A new arrival on the festival circuit, Albania is tempting younger holidaymakers to dance on its beaches and explore beyond its pristine shores.
Just how seriously the Albanian ministry of tourism was taking Kala festival – the first international event of its kind in the country – became clear the moment we stepped off the boat at Saranda to find a police escort waiting to accompany our coaches on the winding, mountainous transfer. That and the arrival of prime minister Edi Rama the following day, for an impromptu poolside press conference with the organisers at our hotel.
“Albania has always been beautiful,” he mused, as an inflatable pink flamingo drifted across the pool behind him. “But people think of it as a place where you get robbed or killed … But the stigma has helped us. When someone visits and gets out alive, they realise it’s paradise! It’s like the forbidden apple: don’t bite it or you’ll want it all the time.”
As for his thoughts on Kala? “I have to admit, I don’t know anything about the festival but, in principle, it’s fantastic,” he said, offering one night of free Albanian beer before disappearing.
Dry Balkan wit and free beer aside, Albania isn’t high on the list of Europe’s most-visited countries. It sees around 80,000 UK visitors a year – a tiny number compared with the 3 million who travel annually to neighbouring Greece, or the 765,000 who visit nearby Croatia. But that could be set to change. In 2014, the New York Times included the Albanian coast among its best new destinations (“This is Europe when it was fresh and cheap,” it wrote), while Lonely Planet ranked its capital, Tirana, among the best places to visit in Europe this year.
Kala – a week-long festival held in June at the upmarket resort town of Dhërmi – could cement Albania’s reputation as an exciting new beach and party destination, in the same way that Outlook and Dimensions put Croatia on the map for young Brits. At the moment, Dhërmi is a little tricky to get to: a flight to Corfu, then four hours by ferry and bus. However, with a new airport set to open in Vlora (just 50km from Dhërmi) in 2020, access is likely to improve dramatically.
Kala took place last month across five sites in Dhërmi, with hotel beach bars as venues. Just 2,000 tickets were available, so there was plenty of space on the beach, crystal-clear water, as well as uncrowded, easy-going restaurants (seafood linguine at Luciano’s became a favourite). Festival tickets included accommodation packages, from beach huts to B&Bs to smart hotels, all close to the action. With a wellness programme (yoga and gong baths overlooking the Ionian sea) running alongside the music events, the festival was aimed equally at those interested in a laid-back beach break (a bit like summer-long boutique Croatian festival Obonjan), as at those wanting to party all night (there is music until 6am daily).
The lineup was predominantly electronic music, using London’s underground collectives – Feelings, Secretsundaze, Phonica and Stamp the Wax – to build a crowd (many festivalgoers were from the UK), as well as the likes of Moodymann, Maurice Fulton and Tama Sumo and Lakuti. Headliners included Tom Misch and Todd Terje, while the lazy, sun-drenched soul of Roy Ayers had the crowd eating out of his hand.
The team that founded Kala – Mainstage Travel – is behind one of Europe’s major winter festivals, Snowboxx. It had been trying to launch a summer event for three years. “We searched Portugal, Croatia, Italy, Spain, Malta, Morocco, but couldn’t find anything off the beaten track,” Alan Crofton, the festival director, told me. “In October last year, we visited Dhërmi for the first time and immediately saw the potential. The idea is that it’s a holiday, you come, you chill on the beach …”
Most of the people I spoke to echoed this. “The best thing was going somewhere I’ve never been before,” said Rebecca, 27, from London. “I wanted to do a festival abroad. I found it on Resident Advisor and the pics just looked amazing.”
With many people staying for the full week, the ministry of tourism was encouraging guests to explore other highlights of the Albanian riviera. These included Grama Bay, dubbed Albania’s answer to Alex Garland’s The Beach – a secluded bay accessible only by boat, with dazzling blue water and hundreds of rock inscriptions dating as far back as the 3rd century BC; Blue Eye spring, a 45-metre-deep pool surrounded by hazelnut trees; and Ksamil Beach, a coastal village from which four uninhabited islands can be explored by boat.
For me, the most unforgettable element of Kala was the venue at Gjipe, a beach and eco-campground in the next bay, a six-minute speedboat ride from Dhërmi. Just beyond the beach, surrounded by lush trees and flanked by steep, red cliffs, was a small stage and sound system, where you could dance until the sun set and it was time to take the boat back.
DJs including Bjørn Torske, Nick The Record and Jenifa Mayanja took turns to play to a crowd of sunkissed, beaming faces … music bouncing down the gorge, which changed colour every hour as the light faded. A walk into the canyon led to a secret waterfall – a hint of other secrets this stretch of coast might reveal.
The prime minister wasn’t kidding about what a paradise this country is. Turns out he wasn’t kidding about the free beer either. With two days to go until the end of the festival, I ran into Crofton, who was grinning wildly. “I just got a text from the prime minister,” he said. “He’s sending over a pallet of beer … I guess everyone at the festival gets a free one.”