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THETH, Albania (Reuters Life!) - A century ago, a famed British travel writer fell in love with the rugged villages of traditional stone houses in northern Albania, a region she praised for its magnificent isolation.
Theth is just as rugged and pure today as when Edith Durham visited in 1909. Following a century of wars, Stalinist rule and economic turmoil, the villagers see its remoteness as a lure for foreigners seeking the thrill of escape.
Theth's traditional two-story stone houses, known as "kullas," with steep wooden roofs are nestled in a valley and the lower slopes of mountains covered with beech, pine and other trees below. The peaks tower above at 2,000 to 2,694 meters (yards), where pockets of snow linger throughout the year.
"I think no place where human beings live has given me such an impression of majestic isolation from all the world," Durham, one of the first outsiders to visit the area, wrote in her 1909 book "High Albania."
Westerners seeking pristine nature pass by Durham's portrait carved on a stone relief and bearing the words "Highland Queen" on the road to Theth among a crown of rugged peaks.
On a recent day, Czech tourist Andrej Rapant, whose father organizes tours to Theth, was one of a dozen people who had pitched a tent in a plum tree orchard by the river.
He came to Albania to get away to the mountains but avoid the tourists who crowd the Alps in Central Europe every summer.
"We are looking for pure nature and find it in these mountains, because it is so natural," he said.
After generations of rugged self-reliance, local highlanders were skeptical about the tourist potential of their region.
Three years ago, locals told an expert from Germany's GTZ agency which encourages international development that his talk of tourism here was that of "an alien from another planet."
In fact, many local landlords had already abandoned the region, citing the lack of power, the absence of schools and doctors, a road blocked by winter snow and other woes.
GTZ official Ismail Beka issued a televised appeal to discuss tourism, and agency experts advised locals how to spruce up their stone houses to receive guests and treat them to local meat, dairy products, honey and tea.
Seven families accepted GTZ's offer of 2,000 euros ($2,855) worth of beds, toilets and showers. Three years on, everyone now wishes they had done the same.
"Money was the smallest thing we invested there," Beka said. "We spent time and energy to win hearts; a big thing was achieved with little. Some 5,000 people came last year."
Beka calculates the initial 14,000 euro cash investment has already translated into 100,000 euros in tourism spending in Theth, sums beyond the dreams of most locals.
"Some 90 percent of tourists are foreigners, unlike the rest of Albania," Beka said. "Theth guest houses have a much higher occupancy rate than the seaside resorts."
Showing his no-frills but clean house with Western style bathrooms funded with a mix of GTZ and his own money, host Prek Harusha said locals felt they were not fully ready for tourism, but "having the best climate in the world" helped a lot.
Harusha's children have picked up English and serve as his translators. His 50 sheep and two cows assure tourists paying 20 euros for board and food that they have a choice of fresh meat, milk, butter, home-made bread and vegetables.
"Communism delayed our development by 100 years. It has always been our tradition to welcome guests, but times have changed and we are now doing it for money," Harusha said.
Tourists can trek mountain peaks, visit a waterfall, church, water-run grindstone mills and a tower that served as jail for those awaiting trial by elders, after killing rivals under the ancient blood-feud code of the Albanian mountains.
"Because there are not many people in the mountains, people are very nice and they give us bread and (local brandy) raki," said Czech backpacker Jiri Kubec.
The drive from Tirana takes three and a half hours, the last hour and a half of which is on a dirt road. One of two auto routes is a mix of stone and dirt which and dates back to the Italians who annexed Albania during World War Two.
Such isolation has its rewards and risks. Three young Czechs vanished while visiting the area eight years ago. But Dutch hiker Pieter Ovenduin reveled in the remoteness of it all and the thrill of reaching a pristine mountain top.
"Here you really escape. You reach the top by yourself and do not discover a road and a cafe and parking on the other side."
Editing by Adam Tanner and Paul Casciato