The Hidden Gem I (Almost Don’t) Want to Share

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albania the hidden gems

The thousand-year-old village of Qeparo is carved into a hilltop high above Dhermi.

Fatmir, our guide told us there would be no restaurants in the village, so we must find some lunch before. I was sure he was mistaken; I had never heard of a picturesque European village that did not have at least one cafe, a gelato stand, and a souvenir shop.

We stopped at the last house on the street, a sign outside said, Odesha Residenca.

There was no one else in sight. “I will go in and ask if she will cook for us,” Fatmir said.

A pudgy, sun-kissed woman wrapped in a checkered apron appeared, smiling when she saw us.

“Peshk” she asked?

“It’s fresh,” Fatmir replied?

She pointed out at the sea, where a small little boat was visible near the shore. The fish had been caught that morning, by the man in that boat. Sea to the table.

Outside, half a dozen tables lined the perimeter of a large balcony, offering an unobstructed view of the water. I’d eaten at places like this last summer in the Cinque Terre; reservations I had to make weeks in advance in order to get a table, and even then we had a partial sea view. We had this whole place to ourselves.

There aren’t often menus in Albania. Most places tell you what they have that day because no one serves things that aren’t fresh, seasonal, and from their garden (or maybe their neighbor’s). As our table was set, our host suggested we walk out and down to the garden to pick pomegranates off the trees and grapes off the vine to add to our meal.

She didn’t speak a word of English but relished in our huge smiles as she brought out each dish and set it before us. Wine she stomped with her own feet, freshly made bread, cucumber and tomato salad, stuffed eggplants, and an entire fish each; char-marks from the grill across its shiny skin and a sauce drizzled across its head.

Her place is a B&B not listed on or reviewed on Trip Advisor. She is only known to locals, like Fatmir, and that’s what keeps it small and special.

She brought us a plate of homemade fig newtons for dessert. Sweet, sticky blobs with toothpicks holding them together; they tasted like the sunshine they grew in. She hugged us as we left and waived from the doorway until we drove out of sight, like a mother watching her children drive away on the school bus.

As the car winded up the hill to Qeparo, I kept jumping out to snap photos of the scene before us: a hillside dotted with small, stone houses, so perfectly lit by the golden hour it was hard to believe they were real.

The roots of Qeparo are a thousand years old. To the experienced traveler, the village is a mix of England’s Cotswold, France’s Le Baux, and Greece’s Oia. Everything from the roads to the houses is made from golden stone. Some walls are whitewashed and doors are painted vibrant blue with donkeys tied up outside them. Thick vines form archways dripping with grapes and the views of the valley from the ends of alleys are breathtaking.

In the village, people were gathering “just to talk,” Fatmir explained. The fifty people living in the town were all represented. Old ladies with weathered, leathered skin dressed entirely in black from their shoes to their head scarfs. Men with grey hair tucked under woolen caps. Dark-haired children hung from low branches in the fig trees. No one living here is taller than 5’. They pulled up chairs, forming a large circle and the un-official town mayor began to talk.

Fatmir translated for us:
“People are going to come here, and they are going to want to buy your houses. They will offer you a lot of money, but you must not sell to them. And if you are needing to fix your home, or build a new part, you must do it in this stone. We must protect our village. It is very beautiful and it is us who must keep it this way.”

This village is raw and real, and unchanged. In fact, there’s no McDonalds, or Starbucks, or Hilton in this entire country. People don’t speak English, don’t shop in Supermarkets, don’t leave the place they were born in.

I will come back to Albania, and this tiny, hilltop village. I hope I will not find a home has turned into a cafe, or a shop selling Qeparo magnets. I never want to see coach buses parked below the hill, or navigate a sea of tourists with selfie-sticks, or have to make a reservation for lunch at Odessa weeks in advance.

So while part of me wants to tell everyone about this hidden gem, another part wants to seal my lips, hide my photos, and not tell a soul about my experience here. Like a delicious dish you don’t want to share so you don’t utter a word until the last bite, perhaps I should savor Albania just a while longer.

I visited Albania for vacation and traveling to this country was my own idea. I planned my trip with a boutique travel company, Limitless Albania, that I would highly recommend! This trip was not sponsored or paid by them or anyone else.

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