The Osum River flows out of Albania’s Korcha highlands and hooks north to sluice through a 16-mile-long gorge called the Osum Canyon, one of Europe’s most spectacular whitewater runs. A steady rain has riled the river into a Class III fury that’s now hurtling us through a particularly beautiful section. Mineral-stained walls rise up on either side like the arms of a 300-foot-high slingshot. Waterfalls blast over the cliffs in broad, silvery horsetails. There isn’t a road in sight, just a few brandywine orchards and the occasional forgotten machine-gun nest.
Albania is a different place these days. More than a billion dollars in foreign aid has helped to rebuild institutions, train the workforce, and improve infrastructure. A new Socialist government rode that renaissance wave into office last summer; the prime minister, an artist named Edi Rama, has vowed to find ways to boost Albania’s prospects. Tourism will certainly be one of the tools as the country looks to mimic the success of neighbors like Montenegro and Croatia. About 2.7 million foreign visitors came to Albania in 2012, nearly three times as many as in 2007.
“All these countries in southeastern Europe have enormous potential,” said Kirsi Hyvaerinen, a Finnish consultant who worked with tourism groups to create a new 120-mile-long trail, the Peaks of the Balkans, that links Montenegro with Kosovo and Albania. “Albania is where things get really interesting. If there is a place where you can experience a stream of hundreds of years all at once—the ancient, the traditional, the young, the modern—it’s here.”
Actually, that’s an understatement. The place is made for adventure. You can hike under the 9,000-foot spires of the Bjeshket e Nemuna, a mountain range with Yosemite-style big walls. There are 13 national parks, 300 natural monuments, and dozens of antiquity sites like Kruja, Apollonia, and Butrint, a fourth-century port city and Unesco World Heritage site. The coast is a filigree of pale blue bays and amber cliffs with serpentine lanes for cycling. You can sea-kayak to etchings left by Roman sailors or raft through canyons like the Osum.
Albania is the most gorgeous, overlooked, and fascinating place in Europe, a country where the pressure of tourism has yet to can its soul.
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