Wed, Aug 15, 2007 - Page 13 News List

Albania comes in from the cold as Europe's last tourism frontier

A holiday on the Albanian Riviera might sound like a Borat-style joke, but the area boasts beautiful empty coves, inexpensive beach huts and welcoming locals

By Benji Lanyado  /  THE GUARDIAN, ALBANIA

A man looks out on Ohri lake in Pogradec, Albania. The country has more to offer than the crowded beaches of Durresi.

PHOTO: EPA

It's the middle of summer, I'm on a beautiful beach in the Ionian, and I can't see a single person. In the distance I can just about trace the path of the occasional car swinging down the mountain road like a slow-motion marble run, but that's it. I can't help giggling. I don't know what's more surprising - that there is 80km of "undiscovered" coast in southern Europe, or that it's in Albania.

Europe's Mediterranean coast has been done. Spain, France, Italy, Croatia. Even Montenegro, the world's newest country, was heaving when I visited this summer; the Rolling Stones played there a few days after I left. Much of Turkey's coast has been packaged, and don't get me started on Greece. Sure, you can get away from the hordes, but how far?

To reach the Albanian Riviera, one of the most spectacular strips of land in Europe, the small price to pay is a bit of a sore bum. The bus that plies the single road down the coast leaves at 6am from a car park in Tirana littered with imported German coaches, some of which still bear the name of their original destination - one claims to be headed for Wilhelmstrasse. I board mine and fall into a semi-sleep that is regularly interrupted by heavy lurches and bumps. Barely touched since the Italian army built it in the 40s, the coastal road is pockmarked and cracked.

The state of the road is the main reason the Albanian Riviera - from Vlora to Saranda - has escaped large-scale tourist development. Even the Albanians tend not to bother with it, preferring resorts such as Durresi, easily reached from Tirana via a relatively bump-free motorway.

The Riviera begins at the peak of the 1,000m-high Llogara Pass, the road careering wildly down the slope. I jump off the bus in the tiny village of Dhermi, made up of about 100 terracotta-roofed houses scattered either side of the road, suspended halfway up the mountain range that continues south over the Greek border and beyond.

There is one hotel here, fronted by a boring-looking, low-rise mini-complex. The owner can tell I'm disappointed. He loads my backpack on to his truck, and drives me through dense olive groves and pine trees to the seafront, where I can see a collection of double-decker huts clad in pine. Much more like it. For US$40 a night, each hut has a double bed, a toilet and shower, and wardrobes. It isn't luxury, but it certainly isn't slumming it.

I count 14 people on the beach. Few foreign tourists come here, so it only fills up when the locals arrive at weekends. The coast stretches for a kilometer or so before curving out towards a shrubby headland. I feel blissfully alone. In the hotel's open-air restaurant, the waiter just about speaks Italian, which I just about understand, and I end up with a huge sea bass, Greek salad, and chips. I ask him where the fish came from, and he points to a man drinking by the bar. I retire to bed stuffed, where I can hear the waves brushing the shore, and a lone cricket up past its bedtime.

The next day I'm back on the bus for a 20-minute journey to the pebbly cove at Jaal, which again is virtually empty. I count 11 people. There are a few crumbling villas behind the beach, but accommodation options for visitors consist of a collection of beach huts at the base of the mountain. I meet a couple of German backpackers - the only non-Albanians I encounter - who plan to pitch their tent on the beach.

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