25.04.2018 - 25.04.2018
Albania is on the southwest edge of the Balkan Penninsula. We travelled a mountainous coastal route from Budva Montenegro to the city of Shkodër, in the foothills of the Albanian Alps.
The border crossing between Montenegro and Albania was under construction. According to the signs the EU is financing the Montenegrin portion.
Located in northwestern Albania, Shkodër was founded by the Illyrians in the fourth century BC.
Shkodër is on the confluence of three rivers, marshy land leads up to the city.
Perched on a hillside is Rozafa castle:
Legend has it that when being built in ancient times the fortress would collapse each night. Finally the three workmen, tired of having to start anew each day, decided to sacrifice one of their wives. Whichever hapless woman arrived with their refreshments would be a human sacrifice - Rozafa showed up and, upon learning of her fate, was granted her request to continue to care for her infant son:
'Let me see him with one eye
Let me caress him with one hand
Let me feed him with one breast
Let me rock his cradle with one foot'
She was buried alive in the foundation with her right eye, right breast, right hand and right foot exposed to grant her wish.
And so the castle was built and we have the disturbing story to remind us!
The fortress and walls we see today are from Venetian times although there has been a castle on this site for much longer. Admission is 200 lec - about two dollars!
There is a lovely restaurant at the top with a great glass-enclosed balcony hanging over a cliff.
We took a city bus from the centre to a street close to the base of the fortress. We walked about six blocks to the uphill road that leads to a rock paved path. It was a fairly steep climb. The rocks were slippery, not wet, but polished, so difficult to get a good foothold. In that regard it seemed more challenging coming back down, so not suitable for the elderly!!
Nobody on the bus spoke English but passengers were helpful and pointed when we needed to get off. We didn't know where to catch the right bus on the way back and decided to walk. We got a bit lost but only went a few blocks extra. 3.5 km as the crow flies, likely five km on the streets.
There seems to be a garbage problem in Albania. There is a lot of litter and garbage randomly dumped here and there - farmers fields and churchyards are littered with plastic bags. We passed piles of garbage on the way to the castle:
Garbage bins on the streets are overflowing, empty bottles, plastic bags and cigarette packages litter the curbs.
They incinerate the garbage, often next to rivers.
I read that people in the Balkans are becoming more aware of the environmental impact and are making efforts to do something about it.
It is a beautiful country, richly blessed by the sea, lakes, rivers and mountains but plastic bags hanging off branches, clinging to fences and generally blowing around ruin the aesthetics.
Lake Shkodër, the largest lake in Southern Europe is adjacent to Shkodër - it is a karst lake and a resort - we did not go there as public transportation seemed iffy - the same bus that dropped us off near the castle continues to the lake but only runs every hour and a quarter.
Also we have just spent time by the Adriatic Sea - so a big lake with pretty much a guarantee of litter didn't seem that appealing.
Still we are loving Albania. The people seem nice, everything is reasonably priced for us budget tourists and the scenery is fabulous. We have found a pretty restaurant where a substantial dinner for two costs thirteen dollars including gratuity:
Although Shkodër has a large Catholic population there are many beautiful mosques:
Albanians aren’t especially religious and the majority do not attend mass or mosque.
Shkodër has a pedestrian promenade lined with shops and sidewalk cafes. It leads to the old town where ramshackle old buildings sit empty (except if you peak through the shuttered windows - stuffed with garbage!!) interspersed with shops and bakeries.
Narrow little lanes branch off:
Crossing the street is a game of chicken, pedestrians do not have the right of way.
We got stuck in the middle of a traffic circle - I was terrified we would never get off but Jeff used the time wisely and ate his bagged lunch. By and by there was a break in the traffic and thus I am here to tell the story.
We met a nice young guy at a coffee shop, 33, born and raised in Shkodër. It is paradise, a wonderful place to live, close to the mountains, the Albanian Alps, the rivers, the lake and just half an hour to the Adriatic Sea. No jobs though, he works in Italy.
The government should hire a bunch of people to pick up litter, there would be no shortage of work!! Then I guess have a wiener roast. On a really big bonfire. ?
The streets are lined with narrow shops, lots of second hand stores, fruit markets, barbers and money changers.
Still, along fences and walls entrepreneurs set up random displays selling shoes, odds and ends, and vegetables.
It isn't out of the ordinary to see a horse or donkey pulling a cart down the street. I saw one every day but barely captured a photo.
All ages ride bikes, no helmets, brave.
Next stop is Tirana. We enjoyed Shkodër but two nights is adequate - our hotel was ok, although I froze at night. The air conditioner is also the heater and it didn't seem to throw much heat. The days are warm but it really cools off at night this time of year.
I may come from a cold country but have been spoiled by central heat!!
The Tirana hotel location is excellent. Two nights for 46 Euros, about 35 Dollars per night. We are a block from the intercity bus, no station, you just catch it on the street.
Food, accommodation and bus fare between cities are bargains in Albania.
Clothing and souvenirs seem comparatively expensive. So many men are wearing sweatpants Jeff calls them the Balkan tuxedo.
Albania had been part of the Ottoman Empire for five centuries and managed to gain independence in 1912.
Tirana, centrally located, became the capital. Today one third of the population of Albania live here!
The mural above the National History Museum on Skanderberg Square in Tirana depicts Albanians fighting off invaders throughout history,
From 1945 to 1991 Albania was under Communist rule. The mural was created during communist times with the prominent working man standing next to the strong woman with a rifle held high in her muscular right arm.
Enver Hoxha was the leader from 1944 - 1985. He ruled with an iron fist and was a huge fan of Stalin, breaking off ties with Yugoslavia because Tito was too soft and then abandoning Russian connections when Kruschev came to power.
About 17000 Albanians disappeared during communist times and over 100,000 spent time in labour camps. Even in the 1980s public hangings of 'enemies of the people' took place to discourage dissent.
People were not allowed to own cars but in the 1980s one hundred percent of the population was literate.
Why do we know so little about Albania?
1. It is a very small country with a population of about 3 million.
2. After breaking ties with China, in 1978, Albania was completely isolated/insulated from the rest of the world.
Nobody got in, and nobody got out! The people were told how great their country was doing, how much better off they were than everyone else.
The domino effect of other Eastern European countries leaving communism, coupled with a more liberal leaning leader helped Albania establish a democracy in 1992.
All of a sudden Albanians were exposed to Coca Cola, blue jeans, bananas, Madonna.
They were allowed to own cars! They have only been driving for 25 years, cut them some slack, but be a defensive pedestrian!!
Prior to 1991 they would not have been heavy consumers, they were living in one of the world’s poorest countries. there was not much to buy. Each household got a voucher that allowed them to purchase 1 kg of meat per week.
Informers could be anywhere and the Sigurimi, secret police, had ways to make you talk. If you managed to sneak out of the country, your family members would be punished.
In 1991 Albanians were exposed to the outside world for the first time in over 45 years. But their troubles were not over.
By 1997 Albania was in a state of anarchy or civil war. Two thirds of the population had invested in Ponzi schemes, allowed to flourish by the government, and lost their life savings, in total over a billion dollars.
There are layers upon layers of complexity in Albania.
From 1928 to 1939 Albania was a kingdom under self-proclaimed King Zog. King Zog was no sissy - he personally returned fire during an assassination attempt outside the Vienna Opera House in 1930. He fled into exile in 1939 when Mussolini took over the country.
During the chaos of 1997 a referendum to restore the monarchy was not successful although it is suspected there were irregularities in voting and the population may have wanted it back!
Winston Churchill said, 'The Balkans produce more history than it can consume.'
The Albanian flag is a red background with a black double headed eagle - taken from the national hero, Skanderberg's coat of arms. The square bearing his name was, until recently, a traffic circle with a fountain in the centre. What we see today was only completed in June 2017!
The pedestrian-only, slightly sloping area of 40000 sq metres, the largest public square in the Balkans, is very new!! Total cost: over 13 million euros.
The Opera House is under renovations right now so is not open.
The Albanian author, Ismail Kadare, is considered one of the great European writers of the twentieth century. Books include Broken April and The General of the Dead Army. There is a book store, a librari, in the opera house and it offers Kadare's books in English translation. There is also a Tourist information next to the book store and they have information on buses within Albania - we found this very helpful.
Albanian food is good, lots of veal dishes and fish. Bread. Shopska salad. Beer is cheap and good and a block from our apartment we could get a good cup of Americana coffee for 60 lec. We liked going there, one of the waiters spoke excellent English and would get our coffee as soon as he spotted us on the pleasant outdoor patio. However we found the child beggars disturbing. Their mother/handler would watch from across the road and the kids were persistent and pathetic. Runny noses, not too clean, defiantly making there way between the tables, hands out. The waiters gave them a bit of change so they would scamper off and quit bothering the patrons for a little while. We couldn't wrap our heads around it. Why weren't the kids in school?
Cappacino is typically one hundred and twenty lecs. One hundred lec is about ninety cents Canadian.
Pica is pizza, Byrek originated in Turkey but is like a national delicacy in most Balkan countries and coca-cola!! Fast food in Albania:
Mother Teresa, born in Macedonia, was of Albanian ancestry. Her statue sits outside St Paul's Roman Catholic Cathedral in Tirana.
The Tirana Airport, Nënë Tereze is named after the saint.
Mother Theresa was allowed to visit in the late eighties. She told the communist leader, Ramiz Alia, she would like to build a facility for poor children.
'There are no poor children in Albania' he retorted.
Tirana's pyramid, built in 1988 as a museum honouring Enver Hoxha, is in bad shape, kids play on it, scrambling up to the top. There is talk of fixing up the building but a previous decision to tear it down vies for attention. Hoxha's daughter was one of the architects on the original project.
Nearby, behind a locked fence, the Hoxha family mansion waits to be dealt with appropriately.
The communists built some 750,000 bunkers in Albania. Hoxha and his cronies were paranoid about an enemy invasion and were determined to protect themselves!
Concrete bunkers litter the landscape of this geographically small country.
There are two underground bunker displays in TIRANA, BunkArt 1 and 2. One is just off the main square, it goes underground five stories and is a major tourist attraction. The citizens only found out about it two years ago, likely just before it was announced as a tourist attraction!
In a quiet Central Park, near the Parliament buildings, a monument, Post Blloku, displays three items:
1. A bunker:
2. A sculpture made with mine shaft columns from the Spac Work Camp:
3. A fragment of the Berlin Wall:
During communist times electricity was brought to the country, farms were collectivized, industry developed, illiteracy stamped out and churches and mosques closed. 70 percent of the churches were physically destroyed.
Religion was completely banned from 1967 to 1990.
Albania was the world's only atheist state.
Today the majority of the population identify as Albanian not by their religious affiliation. It is not a particularly devout country and all kinds of people smoke, drink and eat pork.
They are considered exceptionally tolerant and during the Second World War protected Jews and also harboured Jews escaping from nearby countries.
Albania was the only European state with more Jewish people at the end of the war than it had at the beginning of the war. They started the war with a Jewish population of 200 - the number grew to 2000 by 1945.
One mosque that survived the communist era was used as a museum until it reopened in 1991.
Et'hem Bey Mosque on Sanderberg Square, was built in the eighteenth century.
Although the Ottomans tolerated other religions, those who converted to Islam were granted privileges like lower taxes and the right to hold political office. The fifteenth century Albanian National hero, Skanderberg, was Muslim until he reverted to Christianity and led an uprising against the Ottoman Turks restoring independence to Albania for 25 years.
He is revered in Tirana where his statue holds a place of honour on Skanderberg Square. Stalin's statue used to be on this spot.
What happens to a very poor, isolated, historically tribal country reconciling with its communist past?
That is recent history here, still playing out over centuries of influence - the Venetians, the Ottoman Turks, the Mussolini Italians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the nazis .....
They have applied to the EU for membership but it could take another decade to get the status. They have been a member of NATO since 2009.
They are pro-American, perhaps because Woodrow Wilson stuck up for them following the first world war, 'I stand with the Albanians.'
There is a George W Bush street in central Tirana. Albania is so pro-American there is even a Donald Trump street somewhere!
Japanese architect Fujimoto created 'the Cloud' now temporarily installed (until 2019) near Tirana's Art gallery:
The sculpture is used as an open air concert hall. It was moved here from the Serpentine gallery in London.
There are numerous coffee houses and bars with outdoor patios. Streets are lined with narrow shops, bakeries, shoe stores, fruit markets and money changers. Roma are wandering around begging, old ladies sit on the sidewalk and knit beside piles of slippers. Clothes are hung out to dry on these car and emission dense streets, I wonder how clean the walls of buildings can be yet so much laundry is flapping against them.
People walk on the road, the sidewalks are so narrow or non existent on side streets. Cars take corners with gay abandon, we all survive and live another day.
We are cautious crossing streets, even those controlled by lights cannot be trusted - I watched, frozen, as a car went through the crosswalk on a walk light, narrowly missing Jeff and then,as he was dodging the first car another vehicle almost backed over him. 'Stop yelling, you're distracting me' ok ok.
Who are the Albanians? They believe they are the Illyrian people, they have been here for thousands of years. When the southern Slavs moved to the area occupied by the former Yugoslavia (now seven countries) the Illyrians were here, and in fact, there.
Who are the Illyrians? Apparently Spartans were Illyrians. So Albanians are Spartans. Who knew?
93 % of the population of Kosovo are Albanian. Significant numbers also live in Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Italy and Greece.
Shqipëri is the Albanian name for Albania.
We are staying in a terrific, centrally located two bedroom apartment. The landlord is personable, elegant and accommodating. He speaks excellent English. Four nights for 100 Euros. Central Comfy Apartment - actually very smartly decorated, large and modern.
We took a mini bus from Tirana east to Pogdorac. The terrain is mountainous, the roads twisting and zigzagging, a bit of a stomach churner.
The large van holds up to 25 people and a few extra stand. It left at 923 - it was full. (Scheduled departure was 930). We arrived in Pogdorac around noon. There were many brief stops along the way, picking up, dropping off and one stop for a coffee/toilet break.
The driver didn't speak English but a few passengers did and were helpful.
We were a little unsure what to do when we got to the bus yard, there didn't seem to be a station or info booths. Eventually a man approached us, taxi was his only English word.
I showed him the name of the hotel and, seeming confused, he made a phone call.
In the meantime a young woman approached. 'Do you need help?' I showed her the hotel address and she motioned 'there is a bus'. When the taxi driver returned she spoke Albanian to him, told us the bus was cheaper, eventually we agreed to the taxi for five euros which seems expensive as we had taken the bus all the way from Tirana for very little more!!
Our hotel was out of town a little, right across the road from the lake.
We got a big room with a double and a single bed, very clean and modern, with a balcony and breakfast included for 27 E per night. We have lake views from the balcony even though the room faces a courtyard.
Lake Ohrid is one of the deepest and oldest lakes in the world. It is spring fed and is over a million years old!!
Our room is nice, we could have had one with a balcony right over the lake had we not needed twin beds. But this one is great. Lovely duvets, a wardrobe and a desk. The bathroom light turns on automatically when you walk in, high tech.
We decide to go for a walk to explore the area, first we stop for shopska salad (sirene cheese, tomatoes, cucumber and onion) served with bread. I have a raki, the powerful local drink, made with grapes here, powerful stuff and a glass is one hundred lecs. Shopska salad is served in various forms throughout the Balkans. It is very refreshing. The sirene cheese is grated and generously layered on a bed of tomatoes and cucumber. Sirene is similar to feta but milder.
We walk along the beach, a bit spoiled by litter, very fine sand, likely packed with tourists in the summer, pretty much deserted in early November although it must be 18 degrees C.
We stop eventually at kind of a rustic cafe, the girl is nice, welcoming, gestures for us to wait, comes back with an older woman in an apron, recruited because she speaks some English. "Coffee", the older lady says, "cappacino, macchiato?", yes, "one moment".
We are ushered up some stairs, there is a wood burning pot bellied stove, cozy and warm. By and by the coffee arrives, with cake, traditional, free, no charge for the cake.
We try to explain we are out of lec, we only have euros, there are no bank machines or money exchanges, we are really out in the sticks. I pay with two euro coins and we agree to come back for supper, but to a neighbouring place which Lisa, we hug and kiss both cheeks, she does know a bit of English, is also affiliated with, Serenas. She walks us over, points it out, we will come back later, yes I will have the fish. No, we cannot stay there, 25 euros a night with breakfast, we already have a place, see you later.
We are staying at Hotel Pogdorecci 2.
I ask the guy at front reception ‘where can I change euros for lec?’. In the city. I am wide eyed with horror. How do we get there? I just want to change twenty euros. He sighs heavily as I wave the 20 euro bill, (this hotel quotes their
price in Euros!!) he motions for us to sit down, people check in, pay, time passes, he changes the money.
Now it is seven o'clock, we pick our way down a poorly lit road, there is a big full moon, that helps, a few dogs are running loose, the odd car passes. I keep a close watch so I can get off the road and not fall into one of the ditches where spring water flows, or in some other kind of hole. Wish we had a flash light, oh we are here, hey this is quite an upscale restaurant, looks new, the waiters are smartly dressed, linen on the table, Lisa, the lady we met earlier, has been waiting for us, she ushers us to a table, disappears.
Koran - Lake Ohrid spotted brown trout, is the local delicacy and may be an endangered species!! At Serena's it is served with salad, French fries and pickled peppers. artfully arranged and garnished with kasmat cheese (salty creamy cheese type clotted cream).
We are comped a traditional cake dessert:
The next day is bright and sunny, we eat breakfast at the hotel and head out to see the town. Fruit stands line the road.
Fruit stand with quince -
On a pedestrian side street we stop for a coffee on a pleasant patio. The waiter is fluent in English.
We are actually in the village of Tushemisht about 4 km from Pogdorac.
I inquire about traditional food and decide to try the pancakes. Good.
Albanian pancakes with fig jam:
In 1976 an Albanian communist-era movie was filmed here, 'The Lady From the City'. In the town square there is a statue commemorating the movie which was a favourite of the communist leader, Enver Hoxha.
Statue of Olga, 'The Lady From the City' or Zonja nga qyteti.
This Albanian Orthodox Church survived the communist era:
The church was locked but some kids, little boys, maybe 7 to 10 years old were playing around. As we were leaving an older man, maybe the caretaker, maybe the priest came along and motioned for us to come in. On his way up the walk he encountered the smallest boy, they spoke and then he smacked the child, twisted both of his ears and lifted him up by the ears!
We watched, horrified.
The child scampered off, I don't know if he was crying, I felt like crying, and we were let into the church where there were bright paintings of saints and one in particular was pointed out to us. We repeated his name, nodded and scurried off. Did you see what he did to that kid??
Past the village square we veered down a lane and I took a picture of the hills/mountain in the distance.
This may have been a private driveway. An older lady came along and gestured us inside the fence -
We went in, and were shown a fish farm. One of her daughters joined us to translate - broken English, yes thousands, nine months to maturity, trout, black and gold.
Fresh spring-water canals flow through the village. Here they are growing fish.
Christina and her daughters, Daniella and Alexandria, we kissed, shook hands, they gave us apples, a little bright spot, a moment of Albanian hospitality - we can't eat eight apples!!
Back at the hotel we sat on the patio, the lake in the background, kids playground equipment right in front, the hotel is still under construction. Workers are drilling somewhere on the building.
Across the road on the lake, some big birds are coming close to shore, oh, swans.
Thrilling to see the swans up close on the ancient lake:
Back in the lobby I regifted the receptionist two apples.
We ate dinner in the huge, empty hotel restaurant. We had a big salad, lettuce, tomatoes, olives, onion in about equal amounts - refreshing and substantial with meatballs and bread. Oh good, a plate of three apples with paring knives is presented. This meal was ten dollars including tip and a huge bottle of sparkling water.
Tomorrow we travel to Macedonia.