‘Go, go, go!” The white-water rafting guide shouted orders from the back of the boat and our five-strong crew paddled hard to stay on course. We were tackling a stretch of the Vjosa, a 270km river that begins in Greece (where it is called the Aoös) and flows through Albania and into the Adriatic just north of the city of Vlora. I was on a recce trip for a new southern Albanian break with Much Better Adventures, which specialises in long weekends to wild places in Europe and North Africa. But this trip was not just a fun adventure – rather just part of a campaign to save the river, which is under threat from proposed dams. A documentary film, Blue Heart, out this month, will highlight the fight to protect Europe’s final wild rivers, with assist from ecotourism.
From May to October, the Vjosa’s canyons are navigable by raft – at thrilling speeds and with waves effectively over a metre excessive. We have been there in early March, when these slender stretches of water have been too harmful, so rafted a wider, gentler part: it provided much less adrenaline, however gave a flavour of the total journey. Swirling downriver, we appeared to be journeying via an untouched land.
The author, proper, prepares to go kayaking
Under communist dictator Enver Hoxha, Albania was reduce off from the world for almost 50 years within the postwar period, and nonetheless seems like unexplored territory – a uncommon factor solely three hours’ flight from the UK. The river banks rose steeply to snowcapped mountains, and the one different folks we noticed have been a few boys using a donkey.
Before the rafting, I met Olsi Nika from NGO EcoAlbania, to search out out why this river is so particular. “The Vjosa and most of its tributaries are completely undisturbed,” he mentioned. “It is the last big, wild, free-flowing river in Europe outside of Russia.” He and different environmentalists wish to hold it this manner. “We have a vision to declare a national park, and offer ecotourism: rafting, kayaking, fly-fishing.”
Kayaking on the Vjosa River
New river-based ventures are arising, such because the Albanian Adventure Resort on the River Osum close to Çorovoda, which is able to provide canyoning, riverboarding and extra from subsequent spring. And Albania’s mountains, hovering to 2,800 metres, have large potential for climbing and climbing. The hope is that sustainable journey tourism will provide a viable income for the nation.
But the environmentalists have a battle on their fingers. The government plans to construct eight main hydropower vegetation on the Vjosa, and one other 20 or so on its tributaries as a part of an enormous Balkans hydro venture. More than 500 hydropower vegetation are deliberate for Albania, amongst about three,000 within the wider area. The penalties embody loss of habitat and uncommon species, flooding, coastal erosion and obligatory resettlement, mentioned Nika. “So 2018 is a crucial year for the Vjosa. There will be lawsuits, lobbying, scientific studies and artist-led protests.” As a part of the battle, Much Better Adventures is working with Albanian activists and native operators such because the Albania Rafting Group to encourage folks to guide a visit.
Adventures Not Dams, a movie by Much Better Adventures
Besides rafting, we explored loads of the remainder of the nation, taking in coast and historic websites. A spotlight was the traditional metropolis of Butrint, a Unesco world heritage website on a spectacular wooded peninsula, between a lake and a channel resulting in the Straits of Corfu. After seeing the theatre, baptistry and different stays, we kayaked down the channel to Ali Pasha’s Castle, an island fortress named after the Ottoman ruler.
Albania’s 426km of Adriatic and Ionian shoreline presents wonderful climbing, too. Saranda, the primary resort on the Albanian Riviera, may be very built-up however you don’t have to go far to search out unspoiled seashores and clifftop hikes. We began 20km up the coast at Lukova, which has a couple of summer season seashore bars and eating places, and walked for 90 minutes alongside the cliffs to Krorez Bay. This seashore has golden sand, turquoise water and no vacationers. We loved a swim and snorkel, then scrambled up the sheer cliff and hacked our method via undergrowth to the following seashore, dramatic Kakome, backed by thickly forested cliffs. (This seashore is now privately owned, so walkers want permission to go to – our guides had phoned forward.)
Lukova seashore in Albania has ‘golden sand, turquoise water and no tourists’. Photograph: Getty Images
We spent an evening at a homestay in Peshtan, a tiny village near the Vjosa. By day, we hiked to a lookout level the place the river meets one among its tributaries – the view was value braving a rickety wood bridge over the canyon. By evening, we sat below the celebrities in a villager’s backyard, drank raki and listened to a impromptu efficiency of pleqërishte – polyphonic folks songs by native shepherds. This peaceable lifestyle could be destroyed by one of many deliberate dams.
At the Benja pure spa, close to the city of Permet, we bathed in a heat pool by the river and slathered ourselves in inexperienced mud. We had this marvel nearly to ourselves however the baths are an vital summer season vacationer attraction. They’re on the mouth of the Langarica canyon, the place there are extra sizzling springs and caves. Here, too, a dam is deliberate – if it goes forward, the canyon will run dry and the springs shall be put in jeopardy.
The sixth-century Venetian Tower within the historical metropolis
of Butrint. Photograph: Alamy
We sampled metropolis life in Gjirokastra (one other Unesco world heritage website, for its Ottoman previous city), about 55km north of Saranda. It is understood for its 17th-century homes and bazaar, and 18th-century mosque. Ismail Kadare was born right here and his former home is now a museum – the main Albanian author gained the inaugural Man Booker worldwide prize in 2005.
We squeezed in a go to to Berat, too, (yet one more Unesco website) on the best way to Tirana. This shouldn’t be on the common itinerary, however effectively value extending a visit for. Its 13th-century citadel has steep cobbled streets and Byzantine church buildings; Ottoman homes tumble down the hill to the Osum river and climb up the opposite aspect. We stayed on the gloriously kitsch Castle Park lodge, a jumble of taxidermy and folks artwork in woods simply outdoors city, and dined on the same old unfold of home made bread and olive oil, salads, grilled greens, cheese, spinach byrek (crammed flaky pastry) and crispy lamb.
The Ottoman-built metropolis of Gjirokastra is a world heritage website. Photograph: Getty Images
It was a whirlwind perception into a spot I’d gladly return to. A rustic with seashores, sunny local weather, surroundings and delicacies to rival much more in style Mediterranean locations, with fewer crowds and at a fraction of the fee. Now is the time to expertise its unspoiled magnificence – and to assist guarantee it stays that method. Wait, and it could possibly be too late. As Nika mentioned, “If you put a dam in a river, you kill it forever.”
How to do it
The journey was offered by Much Better Adventures, whose three-day Raft, Hike and Kayak Albania journey prices from £350, together with lodging, meals, native transport, information and actions, however not flights.
From April to October, easyJet flies from Bristol, Gatwick, Luton, Manchester and Newcastle to Corfu from about £60 return; Ionian Seaways has a 30-minute hydrofoil from Corfu to Saranda from €38 return. BA flies year-round from Gatwick to Tirana from £114 return.
When to go
May/June and September/October are finest for heat climate, few crowds and decrease costs. Summer is stifling until you head into the mountains; winter is freezing (and snowboarding has but to take off).
£1 = 150 lek.
A draught beer and a cappucino are every about 140 lek.
See the movie
Blue Heart, the Fight For Europe’s Wild Rivers, is exhibiting at chosen cinemas in London and Manchester and shall be obtainable on iTunes in August. Sign the petition towards the dams at blueheart.patagonia.com.