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The treasures of Albania: Ahead of her new TV series, BETTANY HUGHES celebrates the beguiling coastline, majestic mountains and engaging people of a country that’s ‘booming’

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Inspired by the travels of three doughty Britons – Lord Byron, the Hon Aubrey Henry Molyneux Herbert (half-brother of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who helped uncover Tutankhamun’s tomb), and the feisty adventurer Edith Durham, we set out exploring Albania, with three landscapes to conquer – river, mountain and sea.

There were four of us; my husband and I and our 20-something daughters.

I’ve been bringing them here for 15 years but now travel in Albania is booming. After 50 years of isolation under a communist regime – with dictator Enver Hoxha in office from 1944 to 1985 and fully independent only since 1992 – Albania is welcoming the world with open arms.

Albanians have a beautiful, time-honoured phrase – ‘blessed are your feet for bringing you here’. So, get to Albania fast while the welcome is sweet and authentic, and a feast for four costs little more than a round in a UK pub.

CAKE… AT 3,000FT

Kruje Castle, pictured, is 40 minutes from the capital, Tirana

 Kruje Castle, pictured, is 40 minutes from the capital, Tirana

I admire the Albanian attitude to cake. They are great early morning cake-eaters, often freshly baked with oranges or kumquats and crunchy with pumpkin seeds.

Luckily there are mountain hikes to deal with the inevitable results.

Above Kruje Castle, 40 minutes from the capital Tirana, there is a rock-cut shrine belonging to the Bektashi sect (a combination of Muslim, Christian and ancient beliefs) which collapses time.

Some 3,000ft high, lit by candles, pilgrims come here to make offerings: meat and perfumed oil.

A Bektashi baba – with a long white beard that Noah would have envied – confided in me that the only thing Bektashis revile are bare knees and rabbits.

This is tricky in Albania as lolloping rabbits as well as plump ducks and baby donkeys share many of the mountain roads.

Bettany, pictured above, has been bringing her family to Albania for 15 years

Bettany, pictured above, has been bringing her family to Albania for 15 years 

An elderly woman sold me freshly picked coltsfoot flowers for tea and rose oil for my hair. It’s easy to imagine why Byron so loved this place.

It reminded him of the remote Highlands of Scotland. Moving south from Tirana to the mountain-view city of Berat, with sacred Mount Tomorr lighting up flame red in the morning, its slopes home to bears, booted eagles and black vultures, this city ‘of a thousand windows’ was a merchant’s stop on the old silk routes.

We stayed in Hotel Vila Aleksander and woke to the cluck of hens laying eggs. Albania has a fierce code of hospitality – Besa – which means people will give up all to protect respected guests.

It became one of the rare places where the Jewish population, mainly refugees fleeing the Nazis, was greater after the Second World War than before.

COASTAL REVIVAL

Bettany reveals that at Grama Bay, pictured, there are still ancient inscriptions, some 23 centuries old, peppering the cliffs

Bettany reveals that at Grama Bay, pictured, there are still ancient inscriptions, some 23 centuries old, peppering the cliffs  

With the island of Corfu visible on a clear day and Italy just a four-hour ferry ride away, the Albanian riviera is starting to boom.

My favourite nautical Albanian captain, on the Ionian coast around the city of Vlore, is called Baci, who arranges bespoke trips to the uninhabited nature reserve of Karaburuni, where at Grama Bay there are still ancient inscriptions, some 23 centuries old, peppering the cliffs.

There are heartfelt prayers to the mythical sailor brothers of Helen of Troy, Castor and Pollux.

Butrint is a site where ancient Greek remains peek through Roman arches, Byzantine mosaics and the remains of Venetian lagoons, says Bettany.  Pictured: The remains of Butrint's theatre

Butrint is a site where ancient Greek remains peek through Roman arches, Byzantine mosaics and the remains of Venetian lagoons, says Bettany.  Pictured: The remains of Butrint’s theatre

After an exploration of the haunting, Homer-worthy sea caves, Captain Baci’s dockside tables offered fresh fish, caught and fried as we waited, golden chips and a tricolori salad better than any I’ve eaten in Italy.

Further south, about three hours drive, Butrint – said to be founded by the hero of the Trojan War, Aeneas – is a site where ancient Greek remains peek through Roman arches, Byzantine mosaics and the remains of Venetian lagoons.

We passed through without staying overnight but Dua Lipa and other stars in the Albanian-Kosovan firmament rent villas at nearby Kep Merli.

GOING WITH THE FLOW

Bettany says that visitors can go white-water rafting on the Vjosa River, above

Bettany says that visitors can go white-water rafting on the Vjosa River, above 

Rivers in Albania carry liquid history. The wild waterway of Vjosa has been turned into a national park, flowing into the Adriatic from the Pindus Mountains in Greece.

Chamomile tea is from the meadows, cherry jam from the shading wild cherries. Around the fortress town of Tepelene, the Vjosa swells to offer white-water rafting.

It is worth following the river Osum and its tributaries too, flanked between the town of Berat and tiny village of Roshnik by fresh olive and apricot stalls.

Our daughters Sorrel and May insisted they treat us to a thank-you meal. Locals told us to find a place called Alpeta. Our table was swiftly thick with spiced goats cheese, jugs of red and white wine, piping corn bread, courgette pies.

We ate until we could eat no more. I could see the girls nervously checking their Monzo accounts. The cost? £36 for four.

TRAVEL FACTS 

Regent Holidays (regent-holidays.co.uk) offers tours of Albania starting at £1,180pp ($1,484) for five days including flights, accommodation and most meals. Bettany’s The Treasures of Albania And The Adriatic is on Channel 4 at 7pm on Saturday. She travelled with a car provided by Landways International.

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