7th April, 2020
Discover the forgotten Land of the Eagle
Saga Holiday Expert Joanne Johnston takes her customers on a fascinating journey to a long-lost part of Europe.
As a former stronghold of communism, Albania has spent nearly 20 years shedding its shackles to finally welcome visitors, curious to explore a country locked away for more than 40 years. Joanne knew that this would be the perfect destination for her customers.
Many people don’t realise, but Saga customers have an edge and they’re not scared to travel to new places. They are well travelled and seek out places off the usual tourist trail. We were the first holiday company to offer holidays in Croatia after the war, and now that Albania is ready for visitors, it seems fitting that we’re leading the way in offering this fascinating tour.
Not many people know much about Albania and the same was true for Joanne.
I didn’t know anything about the country but listening to our ground agent Elvis talking so passionately about his homeland, it really caught my attention. On my first visit I went with an open mind and was pleasantly surprised at how beautiful it is, with its pristine beaches, clear blue seas and rolling mountains. It really is a special and fascinating place.
The country was ruled by Stalinist-Maoist, teacher-turned-dictator Enver Hoxha for over 40 years. He was a very paranoid person and no one was allowed in or out of the country for years. His strict dictatorship meant over 750,000 bunkers were built because he fearful of being invaded, he banned religion and Albania became the first atheist country.
When the communist state collapsed in 1990, the people began to rebuild their country. And the outcome of being isolated for all those years is that there are so many untouched archaeological sites, beaches and villages. Even the bunkers have been transformed into works of art – Bunk Art.
Joanne’s tour begins in Durrës and continues to Saranda, Berat, Pogradec and Tirana, with excursions to five UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
I wanted our customers to learn about this fascinating country, and our local guides are invaluable as they just live and breath the history. We visit the capital Tirana and see the where the president once lived. We see the archaeological site at Butrint, with its beautifully-preserved Roman mosaic floor. We visit UNESCO-protected Berat, known as a ‘city of a thousand windows’. We also see the abandoned 1st-century monastery at Sveti Naum.
Joanne has included a number of unique experiences too, which give an insight into the culture of Albania.
A highlight for me was on the last night when we went on an optional dinner with a famous master chef judge. Our customers can go to his restaurant, which is his house, and pick and prepare some of the vegetables growing in his garden. And whilst the dinner is being cooked, they can have a glass of wine and watch the sun set.
We also drop in on one of Albania’s most famous living artist, have a ‘slow food’ experience in Durrës, enjoy dinner and an ‘isopolifonia’ serenade in a castle, and visit an artisan workshop to see paper making.
Albania, at the moment, is an exclusive destination; Europe’s best-kept secret. I know that it will be as popular as Croatia in a few years time, as the scenery is pristine and there are so many untouched sights, and so it’s the perfect time for our customers to visit and get an authentic experience of the country.
Interview: Dianne Vanstone
The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.
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