A self-confessed “bogan from Whanganui” currently living the “hipster cliche lifestyle” in East London, photographer and art director Charlie McKay and his wife Jess spent a week sunning themselves on Albania’s coast.

Interview by Rose Hoare, photos by Charlie McKay

 

1972: Where did you go? 

CM: We flew from London to Corfu, then caught a ferry over to Saranda, an Albania coastal city. It takes an hour and a half and costs about €10. We hired a scooter (about €15 a day) and buzzed around the hills for maybe three days, stopping off to swim at public beaches and to explore the food options. Then we headed up the coast in a furgon (a big hop-on, hop-off sort of inter-city minibus) to a place called Borsh, hitchhiked to Dhermi, then up to Berat and Tirana, and took a bus across to Lake Ohrid in Macedonia.  

1972: What was the weather like? 

It was a solid 27-30 every day. Loads of beaches with cheap beer and weird pizza. Once we started to head north it rained a bit but was still really nice. It's hazy, sort of like Greece. Things look bleachy. The sun has a warm glare but not a harsh burn, and it's a dry heat that is quite easy to cope with.

1972: Were they swimming beaches or strolling beaches? 

CM: The first week, we rode from beach to beach, swimming, lying in the sun and drinking beers, then we did more trekking around. The beaches are mostly white sand or small pebbles and are almost all great for swimming. There are quite a few private beaches owned by restaurants, but all you have to do is buy a beer or a little snack and you can stay as long as you want. We found this great concrete diving board that had a constant stream of locals coming down and hurling themselves off into the sea. I had a go. It was great.

1972: What kind of people were there? 

CM: We were there as the tourist season was ending. There were loads of families from Kosovo. 

1972: What did you eat and drink? 

CM: The food there is kind of shit. I'd say it's a cross between Greek and Croatian food. We went with every intention of unearthing this lost cuisine that had been stifled by a communist regime and then further buried by a post-communist culture that just pizza. 
There are traditional dishes and some of them are all right but Tirana isn't going to be the next Copenhagen. We went to a restaurant opened by some guy who’d worked at Noma and had come back home to showcase traditional Albanian cuisine, but it just wasn't very good, as much as we wanted it to be. They have a traditional cheese which was pretty interesting: a bit sharp, a bit farm-y, kinda dry, aged in straw, I think.
There were some pretty great street food vendors selling things like barbecued corn from little carts on the beach.

1972: Where did you stay? 

CM: We stayed in Airbnbs that were basically rooms in half-built hotels where the first three floors were done, while construction was either slowly continuing on the upper floors or had completely stopped. They cost about about £15 a night.
We also stayed out the back of a pizza joint that rented back yard tents, and in campgrounds and hotels.

1972: How did it compare to New Zealand?  

CM: The New Zealand beach experience is a real 'make your own fun' scenario. In Albania, they sell beer, rent sun loungers, cook sardines on barbecues, have coffee machines… Both have their up sides, but I like being able to eat oily fish and drink cheap beer while not being burnt to a crisp because there's no hole in the ozone layer. 
In my photos, it looks like the whole place is falling down, painted in pastel and frequented by old deros but that's really just the bits I was impressed by. (I didn't take a photo of the $2 shops or the big ugly post office or the rows of tourist-targeting restaurants decked out with white plastic chairs and blaring trance music.) I guess that's the power of telling a story with images: you can manipulate your memory of a place by conveniently forgetting to photograph the shit parts.