Beforeading to Albania, a Metropolitan Police detective friend, with experience of the country, texted me with this advice: Just keep your situational awareness on at all times. Roy Grace has taught you enough of that… and mind your surroundings, dress for the area you’re in.
Gulp! Not the usual kind of travel advice, about suntan lotions and sights to see that you normally get from guide books. So it was with expectations on the floor, and a wary eye, that Lara and I disembarked at Tirana airport. The first surprise was how pleasant the passport control officers were. We were driven through the streets, and sure, the bulk of Tirana comprises drab and shabby high and low-rise apartment buildings so typical of former communist regimes, interspersed with the occasional ludicrously extravagant and tasteless faux-chateau, standing testament to a raft of corrupt bigwigs’ egos. And yet, as we neared the city centre the place developed a quite charming Mediterranean feel, with a wealth of outdoor cafes, some gorgeous old buildings, wide open squares and a very pleasant temperature for mid-November, all set against a backdrop of beautiful mountains.
An even bigger surprise was the warmth and friendliness of all the people we met and, very humbling when they learned we were Brits, was their eagerness to apologise for the criminal reputation of the country. We stayed at the Plaza, a stunning, modern hotel in the centre, with truly world-class service and utterly delightful staff who could not have been more helpful. Wherever we went, whether in the city or out into some of the remotest regions, we found this same level of hospitality – and we had some truly outstanding food.
It’s probably not a place on many people’s bucket list, but, bordering Greece and gorgeous Montenegro, it is something of a hidden gem. If you do get there, eat at Mullxhiu, where the charming owner/chef cut his teeth at two-Michelin-starred Pied A Terre in London’s Charlotte Street, and puts a spin on traditional Albanian peasant cuisine. We had nine courses, each a taste sensation, of which the highlight was Shepherd’s Delight, a filo pastry case filled with olives, vegetables and cheese, followed by a quinoa porridge with a pesto sauce. We treated our two hosts, Miri and Lana Nela – Miri imports, through his company, Balcony Tea, a wonderful range of teas into the UK. We drank two bottles of a sensational Albanian red, and a very classy Albanian white, and our bill came to an astonishing sixty pounds!
Lara and I also ate at the Plaza’s Convivium restaurant, (pic) where we had superb beetroot-cured salmon and seared sole, accompanied by an outstanding Ferrata Friuli white. Friuli is one of my favourite Italian wine regions, rarely delivering anything other than a great white. There is a strong Italian influence on the cuisine – unsurprisingly as the country is a short hop across the water from the heel of Italy. The extremely good Maitre ’d was yet another who apologised to us for his country’s reputation. When we told him how delightful we found everyone, he explained, ‘Ah, that is because we have exported all our villains to your country!’