The Guardian: It's like going back in time - an eco-tour through the wonders of Albania
With magnificent national parks and a traditional way of life, the Balkan country offers an unforgettable experience for foreign visitors, writes Teresa Machan in an article published in the British daily "The Guardian". In the hills above the village of Tragjas in Vlorë, southwest Albania, I was running after a farmer named Sofo, a glass of brandy in one hand and a triangular pancake in the other. Dusk was leaving and daylight was beginning to break, we were late and the goats had to be milked. Sofo and his wife Dhurata were waiting for us for dinner at the "restaurant" in the village. We walked up to the farm from the road through knotweed, gorse and rampant sage. The gift offers me a pancake filled with homemade goat cheese (a traditional fried dough dish) and I rush after Sofo. Before we could sit down to enjoy the plates of vegetables, meat and grilled meatballs, the milk had to be made. "This is what happens in Albania. The locals want to give you things all the time," said our guide, Elton Caushi. It's true. Everywhere we went, doors opened and conversation and refreshments ensued. Driving around I met hikers, campers, a group of students from Bristol University exploring by car and a retired British couple cycling. Everyone had nothing but praise for the Albanian hospitality. I came to Albania with the tour operator "Intrepid", to experience a nine-day trip, run in partnership with "Meet" (Mediterranean Eco-Tourism Experience). In recent years, Albania has begun to lure sun worshipers to coastal resorts including Saranda, Himara and Vlora. The Balkan destination is a place of impressive natural beauty and ecological importance, as our visit revealed. The full itinerary included visits to the azure waters of Lake Koman and the tranquil Shala River in the north of the country, ideal for sublime diving. Also, an optional walk to Molle in the foothills of the Albanian Alps, to the capital Tirana and to the tourist beach of Vlora. Our journey included a stop at the Berat Castle complex – on top of the hill – which has its roots in antiquity; it is as beautiful as any other building I have seen – dating back to the 13th century. The historical center and two codices of Berat discovered in the crypt of the well-known Onufri Museum are protected by Unesco. The city's oldest church, Holy Trinity, has panoramic views over the Drin river valley and the ridged Shpirag massif. While Lake Shkodra, which is shared with Montenegro, is one of the largest bird reserves in Europe. We also visited a lesser known but equally important reserve in the Divjakë-Karavasta National Park, two hours by car south of Tirana. Rich in biodiversity, the park has identified about 25 species of mammals, 29 species of reptiles (including sea turtles), 29 amphibians and 230 species of birds. Its bird rehabilitation center, the only one in Albania, has treated pelicans, eagles, owls, vultures and storks. The Karavasta lagoon ecosystem, within the park, is home to the endangered Dalmatian pelican – one of the world's largest freshwater birds – and a haven for migratory species. We spent two days exploring its estuaries and trails by boat and bike, spending the night at the small three-star Hotel Pelikan on the edge of the park. We enjoyed the view of the wetlands and birds from the top of a wooden lookout tower over a picnic lunch. On the way there, Elton ordered lakror (a popular Albanian pie) and buttermilk at a village house. Elton rolled out a rug and we sat in the sunshine eating onion and tomato pies. Then a flash of greater flamingos appeared before our eyes. At the rehabilitation centre, warden on duty, Ervin Allushi, tells us that the first group of British bird lovers visited the area in 2016. The number of Dalmatian pelicans has increased from 27 nests in 2014 to 85 in 2020. We took a small boat to spot the bird life, stopping to look through binoculars at the sand island - where the pelicans had nested. The next morning we cycled on a boardwalk through a pine forest to the village of Babunje, where Eva and Adriatiku welcomed us into their home. Adriatik, a woodworker and stonemason, showed us his workshop and we enjoyed a Turkish coffee while watching him work the stone. For lunch we were served chicken pilaf, stuffed eggplant and duck soup. Our immersion in nature, especially in the national park, has been a highlight; our knowledge of rural simplicity was an unexpected bonus. At Sofo and Dhurata's farm, where cheese was baked in goat skins, dishes were cooked over coals and flames, and the neighboring farmers played the flute, I felt as if I had gone back in time. "Not only because of the work to protect the Karavasta Lagoon, but there is a uniqueness and a feature that is hard to find in Europe now - traditional ways of doing things and artisans that provide a meaning to the country," said Arnau Teixidor from "Meet" company related to Albania.  
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