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Return to Albania

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.

Sarande 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 UK 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.

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. 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 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.

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.

The road into Drinos

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.

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.

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.

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. 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.

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.

Pro-Hoxha graffiti

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, (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’). Kadare’s house was, on the other hand, most disappointing, just a blank wall by the road.

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. 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 Saranda 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.

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