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Small villages in Albania’s isolated mountains are attracting tourists to family-run accommodation with the promise of spectacular views and a fascinating history – but modernisation could bring change.
The 'blue eye' pool formed by mountain waters in Kaprre near Theth. Photo: BIRN/Fatjona Mejdini
More than a century ago, the British traveller, author and anthropologist Edith Durham wrote that the small villages in the Albanian Alps existed in “majestic isolation from all the world”.
Today, isolation is the biggest advantage that these villages have. Over the past few years, locals have started to create a unique model of tourism away from tight state regulations, helped by their geographic location and their rich history.
In modern Albania, these small villages in the Alps are still difficult to reach. To get to the village of Theth, which is considered the jewel of the Alps, one has to drive from the northern town of Shkodra for 50 kilometres up to the village of Boge, and after that go another 20 kilometres along an unsurfaced and occasionally dangerous road.
This has made tourism in the area only possible during the summer months, leaving Theth and its breathtaking views still veiled in a certain mystery.
Fran Berishta, a 61-year-old inhabitant of Theth, his wife and three sons are very busy during the summer months. Five years ago they made the decision to use a part of their house to accommodate paying guests. Now after several extensions, the building has transformed into a real guesthouse with a capacity of 36 people.
"We have more requests than that during the summer months. Every day we are fully booked and the number of tourists is increasing every year. We turn away at least 10 people a day, but try to find a place for them anyway in the neighboring houses in the village," Berishta told BIRN.
Berishta’s wife cooks traditional dishes, while he is in charge of preparing the meat and his sons serve the tourists and manage the rooms.
Family businesses are at the heart of tourism in the Alps. In Theth and its surroundings, the number of guesthouses built in wood and stone has now reached 40.
Berishta believes that one of attractions that make tourists come back to Theth - beside the natural beauty of the steep mountains - is the fresh organic food and what he described as “the Albanian hospitality”.
"We do every dish with products from our garden, and we also offer the tourists a warm atmosphere that makes them feel at home," he explained.
People coming from Europe make up the majority of tourists visiting Theth, while almost 60 per cent of the Berishta family’s guests are foreigners. Most of them come from Germany, Holland and France.
But building guest houses is not the only way that the inhabitants of the area are benefitting from the beauty of their land; hiking and climbing tours are also in demand.
For the locals, the main concern remains the unsurfaced road.
"I could double the number of rooms and keep my guesthouse open all year round if the government decided to pave the way and create other infrastructural facilities for us," Berishta said.
But good infrastructure would also immediately make the Alps a major tourist destination and today’s visitors might like that.
Peter from Germany and his wife, who have been frequent visitors to Theth for years, fear that modern infrastructure could also have a negative effect on the untouched natural environment of the Alps.
"We were in Saranda [a seaside town in the South Albania] six years ago and it was perfect. We returned this year and concrete buildings everywhere made our stay there impossible. The Alps are still very natural and the Albanian government should be really careful to find a formula to preserve its natural state," Peter told BIRN.
Another reason why modernisation might not benefit the area is because some tourists choose to stay there also because there is very limited mobile phone access and no internet.
The Albanian Alps also offer much for tourists who love to climb. Theth alone is surrounded by eight high peaks that connect with the Valbona Valley but also mountain ranges in Montenegro and Kosovo.
A few kilometres from Theth stands mount Jezerca, one of the highest peaks in the Balkans at 2,694 metres.
Beside hiking and climbing, Thethi’s national parks offer dozens of scenic views, starting with the waterfall in Grunas, the 'blue eye' formed by mountain waters in Kaprre, lakes and stunning canyons.
As well as all this, the locals have something from their own history to show visitors.
The Theth area was ruled in the past by the Kanun of Lek Dukagjini, an ancient set of traditional laws that drew attention because they promoted ‘blood feuds’.
Today, Sokol Koceku, a 42-year-old from Theth, feels lucky that has inherited a tower that served as a 'court' at the time when Kanun laws were in force in the area.
It’s known as a defensive tower and was built four centuries ago, a place that offered protection to people guilty of a crime until the wise men of the area worked out how to judge them.
Now visitors have to pay a fee of one euro to enter the tower, and Sokol speaks to them about its history and the time when the Kanun ruled the people of the area’s lives.
"The Kanun does not exist anymore but now we can tell its stories to the tourists. I'm glad that my predecessors never agreed to sell the tower and it is my duty to keep it open to the public. Interest is very high," Sokol told BIRN.
He emphasised that the money from the entry fees is going to be invested in the reconstruction of the tower.
Meanwhile a small bar in the yard of the tower serves tourists coffee and refreshments, and next year Sokol and his brother are planning to expand it and turn into a restaurant.
- See more at: http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/albania-s-alps-offer-tourists-isolated-splendour-08-17-2016#sthash.npH6Np0J.dpuf
TIRANE, 11 Gusht/ATSH/- Pas suksesit të një viti më parë, në kuadër të Ditës Ndërkombëtare të Turizmit, portali unik qeveritar e-albania organizon për të dytin vit radhazi konkursin mbarëshqiptar të turizmit.
Me temën “Turizëm për të gjithë”, Dita Ndërkombëtare e Turizmit synon këtë vit të shpërndajë fjalën për rëndësinë dhe përfitimet e pafundme që turizmi ka dhe mund të sjellë për shoqërinë në përgjithësi.
Duke qenë se Shqipëria është një vend me një potencial të madh turistik, ku gjenden gjithashtu dhjetëra vendndodhje të trashëgimisë kulturore, të gjithë të apasionuarit pas fotografisë, pikturës, reportazheve të shkurtra dhe eseve do të kenë mundësinë të nxjerrin në pah bukurinë dhe veçantinë e vendit tonë. Konkursi përbëhet nga tre kategori: fotografi/pikturë, video dhe ese, të cilat kanë një temë të përbashkët: turizmin shqiptar.
Sipas njoftimit, fotografitë duhet të jenë të zhanrit artistik, të bëra gjatë udhëtimeve turistike në Shqipëri si dhe pikturat të kenë në sfond zona turistike shqiptare. Videot duhet të jenë në formën e reportazheve të shkurtra, të realizuara gjatë udhëtimeve turistike në Shqipëri. Esetë duhet të jenë shkrime në të cilat të reflektohet një eksperiencë mbresëlënëse apo një vështirësi me të cilën është ndeshur personi gjatë një udhëtimi turistik në Shqipëri.
Dërgimi i materialeve realizohet nëpërmjet portalit qeveritar e-albania. Për të dërguar aplikimin, duhet të jeni përdorues i regjistruar i portalit (klikoni këtu për t’u regjistruar). Çdo përdorues i portalit mund të dërgojë në total 5 aplikime (për të gjitha kategoritë e konkursit).
POGRADEC, 11 Gusht/ATSH/- Gadishulli i Linit është i pari që të shfaqet me bukuritë e tij sapo nis dhe zbret Qafën e Thanës, e cila ndan fushëgropën e Prrenjasit me fushëgropën e Pogradecit.
Nga lart, Lini, duket si një shputë dore që futet në liqen. Arkeologët kanë dokumentuar se ky gadishull shkëmbor është banuar qysh në periudhën e hekurit.
Fshati është vendosur në anën perëndimore të tij dhe përbën një simbiozë të çuditshme midis njerëzve dhe natyrës. Brenda gjirit të mbrojtur në anën veriore ankorohen varkat e peshkatarëve, ndërsa në anën lindore të Linit ndodhen ‘’zagragjet’’, kopshtet e banorëve të tij, të cilat nuk janë veçse ngastra të vogla të rrethuara me mure guri, në të cilat kultivohen perimet.
Të quajtura si “dyqanet e familjes”, në to prodhojnë sipas stinës domatet, specat, sallata jeshile, lakrat dhe veçanërisht qepët e kuqe të Linit, me të cilat gatuhet tava e famshme e peshkut. I gjithë fshati përshkohet nga një rrugë gjatësore, përgjatë së cilës në të dyja anët janë vendosur shtëpitë dykatëshe.
Këtu është zhvilluar turizmi familjar ku banesat e fshatit janë përshtatur për shtëpi pushimi. Përveç plazheve, ajrit të pastër dhe të freskët, natyrës së bukur, kuzhinës dhe gatimeve në saç, Lini ofron edhe shëtitje dhe eskursione në natyrë përgjatë monopateve të kodrave.
Midis plazheve të shumtë, si më i madhi dhe më i bukuri është ai i Neli Resort. I vendosur në rrëzë të shkëmbit të Barkalicës, ai dallohet për ujin e pastër, qetësinë, varkat dhe trampolinat.
Përpara bregut të tij hapet një panoramë mahnitëse ku nëpërmjet pasqyrës së ujit shfaqen qartë Ohri me kështjellën e tij majë kodrës, Shën Naumi dhe mali i Thatë.
Bazilika e Linit është një faltore paleokristiane e ndërtuar diku në shekullin e VI-të.
Nga arkitektura ajo është trikonkëshe dhe përbëhet nga naosi, baptisteri, atrium, dhe tre kapela të vogla, të cilat ndodhen në anët veriore, verilindore dhe jugore të naosit. Bazilika ka qenë e pajisur me ikonostas guri dhe dyshemetë e saj janë zbukuruar me mozaikë shumëngjyrësh, ku nuk mungojnë motivet floreale, nga fauna dhe ata gjeometrikë.
“Drying our homemade jufka pasta in the sun”, “watermelon jam”, “corn bread and white cheese”, “sucking clover in the meadows”, “omelette with wild fennel”, “fritters with plum and honey sauce”... These are all delicious-sounding childhood meals recalled by members of Albania’s new “slow food” movement.
Intriguingly, these memories were all created under communist rule. I associate the vicious regime of dictator Enver Hoxha with grey soups and meagre rations. But Albania is not only a post-communist country, it’s also defined by its Mediterranean climate, its position next to Greece and a short hop across the Adriatic from Italy, and a long coastline and fertile plains. The burgeoning gastronomic scene here aims to take advantage of all those things and to honour traditional ways of cooking.
I watched last year as Rick Stein dipped a toe in Albania’s beautiful coastal waters on his BBC series - as well as a finger into some of the exquisite stews and sauces prepared in small communities around the country. I’m on a gourmet journey here myself, and these chefs reminiscing about childhood delicacies seem a good place to start. All of them were trained abroad – Bledar Kola at Michelin-starred Pied à Terre and Le Gavroche in London as well as at Copenhagen’s Noma, consistently voted “the best restaurant in the world” between 2010 and 2014.
Bledar Kola at his restaurant, Mullixhiu
The others trained in Belgium or Italy, like culinary historian Armand Kikino, who tells me that when he returned to the capital, Tirana, people said, “Your Italian food is great, but where’s your Albanian food?”
It spurred him to enroll in a course on his country’s history and he is now Albanian Consul of the Accademia Italiana Gastronomia Storica. Kola says, “You love Albania only when you’ve been away,” and these foodies, like many of the diners they serve, have returned home from work as migrants abroad with a new appetite for the land of their birth – and some healthy disdain for the aspirations of imitation cuisine, advising that “the presence of avocado isn’t the proof of a good dish”.
Kola's jufka pasta
These chefs take a witty, creative approach to educating the tastebuds of their clientele. At Mrizi i Zanave restaurant, located in the rolling countryside which gave birth to Albania’s national poet Gjergj Fishta, I am served kebabs of tender meat and flavoursome slow-roasted local vegetables speared on twiggy branches several feet long, with leaves still attached.
At Rapsodia restaurant in Lezha, chef Alfred Marku has taken the flavours of his childhood but combined them in new ways: a dough made of clover flowers and potato, and light cornbread wafers - far from the gritty loaves of Hoxha’s breadline Albania - served with an airy cheese mousse and sprouting corn.
It’s not all about playing with your food though; there are serious economic and quality questions to be dealt with. Marku has created two co-operatives, one of 100 livestock farmers and one of 50 arable farmers, and he’s started his own cheesemaking enterprise to ensure quality in his sourcing. The best Albanian food can compete with imports, and already enjoys a lively export market (Albanian sage, for example, represents 70 per cent of the American market – all those Thanksgiving turkeys stuffed with fragrance from this corner of southern Europe). And this is an economy that needs all the export market it can get.
A rich variety of produce can be found at markets (Shutterstock)
Of course the impact of Albania’s relative poverty is that even its world-class culinary experiences come cheap by British standards; for example, in Shkodra, the elegant town which is the cultural capital of northern Albania, I enjoyed fine dining at the exceptional boutique hotel Tradita, for less than €15 a head, including wine.
And there are wonderful gastronomic experiences to be had well away from the restaurants too. For my own culinary itinerary Kikino says I should try the Ottoman-named tava, a clay-baked dish of meat with yoghurt and eggs, made famous in the town of Elbasan where I’m travelling to experience the hot springs.
Kola has now opened a new rustic restaurant, Mullixhiu ("The Miller"), where the smartest palates in Tirana are fed, but he recommends getting to Theth, a picture postcard village of shingled houses perched in the Accursed Mountains. There isn't a restaurant in sight, but I tryfli, layered pancakes, cooked by one of the families offering homestays. Kikino agrees this is the way to sample the best food in Albania: “Tourists should go to guesthouses. They may not have tablecloths, but they’ll be clean. Go where the signs are most badly written.” He also urges visitors to try the golden range of Albanian carbohydrates, echoing the Albanian saying for hospitality, “bread, salt and our hearts”.
One of Theth's homestay hosts prepares 'fli' (Elizabeth Gowing)
“Gezuar,” says Dashami Elezi at hisEtnik restaurant, raising a glass, and we enjoy the tang of sparkling pomegranate juice. Yet, Elezi enjoys more than fizzy fruit juice – he’s a member of the World Jury of Sommeliers and is enthusiastic about local wines, particularly the full-bodied Kallmet, which is already being exported and which I enjoy with my meal.
There is a revival in other local drinks - wild rosehip wine, now part of the international Slow Food movement’s “Ark of Taste” as a local delicacy worth protecting, and the rosemary-infused grappa-like raki offered at the cool Komiteti (meaning “The Committee”) “café museum” in the heart of Tirana. This recent enterprise has been set up to commemorate the Communist past – waiters wear uniforms emblazoned with the red star; I got lucky when one pulled down a glass from where they were suspended between the tines of garden rakes hung from the ceiling, and treated me to some warming clove karafili, one of the jewel-coloured liqueurs in retro decanters behind the bar. They’re homemade, to recipes perfected during the communist years of self-sufficiency.
Fine dining and local wine at Etnik (restorantetnik.al)
I’m learning from my Albanian travels and conversations with these pioneers of food and drink that Albania’s gastronomic revolution - like the country’s wider history - is a story of rugged self-reliance, as well as of intriguing Ottoman, Italian and Greek influences; it’s where cosmopolitans meet cottage gardens. And it’s delicious.
British Airways (ba.com) flies from Gatwick to Tirana, while Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies from Stansted to Podgorica, just an hour over the border in Montenegro.
Hotel Tradita in Shkodra (00 355 22 24 05 37; hoteltradita.com) offers doubles from €64, B&B.