We drive into the Ceraunian Mountains of Albania on a switchback-happy coastal road, past walls of black pines and by rickety tables laden with local honey and tea. Slopes spilling down to beaches yield, in season, lemons, oranges, olives. The Ionian Sea shimmers blue to our right, with Corfu visible in the haze.
“These are my mountains, the Thunder Mountains,” my guide, Adrian, says. “I grew up here. They are in my blood.”
Adrian points out a pass below through which Julius Caesar in 48 B.C. led his legions against Pompey. Then he talks of the thousands of Albanians who fled a communist rule that ended in 1992—and says many are coming home.
“My grandmother calls this the land of stone and clouds. The stones are those who came back, who are rooted to the earth,” he says. “The clouds wander, seeking a place to settle.”
We rumble in a 4×4 on gravel roads through olive groves to Pilur, a village where, under a chestnut tree, elders burst into impromptu polyphony, a UNESCO-recognized blend of musical voices that dates back more than a thousand years. Then we dine alfresco on local figs, plums, eggs, petulla (fried dough), tart goat cheese, and sausage, washed down with home-brewed rakija and wine out of soda bottles.
Travelers have largely overlooked the Balkan region, which has long been shrouded by a troubled past. But its enigmatic nature may prove to be its most potent drawing card. We’ve seen this happen elsewhere: Papua New Guinea, Myanmar, Bhutan.
It may seem a vicarious glimpse of a far-off land. Yet, as with Albania, it may soon be within reach.
This piece, written by Keith Bellows, first appeared in the December 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.