The tour starts at our hotel in Tirana, Albania's capital. Those travelling on the group flights will be met at the airport and transferred the short journey (approx. 30 mins.) to our hotel.
This afternoon we'll have an orientation tour of the colourful streets of Tirana, which was made the capital of Albania in just 1920. We'll drive to the main sites, stopping to visit the impressive National History Museum, the facade of which is adorned with a gigantic mosaic known as, 'The Albanians'. This is one of the finest examples of late Albanian Socialist Realism in the country, depicting the resilience of the people in their fight against invasion and occupation throughout the centuries, and dominates Skanderbeg Square. The exhibits within the museum give great insight into Albania's intriguing past and recent history up to the present day.
We also explore an area known as Blloku on foot, where villas were once occupied by members of The Politburo (former leading sect of the Party of Labour of Albania) but which is now the lively centre of Tirana's nightlight where trendy bars, cafes, and fashionable clubs can be found.
PLEASE NOTE: Depending on the arrival time of the group flight, we may visit the mediaeval market town of Kruje today before taking a city tour of Tirana (for flights arriving in the afternoon we will visit Kruje on the final day instead - please see day 10 for further details).
After breakfast we begin our drive to Pogradec (approx. 3 hrs. drive), but en route we make a short stop to visit the fortress of Elbasan. A city influenced by various cultures including Serbs and more importantly Italians, the fortress here dates to the 15th century and was built by the Romans. The fortifications originally incorporated twenty-six towers equidistantly spaced from each other along the length of a nine meter high wall; today remnants of this can be seen along the southern wall which remains more or less intact.
Our final destination for today is one of the most charming resorts in Albania, Pogradec, thanks to its position on beautiful Lake Ohrid with clear waters and mountain views. Keep your eyes peeled for Orhrid trout (known as 'Koran' in Albania), a species endemic to Lake Ohrid. We go for a scenic walk at Drilon Park on the far side of the lake, to discover the waterways and ornamental plants and trees that make up this special ecosystem.
This morning we continue driving for about an hour to reach Voskopoja Village (formerly known as Moskopole) an important and well-known centre of art where many talented Albanian painters chose to practice their profession. The village has suffered over the years, as many of its treasures were stolen during the second half of the 18th century and this even continued during the World Wars.
Another short drive (approx. 30 mins.) takes us to the largest city of south-eastern Albania, Korce, which sits at the foot of Moravia Mountain. This city became an important handicraft centre and has also been referred to as 'the city of museums', being home to the National Museum of Mediaeval Art and Archaeology, the Museum of Education (where the first Albanian School was opened in 1878), and the new museum of 'Bratko Collections' displaying antiquities from the Far East. Korce has also been an important religious centre for Orthodox Christians so a visit to the famous church 'The Resurrection' is a must as well as trying the famous local beer.
Our drive through the mountains today is truly spectacular as we enjoy sweeping views across the Gramos and Nemercka Mountains. Along the winding route, we enjoy a short stop in Erseke, which at 1050m is the highest town in Albania. This 17th century town is surrounded by beautiful green pastures of the Gramos Mountains. Continuing onwards, we make a quick stop-off at the old bridge of Benje village en route to beautiful Permet. After quite a long day (approx. 5 hrs. drive in total) we arrive into Permet, situated in the heart of the white mountains on the Vjose River. A short walk (about half an hour) familiarises us with this traditional village and we stop to see the nearby St. Mary's Church of Leusa, one of the best preserved in the country with wonderful frescoes. This evening you're sure to be in for a treat as Permet is famous for its food and wines, including 'gliko' sweets and raki.
Drive to the beautiful town of Gjirokastra (approx. 2 hrs. drive), calling in at the traditional village of Dhoksat on the way for a home-cooked lunch. In the afternoon we enjoy a guided visit around the famous town of Gjirokaster; set on a mountain slope; the cobbled streets wind their way between old houses with interesting architectural features including mediaeval towers. The castle stands like a balcony over the town and offers wonderful panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. The National Museum of Weapons is housed in the interior of the castle, where weapons have been produced for Albanian troops since ancient times.
In the morning we have a short journey (approx. 30 mins) to visit the 'Blue Eye', an area where seven artesian wells (natural springs) rise. Named after the largest spring, where the water descends to depths of over 50m as it infiltrates the pale-coloured surrounding rock. We then continue to the UNESCO Site of Butrint (approx. 1 hr. drive), a sanctuary dedicated to Asclepius, the god of medicine, founded in the fourth century. Worshippers came to the sanctuary and left symbolic objects or money for the gods and priests in the belief that they would be healed by the sacred waters. We spend the night in the cosmopolitan city of Sarande, which is a stark contrast to the tranquil villages we have stayed in so far.
A change of scenery today as we head to the Ionian coast. We spend time at Dhermi, which boasts a pleasant beach with kilometres of white sand and pebbles sloping gently toward the beautiful turquoise waters. There's plenty of time for swimming, sunbathing and relaxing in this unspoilt corner of the Mediterranean. Lunch will be taken at a local beachside resort.
From Dhermi, we wind our way up the coast enjoying views to Corfu and miles of olive trees and pine forests to reach the popular destination of Vlore, where the Albanian Declaration of Independence was proclaimed in 1912. The rest of the afternoon is free to relax on Vlore's beach or to wander through this vibrant large town. (Total driving time today is approx. 3.5 hrs.)
We start our journey north today and stop at the wonderful ruins of Apollonia (approx. 2.5 hrs. drive). Originally occupied by the Illyrian tribes and then the Greek colonists around 600BC, Apollonia flourished in the Roman period and was home to a renowned school of philosophy but began to decline in the 3rd century AD when its harbour started silting up as a result of an earthquake. We continue inland to the Monastery of Ardenice, built by the Byzantine Emperor in 1282 (approx. 40 mins. drive). The monastery became famous as the national hero of Albania, Andronika Arianiti married here in 1451. Another highlight is the Church of Saint Mary set within the monastery, which reveals frescoes from famous Albanian painters. Finally, we transfer further inland to the famous city of Berat (approx. 1 hr. drive).
This morning we enjoy a guided tour around the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site of Berat, with its pretty white buildings perched on the hill amid pine forests. We walk through the narrow cobbled streets to finally reach Berat Castle, where we are rewarded with breath-taking views (and begin to understand why it is known to Albanians as 'The City of a Thousand Windows').
From Berat we drive to the port of Durres (approx. 2 hrs. drive), the second largest city in Albania and famed for housing the largest amphitheatre in the Balkans. The amphitheatre dates back to the 2nd century AD, seats 15,000 people and contains an early Christian crypt with rare wall mosaics.
PLEASE NOTE: If the group flight on your departure date arrived in the afternoon of Day 1 and you did not visit Kruje at the start of the trip, you will visit it today instead.
After an early breakfast we drive to the famous mediaeval citadel of Kruje (approx. 45 mins. drive), where Skanderbeg led the resistance against the Ottomans, and enjoy inspirational views out to the Adriatic Coast. We will visit the Scanderbeg Museum, a rich ethnographic museum inside the castle, and wander the medieval bazaar full of souvenirs and handicrafts.
Those travelling on the group flights will be transferred to Tirana airport for your flight back to London.