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Off the rails in central Albania

Albanian Excursions Part Three

Copyright © 2009 Matthew E. Pointon

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.

The Ballsh oilfield

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!

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.

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. 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.

The Pyramid, or what’s left of it…

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.

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.

Painted buildings near to the Blloku

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.

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.

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, (evening stroll),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.

Albanian railways: The myth…

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.” 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.”

Oh how they lie!

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.

Albanian railways.. the reality

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.

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.

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 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.

Al fresco living, Tirana style

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.

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