LAKES, ICONS and CRUMBLING MONOLITHS – Adventures in Albania, part 2.

10 May

INTRO — In April/May, 2012, my travel buddy, Eric Wise and I travelled to the previously mysterious country of Albania. ( See previous post — “Don’t Gulp Your Raki.”) We explored the centre and south of the country using public transport. We had a few adventures. Here are 3 more of them.

ALBANIA’S LOCH NESS  —  We are travelling by minibus ( furgon) from the capital Tirana towards the Macedonian border to the east. We drive through hilly countryside, grinding up long, steep slopes, then swooping down to the towns in the valleys below. The road is a mixture of smooth tarmac and rough rubble, pock-marked with ruts and holes. Our teeth grit and our bodies sway from side to side as the driver undertakes risky overtaking manouvres. Balkan folk music blares out of the radio, all plinky-plonky strings, percussion and snake-charmer’s pipes. In my imagination it sounds a bit like a bad Bollywood soundtrack.( just exaggerating — I quite liked it actually!)

Then, as we crest another hill, a large, shining lake appears below us. It is backed by a majestic wall of high, dark mountains, their gullies streaked with snow. This is Lake Ohrid, and those mountains are in Macedonia! The international border goes down the middle of the lake. Eric and I try to take pictures of the impressive scene but everytime we are about to press the shutter, the bus swerves round another hairpin and the view disappears. At last we are driving along the lake shoreline and the water is frequently fringed by delicately swaying reeds. Little rowing boats push out into the lake as people set out on fishing expeditions. The catches of previous trips are displayed at regular intervals by the side of the road to tempt passing motorists. A whole array of fish are displyed, including some really strange ones. Some are short and round whilst others are very long and thin, looking almost like eels.

Ohrid is very large, very deep and very old. It is fed by karstic springs in its banks and on its bed. It was created by the movements of tectonic plates before the last Ice Age. It is just as mysterious as Scotland’s Loch Lomond, another tectonic lake. The deepest parts of Ohrid are over 300 metres down and below 100 metres the temperature remains at a constant 6 degrees centigrade. These cold, mysterious depths may not harbour a “Nessy” type monster, but do contain several unique species of fish, including 2 types of trout found nowhere else in the World. Unfortunately these trout are thought by some to be very tasty and have been over-fished to the extent that they are endangered species. Protective measures have been put into place, but plenty of illegal catches are featured on the menus of local, lakeside restaurants.

Eventually we enter the busy border town of Pogradeci, leave the water behind, and speed on to the big town of Korca. But the images of the deep lake, the towering dark mountains and the strange fish, linger on in our minds.

LOOKING FOR THE HIDDEN ICONS. —  Eric and I had trecked to the provincial capital of Korca to hunt down some of the country’s most prized icons. To a worshipper in the Eastern Orthodox Church, an icon is a painted incarnation of Christ. Kissing an icon of Jesus, Mary or a Saint is like connecting with the Divine. The icon is almost like a portal to heaven.

Many of the icons of Albania were rescued from their doomed Orthodox churches during the Atheism campaign of the late 1960’s and secreted away to await the day when religious toleration returned. That day finally came in 1991 when Europe’s last Communist government finally fell. However, by then, countless churches and mosques had been lost or were in a very sorry state of neglect. In many cases, the only items to survive were the precious hidden icons. Devout Christians had taken great risks to hide them, for if the Communist authorities found one in your home, you were likely to be given a long, prison sentence. Many of the most valuable icons in the Korca region have now been gathered together into what is grandly titled ” The Museum of Albanian Medieval Art.”

However, when Eric and I went to visit it, the museum was nowhere to be seen. It was supposed to be located in a crumbling area of old Ottoman houses behind the new Cathedral. I had it on the street map but when we got there, it didn’t seem to exist. Either the map was inaccurate, I had read it wrongly or the museum had closed. As we were walking disconsolately away, I spotted a group of about a dozen lads playing football in the cobbled street. On the spur of the moment I decided to ask for their help. Being young, I thought they might have a few words of English. The kids gathered round the map and suddenly one of them confidently announced: “follow me.” So off we went through the maze of back-streets — Eric at the back, me at the front, and swirling around us: a gaggle of excited Albanian teenagers. Eric promptly christened me: ” The Pied Piper of Korca.” In 5 minutes we were there — ” The Museum of Albanian Medieval Art.” The kids alerted the security guard and after a lot of banging and rattling, he in turn managed to arouse the attendant who unlocked the religious treasure-trove just for us. No other tourist was in sight.

After multiple thank-yous ( faleminderits), hand-shakes, photographs and good-byes ( mirupafshims), we entered the dark, empty building. The single attendant turned on the lights, section by section and the shining icons emerged out of the darkness. It was like a miracle. We gazed at richly-coloured, glowing paintings of Christ, Mary and the Saints ( 13th to 19th centuries), silver Bible covers, Holy grails, crucifixes and two complete carved iconostases, all rescued from the clutches of the atheistic vandals. I stood and stared at a striking image of John the Baptist, now promoted to a saint, and sporting the dark wings of an angel. He cradled his human head, that had been demanded by a vengeful Salome, in a basket in his arms. I am not particularly religious, but I couldn’t fail to be moved by the beauty and spirituality of the place, and I kept reminding myself that this was some sort of miracle because all of these precious relics had been rescued from the hammers and explosives of the iconoclasts. Only a solitary attendant guarded them, no glass protected them and hardly anyone was coming to see them ( at least in April), but at least they had been saved.

HOXHA’S MOULDERING MAUSOLEUM.  —  In the middle of Tirana, just south of the river, is a large, white marble and glass structure called The Pyramid. It was built in 1988 as a mausoleum for the Communist dictator Enver Hoxha, following his death in 1985. Perhaps he imagined long lines of dutiful citizens queing up to view his eternally preserved body as in Moscow, Beijing and Hanoi. Perhaps he saw himself as Albania’s answer to Lenin, Mao Tse Tung or Ho Chi Minh. The pyramid was designed by his daughter and son-in-law and was a brazen attempt to preserve the memory of the man who had ruled Albania with a rod of iron for over 50 years. Like the Ancient Eygyptian Pharoahs before him, this was Hoxha’s bid for immortality.

However, Hoxha’s body never arrived there. It was eventually put to rest in an obscure corner of an ordinary cemetery in Tirana. The Pyramid was briefly a museum dedicated to the dictator’s life and works but was then converted into a conference centre and even a disco! Once hardline Communism started to lose its grip on the nation and began to crumble away, so did the building that was erected in its leader’s honour. Hoxha’s statue in the main square was dragged down by crowds in 1991, without the help of US Marines.

Today ( 2012) the Pyramid presents an extraordinary, even pathetic sight. Abandoned, vandalised, neglected, its windows are shattered and its walls graffitied. It is probably a graphic illustration of what the Albanian people really feel about their former dictator. Kids climb all over it and slide down its long, sloping walls. After all the massacres of opponents, show-trials, executions, concentration camps, church and mosque sackings and electrified, barbed border fences, Hoxha has seemingly lost every ounce of respect from the people he had ruled. ( He had once been revered as a brave leader of the Partizans, fighting the Italian and German fascists in the Second World War, but then he adopted many of the terror tactics of his former enemies.)

Hoxha’s crumbling, vandalised mausoleum/museum is his true legacy. His bid to be Albania’s National hero has well and truly failed. Soon the Pyramid will be demolished to make way for a new, democratic Parliament building. That is the ultimate irony for one of the greatest Balkan despots of the 20th century.



One Response to “LAKES, ICONS and CRUMBLING MONOLITHS – Adventures in Albania, part 2.”

  1. Stacia October 2, 2014 at 6:52 pm #

    This is my first time pay a visit at here and i am really pleassant to read everthing at
    alone place.

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