On the wild side

Independent (European Travel), Wednesday February 12, 2003

The old shepherdess jumped up as soon as she saw me. Clad entirely in black, she had been resting with her mountain goats, eating wild berries. My arrival prompted a wide, toothless grin, which was rapidly replaced by incomprehensible wailing, and, soon enough, tears.

As the tears fell from her bright blue eyes, so too did she gesture ever more frantically. What had I done? It was a balmy mid-November day in the mountains in Lunxheria, southern Albania. I hadn't seen a soul all morning and all seemed well with the world. Suddenly a woman who spent her days with goats and a pair of mongrel dogs for company was shrieking at me.

'Nero! Nero!' she screamed, waving at the mountains. 'Nero!' she said again, grabbing my shirt. At last, from a misspent summer in Greece many years ago, I remembered that 'nero' was Greek for 'water.' And Lunxheria – close to the Greek border – has a number of Greek minority villages. So that was it, she wanted a drink.

I offered her my water bottle and she grabbed it with such alacrity that I wondered if I'd see it again. But instead of drinking from it, she took a battered water bottle of her own and started pouring its contents into mine. Then she thrust a loaf of bread at me, and next were half of her collection of berries. Much as I protested, she insisted that I take what she was offering, and for good measure handed me a stick that stank to high heaven of her goats and dogs. I thanked her as well as I could, and carried on up the mountain. The old woman sat down, smiled her wide, toothless grin, and waved me on my way.

Below I could make out the village of Dhoksat, one of a dwindling number in Lunxheria still populated, from where I'd begun my day's hike. A faint haze covered the lush valley floor beyond Dhoksat, and on the hills opposite lay Gjirokastra, a moody slate and stone town dating from Ottoman times, hatched into the hillside. The still air, and sense that everything had always looked like this in Lunxheria, was briefly disturbed as an eagle swept across the skies, about fifty feet away. Within seconds it was gone, up over the ridge to which I was making painful progress thanks to a few too many glasses of raki the night before.

But for all the pain, I had first-hand evidence that Albania deserved the name given to it by its people. Albanians call their country 'Shqiperi', meaning 'Land of the Eagles.' About half the size of Scotland, Albania is every bit as dramatic, with over two thirds of its land being mountainous, perfect for eagles and also home to wolves, whose existence many on the valley floor warned me about before I set off. Fortunately I didn't run into any, leaving me ample time to reflect on the stunning landscape of Lunxheria, which if not the best is certainly up there among Europe's finest walking terrain.

I had arrived in Albania via the daily ferry from Corfu. This docks at the resort town of Saranda, washed by the Ionian sea and near the ruins of Butrint, an ancient Graeco-Roman-Illyrian site. Since Albania abandoned communism – the last country in Europe to do so, in 1992 – Butrint has become ever more popular, particularly with British visitors and thanks largely to the Butrint Foundation, set up to preserve the site by Lords Sainsbury and Rothschild. Butrint is a magical place, home to turtles, mosaic floors and Byzantine remains, which nestles on a wooded peninsula. But I was visiting Albania for the mountains, and after an afternoon's stroll around Butrint I headed inland to Gjirokastra, birthplace of Ismail Kadore, Albania's foremost writer, and my base for exploring the crags and ridges of Lunxheria.

The mountains of Lunxheria form a range in south-east Albania, whose southern foothills sweep down to Greece. The range rises to around 2,000m and in the past fifty years has barely been visited by westerners, though both German and British forces occupied some of the villages during the Second World War and two of the region's more famous, and pioneering, aficionados were Lord Byron and Edward Lear.

Lunxheria was prosperous during Ottoman times, as can be seen from the grandeur of some of its houses and the many churches and monasteries built amidst the villages, which themselves are strung out in a line, linked by ancient footpaths, some 600m beneath the long, even ridge demarking the top of the Lunxheria mountain range. After the war, when Enver Hoxha's communist regime introduced collectivisation and the abolition of private property, many Lunxiote families were broken up, and the area has struggled to recover ever since. Now, in a country finding its way in the free market, the villages of Lunxheria suffer from the ongoing emigration of much of the younger population, moving mainly to Greece but also to Italy or simply north to Tirana, Albania's capital – anywhere to find work in a region where unemployment runs unofficially at 40%. Sadly, as a consequence, some villages – Mingul, Gjati, Selcka – are, in effect, dying.

Starting from Erind, a Muslim village about an hour's drive from Gjirokastra, I walked along the footpaths, regularly losing my way, until I arrived in Dhoksat, a ramshackle, still inhabited village, almost due east of Gjirokastra. En route I discovered, entirely by accident, the monastery of Shen Sotiri, near the virtually deserted village of Mingul.

A hangover from the enforced atheism of the Hoxha regime, Albania remains constitutionally atheist, but throughout the communist era Lunxheria retained its age-old spiritual sense, and today a hotch-potch of religions co-exist in the region without any obvious disharmony. Inside the Shen Sotiri monastery, beneath a well-preserved fresco of the Virgin Mary, there were old clothes and candle wax bundled together, an imprecation from the sick. Not a soul was near as I entered the dusty, decrepit former cultural monument, which stands alone in lush pasture on a small ridge, near a grove of fruit trees. Nor had anyone disturbed the total silence by the time I chose to leave, an hour or so later.

From Dhoksat, I made sorties further along the line of villages. It is possible to head south-east and walk all the way along to Stegopulli, known for its views as the 'balcony of Lunxheria', and to the stone village of Selcka, set in a gorge. On the way there are a number of villages, some largely inhabited, others with only old people left, all threaded together by cobbled streets and yielding monasteries, churches and grand old stone houses amidst others with nothing but crumbling corrugated iron for a roof. Above is the endless ridge of the Lunxheria mountain range, on which the sun sets each night, leaving a faint red luminescence on the crags even as night falls.

There was no doubt that I made for a strange sight to many Lunxiotes, whose villages are barely visited in the summer let alone mid-November. I knew as much Albanian as they did English, but the area is safe and its people hospitable. And if Lunxheria's mountains, gorges and valleys could look so beautiful in November sunshine, denuded of flowers and trees in bloom, how much more enchanting would they be in spring and summer?

The night before I met the old shepherdess, I was treated to far too many glasses of the local firewater, raki. Chastised for drinking too slowly, I'd downed more than my fair share, and was paying dearly for it in the morning sun as I climbed the steep mountain-side from Dhoksat.

The old woman didn't know a word of English, but she knew a man who needed water. Having lived and walked the hills all her life, she also knew that wandering into the mountains without enough water was madness. No matter that I had water, food, trendy western mountain clothing, all the gear - like most people in Albania, if the shepherdess could help, she would.

The berries tasted good, I made it to the top of the ridge and never saw the old woman again. But by the time I got back to Dhoksat I'd drunk every drop of water I'd been carrying, and was dying for more. I swore never to drink raki again, and paid tribute to the centuries-old tradition of hospitality to foreigners in Albania, alive and well in the hills of Lunxheria.

Getting There

Alex Wade flew via British Airways to Athens (daily flights), then to Corfu with Aegean Airlines (again, daily flights). The price of a return ticket in November was £274, booked via www.opodo.co.uk. There are a number of hotels for an overnight stay in Corfu; AW stayed at the Hotel Cavalieri (00 30 2 6610 390 41) on the edge of the old town, for US$60. The ferry to Saranda leaves Corfu daily at 9.00 a.m. and a visa for US$10.00 can be obtained on board (first hand passport to port authorities). It is best to check departure times of the ferry the night before – the hotel can assist. The ferry crossing takes about 30 minutes.

Alternatively entry to Albania can be made via flights to the capital, Tirana. There are no direct flights but a number of operators (e.g. Air Italia, Austrian Airlines) run daily flights with a transfer at e.g. Vienna. For a visit to Lunxheria, arguably the ferry from Corfu option is best given the appalling state of the roads in Albania. To drive from Tirana to Lunxheria would take about seven tortuous hours.

Where To Stay

There are a number of quality hotels in Saranda, including the 5 star Hotel Butrinti (00 355 692223111) and the 4 star Hotel Dea (00 355 945078345). From Saranda it is around 30 minutes by taxi to the ruins of Butrint. In Gjirokastra, there are hotels in the centre of the town but the Hotel Kalemi (00 355 8463724) – with original hand-carved wood ceilings, spotless dιcor and superb views of the Lunxheria mountains – is highly recommended. Rooms start at around US$30 a night.

Getting Around

The roads in Albania are notoriously bad and public transport in the south is poorly developed. A taxi driver can be engaged in Saranda for the journey to Butrint or Gjirokastra. A local tourism consultant, Gjorni Marko (00 355 692100438) will assist. Guides can be found among the villages in Lunxheria.

Currency

Take US dollars and Euros. The Albanian Lek cannot be obtained outside Albania. 1.00 Euro = 141 Lek, and US$1.00 = 140 Lek.

Tour Operators

See www.albaniantourism.com for general information.

The ALBTURIST Travel Agency, Blvd. Deshmoret e Kombit, Hotel Dajti, Tirana (00 355 4251849) runs a number of outdoors tours in Albania.

In the UK, see www.realityandbeyond.co.uk, run by Lucy Abel Smith (01285 750888) for bespoke tours to Butrint and Gjirokastra.