I urge my lazy chestnut horse up the mountain track to Hoshteva, southern Albania, 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.
“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.
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 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.
Do your friends often come to you for travel recommendations? TRVL is a peer-to-peer booking platform that enables you to tailor-make trips for your friends (and earn up to 10% per booking). TRVL is free, sign up today.