece.
In recent years, however, foreign visitors have flocked to the country, particularly the beaches of its Riviera. Albania recorded 5.1 million tourist arrivals in the first seven months of 2023 compared with 3.9 million in all of 2022. The Albanian Tourist Board expects to attract 10 million visitors by the end of this year. easyJet, Ryanair and Wizz Air have all recently launched flights from the UK to the capital, Tirana.
Aside from its beautiful beaches, Albania has mountains to rival Italy’s, archaeological treasures as impressive as in Greece, cave church art to match that in Turkey’s Cappadocia and Islamic architecture including a mosque that is reminiscent of Istanbul’s Blue Mosque. Then there is the hospitality.
At 54-year-old Landi Koci’s idyllic mountain village home in Dhoksat, in the region of Lunxhëri, I enjoy homemade food and wine. There’s Mediterranean salad, with a generous helping of beetroot, plus byrek – a traditional snack of crispy filo pastry stuffed with spinach and cheese.
Raki, Albania’s version of absinthe, is also laid out. The feast is accompanied by valley views. The murmur among my tour group is that, had this been in Provence, it would easily have become a five-star wine retreat.
Yet, according to our host, the village faces depopulation, as residents leave to seek opportunities elsewhere. Landi adds that, in 30 years, the village “could be abandoned – unless there is tourism”. However, with the up-and-coming city of Gjirokastër just 25 minutes’ drive away, a visitor boom is ever more likely.
Exodus Adventure Travel has reported a 45 per cent increase in bookings for 2024 in comparison to 2023 – its June “Highlights of Albania” departure has already sold out. Negative attitudes linked to the former regime, or other stereotypes about the country, are also beginning to fade.
Among my 16-strong tour group, whose ages range from mid-thirties to mid-seventies, is 72-year-old Andrew Hingston. “Albania’s a country that’s had negative connotations throughout my life, but I knew that there had been major changes over the past 20 years, which I wanted to see for myself,” he tells me.
Meanwhile, 68-year-old Anna Skyba has noticed construction sites, new hotels and road improvements. “You can tell it’s developing quickly,” she says.
We take in the country’s complex culture on a 10-day itinerary led by Dimo, who is an archaeologist. Among our stops is Butrint Archeological Park, in Vlorë County, southern Albania. Here, at the museum, Dimo points out items he excavated. The ancient, Unesco-listed Greek colony was once a places of pilgrimage, dedicated to Asclepius, the god of medicine.
A forest hike at Llogora National Park takes us to the point where Julius Caesar won a battle against Pompey, while there are ruins at nearby Apollonia, uncovering a Roman city that dates to the 3rd century BC. There is also well-preserved religious art: clues that the works come from Ottoman culture include an illustration of The Last Supper, with no knives or forks on the table, our guide explains.
In Berat, a city in central Albania, and Kruje, a town 12 miles north of the capital city, meanwhile, the call to prayer regularly rings out from mosques (up to 60 per cent of Albanians described themselves as Muslim in the country’s most recent census). Our hotel in Kruje has skyline views of the castle and minarets.
Tirana, where I began my visit to the country, has buildings in neon orange, green and yellow, some with geometric patterns. Colour was introduced by the current mayor as an antidote to Tirana’s grey, communist architectural legacy. However, a huge pyramid designed by Hoxha’s architect daughter still stands out.
Later, I wander around the artist village of Voskopoje, stopping at its churches. Treasures were stolen and destroyed here during the war on religion, but a museum of iconography has preserved artwork and altar decorations that were hidden in that period.
I find there is so much to discover beyond the white beaches of Albania’s Riviera.
My highlight is Benja, just over an hour’s drive from the southern city of Permet. While I bathe in hot springs that flow from tectonic cracks, with mountains and waterfalls all around, I consider my luck – experiencing this all before the masses arrive.
How to get there
Exodus’s 10-day Highlights of Albania tour starts from £1,579pp. Includes flights, transfers, accommodation, meals as specified, and excursions accompanied by a local guide.