Albania’s beaches: Catch them while you can

Just across the Ionian sea from Italy, a mere hop, skip and jump from the Greek Island of Corfu, lies the rocky coast of Albania, where, it is said, some of the best beaches in Europe are waiting to be found. When it comes to the ingredients of a summer in the Mediterranean (azure blue waters, bustling towns and a lasting caramel tan) this Balkan country is perfectly seasoned. But there is one vital component which sets Albania apart from its neighbours: the tourists. Or rather, the lack of them.

Despite creeping up in the summer hit-list ranks in recent years, Albania’s bumpy ride through the 20th century, which included 40 years of isolationist socialist rule under Enver Halil Hoxha and a form of reckless capitalism based on a Ponzi pyramid scheme in the 90s, has left it as Europe’s least travelled road. I was here to find out if Albania’s beaches were as beautiful and empty as everyone said they were.

During the eight-hour bus journey from the capital of Tirana to the rumoured paradise of Himara in the south of the country I came to grips with the lack of regard for health or safety in the country. The bus was not in great form – it’s engine would struggle as we started moving, and then the wheels would slide with little grip down treacherously winding mountain roads (though to call them tracks would be more fitting). Two hours into the bus ride, we found ourselves sandwiched between two Albanian men on the exit steps of the bus. But at the end of the ride, thankful to have dodged the dangers, I remained positive in the arms of our new friends, Ardian and Fatmir.

Arriving at Himara Hostel, a family-run home complete with white-washed stone walls, we discovered shabby chic in its truest form. Nestled away from the dusty road, behind a pair of iron gates, its courtyard was an ordered jumble of upcycled furniture which seemed to span centuries. In one corner was an outdoor kitchen with pots and pans large enough to feed the whole town. In the other, colourful woven hammocks hung from trees, and scattered throughout, flowers burst out of anything that mildly resembled a vase. In the midst of this bohemian sanctuary stood the home’s pièce de résistance, an old pine trestle table literally on its last legs, no doubt from a lifetime of late nights over a backgammon board.

I still had my reservations that these undiscovered beaches actually existed, not least because our directions came in the form of a hand-drawn map. We left Himara and set off in search of our treasure through hillside forests of olive and citrus groves. It wasn’t until an hour later, walking along the side of a rocky cliff, that the sea appeared 40 feet below us at the end of a very precarious path. I hesitated, but then remembered the bus and what I’d learned about health and safety and realised there was little choice but to carry on with our chosen route.

I will always be grateful that we continued walking down the path because what lay waiting around the corner was a beach so perfect and empty that it could only be described as paradise. Descending vine-wrapped steps and walking past miniature castellated terraces built into the cliff-face, we came to a cove of the purest turquoise water. We spent the rest of the day bathing in sun, sea and sheer smugness, as if we had passed Albania’s endurance test and come to reclaim our prize, our only competition a herd of donkeys. This stretch of sand is just one of the many unspoiled corners that you can find on this rugged coastline, full of beaches the rest of Europe should be jealous of.

Writing this, it dawns on me that something sounds strangely familiar. The uninhabited lagoon, the hand-drawn map, the precarious journey… it sounds like I’ve mixed up my summer holiday with The Beach and subbed in Albania for Thailand, and with that comes the fateful irony of raving to the world about having found a real oasis.

As Albania’s economy rapidly grows, the no-frills, all-thrills experience will no doubt be refined to bring the country on par with the luxury and service of its neighbours.  For the time being at least, I feel lucky to have experienced it complete with the technical glitches and charming oddities that make it the tourist’s nightmare, but the traveller’s dream, and the home of some of the best beaches in Europe.

Fly direct from London to Tirana with British Airways.

Buses to the southern coast run regularly from various locations across the city – with no central bus station it is best advised to ask on arrival as timetables are somewhat unreliable. Car rental is advised.

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