Photo: Artur Kotowski, Adobe Stock

A bus ride in Albania

It is a feature the Balkans that you are forever being warned of what lies across the river; over the mountain; in the neighboring village; on the other side of town – and generally further to the south from where you happen to be.

The Austrians cast aspersions at the south Slavs, calling them Tschuschen. The Slovenes – most Austrian of the ex-Yugoslav folk – turn up their noses at the Serb Čefuri. The Serbs in turn ring alarm bells at the Albanian Šiptari. And even the Gegh Albanians of Kosovo and Macedonia warn travelers to stay away from their Tosk brothers, who they describe as bandits to a man.

And so I decided to visit the most derided part of the Balkans, yes, probably of Europe – the veritable bottom of the rung, as it were – Albania.

My first impressions of Albania stem from a flight to Greece when I was ten. 36,000 feet up, looking down on the snow-capped Llogara mountains, my father explained, what we were looking down at was probably the most closed and isolated country in the world. 

Back then Enver Hoxha, a kind of cross between Kemal Atatürk and Marshal Tito, reigned over Albania with an iron fist, implementing a rigorous policy of state sponsored atheism. Mosques were destroyed or turned into museums, driving Muslims underground, forced to perform rites on the sly at risk of imprisonment. 

Hoxha died in 1985. With the demise of Communism five years later, the country was wracked with unrest and mass demonstrations and corruption scandals as many Albanians lost their savings through various Pyramid schemes, bringing the country to the brink of civil war. The military was disbanded, weapons depots plundered, and criminal groups assumed the upper hand. In the end multinational peacekeepers had to be called in to establish order.

Today the country is impoverished with high unemployment. The entire industrial infrastructure destroyed in the unrest of the 90s, has yet to be resuscitated, while Albania has had to rely on agricultural imports to feed its people. Many Albanians are banking on tourism as a last hope, and yet mass tourism – perhaps we can be thankful for this – is still an anomaly in Albania.

Going to the Balkans had become something of a regular summer ritual of mine since 2003.I had walked through Serbia, biked from Berlin to Sarajevo, taken the last leg of the Orient Express from Sofia to Istanbul. Now, I was keen on seeing what the Albanians had to offer. I was eager to sketch out in my head the “Greater Albania” that so many of my Serbian friends had warned me about. 

I’d been poring over maps of the West Balkans, savoring names like Prizren, Tetovo, Ohrid and Elbasan, names which seemed to summon up visions of ancient roads and kingdoms. Particularly evocative were the images summoned up of the Via Egnatia, the old Roman road which stretched clear across the Balkans, from Durrës in Albania to Istanbul, a stretch of which I was planning to travel.

My Albanian journey began at the Macedonian-Albania border crossing, on the southern tip of Lake Ohrid. I had just crossed the border from Sv. Naum, an old ninth century monastery in Macedonia, whose lush green peacock-inhabited park-like grounds sit literally right smack on the border to Albania. It was place of pilgrimage for all surrounding ethnicities and religious confessions – Albanians, Macedonians, Bulgarians, Greeks and Serbs, Orthodox as well as Muslims. 

As we barreled through Albania, I determined that, from the perspective of landscape, one would be hard pressed to find a prettier part of Europe. From the hidden coves and white sandy beaches of the Albanian Riviera, to the craggy peaks of the Prokletije Planina in the north, Albania presented a picture of a rugged, stripped-down paradise, free of the usual trappings of European life. Having said this, the landscape was often blighted with rubbish tips on the edge of town, under the motto, “Out of sight, out of mind.”

West of Ohrid we ran along the remnants of the old Via Egnatia, whose stones were laid in the second century BC, a Roman super-highway — starting in Dyrrachium (today Durrës, Albania’s second-largest city) on the Adriatic. The road cut through the Balkan Peninsula and for over 2,000 years remained the principal thoroughfare from Rome to the city we now call Istanbul. 

As the Ottoman Empire gathered might, control of the Via Egnatia became key to a chain of settlements across what are now Albania, Macedonia and northern Greece — a cacophony of isolated entities ruled by competing warlords — into a single idea that could be sustained.

Some ten hours after embarking on my trip I got off the bus and walked through the rickety streets of Shkodër, vying for space with a kid just come down from the mountains leading a flock of sheep. The first thing I did after getting settled at a hotel was to go out and get a haircut. The barber seemed a little insulted that my stay in Albania was so short. There was so much to see, he said. I knew this, and I told him I would be back before long; this was only a preliminary trip, a getting-the-lay-of-the-land, as it were. 

It was my second day in Albania. I recalled all of the foolish warnings and anti-Albanian slurs that my mainly Serbian friends had voiced upon announcing my decision to visit Albania. Of course everyone I met was straight and kind. And as for the unrest that had been predicted on election day in Albania, no gunshots rang out, no gun-wielding militias patrolled the streets. It was just another day in Albania. Maybe this made for boring copy. But it was just the way it was.

Before I visited the Balkans I had thought that the vision of Serbian film director Emir Kusterica was a surreal flight of fancy, but it was scenes like these that made me believe that it was only a reflection of Balkan reality.

The Macedonian-Albanian border runs 200 yards from the monastery walls. Upon arriving at the border checkpoint I discovered that I still had a pocketful of Macedonian currency and sought out a shop where I could relieve myself of my money. Slipping through a half open gate I was surprised to find myself suddenly in a military compound surrounded by soldiers trooping around in Macedonian army uniforms performing various duties and more or less oblivious to my presence, until one soldier came up to me and, taking me for a Sveti Naum pilgrim gone astray, directed me back down a path to the monastery. Before I knew it I had left the military compound and was back among the Gypsies and musicians banging davuls and blowing zurnas. The clash between Gypsy carnival and army base was totally surreal, Balkan and dream-like and again made me think of Kusterica.

Having passed through the military compound once again I was now ready to cross into Albania. I paid ten euro for my visa, had my passport stamped by a desultory border guard and began walking down an empty road along the lakeshore studded with concrete pill-boxes and bunkers.

I had walked from Serbia into Kosovo, from Kosovo into Macedonia, from Macedonia into Albania. And I never had any problems. It is a feature of the Balkans, however, that wherever you go people are always warning you with foolish stories against this or that people, this or that village or whatever lies over the mountains, across the river, across town, further south from where you find yourself. The Slovenes talk derisively about Čefurs from Bosnia and Serbia. The Bosniaks tell you stories about Serb Četniks. The Serbs spit at the Turks (Bosniaks and Serb Muslims) and Shiptars (Albanians), who are cut-throats to a man, Albanians from Kosovo have little good to say about the fanatic Albanians in Macedonia, while in Macedonia the Albanians will tell you that the southern Albanians around Korcë are nothing but thieves and bandits and you are advised to steer clear of them.

It is remarkable how many prejudices against this or that Albanian faction exist among the Albanians, while hearing the Serbs talk ominously about Albanians one has the impression of a homogenous and united people bent on forging a Greater Albania. They take no account of the ethnic and religious fault lines which run through the Albanian territories. Depending on which region they are from two Albanians a village away might as well belong to different races. Among Albanians it is remarkable how much ignorance there is regarding their own people.

At any rate, upon leaving Pogradec I arrived in the sunbaked south Albanian town of Korcë smack in the bazaar quarter. Mangy curs loped around beat busses. Three Albanians haggled over a hog-tied lamb which bleated frantically. The Albanians in this corner of Albania were markedly different from the Albanians further to the north in Kosovo and Macedonia. While the Albanians in the north are Ghegs, they are Tosks in the south, swarthier, stockier than their northern cousins. Their religion is Orthodox rather than Muslim. They are sunnier, more spontaneous, less fierce of aspect and their towns are less prosperous, dirtier and more chaotic.

I paused a few moments to drink in the full squalor of the scene until it struck me that everyone was carrying their purchases in plastic Lidl bags. Lidl is a German supermarket chain and, to the best of my knowledge, not a single Lidl store exists in Albania. Obviously someone was making a small business with these plastic supermarket bags procured in Germany. Later, upon returning to Berlin I found myself in a Lidl store one day.

“Can you believe it?,” the cashier was saying. “For some reason which is beyond me someone is stealing all our plastic bags.”

It would not have surprised me in the least to have learned that these shopping bags had ended up in Korcë.

Stetching fom Karaburun on the Bay of Valona southwards, the Logara mountains rise up 2000 meters – a steep and craggy coastline with intermittent coves and white sandy beaches.

My first impressions of Albania were 36,000 feet up, looking down on the snow-capped Logora mountains from a plane heading to Athens. I was ten years old and my father – a pilot – had taken me into the cockpit to get a better view of the land, which he explained, was the most closed country in the world.

Still you can find in Albania untouched magic of the Orient and can in the mountains still rejoice over the incomparable deep rootedness of rural Albanian life. The life of the farmers and shepherds is palpably present as it has been here for centuries in the customs of these proud and courageous and variously gifted people. The singer of ballads still makes his rounds, going from village to village, and the word of the peasant suffices as inviable contract. The stranger is welcomed, aided and assisted unequivocally. Indeed, the people have grown poor, but poverty hasn’t altered the people’s pride and traditions of hospitality. The peasant will never accept monetary compensation from the traveler, perhaps only in the form of a present for his children. In the age old transmissions of Albanias, the researcher finds such a treasure of wisdom. One might even wish that the people resist adopting our customs and habits, and that their peculiar traditions may persist far into the future.

Of course, this was before Enver Hoxha changed everything.

In the course of time foreign blood and cultures have over-flooded the plains and coastal regions, but in th lonely mountain fastness, cut off from the life of the towns one becomes aware of “folkish” and linguistic peculiarities of the Illyrian Indo-Germans.

In 1926 the Albanian government tried to institute a modern justice system in Albania, a move that was met with strong resistance by the people – who largely ignored the new laws while pursuing redress according to the old Leke, which resulted in penalization by the new state-sponsored justice system. At the time of writing in 1942 it was mentioned that the Leke still held sway in parts of northern Albania, despite the assumption of western forms and fashions, which the author notes with dismay. Still, the sight of men in traditional costume, bearing customary headdress is welcome sight for the writer.

Tirana is seen by the author as a place where tradition and modernity meet in uneasy truce. Here the Italian fascist government has stamped the face of the city with a modern infrastructure and seemly, Italian-inspired architecture reflected in ministry buildings, barracks and hotels. Despite all of this – not far from the Et’hem-Beg-Mosque and the neighboring Venetian clocktower as well as türbe of Suleiman Pasha – the founder of Tirana, once enters crooked alleys of the Bazaar with its attending Oriental life and picturesque characters.

Also worth mentioning is the religious division of the country: Catholic in the north, Muslim in the middle and Greek Orthodox in the the south. 

Then Enver Hoxha arrived on the scene in 1944, two years after the book was published, who implemented state-sponsored atheism with an iron hand, rooting out everything that the author of the book would have found picturesque and endearing. “Since the end of Commuism… the cluttering of thousands of concrete domes that decorate the entire Albanian landscape serve as ungainly reminders. These curious igloos, found not only on the coast and on main roads, but also, inexplicably, in remote fields, were the idea of Enver Hoxha. Hooxha districted Albanians from tribal hatreds by uniting them in hatred of foreigners: all of them potential invaders.”

The Ottoman period in Albania stretches from 1468 (the death of Skanderbeg) till 1912.

Edith Durham found in Albania a “backwater of life”: “For folk in such lands time has almost stood still. The wanderer from the West stands awestruck amongst them, filled with vague memories of the cradle of his race, saying, ‘This did I some thousands of years ago; thus did I lie in wait for mine enemy; so thought I, so acted I in the beginning of Time.

Empires came and went, and passed over the Albanian as does water off a duck’s back. In the fastness, which he held, he was never more than nominally conquered, and retained his marked individuality and customs.”

In 1928 the tribal leader Ahmet Zogu was made king of Albania. He allied himself with the fascist Duce in Italy, something which didn’t prevent the Duce from occupying Albania at the outset of WWII.

Enver Hoxha and the communist party took up arms against the Italian and later German occupation; and in 1944 without the help of Allied troops, succeeded in liberating the country, at the cost of 30,000 lost Albanian lives. Hoxha ruled Albania with an iron hand, banning all expressions of religious life.

The thing that strikes you about the landscape is the ruined factories.

Then the ever present pillbox bunkers along roads, train lines, in front of villages, literally everywhere – reflections of a paranoid mindset but also realistic feat of invasion, when you think of all the claims made on Albania from Greece, Venetians, Turks, Italians and finally Italians and Germans.

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