It was close to midnight, without a soul on the road, and Auron Tare eased the Land Rover into high gear. A full moon pushed through the windshield. The motorway was new and gun-barrel straight until, suddenly, it wasn’t anything at all. We shot off the end of the road and into a cratered dirt field. For a moment, we were airborne.
I wailed as the engine whined and a feeling of weightlessness expanded inside the truck. We slammed back to earth, bounced around and came to a crawl, shaken but fine.
“What the – ?” Tare said, cursing. “That came out of nowhere!”
We were deep in Albania on our way south to pick up the trail of one of the country’s most famous English visitors, George Gordon Byron, the sixth Baron Byron, who in the early 19th century also encountered plenty of surprises here. In 1809, years before he became the literary giant he is known as today, Byron spent about 10 days travelling on horseback and foot through the region with childhood friend and future politician John Cam Hobhouse. The two men, barely in their 20s, had journeyed north from Greece into Albania, at the time a poor backwater of the Ottoman Empire. They pondered ancient ruins, battled fierce storms and took shelter with a capricious and cruel vizier named Ali Pasha, who loved handsome English aristocrats nearly as much as roasting his enemies alive. Nevertheless, the travels gave Byron inspiration for a narrative poem that helped established him as one of the Romantic movement’s most celebrated voices.
“Land of Albania!” he proclaimed in “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”, published in four parts between 1812 and 1818. “Let me bend mine eyes / On thee, thou rugged nurse of savage men! / The cross descends, thy minarets arise, / And the pale crescent sparkles in the glen”.
In more contemporary times, Albania has offered less scope for poetic veneration. For three generations the Balkan country was caged off from the rest of Europe by the communist dictator Enver Hoxha. From the second world war until a few years after the Supreme Comrade’s death in 1985, few outsiders could enter the country. Albanians ground out their existence in hunger and political depravity, fearing laws that demanded the execution of anyone older than 11 found conspiring against the state.
The collapse of communism hailed the end of those grim days but organised crime has since flourished. Corruption in the country ranks on a par with that in Niger, according to a 2012 report by Transparency International. And, as I just learnt in a bone-jarringly metaphorical way, the country’s road to European integration still needs a lot of work.
And yet, from a traveller’s perspective, there is little doubt that Albania is emerging as one of Europe’s most intriguing destinations. The countryside is gorgeous – 70 per cent mountainous – and the food can be exquisite, a mix of Turkish, Greek and Italian fare: zesty peppers, rich cream sauces and scores of spiced meats such as suxhuk, cevapi and qofta.
In the north you can wander for days between villages under towering limestone peaks. Some of the longest beaches of the Adriatic twinkle along its ragged coast. Sylvan trails climb to cool lakes under the gaze of vultures and wolves, and almost no one hikes on them for the simple reason that most people have no idea they exist. So while man’s constructs have done their best to ruin Albania, the country’s untamed nature still inspires plenty of awe. If that sounds a bit Romantic, then perhaps we were on the right trail after all.
I had met Tare earlier that day in Shkoder, a city of about 84,000 people near the northern Montenegrin border, where we devised a plan to track down Byron. Tare, a member of parliament for Albania’s socialist opposition party, is one of the country’s most outspoken heritage and tourism advocates and an amateur expert on the poet’s time in his country.
“Albanians love Byron,” Tare told me over strong Turkish coffee. “He didn’t judge Albanians and they didn’t judge him. He accepted them and their world and they loved him for it.”
In the early 1990s, just when Albania was emerging from its isolation, Tare founded a small travel company, Auron Expeditions, that nowadays showcases Albania’s archeological marvels. He also takes people hiking in Byron’s footsteps, a trip that is based on Hobhouse’s diary, since Byron only wrote a few letters about his time with Ali Pasha. “He was distinctly coy about his time there,” said Peter Cochran, a Cambridge-based author of many books about the poet.
The Byron trail begins, more or less, in Ioannina, Greece, and concludes about 120km northwest at Ali Pasha’s palace in Tepelena, Albania. We were to walk sections of a 50km-long stretch that runs from Glina, a village about 5km east of the Greek border, to Teplena, along old caravan routes. Each night I was to return to a comfortable bed in Gjirokastra, a well preserved Ottoman town and the birthplace of Ismail Kadare, one of Albania’s own poets.
The sun was already brutally hot the morning after our flying Land Rover adventure when Tare and Kela Qendro, his assistant, led me along a dirt path high on the hillsides of the Drino valley, which is cross-hatched with tidy farms. “Plain well-cultivated, with English-looking divisions and river running through the hills,” Hobhouse wrote on October 15 1809. Byron agreed that the landscape looked familiar. “The very mountains seemed Caledonian with a kinder climate,” he wrote in his notes to Childe Harold. Tare put it more bluntly: “It’s Scotland with minarets.”
Soon we came upon a colonnade of cypress trees, which lined a pathway that ended in a small, squat tekke – a spiritual centre for the Bektashi sect. Beyond its heavy wooden door I found a guest room painted green with white carpets splayed around a large bowl holding sweets.
A dervish named Myrteza, who was 27 and had a long square beard, welcomed us with shots of home-made brandy and we sat around a small table talking about the sect’s rebirth. Ali Pasha had been a strong supporter of the Sufi order, which preaches a rather mystical and liberal interpretation of Islam. Hoxha had declared the tekke a cultural monument but he also banished all religion. For decades, the building served as an army post.
“It was in really bad shape, terribly dirty and neglected when we got it back,” Myrteza said, tugging on a Kent cigarette. “Now we are coming back to our traditions and people are turning once again to God.”
We turned back to the trail with brandy-whirling heads and walked for several hours, past a few of the 700,000 bunkers Hoxha built to deter an invasion. Around noon, we reached Libohova, a town where Byron had visited the palace of Ali Pasha’s sister. Nothing but the ramparts of her castle remain, and a local has built his home right up against one wall. Chickens patrolled the entrance.
“We don’t really know where Byron stayed but it wasn’t in the palace,” Tare said, removing his shirt in the heat. “Two hundred years later,” said Qendro, “we have the same difficulties in finding a place to stay for tourists. So we just put people up in homes or wherever we can. We do exactly as Byron did.”
I slept well that night at the Cajupi, my simple but comfortable hotel in Gjirokastra, with parquet floors and a large painting of early 20th-century Albanian guerrillas in the lobby. It was hard to see the fierceness in the soldiers that Byron and others have long proclaimed, since the painting depicted them in curly-tip elf shoes with dainty pom-poms on the ends. The next morning I sat in the rooftop restaurant and made my way through a breakfast of eggs and juice with some cucumbers and roasted red peppers soaked in oil on the side.
Before long, Tare and I headed back out, this time to Saraqinishte, a tiny village where Byron would have probably stayed for only a few hours. There we met a tiny woman, perhaps in her late eighties, who was so happy to have an English-speaking stranger walk past her home that she stuffed my arms full of pomegranates and planted at least a dozen toothless kisses on my elbow.
Though he was searching for sites of antiquity, Byron would almost certainly have wandered straight past a place known today as Antigonea, a city-state dating from the third century BC, a few hundred metres away from Saraqinishte. It was destroyed in the Macedonian wars around 167BC and would not have been excavated in Byron’s time, making it terribly difficult to spot.
Today, the site is an archeological park and scientists have unearthed an acropolis, agora, and a city footprint that spans 90 hectares, which would have once made it one of the region’s most important settlements. Bees buzzed around a hive in an oak tree as I strolled through the ruins and sat on a stone wall to take in the scene over the Drino valley.
Christine Smart, a librarian at Bristol University on her first trip to Albania, came wandering by. We were the only visitors and chatted for a moment, each perhaps a bit surprised to find the other there.
“I think anyone who likes archeological sites and nature would like Albania,” she said. “It really is quite beautiful, isn’t it?”
It was, and over the next few days Tare and I split our time between hiking along the route and wandering around Gjirokastra, where I sat in cafés and chatted with a former teacher whose world had collapsed. I bought him a Korça beer and heard how everything he had known about how to get along in a hermit state had lost its relevance when communism collapsed. Now too old to get a new job, he said his life was essentially over. “But my children,” he said. “They have hope. Real hope.”
His words haunted me towards the end of the trip, when the Byron trail continued up to a broad plateau before descending to what is now the main road to Tirana. I wasn’t too interested in walking along a busy motorway so instead Tare and I drove to Tepelena, where the remains of Ali Pasha’s palace stood derelict and littered with rubbish. A plaque celebrating the poet’s visit hung from the side of a wall next to a petrol station.
Two hundred years ago, the vizier had treated Byron well – “sending me almonds and sugared sherbet, fruit and sweetmeats 20 times a day,” the poet wrote to his mother. But Byron was no fool. “He has the appearance of anything but his real character for he is a remorseless tyrant, guilty of the most horrible cruelties.”
I walked around the palace alone, running my hands up the crumbling walls and contemplating hope and fate. Neither Ali Pasha nor Byron lived happily ever after. In 1822, Sultan Mahmud II grew tired of the vizier’s defiance and had Ali Pasha shot and his severed head brought to Turkey, where it remains to this day. A few years later, in 1824, Byron was busy fighting the Ottomans for Greek independence when he caught a fever and died. He was 36.
Maybe Albania itself will have a better go this time around but no one can really be certain. For now, the country remains a poem with its final stanzas yet to come.
“I just love the unknown-ness of Albania,” Tare said as we drove off. “You can still discover it on your own, especially if you walk.”
Auron Expeditions offers nine-day walking and horseback riding tours in the footsteps of Lord Byron five times a year from April to October, with a minimum of eight people per group, from $1,695 per person