NIVICA, Albania (AP) — High in the mountains of southern Albania, a bone-jarring drive along a rough track with switchbacks frequented more by goats than by cars leads to a cluster of small villages where time appears to have stood still for decades.
Sheep's milk is still carried to the local cheesemaker by donkey. Elderly villagers hike into the mountains to collect fistfuls of wild oregano and other herbs. Old rituals of lighting candles to honor ancient, gnarled, sacred oaks are kept alive, although no one who practices them seems to know why or how they came about.
Strung out along a sheer cliff behind an old, crumbled fortress, the village of Nivica is unknown to many even in Albania. But an ambitious project is aiming to open it up to the outside world and to tourists wanting to discover the spectacular natural beauty and rural way of life of the more isolated parts of the country.
"We are doing a pilot project on the concept of how to connect rural communities very close to the coastline but (which have) never been helped by coastline tourism," said Auron Tare, who heads Albania's National Coastline Agency and is leading the project in Nivica.
The area's attractions are many. Crystal-clear streams run through sheer canyons and gorges slicing through the landscape. Small stone Ottoman-era bridges still arch over gullies, untouched for centuries. At sunset, shepherds drive their flocks through the fields to small corrals for milking.
And like everything in the Balkans, the region is steeped in history.
"Apart from the landscape, the reason to come here is because of the stories. This is a place where Roman troops traveled, this is a place where Normans traveled, this is a place where Ottomans traveled. World War I, World War II. There are many stories to be connected to this area," Tare said.
"Plus the wonderful landscape, and also the untouched life. Here you see people milking their sheep and their goats as they did 4,000 years ago. You see people in their pastoral daily life, which is extremely attractive to people who have lost that heritage, and you would come here and find that spiritual enrichment in your life."
For now, visitors are mainly young backpackers from European countries hiking along Albania's ancient trails and camping in a field just outside the village. Tare says about 150 tourists visited the village over the past month, mainly from the Czech Republic, drawn by comments on social media from a team of Czechs who have been working on marking centuries-old paths as hiking trails.
The area is still far off the beaten track; many of those living on the coast just over the other side of the mountains have never even heard of Nivica.
"This village, we can say that it is deeply (hidden) in the mountain," said Lorena Sinatrakaj, a 29-year-old archaeologist working on the project. Even she herself had never heard of it, she admits.
When the project leaders arrived, they found a village based on agriculture and animal rearing, she said. Tourism was an alien concept, and the village was in a general state of dilapidation.
Many of the locals had moved away to towns and cities elsewhere in the country. With little state infrastructure or services, waste management consisted largely of throwing garbage down the ravines or tossing it in the street.
"When we came here last year, there was 30 years' worth of garbage in the village square," Tare said.
The project's first task was to clear up the trash, both inside the village and in the nearby ravine. Now the village square has been cleared, and villagers drive their sheep past stonemasons chipping at rocks, the sound of chisels striking stone echoing through the sultry summer heat as they work on the village's biggest single project: a new guesthouse, scheduled for completion next spring.
The overall project includes restoring old buildings to be used as guesthouses, and helping locals start grass-roots bed-and-breakfast businesses in their homes. Sinatrakaj says locals quickly embraced the project once they saw the potential for tourism.
For Dallandyshe Merio, a local woman who left the village two decades ago and moved to the southern port town of Vlora, the project has brought such hope to the village that she is considering moving back.
"I'm happy that the village has come back to life again. Before, everyone was gone," said Merio, who initially converted one of the rooms in her house in the village for paying guests. When she saw how well the system worked with her first guest, a German, she renovated a second room and now runs a small bed-and-breakfast.
"People are coming back and rebuilding," she said.
Crucially, part of the project includes turning the dirt track leading to the village from the nearest town of Tepelene into a road, to ease access.
But the danger of opening up too fast to too much tourism is a real one, and something Tare and Sinatrakaj are well aware of. The aim, they say, is not to turn Nivica into a place where tour buses disgorge thousands of tourists, something that would shatter the tranquility of the area and endanger the local way of life.
"As we know, tourism has a lot of good benefits but also negative effects, such as destroying local culture and destroying (the) environment. And that's a very good point to take into consideration," Tare said.
"And as we go slow, we're trying to convert the traditional hospitality to a more welcoming feeling and place for visitors to come, without disturbing the local culture. It is a challenging aspect, of course, and time will tell if we are right or not."