Hyrje | Aktualitet | Bota + English | Anyone holidaying in Corfu should take a day trip to Albania - it's simply extraordinary.

Anyone holidaying in Corfu should take a day trip to Albania - it's simply extraordinary.

We went by boat from the island's harbour, across the straits to the port of Saranda. At their narrowest point these straits are only a mile across and it is astonishing to think that such a short stretch of water separated for more than 40 years the most rigid Stalinist prison in Eastern Europe from the elegant English villas of the eastern coast of Corfu.

It was a rough day, with a southerly wind of about Force 5 creating a heavy swell which, on our approach to Saranda harbour, buffeted our boat as we clambered ashore over a larger ferry.

With the end of Communism, Albania is bursting out of its chrysalis, becoming a kind of free-for-all wonderland. Saranda, called Onchesmus by the Romans, is a small, scruffy port that is developing fast and not that well to meet the demands of a touristic age.

In the Communist period, a lot of would-be refugees tried to get past the constant patrols of military boats based in Saranda. Not many succeeded.

We were lucky to have as a guide Ani Tare, who is deeply involved with the archaeological digs at Butrint, our final destination for the day.

Among his many other schemes is to create walking holidays to follow in the footsteps of Byron and Edward Lear - two Englishmen who loved Albania.

We drove out of town past some ugly new hotels being built (too cheaply) on the beach to handle the hordes of tourists that Albania, a virgin country in terms of tourism, hopes to attract. They will rape it.

Saranda is surrounded by the Eremece mountains, which we drove over on a wonderful but rather alarming narrow road built in the late Sixties.

In those days of Stalinist orthodoxy, when no one could move out of their own neighbourhood without official passes, it probably carried only about one bus a week and the limousines of the apparatchiks. Now it is packed with trucks and new Mercedes.

Our first destination was Gjirokastra, an ancient city with a remarkable collection of Ottoman architecture. At its core is an old town built around a hillside. The Blue Guide describes it thus: 'As a mountain stronghold, with a rugged grandeur and turbulent history, it seems in its atmosphere to represent to many visitors the very essence of Albania - severe, beautiful and uncompromising in spirit.'

It was a Roman and Byzantine fortress, seized by the Turks in 1417, and remained an important centre of Ottoman power in the region for several centuries. In the late 19th Century it became a centre of Albanian nationalists fighting for independence from the Turks.

Gjirokastra has a marvellous old bazaar quarter climbing along narrow, paved streets set in the hillside. Towering above the streets is The Citadel, a huge fortress dominating the surrounding area with long views over the plains below.

A beautiful, striped cobbled road leads up to the dark entrance gates of The Citadel which often served as a prison. You enter through a very gloomy, sinister tunnel. I could imagine the prisoners abandoning all hope as they entered there.

Now the tunnel is lined with heavy weapons from the many wars of the last century and socialist realist art commemorating the locals' heroism. On the ramparts there are fabulous views of the Drionis Valley.

There is a cafe in an underground vault on the ramparts, for which the Blue Guide claims 'a truly Balkan atmosphere of fellowship, political discussion and intrigue'. Well, up to a point.

Ani took us to a family house halfway down the hill. This lovely structure, with its gables and clearly defined roofs, looked oddly like an early Lutyens - but had been built about 300 years before.

Inside, it stretched up narrow stone stairs for several floors. There were benches around the walls, on which the men would lie and talk, and screens or platforms behind which the women listened.

The quality of the carved panels and windows was lovely and Ani was wondering whether to convert it into a guesthouse. But I fear that to satisfy the querulous demands of modern travellers he would have to destroy the place beyond recognition.

We drove back over the limestone gorges to find a place for lunch. The banks of one watering hole that had been recommended was far too crowded with the BMWs and Mercedes of the new Albanian bourgeoisie.

Then Ani said he knew a deserted village called Drovia - it had 16 churches, an English Second World War airman was buried there and it really was not far. It sounded irresistible.

It was much further than we expected and the tracks we drove over were pretty rough but finally, as we curved along the side of a mountain, we found Drovia nestling in trees in a valley ahead.

It was not quite deserted because some of the windows on lovely vine-covered houses were newly painted, but in the churchyard sheltered by tall oaks, Oliver Goldsmith's words seemed very appropriate: 'Where smiling spring its earliest visit paid, And parting summer's lingering blooms delayed'

We had brought a picnic with us and in the churchyard there were some trestle tables. We sat along the wall under tall oak trees in a state of calm wonderment.

Some years before, Ani had helped to rediscover here the grave of the British airman, Harold Sykes. After the War his burial place had been hidden by the villagers because they knew that, as a 'capitalist' grave, it would probably be destroyed by the Communists.

There it was behind the boarded-up church. All around it was a rare stillness and beauty. We were loath to leave this exquisite place but we did want to see the archaeological dig at Butrint, one of the greatest and least known classical sites of the Mediterranean. It lies on a lagoon just in from the straits of Corfu and dates from at least the 6th Century BC. Virgil wrote about it and Cicero lived here. Its exquisite, park-like setting reminds me of Angkor Wat, the great monuments of Cambodia, which are also embraced by the stillness of great trees.

The place had lain pretty much undisturbed under the Albanian Communists. Even they had blanched at Khrushchev's suggestion that channels should be blasted through the ruins so that the lagoon could be a nuclear submarine pen for Russia.

Since the fall of the Communist regime, restoration work has gathered pace. There is an almost complete theatre, which was built in the Hellenistic style in the 4th Century BC and later extended by the Romans.

In the Twenties Italian archaeologists were ordered by Mussolini to find the city of Aenias, a link between Troy, Athens and Rome. If only to please Il Duce, with his dreams of recreating the Roman Empire, they decided that Butrint was it.

Ani showed us Byzantine mosaics in a Roman palace which had been discovered only two weeks before.

Even more exciting was the chess piece which had just been found and which the archaeologists thought might turn out to be the oldest ever to be discovered in Europe.

They had also just uncovered walls of houses, an olive press from about 50BC and the base of a statue with the stone still as sharp as the day it was cut.

As the sun settled, casting delicate shadows over the 6th Century Christian basilica, we returned to Saranda to take the boat back. It had been a day filled with history from so many periods that it felt quite appropriate to use the most modern research device available to me.

That evening I typed the words 'Harold Sykes' and 'Albania' into an Internet search engine and, to my astonishment, immediately found the story of the brave airman.

Sykes was 22 when he took to the air in his Gladiator over the Eremece Mountains in November 1940. He got into a dogfight with the Italians, who were occupying the area, and two planes collided.

Sykes and an Italian pilot were killed. Villagers climbed the hills to find and bury his body but the area was so inaccessible that the RAF reported him as missing.

A few months later a war correspondent of the Daily Mail, covering the Greek-Albania war in Albania, came to the village of Drovia on horseback.

He wrote an article describing how he and an RAF search team had found the young pilot's grave. Then the turbulent history of the next half-century buried the grave as well as the pilot within it.

In 1995, Harold's brother Alan found the Mail article among old family papers and decided to rediscover the grave. Two diplomats from the British embassy in Tirana offered to help.

By chance they stayed in the guesthouse in Saranda owned by the family of Ani, then a mountain guide.

His local knowledge was invaluable and together they found the grave of Harold Sykes. They discovered also that the caretaker of the churchyard, Christopher Pappa, had been one of the villagers who had collected the body from the crash site and carried it for burial in Drovia.

In 1997 Alan Sykes went to visit his brother's grave. He, too, marvelled at the serenity of the spot.

Following his visit, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission marked Harold Sykes's grave and Christopher Pappa was made its official keeper.

Now, in that exquisite Albanian village, there is a place that is for ever England.

Travel facts

Day trips from Corfu to Albania are organised by Petrakis Line (00 30 26610 31649). The return fare is £20. Visas are required.

Regent Holidays (0117 921 1711) organises packages to Albania. A five-night tour costs £850. This includes return flights, two nights in Tirana, two in Saranda and one in Berat. Visit www.regent-holidays.co.uk

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