Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Discovering The Albanian Riveria: Dhermi

The best of the Albanian Riviera

The Albanian Riviera. If you aren't from Albania or haven't traveled through the Balkans, you have probably never heard of it.  Or maybe you read about the area when the New York Times featured the region in its Frugal Traveler section.  If you are familiar with the region and have been there, then you know what all of the fuss is about.  The Albanian Riviera extends from where the Adriatic and Ionian Seas meet at the coastal city of Vlore south to the border where Albania meets Greece.  Just over 80 miles in length, due to narrow roads, random animals in the road, and the sweeping views, driving its entire length can take hours.  (And this isn't necessarily a bad thing).  Approaching the area from the north means traversing a narrow hairpin road up through Llogara Pass then weaving your way down to the shore below.  On a clear day, the vistas more than compensate for the slow going. This area includes the coastal villages of Borsch, Qeparo, Himara, and Dhermi as well as the larger port city of Saranda and was recognized as a 2012 top value destination by Frommer's.  The mostly pristine beaches along this stretch of coastline are pebbly but the crystal clear water invites visitors to jump right in and forgo stepping on the rocks.  Many are inaccessible to all but the most sturdy of vehicles as are numerous castle ruins perched atop soaring cliffs.  The area is known for its rich olive oil and fresh seafood and due to the region's proximity to Greece, there are Greek influences in everything from the area's culture and language to its food.  Like the rest of the country, the history of this region runs deep; it has been settled, invaded, occupied, and been the site of battles since ancient times.  Albanian history cites an attack by Phillip of Macedonia (father of Alexandria the Great) on the village of Himara in 214 BC.  Now that is some ancient history.

View from the beach

We had been hearing about the natural beauty of the Albanian Riviera since we arrived here and had driven through on several occasions en route to other destinations, but had never spent a substantial amount of time there.  We always meant to really visit but other than lunches at roadside fish shacks or an afternoon exploring the cavernous Porto Palermo castle, the area had been nothing more than a view out the car window.  This past weekend we had the opportunity to spend the night (two of them in fact) and experience the area of ourselves.  We were the guests of a friend whose family has owned property in Dhermi since the early 1900s and as such, he was privy to the best spots in the village, introduced us to them and gave us a sense of what the area is really like.

I've often said that the best way to discover an area is to live like a local and that is what we did.  Sure you can see a lot when you rush from one historic or must see site to another but in doing so, are you really experiencing the area?  As guests in our friend's home we were able to sit on the balcony and enjoy the water views.  Whether it was a morning coffee or an evening glass of wine, the rising or setting sun and the cool breezes off of the water only amplified our feelings of tranquility.  Repeatedly we found ourselves wondering how we could still be so close to the hustle and bustle of Tirana yet feel a world away.  The air was so much cleaner in Dhermi than it is in the city and although the village is gearing up for the height of their tourism season, the pace of life around us felt sleepy and relaxed.  It was impossible not to join in on the feeling.  We spent the days lounging on the beach in a far off section of waterfront that had been under guard and off limits to all but the party elite during Communist times.  Even today, at the far end of the beach, it was separated from the more lively boardwalk-type area.  It was so easy to loll away the hours while just looking at the water.  Our meals were casual affairs filled with fresh fish and seafood that had just been pulled from the sea. It was so fresh, in fact, that we selected which fish we wanted from a still squirming selection that was presented to us on a platter.  (We also discovered that we actually know more people that we think here in Albania.  On two separate occasions we encountered Albanians we had previously met at other locations thus proving just how small of a country this really is).  In reality, our weekend was filled with doing absolutely nothing and it was just perfect.

The southern view of Llogara Pass

After any trip I always feel a sense of sadness when it is time to pack up and return home.  I call it a post vacation let down.  Despite of, or maybe because of, our only being away for two nights, I left Dhermi desperately wanting to experience more of it. It was so idyllic that I wanted to spend more time just sitting and absorbing the sun, sand, and fresh sea air. But all is not lost; we've consulted our calendars and are planning a trip back this fall. I've been told that the area is even more beautiful at that time of the year and I can't wait to go and see it for myself.

And of course, no trip to the beach would be
complete without a few rocks being thrown

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