New Guest blog post on the Southern Albanian DestiMED test!

Albania is one of those countries that most people find hard to point to on a map, let alone know much about its history, culture or landscapes – beyond its fame as the birthplace of mythical Hollywood baddies. Read the story of Vicki Brown here and learn more about this hidden Mediterranean gem.

By Vicki Brown, storyteller & photographer

It’s in Europe, of course, but for many of us western Europeans Albania feels far more distant, more mysterious, than the United States, say, or even than far flung yet far more popular destinations such as Thailand or Cuba. However, “Connections” was one of the four pillars of our MEET test trip to Southern Albania, and despite our preconceptions, all the participants soon discovered that there were many things that connected us with our Albanian hosts, and with the stunning landscapes.

A bonding point for everyone – visitors and Albanians alike – was the food. All meals were shared affairs, around big tables that were sociable spaces for guests and hosts, and. The huge plates and bowls in the middle ensured we got to sample bits of everything, from roast goat and sea urchin to the ubiquitous cheese and fresh salads.

Interestingly, the food and drink turned out to offer insights into many aspects of Albanian culture. A “bunker farm”, for example, had converted tunnel bunkers into shelters for livestock, as well as a conveniently cool space to produce wine. On another occasion, as we revived ourselves with strong Turkish coffee, the shepherd couple who had kindly prepared it upended our cups and read the coffee grounds – predicting happiness, benevolent strangers and the appearance of unusual animals. Speculating about the future love lives of each participant was another universal language!

A dawn departure on a fishing boat introduced us to the fishermen who are the lifeblood of coastal Vlorë. As they hauled in nets laid the night before, dolphins surfed the waves in search of the captured fish. Back on shore a few hours later, we dined at the waterfront with the fishermen. We were instructed not to stand on ceremony, but to dive in with our hands, and everyone soon looked greasy, satiated and happy in equal measures. The fried sardines and mullet, drizzled with lemon, would have tasted delicious under any circumstances, but spending a couple of hours untangling the fish from the nets, and learning more about the whole process, surely added an extra burst of flavour.

It wasn’t all about food, of course. A hike in the mountains is always a wonderful way to connect with nature, but once again, this trip took us that bit deeper. Armed with loppers, gloves, axes and shears, we hacked our way up Cesar’s Trail – a route which had been overgrown for some 30 years. We didn’t just hike the trail; we recreated it. The sound of some 15 people bashing their way through the forest no doubt scared off much of the resident fauna, but viewing camera trap footage back at the park office, we could see that badgers, deer, and even wolves had passed by in the previous days, following the same paths as us. We had literally walked in their footsteps.

That evening there was the opportunity to make connections that took us far beyond the language barrier. As we devoured yet another delicious meal which we had helped to prepare, the family of four who ran the restaurant began to dance around the room; first father and daughter, then mother and son. A customer got up and joined in, then our Albanian guides. Soon, the whole group was on their feet, skipping around the restaurant to traditional folk music, waving white serviettes and laughing at our clumsy steps. The dance was followed by polyphonic singing, again by the family, as well as their friends and even the local mayor. Once again, we were instructed to join in, and bellowed out the deep notes as the family sang of unrequited love in the Albanian mountains.

The South Albania trip ensured we all left knowing considerably more about Albania than when we had arrived. We’d connected with the people, the landscapes and the wildlife of the land and sea. Just as importantly, the participants all connected with each other; through shared food and song and dance and laughter and general exhaustion at the end of it all.