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We were about a third of the way down the pass between Përmet and Çorovoda, in a gaunt landscape of huge views and scrubby oak, when a lone figure flagged us down. It is rare to meet pedestrians in these highlands, and this one seemed particularly agitated.
Did we speak English? Yes, we did. Was this the road to Përmet? Yes, it was. He took a deep breath. And how was it, this “road”? He uttered the word with some disgust.
By that time we were the veterans of several mountain tracks and, in our four-wheel drive, we’d become accustomed to a bit of wheelspin, bump and slide. But for this stretch we hadn’t noticed anything untoward. “It really depends what kind of vehicle . . . ” one of us started to say. At which point our interlocutor (by now identifiably German) seemed to fall apart. “This shit road is fucking shit!” he declared, eyes watering. He only had a limited vocabulary of swear words in English and they were already in danger of overheating.
Anyway, we calmed him down enough to extract his story. He’d set out that morning, with his wife, in his VW, having first checked (a) with the map and (b) with the locals that the road to Përmet was passable for a two-wheel drive. They said it was. But now, several hours later, he was so appalled by the road surface that he had parked up and was trying to decide whether to keep going or to turn back.
We tried to be sympathetic. It was true: Albanians are massively optimistic when it comes to the passability of anything that isn’t a forest or a canyon, and they’d drive to Heaven if there was a suitable gap in the clouds. They are also massively helpful if you get stuck, so we suggested to our German friend that he walk up a bit further to reassure himself, and then give it a go.
And then we bumped away down the hill, leaving him there. About five minutes later, we passed his VW, parked on a rare piece of flat ground. It was, fair to say, probably a bit too lovingly looked-after for the conditions. More importantly, however, it was also empty; either his wife had gone for a long lie-down after all the in-car profanity, or else she’d taken the footpath back down the mountain, with the intention of catching the first flight home.
As a tourist venturing into Albania, you do take your life a bit in your hands – but not perhaps for the reasons most people might think. I didn’t meet any contract killers, and nobody offered me money for my organs. No, it is the hardtop roads, with their kidney-stone-popping potholes, and the drivers who screech along them under the influence of rakia and machismo, that are the lethal forces at work. Which is why I was doing all my driving off-road and uphill, south and east of Tirana, with a new British-run outfit called Drive Albania.
This is spectacular high country, riven by limestone canyons, at times soaring and majestic like the Atlas Mountains, at times bony and threadbare like the Anatolian plateau, at times bucolic and terraced with fruit trees like Alpine France, at times steeply plunging into sea like the Amalfi coast. The human imprint is interesting too, with most of the historic towns being uphill and inland, dating from the time when the lowland areas had a serious problem with malaria.
Our plan was to leave behind the ribbons of asphalt in their tangle of ugly new buildings, and escape to timeless rural Albania. We’d be like hikers-with-horsepower, and the access granted us by four-wheel drive meant that we’d descend, at day’s end, to cultural towns with good restaurants and civilised places to stay. A perfect compromise.
I was the first guest to sample Drive Albania’s southern itinerary, a seven-day circuit that starts and finishes in the capital Tirana, with half-board accommodation in towns including Korça, Berat, and Gjirokastra, but spending most of the day taking scenic “short cuts”. The guide drives the main road sections; the clients drive the hills.
Albania’s long period of communist isolation has given way to a catch-up capitalism, producing massive inequality between town and country. In practical terms that means that an Albanian’s choice of transport seems to be either a Mercedes or a donkey.
It was the world of the donkey that we set out to see. In our Land Rover Discovery, we climbed into the mountains to find old churches, precipitous villages that could have been Moroccan kasbahs, and shepherds doing what they’d always done, surrounded by bears and eagles. In the stone village of Benjë, for example, we were invited in for figs and rakia by a woman whose son had just come down off the high ground after a two-week stint looking after 100 sheep. Between mouthfuls of his first hot meal, he told us, with regret, how he’d lost one of his charges to the wolves.
In the village of Leusa, a skiddy drive up a rough track from Përmet, we found the late 13th-century Byzantine church of St Mary snuggling among oak and beech. Every inch of its interior was tattooed with gloriously colourful frescoes but bats were roosting in its vaulted ceiling and the door had recently been broken down by thieves. It was only a matter of time before the weather got through the roof.
By contrast, the Bektashi shrine we stumbled across amid the clouds on the high pass beside 2,416m Mount Tomorr turned out to be soulless, concrete and new. Albania is 70 per cent Muslim, largely thanks to the legacy of the Ottoman Empire, but theirs is a particularly low-key and liberal manifestation of Islam and Bektashism, in particular, is a Sufi sect that is outlawed by more hardcore nations for being too soft. Adherents are permitted to drink alcohol, for example, and are only obliged to pray once a day.
This dilution of religion, be it Christian or Muslim, is typically Albanian laisser-faire; after a long period of darkness, people here are out to enjoy life, if they can. There was certainly little sign of any asceticism when we descended into the valleys in the evenings.
Korça turned out to be a civilised university city that has suffered from emigration (an estimated 7m Albanians live and work overseas), but which seemed undaunted by being a shadow of its former self; in the evening the remaining population turned out in their best clothes for the xhiro (the Albanian equivalent of the passagiata), sashaying up and down by the cathedral.
In Unesco-recognised Berat we stayed in a district called Mangalemi, a network of old Ottoman houses piled up the side of a hill below the country’s largest castle, a 4th-century creation that is still home to more than 800 people. And in Gjirokastra, once a big trading centre and also Unesco-listed, we went to meet Nesip Skenduli, owner of one of the town’s large number of mostly tumbledown, big gabled mansions, who only manages to keep his roof on by selling entrance tickets by day, and letting backpackers sleep in its decaying rooms by night.
In all these places the restaurants were good, the food at incredibly low prices (a coffee for 30p; a meal for £2) and the accommodation clean and straightforward.
But the best bits were always uphill. There’s nothing quite like the moment when you engage your vehicle’s low-range gears and feel the resulting rubble-scattering surge. Fortunately, we never took any inadvertent short cuts, or encountered anything that the Land Rover couldn’t handle – unlike that stressed-out German.
Each time we breasted a high pass or squeaked past a dizzying drop-off, I found myself recalling that early encounter on the mountainside, and wondering whether he pressed on upwards, or turned round and went back. And whether his life would ever be the same again.
Andrew Eames was a guest of British Airways (ba.com) and Drive Albania (drivealbania.com), which offers a six-night tour from £890 per person, including guide, half-board accommodation, all driving costs and entry fees, but not flights. British Airways flies four times a week to Tirana from London Gatwick, from£197 return
Photographs: Andrew Eames; Alamy