Following my usual habit of taking to the hills in case of temperatures above 25 C for long persids of time, come August and sick and tired of temperatures which resemble the outer reaches of the Sahara, I retreated for a long weekend to Albania.
During the short time I was in the country, the Albanians were unfailingly polite, welcoming and above all willing to chat. The topics of conversation were sometimes a little surprising, however.
“Do you know about Lord Byron?”
I blinked, and looked up.
“He is the most famous English author”.
I hastily ran through my mental notecard for Lord Byron: Romantic poetry – mad, bad, dangerous to know – keen on Albanian traditional dress. Ah.
Crammed into the back of a decrepit minibus and chatting with a group of local students, this sudden digression into literary criticism was not as peculiar as it seemed . We were heading into what are variously known as the Accursed Mountains (if you are a frustrated invading army) or the Blessed Mountains (if you are involved in the tourism industry) in the remote northern highlands of Albania: Byron had indeed passed through Albania on his Grand Tour. Evidently he had left quite an impression.
Still described by some more excitable guidebooks as a hotbed of blood feuds where it would be unwise to venture without a local guide, the modern reality of northern Albania is quite different: ecotourism has been embraced with a will, and homestays and hiking tracks are springing up in villages across the mountains. Our bus was bumping along a dirt road in the Valbonë valley, where the dramatic, unspoiled landscape is beginning to lure more and more tourists.
It remains, however, a region that requires a certain amount of determination to get to. An early morning minibus from Tirana had brought us to the dusty shores of Lake Koman. Actually a valley flooded by a hydropower project in the 80s, the lake now provides (courtesy of a passenger ferry consisting of the top half of a bus welded to a flat metal base) a beautiful, meandering, route to the highlands.
Squeezed into the meagre shade on deck to better admire the views, the ferry journey had been a joy. We chugged slowly across the lake, passing shrines set into the cliff-side and occasionally offering a tow to another boat. High on the cliffs, people would flag the ferry down and the captain would jerk the steering wheel and we would lurch to one side or another of the valley. Passengers would totter on and off over a narrow, swaying wooden gang plank, clutching wedding dresses and bags of cement and the occasional chicken: people working in Tirana going home for a visit, people from the villages coming to town to buy or to sell. The valley narrowed and the cliffs closed around the ferry, the tilted layers of limestone seeming to dive into the deep green water ahead of us, before we were deposited at an isolated jetty and loaded into a minibus for the final leg of the journey.
Now the dust rose as the bus rumbled through the mountains, and the conversation turned to Byronic exploits. The man himself, I felt sure, would have been delighted to know that people were still talking about him.