Like the other nine people in my Exodus group I had only a vague preconceived image of what to expect in Albania ; possibly a rather drab, depressed society still struggling to free itself from the recent shackles of communism but with the compensatory prospect of some decent walking in a remote and little-known corner of Europe.The reality was almost overwhelming : the scenery (whether mountain or coastal) was stunning, towns and cities were bright and lively, clean, and seemingly safe; the depth of history and heritage was fascinating; and the locals were exceptionally friendly and welcoming wherever we went.
- What was the most inspirational moment of your trip?
The itinerary was so full it is impossible to single out just one highlight. They must range from the spectacular mountainous landscapes around Theth and Valbona National Park to the sheer scale and drama of Berat Castle or the humbling surroundings of Ardenica Monastery.
However, perhaps the abiding memory is one of the pervading optimism that seems to exist, despite the relatively short time since the demise of the repressive communist regime. The towns are vibrant, colourful and lively places. People everywhere were polite, helpful and genuinely warm and friendly.
The same was true of neighbouring Kosovo. The contrast between a village cemetary, where the majority of headstones depicted deaths on the same day as a result of a massacre during the 1990's conflict, and the flourishing cafe culture and general sense of wellbeing in Prizren was truly inspirational.
Both countries have made remarkable progress since their recent troubles.
- What did you think of your group leader?
Our group leader Dorien was exceptional. Intelligent (a qualified psychologist) with excellent English and a remarkable local and historical knowledge (with his father he is co-owner of the tourist company handling the trip on behalf of Exodus).
The group developed a real rapport with him and greatly appreciated his efforts on our behalf. He was considering modifying some of the walking as his previous group had found it too difficult. However, we convinced him that we were capable and he even substituted a stiff 5 hour route for the easy leg-stretcher on day 2.
While being in the forefront of current tourist development in Albania, he is also very much in favour of a responsible, sustainable approach to this and promoting local involvement as far as possible. He was keen to take on board any comments, suggestions or criticisms in this respect.
- Do you have any advice for potential travellers?
While this trip is a mixture of walking and sightseeing, some of the terrain in the north of the country over the first few days is quite demanding and hardly ' moderate ' (compared, for example, to the Transyvania or Rodopi walking). A good degree of fitness is essential and poles indispensible for some of the steep rocky trails.
Having said that, the toughest days come early on and the second half of the week is rather more relaxing.
Exodus trip photos don't really do justice to the scenery so find some other websites to get a better idea of what is on offer.
If you are fit and are considering this Albania trip then go ! I guarantee that it will exceed all your expectations. But hurry - things are developing rapidly and it won't remain a hidden gem for much longer.Catch it while its traditions and naive beauty remain largely intact.
- Is there anything else you would like to add?
The accommodation exceeded expectations. The Theth guesthouse was very rustic and simple but provided all necessities. Generally, however, we were more than satisfied and pleasantly surprised at the standard of the 3* hotels we used. The ' Mangalemi ' in Berat was particularly characterful. Service everywhere welcoming and either good or excellent.
Prices for food and drink quoted by Exodus exceeded those that we encountered by about 30%. The general standard of restaurant food was very good and brilliant value.