Following in Lord Byron’s footsteps through the unspoiled Albanian countryside (Photo: Auron Tare)
"Land of Albania! Let me bend mine eyes on thee, thou rugged nurse of savage men."
Those were Lord George Gordon Byron’s words in his famous poem, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” in which Byron chronicled the ragtag journey that he and his friend, the diarist and future politician John Cam Hobhouse, took through the mountainous regions of southern Albania in 1809 on their way to visit the despot Ali Pasha.
The romantic’s romantic, notorious in his own time, a rake, a traveler, a man’s man, a woman’s man, Byron was the quintessential adventurer. Even today, his name evokes a sense of wonder and disbelief, danger, and excitement.
Byron and Hobhouse were two thrill-seeking young men in their early 20s, looking for adventure as they crossed the border of Greece into Albania, a country many at the time considered an illiterate backwater of the Ottoman Empire, ruled by a cruel despot and overtaken by savage tribes.
The poet’s journey revealed a very different Albania. He found fiercely independent countrymen and a camaraderie that appealed greatly to his romantic ideals of both travel and adventure.
The poet in all of us has dreamed about being a little bit Byron. Now you can.
Today, Byron fans can follow in his Albania footsteps, or rather his hoof prints, on a six-day horseback tour through the mountains of the Vjosë Valley, led by one of the most knowledgable individuals about Byron whom you have ever encountered.
The Byron adventure begins near the Greco-Albanian border along the old caravan route linking the villages of Southern Albania with the former Grecian capital, Ioannina. The horses you will ride are locally bred Albanian horses. Strong and stocky, they are agile in difficult terrain and have a lively temperament. Be kind to them, and they will be your loyal companion throughout the trek.
The trip doesn’t require that you are an expert rider. People of all riding levels are welcome. (Photo: Auron Tare)
The Byron journey is also a “greatest hits” of the Albanian countryside. This is a trip for travelers rather than tourists, folks who want to get off the beaten path of the beaches and capital to see towns that have remained largely unchanged since Byron visited them. During the course of the six-day horse trek, visitors stop in the Ottoman town of Gjirokastër, where the cobblestone streets climb high to Gjirokastër castle, first built during the Byzantine period and expanded during the reign of Ali Pasha. The local mythology holds that in the 15th century, Princess Argjiro and her child leapt to their deaths from the castle walls rather than be captured by the invading Ottomans.
Scenes from inside the Gjirokastër castle (Photos: Jo Piazza)
Another day, you will visit the beautiful Byzantine church of Labovë e Kryqit and enjoy lunch at a Bektashi monastery on the outskirts of Melen with the Bektashi monks. The dervishes will offer you sweets, strong Turkish coffee, and a small glass of the strong local liquor, Raki.
The trip continues through the dramatic Këlcyra Gorge and meanders in the Drino Valley among local villages, ancient sites, Byzantine churches, and Bektashi tekkes. These are towns where the cows still march home from the mountains each night at 7 p.m. and where old women make their cheese by hand and are eager to feed you at their kitchen tables.
At night, guests sleep in quarters based on the places mentioned in the original diary written by Hobhouse — local inns in Libohova, a guesthouse in Gjirokastër, and campsites in the ruins of ancient Antigonea.
Each night, the group gathers around the campfire or in the local restaurant to read selections from what Byron and Hobhouse penned about the next day’s journey.
Coffee and lunch inside the Bektashi monastery with the dervishes (Photo: Jo Piazza)
Your guide for this expedition is none other than I man I like to refer to as the “Albanian Indiana Jones.” I do not bestow the title lightly. Auron Tare is currently the general director of Albanian National Coastline Agency, but at heart, he is an adventurer, an archaeologist, and a bibliophile. He’s got a little Byron in him. There is little about Albanian history or about Byron that Tare cannot discuss for hours, and in a country like Albania, that is still a bit of a Wild West. You couldn’t ask for a better guide or a better new friend.
The real-life Albanian Indiana Jones, Auron Tare. That is his own hat. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
Along the route, Tare will point out mounds of unexcavated earth, underneath which he swears archaeologists will find undiscovered ruins ranging from classical to Ottoman times.
The countryside today is a little like Byron himself during the period he visited Albania — a little wild, untamed, romantic, and eager. The country is swiftly emerging as a tourist destination after years of being closed off by the communist dictator. Until the late 1980s, few outsiders could enter, and Albanians rarely left. Today folks like Tare are leading the charge to bring ecologically sound and sustainable tourism to the country.
The path leading down to the Bektashi monastery (Photo: Auron Tare)
While the trip doesn’t require advanced riding skills, six days is a long time to be on horseback, so visitors should have some proficiency in riding horses. All ages are welcome. Previous Byron knowledge is not a requirement, but it will certainly enhance this journey.
Find more information and book your own trip on the Auron Expeditions Facebook page.
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