Hello Albania, which remained isolated under Europe’s last Stalinist dictator as the other Balkan states juggled for position in the 20th century. Emerging from decades of isolation only in 1992, the country now welcomes passing strangers as warmly as it did in the time of Lord Byron, the English poet who enjoyed its hospitality under an earlier, even more brutal dictator.
I urge my lazy chestnut horse up the mountain track to Hoshteva as the harsh noonday sun blasts off the white stone walls lining the final bends into the village. To my left is a handsome Orthodox church, straight ahead is a sign for a café bar. No prizes for guessing which I choose. In such a remote spot, I hardly dare hope for refrigeration as I tether my nag to the fence line under the trees. Miracle of miracles, I find it. Rarely has Korça beer tasted so good as when I glug a bottle beaded cold on a shady veranda.
On this occasion, I may have the advantage over Lord Byron and his Cambridge friend, John Cam Hobhouse, whose path on horseback in 1809 I am following across the mountains of southern Albania. In peace time, the odd couple would have made the traditional gap year Grand Tour through France and Italy but the Napoleonic Wars prompted a more ambitious adventure, starting in the brothels of Lisbon, then sailing across the Mediterranean to Greece.
From there, they rode north for 120km, starting near Ionannina on the Greek side and ending in Tepelene in a palace of the despotic Ali Pasha. “The Vizier was a short man and very fat, though not particularly corpulent,” noted Hobhouse in his diary. “He had a very pleasing face, fair and round, with blue quick eyes, not at all settled into a Turkish gravity. He was mightily civil; and said he considered us as his children.” Given his reputation for roasting his enemies alive, this was a good result, especially as he joked with his visitors while stylish youths served sweetmeats, coffee and pipes.
The last barely touched Mediterranean beaches in Europe
This agenda was no hardship for the bisexual Byron: at the age of 23, he welcomed the Levant’s potential for passions that were illegal back home. His journey inspired Childe Harolds Pilgrimage, the poem that created the Byronic hero, intemperate, self indulgent, irresistible, autobiographical. While he worked on his immortality, poor Hobhouse, described as “short, plain, furtive and unhygienic”, charted their progress in more pedestrian terms.
“A great deal depends on your choice of dragoman because he is your managing man,” he wrote. “He must procure your lodging, food, horses and all conveniences.” I have my own dragoman, a thoroughly Ottoman Mr Fixit, in Auron Tare, born into the upper echelons of Albanian society in the Ottoman town of Gjirokastër. Kela Qendro, his flame-haired assistant, is young, forceful and fluent in English. “Many of my friends have interesting jobs, but working with foreigners as a tour guide means I earn more than they do,” she says as we set out on the Byron circuit.
Albania’s independence was guaranteed by the 1913 Treaty of London but, although it is still in control of its destiny, it is much smaller than its citizens feel it should be. “We’re the only country in the world entirely surrounded by our own rightful territory,” Auron says as soon as we met up. Apart from Greece, those land grabbing neighbors are currently Montenegro, Kosovo and Macedonia, all gratefully freed from the yoke of the former Yugoslavia. With a population of just over three million, today’s Albania is 70 percent Muslim, the rest Orthodox Christian and Catholic. It has the last barely touched Mediterranean beaches in Europe and a disproportionate number of car washes. It is no accident that immigrant Albanians dominate that particular roadside trade in other parts of Europe.
Rama painted Tirana’s houses in bright colors
Although Albania established a fragile democracy following the death in 1985 of Enver Hoxha, Europe’s last Stalinist dictator, his brutal legacy of authoritarian politics and contempt for the rule of law has haunted successive governments. Many hope that Edi Rama, voted prime minister in 2013 after ten years as mayor of Tirana, will find a way to break the mold. His Socialist party replaced the long serving centre right Democrats in an election described by international observers as “vibrant”, “competitive” and characterized by “genuine respect for fundamental freedoms”.
A former basketball star, Rama’s first act as mayor was to sweep away Tirana’s numerous hawkers and tackle a long-standing problem of trash, clearing the city’s streets, parks and squares for its residents to enjoy. But, as a well-known muralist, perhaps his most radical change to the capital's image was painting its houses in bright colors, quite a shock after the drab years of Communism.
With a leader in his late 40s, rather than his late 60s, Kela’s generation dares to hope for such dramatic change at a national level, and a genuine attempt to curb corruption. “This is the first government that’s not linked to the Communists,” he says. “Their program appeals to a younger electorate. Of course we need improvements in health and education, but there’s a strong environmental element as well. The new coastal authority will establish the infrastructure to protect our heritage against uncontrolled development. Very good news in my business.”
Auron drives south from Gjirokastër at high speed to pick up the Byron trail into the mountains. Veering abruptly off road, he introduces Fuat and Gus, who are tending a row of sturdy horses tethered in a meadow. Briskly he unloads English style saddles – Hobhouse mentioned these, though he brought his own – from the Land Cruiser, places them on small hairy backs and allocates steeds. My companion, Dom Mocchi, an effervescent Italian horseman, is delighted with the Byronic Nelson, tiny, shiny and fiery. I ask if he is named for Mandela or the Admiral. Auron shrugs: either way, it is the perfect name for a black one-eyed horse. When I get the sluggish chestnut with no name, I realize I am condemned to the pedestrian Hobhouse role.
He is not the whirling dervish of popular imagination
My first port of call is the Bektashi monastery at Melan. The spiritual center, tucked away at the end of an avenue of cypress trees, is home to Myrteza, a dervish who embraced the celibate life in 2000 aged 15. He is not the whirling variety of popular imagination – they are to be found in Turkey – but a Sufi mystic devoted to contemplation of various kinds. Now a bearded adult dressed in silky white robes belted in green and gold, he lives with his mother in their outsize sanctuary overlooking the Drino River valley.
Ali Pasha favored the liberal interpretation of Islam proffered by the Sufi sect, but Hoxha was less benign, banning all religions and turning monasteries into the army posts he needed to prop up his regime. Myrteza’s studies do not include foreign languages but he welcomes us with smiles and Kela is an excellent translator. “The monastery was filthy and neglected when we returned,” says Myrteza as he lights a Kent cigarette from the stub of the old one. “We’ve got it in better shape now and the people are beginning to appreciate the traditional forms of worship.”
With evident satisfaction, he points out a metal tower at the end of the terrace, a stark silhouette in a magnificent unbroken stretch of mountains. In the modern era, the archaic dervish lifestyle, with its emphasis on self improvement and prayer in a formerly derelict building, is more viable when a mobile phone company picks up the tab. As we chat, his mother serves tea and rakia, not the aniseed- based Turkish drink, but a fruit schnapps resembling grappa. Other Muslims consider Bektashi Sufism heretical. It is easy to see why.
Back on Nelson in elated mood, Dom rides ever higher up the hillside, forging an arduous trail through rocks and shrubs rather than sticking to the path. As Italy’s links with Albania date back for centuries, he tunes in naturally to our hosts’ zest for life. The results are daringly unpredictable but never boring.
“I love it here,” he says. “Italy and Albania are less than 200km apart and I can understand the language so I can talk to everyone. All Albanians are my brothers.” Their responses suggest that they feel equally fraternal.
Albania has between 900 and 1,200 grey wolves
Albania has between 900 and 1,200 grey wolves, most of them resident in the mountains. With their natural food sources, wild boar, roe deer and wild goat, on the decline due to systematic hunting and loss of habitat, they look to domestic animals to fill the gap. As the light fades, shepherds guide their flocks back to safer quarters in Libohove, my overnight destination. The timeless snapshot of massed sheep moving erratically as the sun goes down is only slightly marred by packs of snarling mongrels bounding out to snap at No Name’s heels.
At the Ottoman palace – now an imposing ruin of clear military intent – where Byron visited Ali Pasha’s sister, I leave my trusty steed in a corral and walk down to the main village. A spreading 250-year-old oak shelters an expansive terrace outside the only hostelry. By the time Byron passed this way, it had been there for half a century. Did the poet sit and clink glasses with Hobhouse after a successful day in the saddle? If not, I make up for his lapse, toasting Dom’s conquest of the peaks before enjoying spicy sausage under the stars.
The well educated Byron liked a nice classical ruin and history insists he rode over my next day's destination, the ancient site of Antigonea. Not that he would have known it because excavations did not start until the 1960s. The diggings have revealed an acropolis and agora at the heart of a 90-hectare site, now identified as a major Greek trading city founded by King Pyrrhus of Epirus in 295 BCE and burned by the Romans a century later.
Today they are the focus of a well presented National Archaeological Park where Auron, as any good dragoman would, has acquired a prized pass for a sleepover on the floor of the visitor center. He has also been out foraging while I ride. Our Land Cruiser returns at dusk, laden with warm spit roast chickens, savory flaky pastries (burek), fresh bread, fruit and cold drinks. Let the feasting begin.
The climax of my trip is a three-day camping trip in the Bureto Mountains, starting in Erind and ending in the Këlcyrë Gorge. On the first morning, I urge No Name into a gallop through lush grass and wild flowers in the wide open valleys in the foothills. As I go higher, the blast of cooler air enhances the adrenaline rush. A newly completed tarmac road with no traffic snakes up the mountain beside us, ending abruptly in open space.
Elaborate Orthodox churches hint at a prosperous past
“It was built because it could be,” says Auron when I ask him about its purpose. Albania signed an agreement with the European Union in 2006 and applied for full membership in 2009. Although the EU has decreed that there will be no new members until 2024 and Albania is divided on entry for fear of losing its identity, its status as a “potential candidate country” guaranteed a €95 million allocation in 2013 alone.
In the afternoon, the pace slows to a walk as No Name tackles narrow mountain paths, grunting resentfully as his hooves slither for grip on shifting stones or slide perilously over rock. Unexpectedly, Albania comes second to Finland in Europe’s per capita hydro-electric tables and much of that power is generated in this often rainy and densely wooded area. The villages, built into the hillsides with walls and roofs hewn out of rock, are almost invisible until you ride into them. Often the first sign of habitation is a communal water trough fed by natural springs, a moment of intense relief for horses and riders. “Perfectly safe to drink,” says Auron briskly, brushing aside any potential whimpers about purification tablets with obvious contempt. Thankfully, he is proved right.
Elaborate Orthodox churches, often in poor repair but with icons lit by naked bulbs glowing in dark interiors, hint at a prosperous past, but there is no disguising the impoverished present or the bleak future. Summer is the time for subsistence activities, meticulously tended vegetables, a cow and a goat, a rabbit hutch, a rampant vine, but in snow-locked winter, there is absolutely nothing to do. The inevitable result is depopulation, with the younger generation heading south to earn a living and the older one toughing it out in homes they cannot bear – or afford – to leave.
As the sun goes down, an octogenarian, one of five year-round residents in a hamlet that has clearly seen much better days, welcomes Auron with smiles and hugs. As we sit on her shady terrace, she heats the coffee pot while her son, on holiday from his construction job in Athens, breaks out a bottle of rakia. “Many of the people I grew up with are in Greece,” he says. “Not that there’s much work down there, but we’re finished here.” Mournful thoughts, though he does not allow them to spoil a merry cocktail hour.
Cheese and yoghurt from mountain herds
Appropriately fuelled for my first night in the open, I follow Auron and Dom to the camp set up by Fuat and Gus in a pasture high above the Vlose valley. Now we are adrift from civilization, Auron is in dragoman mode full time. Pack horses transport tents, luggage and provisions, but he sources water from village troughs, enormous circular loaves from village ovens, cheese and yoghurt from mountain herds. Meatballs appear as if by magic, accompanied by tomatoes and cucumbers, a default Albanian meal that has a lot to recommend it.
Afterwards I fall asleep to the sound of horses chomping rich grass and tinkling bells worn by the leaders so they can be rounded up in the morning. No lie-in though: every dawn brings a vigorous goat invasion, the animals threatening to pull up the tent pegs as they search for the best grass. Within minutes they are followed by groups of curious villagers, exchanging views on these strange proceedings in a language that sounds like fighting talk even when it is not. Kela, master espresso maker, fires up her tiny kerosene stove and gets to work, producing endless cups of perfect Turkish coffee until I am good to get back in the saddle.
All too soon it is time to descend from the uplands and rejoin Byron in a landscape that reminded him of his childhood home near Aberdeen. Just as he did, we ride along the turbulent Vlose river, a startling turquoise green as it plunges through the Kelcyra Gorge. “Land of Albania, let me bend mine eyes on thee, thou rugged nurse of savage men,” he wrote in Childe Harold about the people that crystalized his innate revolutionary zeal. In Athens, his next destination, it would find an outlet in the struggle for Greek independence from Ottoman tyranny, a cause that dominated his life until he died of a fever in Missolonghi in 1824 aged 36.
As the heat intensifies still further, I bid farewell to No Name without regret and slump on a terrace bright with flowers. Grilled trout, freshly caught from the cooling waters, arrive with fries and tomatoes. As I cannot come up with anything as poetic as Byron, I settle for a Hobhouse toast to my magnificent ride through this rewardingly uncharted land.