“Don’t worry about the rattling sound in the engine,” the rental-car attendant assures us as he hands us the keys. We are already a little concerned due to the fact that the Tirana airport’s rental-car yard is actually behind an old shed guarded by a rather angry-looking dog on a chain. With only one other car in the lot, we wonder if we were lucky to secure one of the last available vehicles, or that there are actually only a few rental cars in rotation due to Albania’s diminutive presence on the tourist map.
We set off from the Tirana airport – two girls on an impromptu roadtrip through Albania, inspired by tales of its pristine beaches. We had been planning to hire a GPS with our rental car (not possible) and, failing that, use our phones to navigate (no service). So we are left with an illustrated tourist map sought out in desperation at the airport. It’s more of an interpretive representation than an accurate one, and our only guidance from the rental-car guy is to find the main road and follow it.
We turn onto the most significant road we can find. The landscape is quite barren, sparsely dotted with the cement skeletons of houses begun and never finished. As we near a semblance of civilisation, the houses are complete but seem to be built in spite of each other. At first the vivid pinks, oranges and greens of their facades are almost aesthetically assaulting, perhaps because it’s like nothing we’ve seen before. But as our journey continues, we soon realise that the cheerful colour palette is an expression of a simple joy that radiates throughout the local community.
The rudimentary nature of our map and general lack of street signs means that we have to stop and ask for directions – often. But what is surprisingly evident is that no matter whom we stop to ask – at petrol stations, roadside fruit stalls and tiny bakeries – everyone is eager to help us. Most eye us curiously, as if it’s rare to see two girls driving alone through Albania. No one speaks English, and we’ve managed to learn only ‘thank you’ in Albanian, but fortunately the language’s roots lie in Latin, so our basic grasp of Italian, Spanish and French helps us to glean words to send us vaguely in the right direction.
Our destination is the seaside town of Vlorë, which, theoretically, we should have reached long before sundown. But consecutive wrong turns have slowed us down and we arrive just as dusk is falling, driving around frantically in search of our hotel before we are cloaked in darkness. We practically hug the concierge when she tells us we’ve arrived at the right place.
When we slide back the curtains in our hotel room the next day, the sea sparkles before us. Vlorë is to be our base for the next few days as we explore the hidden beach gems of Albania’s southern coast, and we head out towards the mountain range we must conquer in order to reach the best beaches. Virtually every available stretch of coastline is a paradisiacal cove lapped by pristine blue waters, indicating that we really needn’t travel far to experience the beach. But we’ve heard that true paradise lies beyond the mountain range in the small town of Dhermi.
Along the roadside, wildflowers sway in all directions, seemingly to their own individual rhythms. Up on the winding road hugging the mountainside, plump cows mosey precariously close to the edge, as bells hang around their necks and their tails swish happily. It’s clear who owns the roads in these parts, as we regularly stop to give way to flocks of lazy sheep, mischievous goats and the occasional timid donkey.
The aroma of wild thyme, sage and rosemary baking in the sun sails through the open car window and roadside honey stalls dot the roads that nestle in the mountain’s peaks. Near the top, an old couple shuffles down the incline. The man frailly clutches a walking stick, while the woman hoists an overflowing basket of branches on her back. Their tanned faces are like leather, yet filled with joy – I half expect them to pass them again, still trudging along, on our return journey to Vlorë.
We sidle down the mountain into Dhermi and come to a stop at a private beach bookended by two looming rocks and shaded by an enormous tree. The water is heavenly and is immediately deep only a few steps from the beach – enough for me to struggle to touch the bottom in one breath – and yet it is so clear that I can play with my shadow on the sea floor. The dramatic crescendo of La Traviata reverberates from the restaurant above the beach and across the water, as if calling out to its Italian homeland across the Adriatic Sea.
Fresh from our swim, we climb the stairs up a small ridge to the restaurant. Knowing little about what composes Albanian fare, I happily discover that the country’s close proximity to Greece and Italy results in a fusion of two of my favourite cuisines. Tucking into a stellar spread of woodfired pizza, creamy tzatziki, tart olives and Greek salad, I think I’ve discovered paradise.