Monday, 23 July 2012

Albanian Excursions: Part 4

world-map albania


This week Uncle Travelling Matt heads into Albania’s wild northern lands, the infamous Accursed Mountains where blood feuds once reigned supreme and Enver Hoxha made his concrete bunkers in secret…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all parts of the travelogue:

Albanian Excursions: Part 1

Albanian Excursions: Part 2

Albanian Excursions: Part 3

Albanian Excursions: Part 4

Albanian Excursions: Part 5

Albanian Excursions: Part 6

albania route map 4

Part Four

I didn’t want to go to Shkodra that morning. In fact, I didn’t want to go anywhere. What swung it was that I didn’t want to stay in bed either as, after having lain in it for over a day, I now had creasing backache. That coupled with the fact that time was ticking on meant that I forced myself out of the Hotel Alpin feeling weak and miserable, so much so indeed, that I even took a taxi to the place where the bus left from about half a kilometre away. By the bus I consumed a burek and a dhallë[1] which made me feel a little better and indeed, by the time we pulled into Shkodra itself I felt fine. That’s what food poisoning is like; it comes, leaves you feeling like shit for a day, and then it leaves. And mine, thank God, had left.

The drive was nothing spectacular, the road following the plains with the mountains far to the right. We followed the railway line for large sections and every time I saw it I half wished that I was travelling by train instead, (because I prefer railways), and half not, (because this was an Albanian railway). Aside from that, the only point of interest was in the town of Lezha where we passed a set of unimpressive ruins topped by a ridiculous classical canopy, obviously built to both protect them from the elements and draw attention to them. I was immediately reminded of pictures that I’ve seen of Stalin’s birthplace in Gori, Georgia, where a humble peasant’s hut is covered (and overpowered) by a similar structure. Question was what was so important about these ruins to merit such protection? A dip into the guidebook soon revealed the answer: the ruins were the remains of Lezha’s mediaeval cathedral which, more importantly, was the place where that hero of heroes, Skanderbeg, was buried.

skanderbegs tomb

The Tomb of Skanderbeg: understated

You hear Skanderbeg’s name and see his image all over Albania and everybody holds him in the highest regard. Born Gjergj Kastrioti, he was a tribal chieftain in the 15th century who managed to achieve the almost impossible in uniting the continually warring Albanian tribes and then defeating the omnipotent Ottoman Empire in battle again and again and again. Indeed, in his entire career he only ever lost two battles against the Turks and when he died in 1468 Albania was still free and united. It was not to last however and the Ottoman attacks continued until in 1479 the last Albanian fortress, Rozafa Castle near Shkodra fell. One might think therefore, that all his efforts had been in vain, yet many historians believe that his effective stalling of the Ottomans for almost forty years when they were at the peak of their powers meant that Italy escaped Turkish invasion; an Italy that was not only the spiritual heart of Western Europe but also the breeding ground for the Renaissance that spawned the Modern World. It is one of history’s great ifs…

Shkodra was a city that I had heard much about prior to my arrival, largely due to one of my students being a native of the place. In class he would regularly launch into long eulogies its beauty and friendliness before then thinking twice and warning me that it was a poor, dirty place, nothing special, please sir, don’t get your hopes up.

It was the latter impression that seemed the more accurate as the bus dropped me off at the roundabout in the centre of town. The Five Heroes monument in the centre was being demolished to be replaced by what looked like a collection of pipes whilst I was hassled from every angle by taxi drivers wishing to ferry me to Montenegro.


The famous Pipes of Shkodra

The cheapest hotel listed in the guidebook was also the one that, by chance, I had been dropped right next to and so I ventured into the Hotel Rozafa to see if they any room for a (not-so) little one. As it turned out, room was one thing that they had plenty of; the Rozafa was an enormous eight-storey block with far more rooms than guests. Nonetheless, the one they found for me was on the fifth floor and the lift was broken. Still, I needed the exercise and the views were great, and despite the fact that the place obviously hadn’t been renovated since the advent of democracy, I knew that I had chosen wisely. One hears so much you see, of the hotels of the communist era, huge hulking places with unfriendly staff who cared not if you stayed so that as a consequence these hotels were always virtually empty. My travels however, all in a post-communist era, had always been in rather pleasant, small-scale hotels or guesthouses like the Alpin or Gjirokastra where the staff did want your money and so smiled at least. At the Rozafa however, time had stood still and I appeared to be the only guest in its eight floors of rooms where the electricity would cut out unexpectedly and air-con was a concept for the future. The icing on the cake though, was the Albturist rug in the centre of my shoddy room. It was a shithole, yes, but by God, it was also a living history lesson!

And very cheap.

7132_288039465304_6552880_nHotel Rozafa: Proletarian luxury…

After dumping my bag I went back down the five flights of stairs to grab a bite to eat, (first proper meal since the Juvenilija pizza!), and then to see the sights of Shkodra. My first impression, I soon discovered, had been misleading. The city was in fact, quite pleasant with an altogether different atmosphere to the other Albanian cities that I’d visited. This was partially due to the Italian factor – Shkodra was Venetian-owned until 1479 and most of her population have either emigrated to Italy or learnt her language. The historical heart of the city, Fushë Çelë, looked as if it had been transported brick by brick from across the Adriatic and if my stomach had not been quite so unsettled and my memories so vivid, I might have been tempted to stop for a pizza.

Most of all though, it is religion that makes Shkodra seem so different. Religion takes very much a back seat in Albania. By European standards it probably always has, the Albanians are notorious for changing their faith for more earthly rather than spiritual reasons, but after the harsh atheism of the Hoxha era, then religions minor standing has been all the more guaranteed. Except that is, in Shkodra. The city is the centre of Albanian Catholicism and has several large Catholic churches as well as the obligatory new Orthodox church and several impressive new mosques, the largest being an Egyptian-financed one in the park opposite Hotel Rozafa that has a distinctive, Ottoman-cum-Art Deco design. In Shkodra religion seems to play a part in daily life that it has long since retired from elsewhere in the country.


Mother Teresa stands by Shkodra’s new mosque

In the Fushë Çelë I met a charming elderly gentleman who informed me in grammatically-precise English that he had trained as a medical doctor in Budapest in his youth. I spoke warmly of that city and its thermal baths which pleased him and he walked with me to the Catholic cathedral. En route he informed me that Shkodra was the centre of Roman Catholicism in Albania and that most people there were Catholics, including his wife, although he himself was Orthodox, not that that was a problem, for above all, one is an Albanian.

The cathedral itself was an enormous 19th century building with a new bell tower at its side. Inside it was spacious and pleasant, and for me the highlight was an enormous painting by that altar that depicted the laying of the first stone with an interested crowd of priests, Ottoman officials, foreign dignitaries and the faithful looking on. Later on, the curator of the Rozafa Castle Museum informed me that the man laying the stone had in fact been the chief imam of the city and that the cathedral had been financed by both Austria and Italy as a direct result of Ottoman reforms relating to millets and religion that I had just been reading about in Misha Glenny’s book. He also explained that the tower was new as the communists had demolished the original due to it being such a potent symbol of religious belief but the church itself had escaped destruction by being converted into a Hall of Sports, its central portion being used as a handball stadium with banks of seating on either side.


Shkodra’s Catholic Cathedral

Following my tour of the city itself, I took a taxi out to see Shkodra’s main attraction, the spectacular Rozafa Castle. My driver, an enthusiastic Catholic named Gjergj mixed Italian, German and English with abandon and held some strong opinions on his Muslim neighbours. Whenever we passed a mosque he would exclaim “Tutti Musulmani! Tutti sheiser! Albania is Bosnia! Albania is Afghanistan! Tutti xhami![2] Tutti sheiser!” before crossing himself whenever a church reassuringly came into view. Interestingly, this was the only expression of religious intolerance that I encountered whilst in Albania.

Rozafa Castle was shaded by Gjirokastra’s Citadel but that was about the only criticism that one could level at it. Every side commanded spectacular views whilst the ruins themselves were of great interest. They are largely Venetian and Ottoman and indeed Rozafa was the last Albanian fortress to fall to the Turks back in 1479 which gives us some indication at both its significance and strength. Largely deserted and given over to wild flowers these days, I enjoyed seeking out stairways that led down to underground chambers or out onto the ramparts or climbing over the fascinating former mosque and cathedral.


Shkodra from Rozafa Castle

It is at the far end of the castle however, where most of the action is. There, built into the walls, is a delightful restaurant where I enjoyed a coffee looking out over where the rivers Kir and Drin converge before heading next-door into the old Venetian ammunition store which now houses a museum.

That museum was good in itself; the building was done out sympathetically and there were several items of interest including some old Ottoman cannonballs that had been fired during the 1479 siege and a scale model of the castle and city during the 18th century. What made it for me though, were not the displays but the curator.

I never asked his name, but this man was remarkable. In fluent English he told me all about the castle’s history from the legend of its foundation, (when a woman was bricked up in the wall with only her breast exposed so that she could feed her baby), to the time of Hoxha, (who I learnt had banned Edith Durham’s books on the region – one has to ask, why???). He answered all my awkward questions and we talked at length on the Balkans, the Tanzimat Reforms of the Ottoman Empire, on why the city of Shkodra had been moved from around the foot of the castle to its present site some several miles away, (apparently the river had kept changing its course and flooding the old city). Finally I thanked him for making his country’s history and culture come alive for me, but he replied that he was merely doing his duty. Alas, that laudable sense of duty was something that had been absent in every other curator I had come across, most of whom had not even given me a ticket for the fee paid, the money going into their back pockets instead…

At the entrance to Rozafa Castle there was a noticeboard with the following hilarious English translations that just begged to be recorded for posterity:

Sayings for the “Rozafa” castle

“In the mind of the sultan the Castle invadation was a dream.”

Ashki Pasha

Turkish Chronist of XV century

“The enemy thrown down to the castle 2530 wizzbang (some of wich weight 600kg)”

Martin Barleti

Historian & humanist XVth beginning XVIth century

Below Rozafa Castle, at the heart of what was once the city of Shkodra and is now but a sleepy village, is the Leaden Mosque, (so called because of its roof), which dates from the 18th century and, as well as being one of the finest mosques in the country, also boasts two significant claims to fame. The first concerns the visit of Edith Durham which I had just read about in her book ‘High Albania’. When that famous English adventuress stepped foot inside in 1912 she became the first foreign non-Muslim female to enter a mosque in Albania. She states in her book that it was said that the building had formerly been a church dedicated to St. Mark, but in my opinion, the building appears wholly Muslim, although a church may have stood on the site previously. The mosque’s second claim to fame is less cheery: during the country’s first democratic elections in March 1991, worshippers were fired upon by the Sigurimi[3] in an attempt to intimidate them into voting for the regime.


The Leaden Mosque with Rozafa Castle behind

The mosque today betrays little of that disturbed past. It is a beautiful building but alas, closed when I visited. In the field behind it I spied a row of bunkers and I decided to do something that I’d been eager to do ever since entering Albania, namely take a look inside one of them. To my surprise, the interior was very small indeed; hardly enough room for a man to turn around in and it must have been very claustrophobic to be sat in one for any length of time. I wondered at the reports by many Albanians that these bunkers served an unintended secondary purpose as illicit meeting places for young lovers. All I’m going to say on the matter is that it can’t have been a very comfortable experience…

That evening I left the proletarian confines of the Hotel Rozafa for a xhiro and chanced upon a gathering that my driver of earlier in the day would definitely not have approved of. In the triangular plaza in front of the Parruca Mosque was sat a crowd of several thousand Muslims all heartily tucking into a fee meal whilst at their head was a huge video screen showing some sort of programme about Muslims around the Balkans with a row of imams sat importantly in front of it.

It was all courtesy of some Turkish organisation called Bereket[4] who, according to the bus and lorries that they had parked in the square, were touring the Balkans during Ramadan, providing food and friendship for the fasting faithful in a different town each night. Well, that was the idea anyway, although I suspected that there might be political motives as well; after all Shkodra is a predominantly Christian city, probably the only such city in all of Albania, so why make it a priority? And indeed, where had all those thousands of diners come from? I suspected that more than one or two had crucifixes on under their shirts and as for those who actually were Muslim, well… put it like this, I hadn’t met a single Albanian who had even considered fasting that Ramadan and in all the cafés and bars it was very much business as usual. Indeed, when back in Britain I quizzed my Shkodran student on the event and he informed me that the Turkish Ramadan banquet was an annual event and yes, many of the diners were Christian. “They go to the Eid parties and we go to the Christmas ones,” he explained. I liked that idea and was half-tempted to join in the festivities until I remembered that it was intended for hungry Muslims and that I – a fat bloke with a gold cross around his neck – might just get rumbled by an irate imam.



Ramadan banquet, Shkodra

I was decidedly groggy the following morning and decidedly less generous in my opinions of both the Hotel Rozafa and the religion of Islam that I had been the day previous. To be fair, it was early and I am generally a grumpy sod at any hour before ten, but even so, those two culprits had definitely guaranteed my mood.

First up was the hotel. After a pleasant meal in a restaurant in the Fushë Çelë I had retired early, but sleep would not come as, due to there being no air con or fan, it was inordinately hot in my room. To solve that problem, I opened the window but then the noisy bars and cafés below presented a different yet equally frustrating problem. It was around two before I eventually drifted off happily into the lad of nod when suddenly…

“Allaaaaaah akhbar!”

Still dark outside, not yet five, but still we all had to be disturbed. Yes indeed, my religious tolerance was stretched to the limit!

It was probably not a good idea therefore, for the first person I met to be Gjergj. “You are tired? Xhami, aaaaaah! Too early! Tutti musulmani! Tutti sheiser! Albania is Afghanistan! Albania is Bosnia! Tutti sheiser!”

I was meeting Gjergj because it was my aim that day to ride the Koman-Fierzë ferry and taxi was the safest way of getting to it. The Koman ferry is described as being one of the world’s classic boat trips[5] with the ferry taking several hours to pass through a landscape best described as resembling an arid fjord. It is also the quickest way of getting from Tirana to the mountain towns of Bajram Curri and Tropoja, the road through that region being abysmal and the districts that it passes through some of the most inaccessible and undeveloped in Europe.

Those factors alone made the trip worth contemplating, but they were not the only reasons why I was so anxious to make the journey. No, for I am also a dedicated Red Tourist and I wanted to see as much of the Hoxhaist legacy in Albania as possible and to do that properly, then a journey on that ferry is nigh on essential. The journey itself is not an old one you see; when Edith Durham wandered through them there hills back in 1912, where the fjord now lies was merely a trickle of water, a river named the Drin, fordable by mule in the drier months. That all changed however, between 1980 and 1988 when the construction of the Koman Dam created the vast lake that stretches all the way to Fierzë. That however, is not all, for it is at Fierzë that the Party of Albanian Labour decided that its greatest legacy should be built, the most potent symbol of the new, industrialised, self-sufficient, prosperous, happy and socialist Albania. For seven years they toiled, with their Chinese comrades assisting them technically, until, in 1978, the 152m high Light of the Party Dam was opened. Whatever one’s feelings about Hoxha and the communist regime, what cannot be denied is that for such a small and backward country, it was a remarkable achievement. Indeed, it was an achievement worth seeing with my own eyes!

Problem was though, how was one to get to it? The sailing was daily at ten in the morning but Koman is a small place, literally in the middle of nowhere. There may have been a bus, almost certainly a furgon,[6] but departing from where and at what time? The day before Gjergj had asked me about my plans and quoted me €40, warning that a seven o’ clock start would be necessary to cover the forty kilometres or so to Koman. That price soon dropped to €35 with a “Catholic brother” discount, (I felt that then was not the time to explain to him the intricacies of the Anglican communion and the exact meaning of the term ‘Anglo-Catholic’), and so, as neither time nor price was moving further, I decided to take him up on his offer.

The journey began reasonably enough. His Mercedes made good time across the plain and once the obligatory “Tutti xhami! Tutti sheiser!” had been got out of the way, he was an interesting conversationalist. We overtook some soldiers – male and female – and he told me about his National Service days before going on to explain where he’d got his delightful Italoenglishdeutsch from. For ten years it transpired that Gjergj had worked as a lorry driver, truckin’ around Europe, picking up odd phrases and a decent pay packet. When he’d had enough and missed his family too much, he returned home to Shkodra and bought his Mercedes with the profits and nowadays he still occupied his days driving, though less far afield.

Off the main road we passed through the scratty village of Vaudejesu where some kind of market seemed to be taking place and all the women were wearing delightful traditional costumes with white lace and black embroidered waistcoats. “No from here, from Mirdita,” Gjergj informed me as we passed, before adding “Tutti Catholic!” with a genuflexion and a smile.

Past Vaudejesu the ground began to rise and after a small dam the first of many impressive views was encountered, an enormous lake. We stopped for photos and I began to realise the true value of paying extra for a taxi, for at least that way one is allowed to enjoy the scenery.


Gjergj by a mountain lake

And so it continued, now high in the mountains, twisting and turning along the road in the Mercedes, watching out for sharp bends, unexpected blobs of tarmac and huge lorries rumbling along in the opposite direction but enjoying the experience nonetheless, we a stunning vista at every turn.

The lorries were from the various chrome mines that are scattered along the valley. Albania in fact, has some of the world’s largest chrome deposits and the dark grey mountains look as if they consist of little else. During the Hoxha Era the industry was rapidly expanded and many processing plants constructed. These are all derelict and rusting now with Gjergj declaring “Kaput!” every time we passed one, before explaining that the lorries were all bound for Dürres where the chrome is loaded onto ships. All the processing these days takes place in Italy.

At one corner in the road we stopped. Gjergj leapt out of the car and started talking to a man who was pruning a tree. He came back with a handful of fresh figs that were delicious to eat, and when I offered payment he refused firmly.

We got into Koman some thirty minutes or so before the ferry was due to depart. I was confused; there was little there: a few houses, a church, a chrome plant, a river of crystal clear water and a huge dam, but more importantly, no sign of any ferry or dock for one to sail to. Gjergj reassured me that everything was ok before disappearing down the line of traffic that was waiting on the bridge and then returning some ten minutes later with the news that he had found a driver to take me on from the dock at Fierzë. I was extremely grateful since it would have been a difficult job to do myself and once again I was glad that I’d spent the extra on his taxi for it had proved to be worth every lek and once again, an Albanian was making my visit to his country extra special.

Whilst waiting for the ferry I decided to eat at the restaurant that sat beside the bridge. The tables were all outside in little wooden huts that looked like they belonged in some African village, not in the Balkan mountains. The food there was out of this world; fresh salad and the most incredible tashqebap I have ever tasted. Best of all though, was the ice cold spring water that flowed from a tap in the corner of the hut, better than from any bottle. In short, I enjoyed there the best meal of my entire trip.

As I was finishing my food a stream of traffic came down the hill from the dam. I walked back to the car that Gjergj had sorted for me and greeted the driver, a young pale man who could have passed as Irish or Scottish. “Do you speak English?” I enquired of him. “A little,” he replied. That turned out to be the understatement of the year.

The mystery of the missing ferry was resolved as soon as we got moving. We drove up the hill towards the enormous dam and then into a hole in the mountain; a solid rock tunnel! I felt like Tintin when he was driven down a similar tunnel to the secret rocket facility in Syldavia, the fictional Balkan state that Hergé modelled on Zogist Albania.


Koman Dam

Once through the tunnel, there was the ferry waiting patiently. We drove on and then went up onto the deck to enjoy the view. It was spectacular and my fellow traveller informed me that it would only get better as the journey progressed.

His name was Agron Nezaj and he was a native of Bajram Curri who now lived in Tirana where he had formerly worked as a sales manager but was now looking for something else. He liked to travel and spoke perfect English. Gjergj could not have chosen a better courier for me and during that voyage we talked continually, stopping only to enjoy the views, take some snaps and buy a bottle of water. Like so many Albanians, Agron was well-read, well-educated and our conversations drifted from buying used cars, to Balkan politics and corruption in Bulgaria, to Scottish and Irish history and a brief explanation of the Troubles, to Edith Durham, to Tony Blair, to the Germans, to Belgium, to the mentality of people who live in capital cities to socialism and capitalism, to travel and so on and so forth… He was, in short, one of the most interesting people that I have ever met and that is saying something.

As for the journey, which was after all, what I had come for, well that too was captivating and the perfect backdrop to our conversations. The scenery was spectacular throughout, superlatives cannot measure it, but it was fjordesque with deep blue placid lake below and the craggy grey peaks above. There were few signs of any human habitation – a few stone cottages perched on steep slopes – but that was all that we had to remind us of humanity for several hours. This was the land that Edith Durham had wandered through a century before and it was obvious as to why she liked it so.



On the Koman-Fierze ferry

The other points of interest came at both ends. By the jetty at Koman was a cave dedicated to some sort of Marian devotion whilst at the far end of the trip came the goal of my journey, that symbol of the socialist victory, the Light of the Party Dam. In his book ‘The Accursed Mountains’ Robert Carver gives us these interesting observations about the dam and the ferries that run up to it:

‘These spoke of an Albanian industrial world, which although only ten years or less in the past, might as well have been a century ago. Here hundreds of disciplined workers in boiler suits were hard at work welding, riveting and drilling; cranes hoisted steel segments on high, trucks delivered components, completed ships on slipways slid down into the sea. It was quite incredible amongst the devastation of the country in the summer of 1996 that any of this had ever gone on. Yet the evidence was there before my eyes, and in the trembling of the diesel engine beneath my feet: once upon a time Albanians had built all this.

My attitude towards Enver Hoxha and the Communists had been changing throughout my journeys in Albania; the simplicities of Left versus Right, oppression versus freedom, simply didn’t work. Albanians were difficult to rule, perhaps incorrigible. To organise them into even the simulacrum of an industrialised society, making and producing complex machinery, was a staggering achievement. That it had been done at the cost of great, even barbaric cruelty and suffering was not in doubt; that it had been done at all was some sort of miracle. Enver Hoxha was the only man in history who had ever managed to master this unruly and anarchic people to this extent.’[7]

That statement doesn’t resound quite so strongly today; Albania has moved on greatly since 1996 and she is industrialising and completing great projects once again, although it must be said, only with foreign assistance.[8] However, when one passes those lorries taking chrome ore to be processed in Italy, or the derelict oilfields of Ballsh and the overgrown bunkers in the fields, one still get the feeling that a civilisation that was advanced in some respects once ruled over those lands and that today’s Albania is not yet able to replicate all of her achievements. And as for those people whom Carver describes as ‘unruly and anarchic’, ‘perhaps incorrigible’, then it is also partially a testament to the communists and the education that they pushed and provided for all that these people have been transformed into a nation able to carry their society forward into the Post-Modern World; people like Agron Nezaj, the curator at the Rozafa Castle and pretty Ira at Tirana University.


The Light of the Party Dam, Fierze

That lost civilisation came alive all the more for me in the hands of Agron who provided a running commentary as we drove off the boat and onwards towards Bajram Curri. He transpired that he had grown up in Dushaj, the small town dominated by the dam. “These are the dormitories where the workers lived… look, that one still has ‘PKSH’ painted on the side… no, they were not prisoners, it was well-paid work in fact, they worked in three shifts, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week… and here is the school that I went to,” and then further on, at a sharp corner in the road, “and here someone crashed, tumbled down the mountainside and survived! Can you believe it? A hundred metres at least!” With him there the district came alive. “There was a military base here and this was once a factory where they made the bunkers – well, they had to be made somewhere, didn’t they?!”

We came to the junction where the road forks; left to Bajram Curri and Valbona, right to Tropoja and thence Kosova. Whilst I would not have minded a night in Bajram Curri, it was essentially a dead end whilst Kosova was a whole new country. A furgon came by and I bade goodbye to Agron, yet another Albanian who was making this trip so special, and continued on my way.

It was not far to the border and my fellow travellers were an eclectic lot – aged peasants, large housewives and a young bleached blonde with a recalcitrant child. Outside the scenery continued to be spectacular but after the ferry trip it was commonplace, save for one enormous mountain, part of the Prokleti range that had such a smooth face that it looked as if one could climb to the top and then slide back down happily like a child in a monster-sized playground.[9]


The giant sliding mountain near the Kosovan border

The border was relaxed and friendly. I however, must have looked worried for one old man pointed at the Albanian police and said, “No dictator, Serb dictator!” When he showed his ID later on, it revealed that he hailed from Herzegovina so his sentiments were perhaps understandable, and justified too, for I didn’t receive any hassle, merely a stamp and a smile before the furgon rolled on to the border post that was the entry point for the newest country on earth.

Next part: Albanian Excursions: Part 5

[1] Known everywhere else as ‘Ayran’, this is a salty yoghurt drink and is a staple in both the Balkans and Turkey.

[2] Xhami = mosque

[3] Secret police

[4] Research on the internet has led me to believe that this is in fact a company that produces doner kebabs.

[5] In fact, it’s listed in the top three, along with the Hurtigrut up the Norweigan coast and the ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales in Chile, (Bradt Albania, p.133).

[6] Shared taxi

[7] The Accursed Mountains, p.245

[8] It should also be noted that the common consensus is that Albania never was as bad as Carver describes it to be and that he does tend to sensationalise the countries that he describes in his books.

[9] Mount Shkëlzen

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Albanian Excursions: Part 3

world-map albania


Another week of rain here in Britain, so here’s a little more Illyrian sunshine to perk us all up…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all parts of the travelogue:

Albanian Excursions: Part 1

Albanian Excursions: Part 2

Albanian Excursions: Part 3

Albanian Excursions: Part 4

Albanian Excursions: Part 5

Albanian Excursions: Part 6

  albania route map 3

Part Three

The combination of a later night and an early start meant that within minutes of boarding the morning bus to Tirana I was fast asleep and I only awoke when the bus had stopped for elevenses at some anonymous roadside restaurant. A sign next to the restaurant signalled that there was a Bektashi teqe 500m up the lane behind the establishment and I half considered risking a look but I didn’t know for how long we were scheduled to stop so I chickened out, which was a shame since we ended up staying there a good half hour.

Bektashism is a form of Islam, closely akin to Alevism that has a large following, particularly in the south where it probably has more adherents than mainstream Islam which distrusts its heretical cousin considerably. During my visit to Albania I was eager to learn more about this faith particularly since visiting an incredible Bektashi shrine at Isperikh in Bulgaria. Ali Pasha, the one-time depot of southern Albania and northern Greece was a Bektashi, as too was Enver Hoxha; well, before he embraced militant Atheism that is. Indeed, there is a legend which states that before leaving for France to complete his studies Hoxha’s mother had taken her son to a Bektashi baba who had foretold that when he returned to Albania, the budding student would wreak untold havoc on his homeland. Only one’s political stance would, I suppose, determine whether you consider the prediction to be an accurate on or not.

After the stop I stayed awake for the entire journey. For several hours up until the scratty town of Ballsh, we followed the Vjosa Valley and I alternated between viewing the scenery and reading Misha Glenny’s mammoth The Balkans, 1804-1999: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers, ploughing through the wars, uprisings and massacres of the 19th century Balkans whilst its 21st century panorama rolled past. Several miles before Ballsh however, the 21st century became more interesting as we began to travel through a landscape dotted with strange metal towers that I initially took to be pylons stripped of the cables that they once carried. A closer look however, revealed them to be oil wells with ‘nodding donkeys’ at the base. Most seemed abandoned or at least broken, but a few were slowly pumping away and the smell of bitumen hung in the air. At one point we passed a small oily lake with the ruins of some sort of refining facility there, scarring the once beautiful landscape. I mentally condemned this miniature oilfield as one of Hoxha’s rash industrialisation projects that was failing to survive in the post-communist world, but a dip in the Blue Guide to Albania informed me that the antiquated oil wells near to Ballsh were in fact even more antiquated than they seemed, dating from the 1920s when the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, (later BP), built them. The oilfield however, goes back much further than that; bitumen is recorded as having seeped out of the rocks in ancient times when a famous seer smeared herself with it as a divine aid to foretelling the future!


Ballsh oilfield

Past Ballsh the scenery flattened out and there was little of interest to see save for the sprawling unfinished developments of the coastal plain where most of the Albanian population live and where most of the cultivatable land is. It was not always so however, as up until the 1950s much of this area was marshland in which disease was rife. Undoubtedly one of the greatest achievements of the communists was the draining of this swampland and its transformation into good farmland, although it should be remembered that much of the work was done by forced labour and the death toll was high.

It was around one when we reached Tirana and I took a taxi to the Hotel Alpin near to the railway station that offered rooms at €25 per night. Then, after showering, I braved the midday heat and went out to explore the Albanian capital.

From the outset I liked Tirana. Driving in, it appeared clean and ordered. It did not seem to have the dreariness of many of the other former communist capitals, although of all the cities that I have visited, it reminded me most of Sofia, which is the dreariest of the lot. Tirana in a nutshell? A cheery Sofia.

At its centre is the enormous Skanderbeg Square. I love large city plazas and this is one of the best. It is also a living lesson in city’s history. We start at the 18th century Mosque of Et’hem Bey and the 19th century clock tower, reminders of when Tirana was nought but an insignificant provincial Ottoman town, and then we move round to the governments buildings freshly repainted in their original terracotta shades, built in the fascist style during the era of King Zog, when Tirana was remodelled as a suitable capital for the young state. On the far side of the square are the communist contributions: the grand but now tatty Opera House, (that once graced the 25 lekë note); the bland Tirana International Hotel and the magnificent National History Museum which is topped by possibly the greatest piece of Socialist Realist art that I’ve ever seen, a huge mural entitled Albania which depicts victorious Albanians from throughout history, (what I liked most was that the central figure was female), whilst in the middle of it all is a huge statue of the man himself, the national hero Skanderbeg, sat majestically astride his horse.




Skanderbeg Square

Drawn by the mural, and the prospect of more goodies inside, I crossed over to the museum to have a browse, but to my dismay it was closed. Wondering if they were perhaps enjoying a post-lunch siesta, I vowed to explore a little more of the city and then return mid-afternoon and so I wandered across the square and then down Boulevard Deshmoret Kombit to Hotel Dajti where, once upon a time, all the foreign visitors to Albania were housed, (and where in between each floor there were secret ‘half-floors’ where spies would lurk, listening in on the conversations of the guests). Nowadays though, it is closed, somewhat derelict and awaiting a renovation which shall doubtless give it new life and destroy all its character.

After Hotel Dajti I turned left and walked alongside the Lana River, past the hideous RC cathedral (closed) to the Parliament Building (nothing special) before continuing on to the Tanners’ Bridge, a beautiful Ottoman stone arch that these days sits beside a dual-carriageway looking pointless and passed by.


Ottoman Bridge, Tirana

After photographing this rare relic of a pre-20th century Tirana, I turned round and headed down the other side of the Lana to the Pyramid, an astonishingly ugly abstract construction designed by Enver Hoxha’s daughter and son-in-law as a museum commemorating the former dictator’s life.[1] I was a little shocked however, to find workmen stripping it of its white marble tiles, one assumes as a prelude to its demolition. Hideous or not, it was still striking and unique, and I could not help but think of that famous maxim of George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Albania needs these reminders of her half-century of communism; she cannot afford to forget.


The Pyramid (or what’s left of it…)

Next I went to the Blloku, the area of the city once inaccessible to the proletariat where the Party elite that represented them lived in spacious villas. On the way I stopped to admire some of the finer examples of the painted apartment blocks for which Tirana is now becoming famous. The city’s mayor, Edi Rama, an artist and son of an artist, decided that with all those concrete socialist buildings about, Tirana really was quite a dismal and dreary place and what the city needed most was a (relatively cheap) cheer up. And so it was that he commissioned the painting of many of the more visible apartment blocks in bright colours. As the project progressed, the designs became bolder and more imaginative and nowadays Tirana is very much a multi-coloured capital. True, a few have moaned that their city is looking too much like a circus or funfair, but most (me included) appreciate the changes. As for Mr. Rama, it certainly did him no harm, thrusting him into the limelight in a manner that he really seems to enjoy perhaps a little too much, so that he is now the rising star of Albanian politics. Not all however, are convinced that he should rise to the very top. Whilst Ira and her family in Gjirokastra were all much in favour of the man, citing his fresh ideas and approaches, my two Albanian students in the UK did not trust him, citing his large ego and large office, (which they saw when he hosted Michael Palin on a BBC travel programme), as two reasons why Sali Berisha was a better choice, although I suspect that Berisha being a northerner and Rama having links with the south also have a part to play. Whatever the case, when the two clashed in the 2009 General Election, these divisions were mirrored nationally and Berisha and his Democratic Party only just edged it.


Multi-coloured buildings near to the Blloku

If you hadn’t known what it had once been, the Blloku is somewhere that you would have walked through without stopping. A collection of very middle-class 1950s and 60s villas, most of which now house the HQs of mobile phone companies or trendy bars. Whilst opulent compared with the dwellings of the masses, these houses were nothing too extravagant either. Hoxha’s own villa looked like something out of the Stepford Wives rather than any presidential palace. As I stood at the gateway I mused on how this leader of the workers had come from a very bourgeois home and ended up in a more modern version of the same.


Enver Hoxha’s bourgeois home

I headed back to Skanderbeg Square to see if the museum was open and on the way passed an enormous domed building under construction. I’d initially assumed it to be a new city mosque but in fact it was an Orthodox cathedral. I silently questioned why such an enormous edifice was necessary in a predominantly Muslim city but had to allow that it was at least an improvement on the hideous Catholic cathedral.

Back in the square, the museum was still closed and what’s more, the notice on the door (that I’d missed the last time) informed me that it would be shut on Monday (the following day) as well. Disappointed, I strolled across the square to look at the mosque instead which, although only small, was quite exquisite, its interior walls being covered with beautiful painted scenes. There were a few believers present too, the men looking out of place with their beards in a country where virtually every male is clean-shaven, (and indeed, under Hoxha it was the law that one had to be so!).

Just up from the mosque the guidebook mentioned a small Bektashi tyrbe (burial shrine) which I found on a street corner with one of Tirana’s huge new glass skyscrapers cleverly constructed around it. By this time however, I was tired and overheated, so I retired to the Alpin to relax, only re-emerging when the sun had sank for my evening meal and a drink in the park opposite Hotel Dajti where there is a strange-looking entertainment complex named ‘Taiwan’ after the country that donated the dancing fountains next to it. And so it was, sat down by the jumping water, surrounded by chattering Tiranans taking their xhiro[2] I had found the ideal place to watch the world go by and let the Albanian capital soak into my Saxon veins.

I planned to stay in Tirana for three nights, using the city as a base from which to explore a few other places in the area, namely Dürres and Kruja. Thus it was that the following morning I made my way down to the railway station in order to catch the train to Albania’s second city, the port of Dürres.

I adore railways and travel on them whenever I can. Warnings abounded however, about the Albanian railway system, most notably concerning the state of the rolling stock, track and the length of the journey times. My guidebook for example, simply stated that “only the most budget-conscious travellers, or very committed rail enthusiasts, will want to use them for anything but the shortest journeys.”[3] On the plus side however, it also told me that the trains in Albania are extremely cheap, Tirana to Dürres is the shortest journey there is and “The railways stations in both cities are charming old buildings, full of the sort of character which – at least in Britain – was replaced long ago with anonymous burger bars and illegible LCD departure boards.”[4]

Oh how they lie!


Albanian Railways: The Myth

To start off with, Tirana’s station was not full of character, nor too is it particularly old. Instead it is an anonymous concrete dump built, at the earliest, in the 1970s. Dürres’ was little better. There was not a single railway line in the country when the communists came to power and they enthusiastically developed the system as an alternative for the proletariat to travelling on the back of open-top lorries along unmade roads. Compared to that, the train probably is an improvement, but that’s about it. The carriages, all second-hand cast offs from Western Europe are in a shocking condition, (I’m talking missing doors and broken windows), whilst the line was scenically uninspiring. It was however, at a mere 70 lekë a ticket, cheap. The only other plus point was a huge bunker complex just beyond Tirana station. Built to guard such an important line of communication I suppose.


Albanian Railways: The Reality

It took over an hour to get to Dürres, (by road it is half that), and to make matters worse, by the time I got there I’d developed a problem with my left eye that caused it to stream uncontrollably so that it appeared to any passer-by that I was in the middle of some sort of life crisis. I’d had this once before, in Saranda, and at the time I’d assumed that it was due to the sea air since it had disappeared as soon as the bus left town, but this one had developed on the train itself. Of course, sticking one’s head out of the window of a train rattling through a dusty landscape was never likely to help, but how could one change the habit of a lifetime, and yes, before you ask, the sea air at Dürres did exacerbate it.

Dürres, as the gateway to Italy, Albania’s biggest investor and trading partner, is supposedly one of the richest cities in the country, but strolling up Skenderbej Street from the railway station, there was little evidence of this. Indeed, Dürres appeared as the most communist of all the cities that I’d visited so far save for sections of Tirana. The promenade however, told a different tale, with new high-rise hotels being constructed by the dozen causing the place to become a replica of one of the soulless resorts of the Spanish Costas. Not that I was in any mood to appreciate any of these glories of capitalism however; by this time my eye was streaming more than ever, I was too hot and I’d developed a banging headache.

Dürres, known as ‘Dyrrhachion’ in ancient times and one of Europe’s oldest cities has, alas, very little to show the modern visitor of its proud history save for the archaeological remains preserved in the museum (shut). What else there is though, is concentrated in a small area, next to the remaining fragments of the city walls. First up on my Tour de Dürresi was a small bust commemorating one Major Lodewijk Thomson, a Dutch peacekeeper who was shot by insurgents in 1914, an interesting anomaly since not only was he Dutch, (a people with minimal impact and influence on Albania), but he also fought on the side of the established order, not against it, unlike the thousands of partisans who are honoured in virtually every other bust, statue or memorial in the country.

After Thomson came the Moisiu Ethnographical Museum. This not-particularly-fascinating establishment was housed in a large Ottoman Era house and contained not only a room done out in 19th century style and a room full of traditional clothing, but also a third room dedicated to the life of Alexander Moisiu who once lived in the house. I was left wishing that something similar had been done in Hoxha’s house in Gjirokastra, as I’d actually heard of him. Moisiu, by the by, was an actor.

Stimulating though the Moisiu Museum might have been, it was not Dürres’ crowning glory. No that came next, in the form of her Roman Amphitheatre.

As a kid I’d loved the Romans. I loved reading about their well-organised armies who could defeat anyone that they met in battle, and I loved looking at pictures of games in the Coliseum, of villas in the country with citizens and slaves and of galleys crossing the seas of the known world. Problem was, there was very little on the ground to further ignite my childish imagination. The Middle Ages came alive whenever I visited a castle; stood on the ramparts I could imagine the sieges, jousting tournaments and hunting parties, but even though a major Roman road ran past my doorstep, well… a straight road can only ever be so exciting. As I got older and started to travel I saw more, ‘proper’ Roman remains such as Housesteads Fort on Hadrian’s Wall and the large baths complex at Varna in Bulgaria, but even then, much of what was on show was little more than a few stones in the ground; there was too little for the history to really come alive. Here in Dürres however, it was very different.

The amphitheatre was the largest in the Balkans and it once housed fifteen thousand spectators. Whilst not fully excavated, there is enough left for one to imagine it as it once was. After all, one enters through one of the tunnels that the spectators would have taken to get to their seats and indeed, under the terracing I was strangely reminded of the old Victoria Ground on matchdays. All that was missing was the pie counter.

In its place though, was a church. After the amphitheatre was abandoned it became a cemetery and so a chapel was necessary for the funeral services. Also of interest was the huge tunnel through which the local toffs used to drive their chariots when attending the games. It only stretches for fifty metres or so now, before ending in a pile of rubble, but in its heyday it was half a kilometre in length! I however, was satisfied simply standing at its entrance and looking out at where the games were once held, imagining that I was a gladiator preparing for the fight of my life… literally. Yes indeed, the amphitheatre was so good that I managed to enjoy it despite my banging headache, streaming eye and strong desire to stay out of the oppressive heat.


Dürres Amphitheatre

Walking back to the station, I did what I should have done upon arrival and went into a pharmacy to buy some eye drops and paracetamol. I also explored some of the city’s souvenir emporiums and bought several items of horrendous tack to present to friends and sibling including a gold bust of Skanderbeg, Enver Hoxha and Sali Berisha mugs[5] and a Skanderbeg snow globe.

Lesson learnt, I kept my head inside the train for the return journey and concentrated instead on Misha Glenny’s retelling of Balkan history. Nearing Tirana however, something else grabbed my interest as a pair of my fellow passengers had begun to get quite animated. The two in question were both in their sixties or seventies and had started off by singing communist era songs to one another and were now engaged in a jovial but loud political debate. Not speaking Albanian of course, I missed the finer points raised, but the general gist was that the lady was a big admirer of both Edi Rama and Enver Hoxha whilst the gentleman was very much a Berisha man. They goaded and wound each other up, retort followed retort much to the amusement of the entire carriage. As for me, I was both cursing the fact that I didn’t speak Shqip and loving the fact that I was in a country where people actually have political opinions and are not afraid to voice them on the train.

Back in Gjirokastra, irresistible Ira had recommended a restaurant called Juvenilija situated in the Tirana’s main park past the university as being the place to eat. Since the guidebook also rated it highly and since I fancied seeing the Mother Albania statue that stands in the same park, I decided that evening to take up her recommendation.

Juvenilija thought it was classy. The establishment was housed in a mock castle, the waiters were so professional that they’d forgotten how to smile and both gangsters and American Embassy officials dined there. To me, like so many attempts at class in the Balkans, it just looked tacky. What’s more the food (pizzas) was middling and whilst sat waiting for it my eye problem returned and with it, the headache. My opinion of Ira dipped slightly, but only slightly you must understand.

After the meal I decided to walk up to the Mother Albania statue, (described as one of the best pieces of socialist realism in the country), through the park which was a pleasant wooded place full of football teams doing their training exercises. My attempt however, was thwarted by a large gate and a sign that read ‘Military Zone’, so I turned back and sought out instead the well-kept British and German military cemeteries and the artificial lake. I liked Tirana’s city park; it reminded me of the large city parks that can be found in so many formerly socialist cities, built by the regime for the relaxation and enjoyment of the proletariat whom they purported to represent. Next to the lake there was an outdoor theatre for concerts and a café for a drink. I would have loved to have stopped there but by this time I was feeling tired, my eye was streaming relentlessly and my head still banging like a drum. As I strolled along however, one thing I did notice that surprised me was that on the far side of the lake the city ended and the countryside began. Tirana is not a big city after all.

I walked back through the Blloku which was heaving with the young and fashionable, but I was in no mood to take any of its delights in. I had had this happen too often in the past you see, for me not to recognise the signs: that pizza at Juvenilija had been worse than middling, it had made me ill. Food poisoning is always the same; it comes on all of a sudden, then twenty-four hours of sheer misery and then, as quickly as it came, it goes. But first however, there was the misery…

I did not sleep that night and up to half two I felt awful. Then I managed to vomit capaciously and after that things gradually began to improve. I started to be able to sleep in fits and starts, although every quarter of an hour saw a trip to my (thankfully) en suite bathroom. I stayed in bed all day, venturing out twice only, once to the supermarket to buy some fruit juice and once to the pharmacy for some medicine. I thanked my lucky stars at having chosen a hotel that had both establishments literally across the street; if they’d been further away I don’t know how I’d have coped. My planned trip to Kruja became a distant dream but by evening time I was able to raise myself and stagger along to the National History Museum which I mooched around miserably, stopping at every seat for a rest. Nonetheless, it was good to see it, there was some interesting stuff in there, particularly a new exhibition on King Zog and Albania’s royal family, (something I knew next to nothing about), and also a video on Albania’s Jews who largely escaped the gas chambers during World War II. The big let down however, were the exhibitions covering the communist years. These were what I had mainly come to see and these were the only bit of the museum closed for renovations.

The museum trip wore me out, but it was not all bad. That night I slept like a log and in the morning I felt well enough (just) to travel onwards. As always, it had taken twenty-four hours.


Skanderbeg Square, Tirana

Next part: Albanian Excursions: Part 4

[1] Again, there are parallels with Sofia here. The Bulgarian capital has the equally hideous NDK, accredited to Lyudmila Zhivkova, daughter of the president.

[2] Evening stroll, like the Greek ‘volta’.

[3] Bradt Albania 3rd Edition (2008), p.52

[4] Ibid, p.75

[5] There were interesting in the fact that the transfers of the leaders were added after the firing process, on top of the glaze which meant that they can be scratched off with great ease. Quite how stupid was the person who didn’t think that one through, eh? And how stupid the guy who actually bought such rubbish…

Monday, 9 July 2012

Albanian Excursions: Part 2

world-map albania


More from Albania again this week in which I talk about how I returned to that weird and wonderful land and travelled to Gjirokastra, the city immortalised in Ismael Kadare’s ‘Chronicle in Stone’ and yet also tainted with the memory of having unleashed Enver Hoxha onto the world. As ever, comments and criticisms welcome!

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all parts of the travelogue:

Albanian Excursions: Part 1

Albanian Excursions: Part 2

Albanian Excursions: Part 3

Albanian Excursions: Part 4

Albanian Excursions: Part 5

Albanian Excursions: Part 6

albania route map 2

Part Two

I had returned! After two false attempts and the passing of almost a decade and a half, I was back in Albania, setting foot on the concrete of Sarandë harbour. Even before I’d done that though, I knew that the country I was coming to was a very different one to the one I’d seen a glimpse of back in 1996. In my work as an English teacher in a prison, my Albanian students had spoken endlessly of the immense strides forward that their little country had taken in recent years, (although they themselves, incarcerated in Britain, had not actually seen those changes), and on a more concrete level, the Sarandë that I approached was a different place altogether. In both 1996 and 1999 the town was a collection of decaying grey apartment blocks clustered around the bay and the headland to the left, but in 2009 it had grown, spilled over on both sides and up the hillside, and the buildings now were colourful and new. Whereas before that had been but one major hotel, the former Albturist Butrint, now there were dozens and the centre of town was dominated by a skyscraper of around fifteen storeys. Even the terminal at which we docked was different, with a huge new building featuring all the necessary facilities. Back in 1996 a guy with a table and a rubber stamp had sufficed.

7132_288038775304_6578909_n Entering Sarandë Harbour

After formalities I made my way through the town amazed at the difference. What before had been a half-deserted, rubbish-strewn ghost town of desolate drab buildings was now bustling, clean, colourful and almost wealthy. Back in 1996 Sarandë had been Third World; now it was vying with Corfu across the water. Its streets were swept and its banks and hotels plate glass. Most of all, its people did not look down or dejected. The Sarandans actually appeared to be enjoying life.

Not everything however, had moved with the times. The bus station turned out to be a patch of rough ground just up from the town park and my carriage onwards to Gjirokastra, an ancient green vehicle with cracked windows, filthy curtains and a gravelly engine. This was my introduction to the Albanian public transport system (or lack of one) and in all the cities that I visited, not once did I see a proper bus station or travel in a decent bus. All departed and dropped off from some rough ground or crossroads and all the vehicles themselves were dirty, juddering cast-offs from some richer neighbour.[1] Since cars were banned to the masses in Hoxha’s Albania and the railway system minimal, I got to wondering as to how ordinary folk had travelled around the country back in communist times. Later on, my taxi driver in Shkodra informed me that lorries were generally used and indeed, I recalled seeing peasants crowded onto the back of an old truck during my 1996 visit. Nonetheless, here was one area which Albania still has to work on, although, to the credit of those grumbling and spluttering veterans of the road, not one failed to get me to my destination on time.

The journey of one and a half hours[2] to Gjirokastra was a fascinating introduction. Once we had creaked and groaned over the hill behind Sarandë Bay I was in new territory, travelling in a land that I’d wondered much about but seen very little. Would it match up to my expectations though?

Over the hill there was a plain. Across it were scattered dwellings and small-scale industry. The best word to describe it would be ‘scratty’; the buildings were often unfinished with metal struts sticking out where the second storey would later be built and the timber yards or small factories dusty and adorned with gaudy signs. By the roadside there was a steady stream of human detritus: empty water bottles, plastic bags, used packaging. As in so many ex-communist countries, the concept of civic pride on an individual level has not yet penetrated the Albanian mindset.

That said though, all was not bad. The half-built houses were all new and testified to a society that was alive and rebuilding. So too were all the industries, the vast majority being post-communist and indeed post-20th century. Scratty it may have been, but derelict it was not. Such scenes I later learnt were typical of the 21st century landscape across Albania.

Soon after the mountains began to close in and the scrat thinned out. We passed interesting-looking villages and an old ruined castle perched on a hillock by the river. And that river had crystal-clear water that was a joy to behold and invited you to jump straight in. We then passed the Blue Eye Grotto, a local beauty spot that the Albanian public were not allowed to visit under the Hoxha regime, and after that a reminder of that era, the Bistrice Hydro-Electric Plant, one of those large-scale projects so favoured by the socialist politburos.


Bistrice Hydro-Electric Plant

After that the mountains truly did close in and we began to climb. This was the Bistrice Gorge, beautiful with enticing villages perched on the slopes, clustered around Greek Orthodox church, (for although Albania is predominantly Muslim, in the far south it is generally both Greek-speaking and Greek Orthodox. Indeed, back in my place of work, one Albanian student wondered out loud on several occasions as to why these Greeks didn’t go back and live in Greece as their ancestors had. I replied by asking if he was going to convert back to Roman Catholicism as his ancestors had been, but he insisted that the situation was not the same. Interestingly, in another class there is an Albanian who comes from the Greek-speaking minority and although the other Albanians do talk with him, he generally keeps his distance and relations between them are not close. Whether this is indicative of the general situation or just him personally, I would not like to say.

It was however, the descent from the mountains into the wide, glacial Drinos Valley, majestic crags rising on the far side whilst our bus twisted and turned its way down to the valley floor on the narrow road which appeared as a gash across an incredible face of sedimentary rock.


The road into Drinos

For me though, it was the valley bottom that most excited my interest. The Drinos Valley is a wide, flat highway constructed by nature which leads from beyond Tepelena to Gjirokastra and thence all the way into Greece. It is a natural route down which to lead an army and indeed in 1940 the Italians did just that, using the Drinos as the launch pad for their ill-fated invasion of Greece, only for the Greeks to lead their more successful counterattack up it less than a year later. With most of Albania a natural fortress of peaks and slopes, the Drinos Valley is like an arrow striking into the country’s heart and in the eys of the paranoid Enver Hoxha, that constituted a serious problem.

Albania is famous for its concrete bunkers. Hoxha ordered thousands of them built – one for every adult male it is said – to protect the country from foreign invasion. I had seen them before, small concrete domes that look somehow like tiny alien spacecraft that have mistakenly crash-landed in the Balkans, but never before or after did I see them as I saw them there, protecting Albania’s soft underbelly from capitalist attack. Across the valley floor there was line after line of them. On each field boundary four in a row, then a space of a hundred metres or so, then four more and so on, the only variation being a larger command bunker every so often, like a mother watching over her children. I mused on this elaborate system; if all were manned it certainly would make any invasion virtually impossible since those things could survive a direct hit from a tank or artillery piece and anything but a direct hit from an aerial bombardment. However, if the occupants had only rifles, what damage could they inflict on the advancing tanks? Plus, in such a sparsely-populated region, where were the men – or women and children – to man them all? I dare say that these were problems that Hoxha had identified and solved in his own mind. If nothing else, he was a good military leader, his partisans and Tito’s in Yugoslavia being the only two national armies in Eastern Europe to successfully defeat the Axis Forces without the assistance of Stalin’s Red Army.


Bunkers in the Drinos Valley

Of all the places in Albania, Gjirokastra was the one that I most wanted to visit. Along with Berat it is one of the country’s two ‘museum cities’, a collection of Ottoman Era houses clinging to a hillside beneath a forbidding fortress, but for me personally the attraction lay deeper than that, for this was also the city that had produced Albania’s two most famous sons of the modern era: Enver Hoxha and Ismail Kadare.

Hoxha we of course, know all about already; the whole of Albania is covered with his fingerprints, but these days Kadare, a writer and indeed, unlike Hoxha, very much alive, is becoming equally well-known, his titles being easily available in English translation. His books are well-written, atmospheric and a window onto the Albanian world both during the communist time when Kadare smuggled his heretical works out in secret to a publisher in Paris, and beforehand, for many of his books explore earlier times such as the Ottoman Era and the Italian Occupation. Most memorable for me though, was ‘Chronicle in Stone’ (‘Kronik‘ n‘ gur’ in Albanian), an autobiographical portrait of Gjirokastra during the author’s childhood years. It is a lovely book and unlike so many childhood memoirs, not twee or sickly. After reading it I was desperate to see that fabled stone city with my own eyes.

chronicle in stoneChronicle in Stone

First impressions however, were decidedly unimpressive; scratty suburbs and an abandoned factory. The old city is high on the hillsides and buses are not allowed to venture near it, so visitors must take a taxi up. To share the cost I teamed up with two young Englishmen – the only other tourists that I’d encountered save for the Butrint-bound groups that had been on the boat – and we ended up not only sharing a taxi but also a hotel, the newly-built yet friendly and reasonably-priced Gjirokastra just above the city’s main mosque.

A short siesta negated the effects of the day’s travels and I was eager to explore, so I set off up the hill to Gjirokastra’s imposing citadel.

I have been in many impressive castles in my life, several of them in Albania in fact, but none can surpass that of Gjirokastra. One starts off by walking through the gatehouse into an enormous gallery with recesses on each side, each recess holding a huge piece of captured artillery (most of it Italian). This is the Great Gallery, built by the infamous Ali Pasha (more on him later) and its size alone was staggering. At the end was the communist contribution, a statue of a partisan three times the height of a man standing sentry at the entrance. I felt as if I was in somewhere primeval; this was more like Valhalla than anywhere earthly.


Partisan meets fat guy

Near the statue were some steps leading upwards to the space above the gallery. A guide silently showed me round a collection of old rifles and some diagrams and pictures of partisans labelled in Albanian only, and then through a door into the Hoxha era prison. All prisons are grim, but this one was especially so and I was not surprised to learn that few survived their incarceration there.

Back down the steps and out into the open, it was equally breathtaking, only this time it was God’s handiwork, not man’s that so impressed. The views from Gjirokastra’s citadel are unsurpassed, a forbidding vista of rocky crags in the distance, then the majestic Drinos Valley and then below the stone roofs of the town clinging desperately to the slopes. This was more Middle Earth than Europe!



I met the two English guys up on the citadel near the American spy plane that crashed during the Hoxha Era. They were equally impressed with it all and rate it better than Berat’s castle. We talked about Ismail Kadare and I recommended ‘Chronicle in Stone’ as well as Edith Durham’s ‘High Albania’ to them as ideal Albanian reading material.

Gjirokastra may look incredible from a distance, but up close it is less satisfying. The severe gradients of the cobbled streets make walking even short distances a trial both up and downhill. Nonetheless, I managed to make it downtown (literally!) to the birthplace of Enver Hoxha, now an ethnographic museum.

The ethnographic museum appears to be a purely Balkan phenomenon. I have never come across one elsewhere in the world.[3] Nor indeed, have I come across the word ‘ethnographic’ although the dictionary assures me that it means “The branch of anthropology that deals with the scientific description of specific human cultures”. Whatever. But absent elsewhere or not, even the smallest town in the Balkans has one of these august institutions and decent sized cities can boast several. Furthermore, all of them are exactly the same. They are housed in an Ottoman house which has one room furnished as it would have been in the 19th century, another room full of traditional costumes and a third which acts as an office where the curators sit and smoke. If you’ve been to one, you’ve been to the lot. That said however, this one I was not missing, for whilst I expected nothing special, this one was the former home of one of the most hardcore communist leaders in history and I, as a dedicated ‘Red Tourist’ needed to see it. I have been to Red Square, Tiananmen Square, the Marx Memorial in Berlin, the Communist Statue Park in Budapest, the room where the TUC was founded in Manchester, Ho Chi Minh’s tomb and to top it all off, Ho Chi Minh’s dad’s tomb. I was therefore, not going to miss this.


Sneaking into a dictator’s living room…

I wandered on in, past the room where the two curators were sat smoking, into the rooms of Hoxha’s house, tastefully furnished in a 19th century fashion with examples of traditional costume on display, and tried to imagine the boy who had once played in those very rooms and how this place had created such a paranoid, autocratic despot. It was all so genteel, so bourgeois… but there again, hadn’t Marx himself warned about the bourgeoisie?

My musings were interrupted by the curator who’d finished her cigarette and realised that she had a customer. She asked my nationality and then launched into a monologue about Gjirokastran traditional furnishings and costume, before then shattering all my illusions by informing me that this house was not the one that Hoxha had grown up in, that had burnt down, (and not even maliciously, only an accident), and that it wasn’t even an accurate reconstruction. I stared at the cradle that I thought had been his and felt cheated. Like Lenin in Red Square, there was virtually nothing of the real thing left.

Nearby Hoxha’s house was that of Kadare so I thought I’d take a look and see the place that had been given the starring role in ‘Chronicle in Stone’ even if the original had, like my last destination, also been burnt down. En route I came across the only pro-Hoxha graffiti that I saw whilst in Albania; someone has sprayed ENVER « PKSH 1908 on the wall in suitably red paint. Still, it made a change from the VOTA P.D. that was everywhere else.[4] Kadare’s house was, on the other hand, most disappointing, just a blank wall by the road.


Pro-Hoxha graffiti, Gjirokastra

Tired by climbing up and down all those streets, I went for a meal at Kujtim’s, the TIC-recommended restaurant with a charming terrace covered in vines. Just as I sat down though, lightning flashed and the heavens opened and so I dined inside, watched a terrific storm erupt over the mountains before returning to the hotel to rest and recuperate.

En-route though I decided to seek out an internet café so as to catch up on the day’s footballing action in general and Stoke City’s game against Sunderland in particular. Enquiries however, revealed that there were no such establishments in the old city but that if it was football results that I wanted then Lloto was the place to go. This turned out to be a small betting shop below the mosque which I was welcomed into most heartily by a small group of men watching the Man Utd-Arsenal game.[5] They suggested I watch the rest with them and not wishing to be rude, I ordered a beer from next door and settled down. Enquiries revealed that the mighty Potters had in fact beaten Sunderland by a goat to nil and with Arsenal also a goal up, the mood was upbeat and jovial and we discussed matters most footbally despite the lack of a common tongue. Indeed, I only left when the beer was finished and it became apparent that, through the usual unsporting means, (yet another penalty that wasn’t), the slime of football that lurk in Old Trafford were cheating their way to another win. It is enough to make a man lose faith in God I thought as I trudged out of the door, but looking around at the beautiful old buildings and mountains beyond with the thought of that important Stoke victory restored that faith the moment it was lost.

I sat on my balcony reading and enjoying the view as the darkness fell, but listening to the conversations of some drinkers below in the taverna downstairs made me realise that a beer and human company might not be a bad idea, so I went down and found the owner eager for conversation with me. Conversely, I was eager for some genuine Albanian contact and as she did not want our lack of a common tongue to thwart our mutual aim, she sent for her niece, an excruciatingly pretty yet serious and intellectual student on holiday from Tirana University who spoke perfect English and reminded me of the many other excruciatingly pretty, serious and intellectual Balkan girls whose company I have enjoyed in years past whilst in Bulgaria. And so it was that we talked, Ira, her mother Lujeta, her aunt Veli, the hotel’s owner. That evening my Albania trip truly began. I sat in the bar and listened to the lives and opinions of the locals through the lips of Ira. She told me about life as a student in Tirana, how she hoped to become a micro-biologist and perhaps move abroad, maybe Italy. She explained how her family were Bektashi, but that no one was really religious in Albania and that she personally believed in Science, not God. She told me that even in his hometown, no one revere’s Hoxha’s memory and that they preferred Edi Rama, (the Socialist candidate and Mayor of Tirana), over Sali Berisha (the reigning PM and Democratic candidate), because Rama had new ideas, although it seemed that the election was lost even though Rama was contesting the result. She talked about her aunt and uncle, of how they had built the hotel that I was staying in and about their two sons who were holidaying in Sarandë that week. Then her aunt started asking about me, whether I was married and if I had children and after I had answered in the affirmative, as to where they both were. I explained about how long bus journeys and toddlers are not a good combination and they shook their heads in agreement and lamented that Gjirokastra did not have an airport to bring the tourists in but made me promise to come back another year, family in tow. Then, they gave me a taste of their homemade raki, talked about life under Hoxha and the future prospects of Albania and as the night drew in I was reminded of similar evenings in Bulgaria a decade or so ago and why it is that the Balkans are my very favourite piece of this wide and wonderful world.


In the taverna with Lujeta, Ira and Veli

Next part:  Albanian Excursions: Part 3

[1] In the south of the country, many were ex-KTEL; the company that runs the buses on Corfu.

[2] You find yourself measuring in time, not distance in Albania for one can cover a good 50-70km in an hour on the plains, but in the mountains it’s a very different story.

[3] Discussing ethnographic museum with the English lads later on in the hotel, they informed me that there were some in Russia. These were traditional Russian houses furnished in a 19th century style with exhibits of traditional costume.

[4] PKSH stands for ‘Partinë Komuniste të Shiqipërisë’, or ‘Albanian Communist Party’ in English whilst 1908 is the date of Hoxha’s birth. ‘VOTA P.D.’ translates as ‘Vote Democratic Party’. I was visiting just after a closely-fought general election.

[5] Interestingly, when I was typing this up, ‘Utd’ was declared by MS Word to be a spelling mistake. Clicking on the spell-checker to rectify this, the alternative ‘turd’ was offered. And who says that computers aren’t clever?