We left Ohrid at 9:30am and crossed the border within an hour. That flight from Luton is most appealing. I can see us coming back to Ohrid – taking our time exploring the back streets and the churches, taking another boat ride…
On the other side, it’s bunkermania – bunker after bunker litter the landscape and a heavy military presence. Other than that, the differences are subtle. Village life in Macedonia is not very different from village life in Albania. Failed businesses; abandoned factories; houses in ruins and many war memorials. And in the middle of all that, huge mansions under construction – from the diaspora and the mafia.
The road twisted and turned as we climbed and then descended offering us a panoramic view.
The coffee break was most welcome; macchiato of course. We stopped at a restaurant/hotel castle. Immediately, a few of us were drawn to a playful kitten – having the time of its life with a dry leaf. A woman working there brought us two more kittens and we oohed and aahed.
Back on the road, we drove through a valley. The riverbed was mostly dry. We passed vineyards. And of course, more bunkers.
We arrived back in Tirana around 1pm. We popped to the local bakery for some cheese byrek, got our clothes ready for tomorrow, packed our bags and jumped into a taxi to Bunk’Art. We arrived at the site through a 500m single track tunnel carved out of the hillside.
This was the top bunker, for the elite. The space is unbelievable. From private rooms for Hoxha and his top advisers, to a massive assembly room, a bufe, a filter room (to clean the air), a decontamination room. It felt like an underground city. What gets you after a while is how cool it is down there (the temperature is a constant 16c) and the lack of light. The exhibits varied between dry informative (facts, which may mean nothing if you don’t have at least some background to what this was all about and who was who) and fascinating video footage of Hoxha’s funeral and images of the Skanderberg square packed with people for Stalin’s funeral.
With the feeling of only having a few hours to go, we spent just over an hour there and got a taxi to take us to our next destination.
En route, we stopped at the Resurrection Cathedral. This time, we had the place all to ourselves. I was surprised at how Moorish it looked inside, architecturally.
Opposite the cathedral is the House of Leaves, Tirana’s very own museum of secret surveillance. Originally, the building was a medical clinic. It became the headquarters of the Gestapo during the Nazi occupation and then the Sigurimi (Albania’s Communist-era version of the KGB). The equipment on show was both impressive and chilling.The building was used both a listening post and place of torture. The paranoia of the government at the time is incomprehensible – creating ‘enemies’ of the state, spying on people and ensuring that nothing was beyond the reach of the State. One of the roles of Communist propaganda was about cultivating the cult of the leader.
When the right thing to do would have been to walk back to the hotel to get ready for dinner, we opted to take a walk in the opposite direction.
Fortune favours the brave.
Walking toward Mother Theresa’s square (which surprisingly doesn’t have a statue of her), we came across a few more bunkers, and… a piece of the Berlin wall. This really tied the whole trip together. Our trip to Berlin a few weeks ago (the notes of which will be coming here soon) and all we did and learnt there fitted so well with so much of what happened to this part of the Balkans.
We walked back go to the hotel, along streets we’re now very familiar with and were lucky to notice that the doors of the Pyramid were opened so we popped our heads in (they have an exhibition on urbanisation). Tirana’s grows on you, very subtly. The sun was out, people were starting to fill the public spaces.
I had read about a restaurant and very much wanted to try it for dinner – new Albania cuisine. I asked Ivan if he knew anything about it, and the next thing I know, he’d booked a table for the whole group. So, at 7pm, we got taxis there (it’s about an hour walk from the hotel).
Part of the Slow Food movement, Mullixhiu wouldn’t look out of place in trendy parts of London. We were welcomed from the taxis by one of the staff, who informed us that the name of the restaurant came from the flour mills they have on sight (which they use to make their own bread0. We got baskets of fresh bread and a fresh cherry juice whilst we perused the menu. We shared a fresh salad (courgette and plums with a vinaigrette), a saffron risotto and pasta with mushroom. These dishes were incredibly tasty (all made from local ingredients). Washed down with a pitcher of house red. The place was packed (trendy Tirana crowd), and when the bill came, we sat in silence and disbelief. It was just under £20 for both of us.
We left the rest of the group (off to explore the bars of Blloku) and got a taxi back to the hotel. We have a taxi to the airport at 2am!
Initially, we both had reservations about this trip. We still have such strong memories of Big Trip. Had we made a mistake? Would we like it? Would we be underwhelmed?
It took us a couple of days to get into it.
Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia are fascinating countries with deeply rooted history as well as recent history, and a profound dislike for some of their neighbours.
This relatively undiscovered part of the world worked its magic – from the Ottoman times to its recent turbulent history, from the weather to the delicious food, the wine and the raki and some of its unexpected craziness. Whilst Kosovo may not be for everyone yet – tourism there is still very raw – Albania and definitively Macedonia are appealing destinations.
I still can’t understand why we never hear about Macedonia; I mean… ask yourself, what did you know about the country 10 days ago?
We were lucky to have enlightened and fun travelling companions. This also very much made the trip.