Albania’s story: sun, sea and antiquity

| April 12, 2012 | 0 Comments

By Elida Petoshati
Ambassador of Albania

The sights in the Valbona River Valley’s national park, on the eastern side of the Albanian Alps, are breathtaking.

The sights in the Valbona River Valley’s national park, on the eastern side of the Albanian Alps, are breathtaking.

As a diplomat, I have had the privilege of travelling the world, getting to know places, cultures and civilizations that have enriched my life. Albania remains my first love. Wherever I go, I always return as if for the first time, eager discover it again and again.
The country is simply beautiful. In only 28,000 square kilometres, running from north to south, you can experience not only Albania’s varied landscape, but also its rich cultural heritage and historic treasures.
If you are looking for an active holiday, you will find plenty of places to discover: mountain treks, deep valleys, national parks, lakes, archaeological sites, museum cities, castles, a marvellous coastline and much more. Located in a very important area of the Balkan Peninsula, facing “ancient Rome” and en route to Byzantium, Albania’s treasures — and the remains of the region’s great civilizations — are still visible today. Hellenes, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, Venetians and modern Italians have all left their mark. The castle towns of Berat, Gjirokastra and Butrinti Park are among UNESCO’s World Heritage sites.
The scenery of the country is fascinating and complex. The sun rises from behind the majestic Alps, and sets on the calm waters of Adriatic and Ionian seas. This sunlight paradigm becomes a symbol of the travel through Albania. With more than 250 bright days a year, the country could truly be called a gateway of sun.
I invite the reader to follow the sun’s path from behind the Alps. I got to know this northern-most area relatively late but I can assure you that the pristine beauty of these places is unique. My favourite itinerary is the Valbona River Valley. The sights of this national park of 8,000 hectares, located on the eastern side of the Albanian Alps, are breathtaking and inspiring. Before entering the Valley you will find the spring waters of Shoshan rushing through limestone fissures on the way to meet the Valbona River.

A view of a church in the mountain at Berat

A view of a church in the mountain at Berat

Then you come to a chain of picturesque villages namely: Dragobia, Selimaj, Rrogam with their traditional alpine-style houses where you may have the opportunity to enjoy a hospitable breather (or stay, for the inhabitants’ generosity and hospitality are well known). You could relish the characteristic regional cuisine with specialties such as mazja (a delectable custard), flija (a many-layered pancake dish cooked outdoors over open coals, steamed and often served with local honey) and pitja (a thick cheese pie).
A nature lover myself, I have enjoyed, during my leisure excursions there, the pristine plants and trees, the resplendent rare colours reflected on the crystal-clear waters of the Valbona. On the other side of the Alps, you’ll find rugged and verdant mountain slopes. Known for heavy snowfall, which starts in early November and lasts almost until May, the Valley and the park offer many outdoor activities, such as skiing, mountain-climbing, fishing, trekking and canoeing along parts of the river.
The Albanian coastline remains the real kingdom of the sun — a gorgeous 450-kilometre coastline rich in sand or fine gravel beaches, capes, coves, covered bays, lagoons and sea caves. Along the coast you come across towns rich in traditions and history. Shkodra boasts a Rozafa citadel, deeply rooted in old Illyria. Lezha is known for its history and rich ecosystem. Durrës, Albania’s main seaport, has its own reputation as one of the oldest Adriatic towns, established as an Illyrian settlement 3,000 years ago.
Further down, in the South, you come to Vlora, a seaport and tourist site. This is my favourite destination, not because I was born there and spent my childhood there, but because I have spent nearly all my vacations there. It has become a spiritual oasis and a favourite retreat.
Vlora is one of the largest and most populous parts of Albania and home to the second-largest port. It is rich in history and antiquity and serves as the largest gateway to the marvellous Albanian Riviera.

An icon of Saint Mary, at the Onufri  National Museum in Berat

An icon of Saint Mary, at the Onufri National Museum in Berat

Situated alongside the Adriatic shores and deep blue Ionian waters, the Gulf of Vlora represents one of the most beautiful places to explore. The Narta lagoon is rich with hundreds of species of waterfowl and is a fine fishing area. The village of Narta stands south of the lagoon, on the water’s edge, and is surrounded by low hills covered with vineyards that produce one of the best homemade wines in Albania. My absolute favourite place is the nearby island of Zvërnec, which hosts the Byzantine-style Church and the Monastery of Saint Mary.
Continuing the journey south, you will see the scenic view of this part of Vlora Gulf. After going through a tunnel in the place known as Uji i Ftohtë (Cold Springs), named after a nearby mountain stream that flows into the sea, you will reach the tourist area of Jonufër, with its chain of tiny rocky beaches famous for crystal-clear waters. Beyond Jonufër lies Rradhima, with its countless beaches, displaying vividly contrasting colours between the deep blue of the sea and the green lush hills, all covered in Mediterranean olive groves and citrus plantations. The walk along the coast, with the breeze blowing through the olives, carrying rich perfumes, and the scent of the sea offers a time for retreat and meditation.
A few kilometres further south, the road takes you to the small antique town of Orikum, one of the most important settlements of the ancient Mediterranean world. In the ancient history, it was the main port of the Amantian tribe. This ancient town was a major stage during the civil wars of Rome and battles between Caesar and Pompeii. During the Middle Ages, it adopted the name Jericho because of the Jewish community living in it and the Vlora area. For me, Orikum carries the most spiritual experience of the region of Vlora Bay.
As a child, I loved this fairytale landscape’s white limestone and ruins of the ancient shrines, the sumptuous vegetation surrounding the antique Orikum amphitheatre and the wildlife. I still remember the amazing decoration on the carapaces of the tortoises. Our family would end up at the Byzantine church of Marmiroi for a spiritual rest and cosy pilgrimage.
Orikum connects with the majestic Karaburun Peninsula, where the Adriatic Sea meets the Ionian Sea with its gorgeous views, competing with the best vistas of what the Mediterranean has to offer. Laurel bushes and cacti adorn the mountainside beaches — often small sandy shores beside ultramarine waters.

The Zvernec Monastery

The Zvernec Monastery

A main attraction along these shores is the marine cave of Haxhi Alia (a 17th-Century sailor from Ulqin) located on the northern part of the Karaburuni Peninsula, a genuine natural monument. There, one can find purple sea corals similar only to those of Corsica. Scuba diving here would be fantastic. In fact, all of Vlora Bay is perfect for diving. There are sunken ships, including the Italian ship that sank in 1941 during the Italian-Greek war. You can also dive into the waters of Zhiron to observe the green and black algae.
A vacation in the Vlora area would be incomplete if we do not add the local tastes and flavours. The food is unique. Along with the olive groves and citrus plantations, one finds excellent restaurants offering locally grown meats, fish and vegetables. The smell of cooked lamb lures the tourist into richer menus of olives, feta cheese, wild cabbage pies (cooked in special slow-coal fires). A range of picturesque villages amidst of the orange trees (such as Radhima, Tragjas and Dukat) offer beautiful dining places by the sea. The wine is locally made.
The Florida-like weather is excellent but if you like it a bit on the fresh side, you can trek the National Park of Llogara nearby. The mountain peaks rise to 2,018 meters. With the breeze loaded with the scents of pine, wild teas and flower, it is ideal for walking, trekking or just relaxing. If you get hungry after walking, gliding or biking, you can enjoy lamb roasted on the spit or barbecued, lamb and goat cheese dishes and desserts made of nuts, honey and very thick yogurt made of sheep milk.
Driving downhill southward from the Llogara Pass, the winding road unfolds into the magnificent vista of the Ionian Sea below. Again, you will visit villages along the shores; again you will experience the warm hospitality of friendly people. Crystalline beaches extend to the southern-most (and beautiful) Albanian town of Saranda. Nearby lies Butrinti National Archaeological Park, a world heritage site and the Ramsar Wetland Site of International Importance. Butrinti Park is just minutes away from the seaport town of Saranda and is a popular one-day excursion for tourists on the nearby Greek island of Corfù. You will find superb antique ruins and a remarkable range of archaeological sites and remains from the Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Angevin, Venetian and Ottoman eras. Its habitats include coastal wetlands, saltwater lagoons, rivers, lakes and open grazing lands. This unique combination of archaeology and nature creates a special remote and “undiscovered” atmosphere found at no other significant archaeological site along the Mediterranean.

The old town of Berati has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The old town of Berati has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Albania is also a cradle of cultural diversity. Before I was appointed as ambassador to Canada, I had the privilege of serving as general secretary of the UNESCO National Commission. Part of the function was to contact and visit the towns of Gjirokastra and Berat, already part of UNESCO’s World Inventory of Historical Heritage. It is a pleasant coincidence that the town of Berat was registered as such in the summer of 2008, in Quebec. Both these sites bear remarkable witness the harmony and peaceful co-existence among Albanians of different religions, gathered from centuries of history.

The magnificent Vlora coastline

The magnificent Vlora coastline

You will want to visit the southern town of Gjirokastra. The greatest Albanian writer, Ismail Kadare, glorified this legendary stone town in his book Kronikë në gur (Stone Chronicles). Here, you will experience the warm character of the people and enjoy the medieval architecture of the houses, along with the town’s Ottoman bazaar, ancient fortress and steep cobblestone streets, which form a dramatic urban landscape. These complexes are, for the most part, undisturbed by 20th-Century buildings. The historic town of Berat, 120 kilometres south of Tirana, with more than 2,400 years of history is another jewel of Albanian civilization and culture. With its houses built along the steep hills, the so-called city of the floating windows is towered over by the majestic citadel, housing the most attractive churches and mosques of Albania. As a group, they are a testament to Albania’s history of tolerance and peaceful co-existence over centuries.

Elida Petoshati is Ambassador of Albania to Canada. Reach her at (613) 667-9667 or Elida.Petoshati@mfa.gov.al

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