Protecting the interests of the people

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.

It’s the raki talking

Things we learnt from our first night in the Valbona Valley. The silence at night is eerie, and it gets really dark.

Not surprisingly, we slept well and slept in too as breakfast was at 8am. Sheep cheese, local honey, fig and plum jam, freshly baked bread and pancakes.

Our transport this morning was this awesome yellow thing, which somehow still works. We all loved it!

The drive was a short one. Which was a shame. I think we would all have liked to spend more time in our yellow van… but maybe it’s a good thing we didn’t.

We crossed a dry riverbed, and started to climb. Our three-hour walk took us deep into the remote valley of the Valbona Valley national park. The climb was slow, but we made good progress. Surrounded by high mountain peaks, the landscape is alpine. Green meadows, wild flowers, traditional homes and farmlands. Most houses around here have their own plot where all family members are buried. We had bird song for company, as well as butterflies, beetles, lizards and someone spotted a snake.

We foraged tiny wild strawberries and raspberries, which tasted heavenly.

It was a gentle walk – both the ankle and the knee held up so that was good news.

On the way back, we stopped in someone’s house for drinks. Andy had a Turkish coffee (strong and thick) and I had mountain tea. The tea is made with a natural plant we’d seen on our walk – a kind of chamomile.

Continuing down, we came across the abandoned post office, which in recent years was used by the mountain police – the high peaks are the border with Montenegro. In the village, we saw a few other abandoned houses and a couple of bunkers. I make it that I’ve now seen four bunkers, maybe five… so… only another 699,995 to go. Yep, Albania has a lot of bunkers.

Lunch was a relaxed affair at Tradita restaurant. One of those long stretched out meals in the shade. We were there for over two hours I’d say. And we tried a lot of things. The usual salad (cucumber, tomatoes, salad and olives); bread; grilled corn bread; chips; locally made yogurt (slightly sour); cheese; polenta and cheese; spinach byrek… So tasty. Lager for me, and local white wine for Andy (he will learn… eventually).

Back at Villa Dini for a rest.

At 5:30pm, we went to the house of a village elder. We sat under a tree, and we asked questions, many questions, about life in the village and the changes he’s seen over the last twenty years. His wife joined us. They’ve been married 64 years and they seemed very happy together, sneaking smiles every so often. They were very welcoming. And the raki came out. Homemade plum raki. Strong rough stuff. And fresh cheese. So good.

Dinner was a lengthy affair. We all got a little giggly.

Lakes and Mountains

Our alarm over the last three days has been set to 9:30, 7:30 and today 5:30 – not a good trend!

It would have been good to have a bit more time to explore Shkodër and our lovely old hotel but it’s not to be. We need to leave at 6:30 to meet a ferry, which only goes once a day. The hotel provided us with packed breakfasts and staff were on hand at 6:15 to provide coffee. Macchiato is the flat white of Albania – it’s available everywhere and is generally good. This morning’s was no exception. It seemed like most of the hotel’s guests were leaving at the same time as us to catch the same ferry. There is a standard circuit in Albania that lots of tour groups do and this is definitely part of it.

We’re soon out of the city and climbing into the surrounding hills, the road winds around the valleys with long drops on one side or the other. At one point we can see a few miles ahead and there is a strung out convoy of minibuses heading the same way as us. We turned off the ‘main’ road and on to a smaller unmade road –the signpost pointed towards a small town – we’re going to Puke! Despite its size the town seems to have a large budget for regeneration, all of the centre is being rebuilt, repaved or renovated. The road surface improves too as we head onwards into the hills.

There are lots of hydroelectric schemes in the area so many of the lakes are higher than you would expect. We stopped at a viewpoint to look at one, the surface is mirror smooth, the mountains still towering over us are reflected in its surface, it’s quite rugged and austere but still beautiful. After about 30 minutes more, the road plunges into a tunnel through a hillside, as the light appears at the end of the tunnel there appears to be a traffic jam, this turns out to be a car park! There is so little space on the dock that once a minibus has unloaded its passengers it goes back into the tunnel where one lane is used for parking until the return ferry later in the day. As we board we come across some people we shared a table with on our first night on Tirana, again confirming this a part of the tourist circuit.

The ferry crosses Lake Koman, which is really a flooded valley, and feels much more like a river. The journey takes about 3 hours. For most of that we are in a steep valley of grey rocks with sparse vegetation, the tops of the highest mountains are in the clouds, small patches of snow remain around the peaks. 28 years ago, I travelled around the north of the Balkans, then Yugoslavia, this scenery is very similar – the mountains provide a backbone to the whole region.

Towards the end of the journey, there are a few signs of habitation – loose clusters of farmhouses and occasional chapels on the hillsides. There’s a small ferry, which appears to criss-cross the river linking these remote communities together. We spot an old man walking back to his boat with two large bags of vegetables.

The jetty at the end is a large flat area of gravel; there is a group of minibuses and drivers waiting for us. Our ride is organised already so we don’t need to haggle with this crowd. The driver treats us to some loud Balkan pop music. It seems to have influences from Europop, the Balkans and further East. Shazzam is able to identify most of the tracks and offer us a purchase on iTunes, should we wish to recreate the experience – which we do!

The drive takes us further into the hills into Valbona Valley, an area known for its natural beauty. We follow a river, which runs down the valley over rocks and small waterfalls. It’s a beautiful turquoise blue colour, which is set off by the pale limestone.

Our hotel is on the edge of a small village. It feels very rural and homely. The valley sides tower above us. We have a little while to settle in then lunch is served – it’s all vegetarian, mostly produced in the fields outside. The highlight is the green salad – no really it’s the baked sheep’s cheese, lovely with chunks of bread dunked in it.

After lunch we had a leisurely few hours to relax, read, make a start on the blog, etc. At 5:00, we joined Adonis, a local villager, for a walk around the immediate surroundings of the hotel. We saw the oldest building in the village; it looked like it had been there for hundreds of years, and an old water mill. We continued to James Lake, created by a villager who died five years ago, he dammed a small area, redirected a spring to fill it and filled it with fish. Unfortunately since his death, Albanian tourists from the cities have littered it, taken all the fish and left it looking quite sorry for itself.

Dinner was another hefty feast of local dishes, we had a glass of local red wine with it – probably a mistake, they came out of a 5l flagon. At least they were cheap.

Café society

 

 

We’d set the alarm for 7:30am in a bid to do quite a bit this morning as we were leaving Tirana at 1pm.

Bags packed, we got breakfast out of the way quickly and set off.

We headed for the square, which this morning had large patches of water running from the top down (the square is not flat). This – a man told us – is to keep the place cool. And as we looked around, we saw more irrigation gaps which we guessed can be turned on or off as needed. We crossed the square and headed for the Resurrection Cathedral – a modern Orthodox structure consecrated in 2014. A mass was in progress so the Cathedral was packed, we could only just have a look inside the main door; it has a large bright dome shape inside with lots of glittering gold tiles on the walls.

We’d planned to spend the morning at the National Art Gallery. For most of our time there, we were the only two visitors. On the ground floor, the art is traditional – people in traditional costumes, manual workers, peasants and so on. And then it got interesting. Artists were encouraged to paint historical and political scenes. Big scale art. Colourful scenes. Happy workers proudly working for the country. The industrialisation. Some even went further and painted scenes of Skanderberg fighting the Ottomans in the fifteenth century. One painting caught our eye. Edison Gjergo’s “The Epic of the morning’s stars”. There are a few figures in the background, and people took offence to this. They’re in the dark, surely that means they’re plotting against the regime. And so Gjergo was sent to prison (where he died) and his art was blacklisted.

At the back of the museum, a small garden – out of bounds unfortunately – holds a collection of bronze statues. These, we found out later, depict Socialist workers and two are of Stalin. Sadly, they were covered up. Apparently they were uncovered last week…. So maybe it’s to protect them from the sun? We must remember to check these out in two weeks time… who knows?

We stopped for coffee at Noor. Andy was happy with his macchiato. We reflected on the art we’d seen. We felt almost like locals. Sitting at a café, chatting. No matter what time of the day it is, you’ll find people chatting over an espresso. Making time for each other, catching up. No mobile phones in sight.

Our next destination was the Et’hem Bey Mosque. Visitors are welcome to look inside (and photographs are allowed). We took our shoes off and went in. The mosque was built in 1791. Closed under Communist rule but active again since 1991, it is seen as a monument to religious tolerance in the country. Trying not to disturb the men praying, we admired the frescoes inside, and those in the portico, which depict trees and waterfalls – motifs rarely seen in Islamic art.

We just had time to pop into the corner bakery for a couple of byrek (flaky pastry pies with cheese or courgette). Cheap, and tasty.

We left Tirana for Shkodër. We drove north-east along a main thoroughfare, with mountains as background and vast glass buildings on either side of the road initially, and then more residential properties. The sky clouded over and then it rained. Our guide, Ivan, set us a challenge (that’s the ex-teacher in him). A kind of Albania photography bingo. We have ten things to photographs. I already know that I won’t win as the last challenge is to get an Albanian Facebook friend. Oh well, it’s the taking part that counts, right?

We drove through various towns. Colourful high rises at the foot of mountains.

We arrived in Shkodër around 2.30pm. It’s the fourth largest city in Albania. I meant to check how many people live here. Can’t be many. There are three million people in Albania, of which one million lives in Tirana and all have a car. The traffic in town is non-stop. This is because no-one was allowed to have a car when the country was closed and so when things opened up… yep, they went car-crazy. (There’s a rumour going around that most of them can’t officially drive.)

Our hotel – Tradita Geg & Tosk – is super cute. It’s over 300 years old. Our room achieves both comfort and tradition. We left our bags in our room and made our way to the centre of town.

The short walk was pleasant enough with the temperature a gentle 28c. The town is one of the oldest and most historic places in the Balkan peninsula.

Passing the Ebu Beker Mosque, we walked down the main pedestrian street, lined up with cafés and bars.

Our guide suggested we visit the Marubi National Museum of Photography. The museum is in an old building on the main street, the interior is very modern with white walls and a glass staircase. It traces the history of photography in Albania – with photographic plates, gelatin silver prints, etc. And it had an interactive photo studio. The original studio was set up by Pietro Marubi. in the 1850s. Marubi was Italian and no-one really knows why he settled in Albania. At some point, all the works were donated to the country and so historical images were preserved. The wealth of images is staggering – from the history of Albania to its varied regional cultures. We had just over 45 minutes there and we could have done with another 30 minutes.

We joined the rest of the group outside one of the terrace bars and had a cheeky half. My. If the beers in Tirana were cheap, they’re almost giving these away. 80 lek for a half. That’s £0.52.

We got back to the hotel for a quick refresh before getting taxis to the Rozafa castle. A stone road leads all the way up to the fortress – 130 metres above sea level. Perched on top of a rocky hill, it has wide views of the countryside on one side; an old mosque on another side (we were wondering whether it was still an active mosque when we heard the call to prayer); a lake with mountains on another (which turned out to be Montenegro) and Shkodër on the final side. There was hardly anybody there so we could play castle to our heart’s content. We didn’t. There isn’t a lot left to see but exploring the ruins was fun. There are three courtyards, and the fortifications are still intact. We had seen photos of it in the photography museum just a few hours before and it is still as imposing as it was then. And the views were pretty spectacular with special added cloud effects.

For dinner, Ivan recommended the hotel’s restaurant. The setting is truly special and homely. The food was great – a fresh salad of tomatoes, olives and cucumber; salty goat cheese; corn bread; cheese pies; dolmades and then grilled cheese. Andy had a glass of white wine, and I had a glass of red. Both Albanian, but we don’t know what they were as we never saw the labels. They were both good.

As the rest of the group moved to the courtyard for more drinks, we retired to our room to get ready for the morning. We have an early start. That, and the fact that we have a few smokers in the group.

Further Tales of Tirana

A combination of an early start and the heat yesterday wore us out. We had a late alarm just to make sure we didn’t miss breakfast and almost needed it.

Breakfast was included with the room, adequate but not exciting. We took a while to get going and left for the town centre about 11:30am. First stop was Mon Cheri Café. Florence had a strawberry smoothie and I had a coffee. It’s supposed to be the best in town – hmmm. We took a back street route to our lunch stop, this was a bit hard to find but well worth it. Luga e Argjendtë is an organic vegetarian restaurant and deli, their philosophy is that food should be fresh, seasonal and travel as short a distance as possible. We had four small dishes, spinach, chickpeas, cheese and courgette balls.

After lunch, we couldn’t put the sightseeing off any longer. The temperature was in the higher 30s so we decided a museum was a good plan. On the way, I stopped to photograph an interesting looking building. It has an Albanian flag so was presumably a government office. A man approached us and muttered something and pointed at the camera. We assume he didn’t like us photographing there so we moved on.

The National History Museum is a large marble building on the main town square. It has rooms covering most aspects of the country’s history from the stone age to the end of Communism in 1991 – sadly, no photos were allowed inside the building. Both the Romans and Ancient Greeks were here in the period before Christ; the Italians returned in 1939 as an invading force. They were followed by the Germans who were kicked out by Enver Hoxha’s communist forces in 1944. In the early years of his rule, he did a lot to improve the country – eradicating Malaria, increasing literacy rates and developing the countries infrastructure. He initially based his rule on Stalin, later moving onto Mao’s Cultural Revolution model. He died in 1985 and his successor carried on the communist model until its final collapse in 1991. Albania had become the poorest and most isolated county in Europe by then; it’s still recovering from those times.

The museum has many, many exhibits from stone age pottery, through Greek and Roman statues to possessions of victims of the Communist regime. The first section has good captions in English but they seemed to get bored of translating after a while and these become fewer and fewer. The stand out exhibit for me was a paving stone from Hiroshima, a few hundred meters from the centre of the atomic bomb explosion. 188 of these stones were engraved with a figure of a Japanese god and sent to all the countries of the world in the hope that this event would mean that nations could in future live in peace and a similar thing might never happen again.

There were a few fans scattered around the museum and a couple of air-condition units but they were fighting a losing battle and it was probably warmer than outside. By the time we reached the pavilion of the Communist Terror, we were both flagging.

We walked back to the hotel and had half an hour to cool down before meeting our guide and companions for the rest of the trip. They seem like a nice bunch. They’d decided to eat in the hotel’s restaurant. We left them as we wanted to try more dishes from last night’s restaurant. It was just as good as the first time. Again, the waiter warned us off ordering too much – he’s very helpful but not much of a salesman. I had a local beer, Florence was more adventurous and had Raki – a home brewed brandy.

Welcome to Tirana!

 

We’re back on the road, and it feels good.

We’ve missed this space, and we’ve missed you all (Chris, are you there? Chris?).

The cats looked at us in disbelief last night as we were packing our bags. But this trip couldn’t come at a better time for us. Re-adjusting to London life since Big Trip has been a challenge.

Packing was a last minute affair, yet fairly straightforward. I guess we’re expert packers now 🙂

The best thing is that our bags weigh nothing at all; they’re both hovering around 10kgs. That’s a whole 13kgs less each than we had when we set off for Mexico City!

The taxi picked us up for the airport at 5:30am. The drive to Gatwick seemed long but there was plenty to look at out of the window – the mist over the North Downs, patterned fields.

Andy got the window seat and was rewarded with stunning views of the (Italian) Alps. Three women seated a row ahead of us were discussing travelling to Nicaragua and Guatemala. They then settled on Costa Rica and they thought a week would be enough. No (I may have said this too loud at the time)!

We landed at Tirana at just after midday and we were in our taxi soon after 12.20pm. The driver spent the journey telling us about the corruption here, how immigration is a problem, the Albanian mafia and then basically increased the fare by €6. But we stood firm. The price had been agreed in advance.

The hotel staff were happy to see us (as in, really happy). Friendly, informative and welcoming.

We hit the town. Tirana is a city made for walking. It hasn’t got main sights as such, but it’s great to explore. As long as we kept going, we were fine. If we stopped, the heat got to us. We’re not sure what the temperature is exactly. Somewhere around 33c to 36c. I remember reading somewhere that in the summer you should never turn off the air conditioning. Tirana is hot, sometimes extremely hot.

We tried a few places for lunch without luck. The places we checked out didn’t take euros, or cards and we didn’t have any lek. So we got some cash out and hit an ice cream parlour.

It’s difficult to describe what the city looks like. It’s all fairly low rises. Big public squares. A lot of benches – the older generation sits and wiles away the afternoon. As tempted as we were to join them, we had a lot to see.

The Pyramid of Tirana was built as a shrine to communist leader (dictator?) Enver Hoxha. “From 1944 to 1992, Albania was governed under a harsh Communist ideal that modeled itself after Stalinism” (source). The Pyramid is now a crumbling – and unsafe looking – wreck of a building.

Next up was Reja – inside the cloud. An art installation which you can walk over and under. We didn’t stay long as sadly, it hasn’t been well looked after and is now quite grubby (think of it as sitting under a grey-brown cloud)

Thirsty after all this sightseeing and walking, we looked for a bar with Albanian beer in Blloku (“the Block”), which is a fairly upmarket area with lots of cool bars and restaurants.  And then gave up and had a Kosovan beer at Nouvelle Vague, a colourful cocktail bar. The beer was refreshing and we drunk it like we had a glass of water in front of us. Note to self: must remember to drink a lot of water.

Bunk’Art 2. This 106-room nuclear bunker is now a museum and an art gallery. It was built for the dictator in the event of an attack. The permanent exhibition is depressing – it describes how the country’s police force was slowly turned into an oppressive security force. This felt all too familiar, having just spent last weekend in Berlin where we learnt all about the Stasi and how they spied on and tortured their fellow country people. We were not expecting to find this in Albania, not to that extent anyway, and were shocked by what we read. One of the information panels described 36 methods of torture known to have been used there.

We crossed the Skanderbeg Square again. This is the main square in central Tirana. At one end of the square, there’s a statue of the Albanian national hero Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu on a horse. I must confess I know nothing about him. As the temperature had dropped a little, locals were out and about, taking a stroll. A number of people were heading for a podium (near the monument) where loud music was coming from.

The town really comes to life in the evening. It feels like most of Tirana eats out, small tables set on the pavement. We headed to Oda – a traditional restaurant. We sat outside and were joined by two Dutch couples. We talked about the food – our two dishes were excellent – Patellxhan I mbushur me oriz (stuffed aubergine) and Lakror presh ose spinaq (filo spinach pie). One couple shared tips for Kosovo. And just then, I was reminded about how good it is to travel. How much we’d learnt already today. How meeting new people is fun and especially when they’re interested in the places they’re travelling through.

Hot and weary, we made our back to the hotel. After an early start this morning we were ready to go to sleep early.