We had decided to start our journey in Corfu, to avoid the chaos and expense of the capital, Tirana. From across the strait, the mountainous silhouette of Albania came and went tantalisingly in a halo of cloud, so when the hydrofoil finally chugged into the port of Saranda, it was a shock to find a jungle of haphazard high-rises hugging the shore. This kick-off to the “Albanian Riviera” was not for us, however, as my partner and I had plotted our road trip deep into the rugged interior of the south, in search of Byzantine jewels, quaint Ottoman-era guesthouses, mosques, castles and restaurants dishing up delectable local produce.
From there, backed by distant snow-capped mountains, we meandered into a long cafe-lined boulevard. Sunset approached and hundreds of men and women were strolling back and forth, stopping for a chat or coffee. This was the xhiro, like the Italian passeggiata or Spanish paseo – a sign that despite its exotic past, Albania is very much a Mediterranean country. So it turned out that Albania is an enlightening cultural crossroads where Greece, Italy and the Balkans meet. On the cusp of change, still cheap and, so far, with only a trickle of tourists, it’s definitely a good time to visit.