Post-Communist Paradise in Albania

Europe has a secret. It's called Albania—a Maryland-size playground of rugged peaks, emerald seas, and ripping rivers. The only catch? It's really poor, graft is rampant, and there's little environmental regulation. Pack your bribe money for a warts-and-all jaunt through the wildest post-Communist state on earth.

May 13, 2014
Outside Magazine

Southern Albanian highlands in Fir of Hotova National Park.    Photo: Mustfah Abdulaziz

A Beginner's Guide to Albanian Adventure

By foot, bike, or boat—take our advice and see this gem of southeastern Europe your way.

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.

It’s a chilly, slightly wet May morning, and I’m sitting in a raft full of Albanian guys. They’re all down from Tirana, the capital, for their first whitewater trip, a daylong jaunt operated by Outdoor Albania, one of the few outfitters trying to sell the notion that this former Stalinist state can become an adventure hub. Our strokes are mismatched, and we keep clanging our paddles, but we’re having a blast digging through holes and bouncing over wave trains. Then the river flattens and we spin lazily in the current.

“Where you from?” asks the guy in front, a muscular security guard named Endri Xhafka.

“Oregon,” I say. “USA.”

“Albanians love USA!” interjects a bigger guy beside him, an aspiring raft guide named Alban Vila.

“Do Americans know Albania?” Xhafka asks.

“We are in Wag the Dog!” Vila adds.

“And Taken,” Xhafka says.

The Simpsons, too,” I offer. I’m about to mention the Belushi brothers, whose Albanian father grew up in the Korcha highlands, but just then our lead guide, Gent Mati, a lean 37-year-old with meaty forearms, interrupts us.

Para!” he shouts. It means “forward,” but I take it to mean “dig like hell.” “Paraparapara!”

We para poorly and drift portside into a dogleg wall. In a flash, we’re pinned between the canyon and the current.

“High side! High side!” Mati shouts. We all attempt to scramble up the raft’s tipping edge, but the river is too strong. Within seconds the boat flips onto its side and I’m cartwheeling into the water along with everyone else. Icy rivulets rake through my wetsuit. I pop up in a blast of adrenaline. One of our guys has gone missing.

Overboard in the Osum.   Photo: Mustafah Abdulaziz

“Andi! Andi!” people shout in a panic.

Then, chaos: the second boat in our three-raft flotilla hits the wall and turtles in the exact same spot. The Osum becomes a burst of blue paddles and flushed heads in bright orange helmets. A drybag breaks loose and floats by with $7,000 in camera gear inside. I backstroke toward the one upright raft, where Zafir Shumanov, a 33-year-old guide from Macedonia, hauls me in. We’re safely within an eddy, but with ten people now in the one upright raft, the extra weight threatens to push us back into the current. “We are too heavy!” Shumanov yells, but there’s nowhere else to go. Everyone else is screaming, too.

“Andi! Andi!”

For a few awful moments, nobody answers that call.

Suddenly, Andi Qyqja, a 26-year-old former professional soccer goalie, pops up from an undercut wall.

“Holy shit!” I stammer when he gets close. “Are you OK?”

“Oof,” he says, eyes rolling in their sockets. He’s thrashed but alive and well, which, come to think of it, is a lot like Albania itself.

Positioned between Greece and the shards of Yugoslavia on the Adriatic Sea, Albania is slowly recovering from some very rough decades. For much of the 20th century, the nation, which is predominantly Muslim, wheezed under the jackboots of a Marxist dictator named Enver Hoxha, who forged Albania into one of history’s most extreme Communist states. During his 40-year rule, following World War II, Hoxha (pronounced ho-jah) grew so severe in his ideology that he cut his country off from the rest of the world. No one could enter or leave. To deter both invasions and revolts, Hoxha built some 700,000 machine-gun nests around a nation smaller than Maryland. Wearing shorts in town could get you questioned for being bourgeois.

Hoxha died in 1985, Communism collapsed, and by 1992 a fledgling democracy took root as a noisy world of Pepsi, Fiats, and polyester tracksuits rushed in. Hope sprung briefly as people accumulated new wealth, but Albania’s experiment with capitalism soon went horrifically awry. New private Albanian investment companies started promising outrageous interest rates on deposits—triple your money in three months!—and roughly two-thirds of the population dumped upwards of $1.2 billion into what amounted to pyramid schemes. In January 1997, two of the bigger ones collapsed, and riots broke out all over the country when Albanians realized how badly they’d been duped. The economy ground to a near halt, inflation soared to 40 percent, and production slowed to a trickle. Police and soldiers deserted their posts, mobs stormed armories, and a million weapons ended up on the streets. The president, Sali Berisha, resigned. More than 2,000 people died in the anarchy before the UN dispatched international troops to restore order.

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 Namuna, 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. Imagine a country of three million liberal, smoking, dancing, drinking, gregarious Muslims who like Americans—a lot.

Ruins of Apollonia, one of dozens of antiquity sits in Albania.   Photo: Mustafah Abdulaziz

I’ve come here three times in the past eight months because I’m kind of obsessed. On my first trip, I trekked through the mountainous north of Theth National Park and then went south to the Drino Valley to hike in the footsteps of Lord Byron, who traveled here in 1809. I meandered through forgotten ruins, slept in stone guesthouses, and helped a friendly old widow pick pomegranates. I came away a believer. For my money, Albania is the most gorgeous, overlooked, and fascinating place in Europe, a country where the pressure of tourism has yet to can its soul. (I confess to being maybe overly enthusiastic; I’ve even appeared on an Albanian talk show to tout the country’s potential.) This time, I wanted to play in the water and organized a ten-day trip along the southern coast and then inland toward the Vjosa and Osum drainages with Mati, an avid paddler and the owner of Outdoor Albania.

A few days before our rafting adventure, we met in Tirana, an Atlanta-size city with bright yellow buildings, leafy boulevards, and a street named after George W. Bush. Young working professionals hustled past slick restaurants wearing designer shoes that clicked on the pavement, exuding confidence and promise. Still, nearly everyone I talked to, young and old alike, would rather be in Italy, Greece, or New York to find better schools, more work, and doctors who don’t solicit bribes. One owner of a successful Tirana hotel, Fatmir Shabani, told me, “If I could, I wouldn’t leave tomorrow. I’d leave today.”

A light rain fell as I headed to an outdoor café where Mati waited under a large canvas umbrella. His dog, Vicky, sat quietly beneath the table. I told Mati about my previous Albanian adventures and why I was back so soon. He laughed.

“You have a romantic view of Albania, don’t you?” he said. “You know, some German students tried to come up with an adventure-tourism slogan for us. One of them was ‘Albania: where the only dictators left are guides.’ ”

With that, we went to shoo some chickens out of his sea kayaks.

From Tirana, we rolled in Mati’s Land Cruiser about 150 miles south through the Ceraunian Mountains to a coastal village called Qeparo. The humped peaks of Corfu lingered in the distance; white limestone cliffs braced against the sea. Mati eased the kayaks into the water, and we went for a leisurely paddle over spiny black urchins and past an entrance to one of Hoxha’s secret submarine bases. Mati’s father, Ilir, spent the Cold War working on those subs.

“When he got out of the military, he was really the first to start bringing adventure tourists to Albania,” Mati said. “They’d hike and ride bikes all along this coast.”

Water gave Mati purpose. In 1994, at 17, he met some Italian kayakers who taught him how to paddle. He chased whitewater down Andean creeks and African rivers and studied law and public policy in Poland and Brussels, but returned home to Albania where, in 2003, he met a tall Dutch woman named Laura. The couple had two kids and purchased a big apartment in Tirana. Together they started Outdoor Albania to take people into the country’s once forbidden pockets.

“Originally, I wanted to bring Albania closer to the European Union,” Mati said. “Now it’s the opposite. I want to bring the world to Albania and change the perceptions of my country through tourism.”

Gent Mati, the author's 37-year-old lead guide.   Photo: Mustafah Abdulaziz

We paddled back to our hotel in Qeparo, a ten-room, whitewashed inn called Riviera, where we sat on a beachfront patio. As we sipped our beers, some skinny beach cats wandered up, and we fed them bites of our sardines. A chain-smoking, one-eyed, one-armed fisherman named Foro Leka ran the place. According to local rumor, he lost his arm and eye years ago in a dynamite accident. He poured us shots of free homemade brandy and thanked us repeatedly for visiting but kept his distance.

The next day, we drove south toward the beaches of Saranda, starting not far from where Roman warships landed during Caesar’s Civil War, more than 2,000 years ago. The landing site was gorgeous—pale sand against the shiny Ionian Sea—but Saranda was not. Noisy beachside discos and poorly planned condos had consumed the views; trash heaps choked the ravines. We headed a few miles east to the municipality of Mesopotam and stopped at a park with a sinkhole that gurgled with the birth of a pure blue river. The guard slipped our entrance-fee money into his pocket, where, Mati assured me, it would stay.

So there are warts. Unscrupulous officials pave the roads of districts that vote for them and leave the others to rot. Organized crime, pollution, and corruption are serious threats. And yet there’s so much beauty: tropical green water, friendly madder-roofed villages, valleys plucked from the Alps. If Albanians could eat the views, they’d all weigh 300 pounds.

Early that evening, we pushed on to Permet, a town of about 12,000 people near the Greek border, on the edge of Fir of Hotova National Park. We grabbed rooms at a rustic stone inn called Coli’s and headed out for a 20-minute mountain-bike ride to some hot springs under an old Ottoman bridge. We could almost smell the sulphur when the rain hit hard and sent us scrambling for shelter.

“All this water will actually be great for the Osum,” Mati beamed.

He's right. It's certainly the most dramatic rafting day trip I’ve ever done. Once Andi emerges from the water, we right the upset boats and collect the flotsam. I return to my own raft, and we float another five miles with ease. We swim under waterfalls and marvel at the canyon, which collapses so tightly around us at one point that it becomes exactly the width of our raft.

We make it to the take-out in Chorovoda, a small town where the canyon ends, just as the rain really hits. While the group from Tirana settles the bill with Mati, I grab a seat at a café next to Zafir Shumanov, the Macedonian expat, who moved here to start a music label and date Mati’s sister, Besa. That romance didn’t end well, but Shumanov found another reason to stay: fish. He tells me he’s spent six years—his entire time in Albania—combing the country for the best places to catch Ohrid trout, carp, and perch. “It’s a sickness,” he says.

Carp fishing near the Skanderbeg Mountains.   Photo: Mustafah Abdulaziz

Eager to catch a little of this sickness, I make a plan to go fishing with him near Tirana a few days later. On my last full day in Albania, Shumanov plucks me from the capital’s predawn light, and we rush out of the city in his Fiat, spinning rods rattling in the back. We slip past lifeless apartments and a lone horse grazing in a roundabout. Thin strips of fog cling to the scalloped parapets of the Skanderbeg Mountains to the northeast. Forty-five minutes later, Shumanov opens a gate off a winding road, and before us lies Shkopet Lake.

“Blue! Blue! Blue!” he says, eyes wild behind scraggly bangs. “And full of very big craps!”

“Craps?” I ask.

“Carps,” he says. “In Macedonian you say krap. Forgive me my English.”

Shumanov gets to work balancing four rods on Y-shaped holders and cracks a can of corn for bait. It’s not exactly Norman Maclean material, but what a fine spot this is. Hiking trails lead toward a distant summit, and sheep graze under lime trees on the banks. A month after I leave, Shumanov turns this plot into a fishing retreat with a restaurant serving savory carp soup. As we sit on the shore, waiting, it occurs to me that patience and slow, smart development may be the ticket for this place. That’s a hard thing to ask of a society that’s been caged up for decades. Today the average worker earns about $350 a month. Yet the alternatives are clear. The last thing Albania needs is to dam its rivers or entomb another view in concrete.

Hours go by at the lake and no one gets the kraps. Instead we drink more brandy and try to catch one of the sheep with Shumanov’s fishing net, which is really hard to do. I’m about to give up and go hiking when a rod suddenly springs to life. Shumanov leaps from his seat.

“It is starting!” he says, and that’s enough to give a man hope.

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