Heart of the business Dairy, guesthouse
Vendodhja Shko te harta
By car about 2 hours’ drive from Tepelena due to partly unpaved road (currently under construction). The last 6 kilometres from the village square of Nivice to the guesthouse are on a demanding dirt road and while an approach with a normal car is possible, it is not advised. The family can arrange 4WD transport from Nivica centre for guests who don’t have an offroad car. A daily public minibus departs from Tepelena at 7am and returns from Nivica at 12pm.
Cosy, warm rooms above the restaurant/dairy, with wooden furniture and central heating for the colder months. 6 rooms with a capacity of 3-5 guests each. 2000 Leke for single occupancy, 4000 Leke per room for 2+ guests. Includes breakfast
What to do
Hiking, tour of the dairy with explanations about cheese-making
What to bring back
Fresh white cheese
Bujtina Xhebro (Rexhin, Gjirokastra County) By the time you arrive at Bujtina Xhebro, a guesthouse nestled into the slope of Mount Kendrevica, you are guaranteed to already have quite an adventure behind you. The remoteness of the place is hard to grasp before arriving there at the end of a long drive that starts from the town of Tepelena. It follows a windy road, an 8-kilometre gravel stretch of which is currently underway to be paved, and leads through the villages of Bençë, Lekdush, Progonat and Gusmar. In the process it passes through one of the most spectacular landscapes of southern Albania, characterised by a series of deep, dramatic canyons and steep cliff faces. When finally reaching the centres of Rexhin and Nivice, two villages that have over time expanded into each other so much that residents consider them merged, another 30-minute off-road drive deeper into a side valley lies still ahead. Past the last few houses of the village, wide pastures, a reservoir and some forested slopes, the bumpy road finally gives views to a two-storey stone house in a dip by a small stream.
Upon arrival at Bujtina Xhebro, what comes into sight first are the facilities of the family’s dairy, where every morning shepherds from the surrounding summer pastures deliver their milk, some by car, but most still by horse or mule. The entrance to the guest house is located at the back of the house instead, where you’re welcomed by Arjola in the small, inviting garden with some tables. She is the daughter of the namesake of the guest house, Hader Xhebro, who together with his brother Jaho had the idea to create a place to welcome visitors. In 2018 the brothers started to realise their vision with the help of a government grant, expanding the building of the existing dairy.
While the guest house is a recent addition to the family’s economic activity, their history of cheese making dates back to when democracy in Albania was still in its infancy. In 1991 they opened a diary near the village square of Nivice, but added a second one at the current location in 2000. This not only turned out to actually increase both quality and quantity of their cheese, due to the higher altitude and cooler climate that’s more favourable for the animals. It also makes life a lot easier for the shepherds from the about 15 summer pastures who supply the milk they produce up in the mountains, as it shortens their transport times significantly.
In this way, the dairy processes between 1000-1500 litres of milk daily during the season, which lasts from May until the end of July. During this time, the family produces the entire year’s worth of their products, including dhjath i bardh , the common white, feta-like soft cheese, djath kaçkavall , yellow hard cheese, as well as salce kosi , a sour-cream like yoghurt sauce, gjize and butter. Mostly milk from sheep and goats is used here, with only a smaller percentage of cow’s milk. The incredible quality and freshness can be enjoyed during a meal at the charming, warmly decorated ground-floor restaurant.
Pretty much everything that you see on your plate for any of the meals at Bujtina Xhebro is produced within a stone’s throw. Arjola explains that there isn’t really any other way to do things here, as regular shopping trips to the nearest town wouldn’t even be feasible with regard to the remote location. Hence even apart from the dairy products, what you eat either comes from the summer pastures in the mountains – meat like lamb, veal or kid that is turned into roasts or baked in the dutch-oven like traditional saç – or comes from the family garden.
Exploring the area around the house, you will find a patch with different varieties of greens, including lettuce and spinach, garlic, spring onions, tomatoes, peppers, beetroot, and potatoes, though a lot of the produce ripens later here than in the village due to the higher altitude. Near the driveway the family planted mountain tea, and kiwis that climb up the trellises and provide shade, while the hill slope next to the guesthouses is planted with 250 young walnut trees. Other than that there are apple and plum trees on the property, as well as cherries and quince, from which the family makes their own jam.
With all these local ingredients, the ladies in the kitchen, either wives or daughters of one of the 7 brothers of the Xhebro family, create delicious traditional meals, ranging from fresh salads and baked vegetables to lakror (a pastry pie with thin layers, differently prepared compared to other areas; note that it takes one day advance notice to 3 prepare), byrek with wild greens, harapash (innards with butter, onion, herbs, corn flour) and petanik (similar to fli , several layers of batter and cheese baked layer by layer in a dutch oven). Tasty desserts include home-made cake with cherry jam and revani (called hasude , in some parts of Albania, a starch jelly with a crispy, caramelised top).
For those who would like to take a stroll after their meal, there is ample opportunity. A short hike will grant views of grassy slopes and a nearby forest, through which a trail even connects all the way back to Nivice, and chances are good to spot grazing flocks of sheep and goats along the way. But even if you just sit in the hammock in the garden, the quiet and peacefulness of the region is suited to detach from the noise and hecticness of our everyday lives. No WiFi and a rather patchy mobile phone coverage only help with that, and let you focus on the moment. When time comes to rest your head, warmly furnished rooms with wooden interiors guarantee a good night’s sleep.
Looking at today’s successful establishment of the guest house, it is hard to imagine the hardships the family had to overcome to make it happen. Shortly after opening in 2019, Hader passed away from an illness, and operations came to a halt for a period of mourning. The family eventually decided to name the guest house in his memory and honour.
But also in terms of operations running Bujtina Xhebro is challenging. Due to its location there is no electricity connection, so all cooking is happening on wood fires and laundry of linen and tablecloths has to be done with washing machines in the village centre. Lights and sockets are powered by solar energy, but strong winds broke the panels last year, which needed to be replaced at considerable cost. But Arjola is far from being disheartened. She explains how the family plans to move the dairy into an adjacent building in order to expand the restaurant to the entire ground floor to create an even better experience for their guests, as well as connect the property to the power grid. The success of Bujtina Xhebro is clearly just getting started.