COLD WAR PILOTS and ROMAN GENERALS – Adventures in Albania, Part 3.

12 May

Intro — In the early summer of 2012, my friend Eric Wise and I visited the previously cut-off country of Albania in south-east Europe. This is the third post about our experiences and encounters.

GJIROKASTRA — Dictator’s Birthplace and Relics of War.  —  We arrived at the “Museum City” of Gjirokastra after a mammoth near 5 hour taxi ride through the awe-inspiring White Mountains. ( See previous blog– “Don’t Gulp Your Raki.”) The busy new town sits on the main road through the Drinos Valley, but it’s the lovely early 19th century, Ottoman dwellings climbing a steep hill to a medieval castle that catch the eye. It’s an austere and beautiful old town given protection by the Albanian government as early as 1961 and then designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005. It’s traditional architecture has been preserved and new building has been kept out of the historic quarter. Maybe this special treatment came about because it was the birthplace of the Communist dictator Enver Hoxha back in 1908. Whatever the reason, the result is now a charming, atmospheric place, with a maze of steep, cobbled streets and steps, white-washed antique buildings ( all unique) and stunning views of the mountains beyond.

Gjirokastra is known as “the city of a thousand steps” and if your knees can take the strain, it’s a lovely place to explore. Apart from the odd craft shop and a few bars and cafes, it is largely uncommercialised. The occasional tour group briefly passes through but it is mostly quiet ( ie in April.) We almost had the place to ourselves. The annual invasion of Albanian ex-pats had yet to begin. ( there are many more Albanians living abroad than the 3.6 million actually in Albania.)

We climbed up to the castle on top of a very high crag.Not surprisingly, we were the only visiters. The 13th century citadel is rambling and semi-ruined. After its days as a fortress were over, it served as a grim prison in the days of King Zog ( 1920’s and 30’s) and then when the Nazis came to town. After paying  our usual 200 Leks ( just over £1), we entered, expecting the usual ruined- castle experience. However as we turned a corner into a dimmed gallery we were met by a strange and surprising sight. Out of the gloom emerged the eerie silouettes of cannon and artillery pieces captured from the Italians and Germans during the Second World War. At the bottom, there was even a small Italian tank — an unintended gift from Mussolini to the nation he had tried to subjugate. Outside , on the sunny, grassy terrace were more ordnance from an earlier era but at the far end we then spotted the shining shell of a modern fighter plane. It turned out to be the wreck of an American Lockheed jet fighter that had been supposedly forced down in 1957 after trespassing into Albanian air-space at the height of the Cold War. We had unexpectedly stepped back into the era of Eisenhower and Kruschev. Actually Hoxha didn’t care for either of them. He’d broken away from the Soviets after the death of his mate Stalin and taken the first steps towards Albania’s almost complete isolation. The silver fighter was called “The Shooting Star” ( 1949) and had probably developed mechanical problems after setting off from a NATO base in Italy. The pilot is supposed to have been released after the Communist party had paraded him as an example of Capitalist aggression. However, disturbingly, some reports say that he was never seen again! Whatever happened to him,the poor man’s plane has become the centre piece of the bizarre military museum in Gjirokastra’s castle.

Eric and I were again the only visiters when we went to the Ethnographic Museum, down the hill from the castle. This is Hoxha’s birthplace and is supposed to be a classic, traditional house, except that we found out that it’s a  replica of the original, following a fire in the early 90’s. The place is fascinating but we were rushed through it by a bossy guide, who seemed to be angry that we had disturbed her peace. She was the only unpleasant person we encountered in the whole of Albania. Much better was the Zekate House, a genuine traditional dwelling ( 18th century) that used to be the museum up to 1992. Here a delightful male resident, proud of his home, showed us round, giving us English language information cards and adding extra facts in Albanian and broken French. The traditional houses in Gjirokastra and in Berat which we later visited, are 3 stories high with towers and chimneys. The ground floor is for storage and the upper floors are the living quarters and elaborately decorated guest rooms. In one we saw a graceful fireplace painted in a pattern featuring pomegranates.The house gave a hint of what life was like in Albania up to just a few decades ago. People sat on cushions or low sofas close to the floor and ate from communal bowls on round tables. Men and women ate separately. While the men had their meal, the women would watch from a hidden upper gallery through delicate, discreet grills in the wall. They would then be on hand to top up a jug or a glass, and bring in the next course. As in much of the Islamic world today, there seemed to be an almost complete separation of the sexes both in public and private. It was a reminder that for 500 years up to 1912 Albania was very much part of the Ottoman Empire. A similar house, equally beautiful, serves as the Ethnographic Museum in Berat, except the attendant there was much nicer than the rude, impatient woman in Hoxha’s birthplace.

SARANDA and BUTRINT — Modern Resort and Ancient Ruin.   —- We travelled from Gjirokastra to Saranda by public bus through more dramatic hill and mountain scenary. When we asked the bus driver where the taxi rank was in order to get to our hotel, he told us to get back on the bus and he took us himself! It was yet another example of Albanian kindness.

Saranda sits on a beautiful bay, half-circled by hills. Opposite, across a short stretch of the lovely azure Adriatic Sea, sits the Greek island of Corfu. It should have been an idyllic place, but unfortunately the entire bay has been plastered with unsightly modern high-rise. Maybe in their self-imposed isolation, the Albanians never got to hear about the desecration of the Costa del Sol or the ugly over-development of the  Bay of Naples. The whole town and the scenic coast to the south of it, resembles one big construction site, with new hotels and apartments being started all the time. Many of them lie unfinished with multiple prongs of steel sticking out of the concrete towards the floor above that has yet to be built. Some cowboy-built structures have already collapsed and the government has had to move in to demolish the worst offenders.

Still, it wasn’t all gloom and doom. Our hotel was nice and from the balcony we had a great view of the ferries and cruise ships coming in from Greece. The promenade was quite jolly with children’s amusements, ice-cream parlours and cafes. Bunting and fairy lights had been put up for the forthcoming”Mussels Festival” ( there are several mussel farms on a nearby lake.)  Eric and I strolled along in the sunshine, half hoping to be able to buy a pair of “Kiss me quick” hats. There were more tourists in Saranda than any other place we visited. Nevertheless, in the evening, we ate alone in the grounds of an empty pizzeria on the sea-front, beneath a bright Adriatic moon, enjoying the view of  Corfu’s dark silhouette just across the water.

The real reason for going to Saranda was to visit the ancient, evocative Greco-Roman remains at Butrint just down the coast. The historical ruins are set in a beautiful National Park with wonderful views in all directions. The site is on an acropolis, bordered on three sides by azure-blue water — a lake, the sea and a wide channel connecting them. The Ancient Greeks came there from Corfu in the 6th century BC and were followed by the Romans four centuries later. The ancient metropolis developed and apparently it was none other than Julius Caesar who had the idea to make Butrint into a Roman colony because of its strategic position at the mouth of the Adriatic. His nephew Augustus  further developed the town. Later still, Byzantines and Venetians added their six-penny-worths for the same strategic reasons.

The site today is an attractive mix of: temple ruins, remains of bath-houses, villas, defensive walls, towers, churches and a semi-circular theatre, all set in rich, partly submerged woodland. Lagoons have partly flooded the site because of earth movements in the past, such that some rich Romans, who had had palaces built, had to suddenly make a sharp exit! The water has covered the stage of the ancient theatre so that any actor delivering a speech today would do so largely to an audience of basking terrapins. They lazily plopped into the dappled water as Eric did his “Friends, Romans, Countrymen”.

Apart from a coach party just leaving as we arrived and another group arriving as we were about to leave, we had the place to ourselves for the best part of 5 hours. Lovely swallow-tailed butterflies fluttered about whilst jays and wagtails provided a splash of colour amongst the trees. Green lizards basked in the warm sun, then scurried away as we approached. The only things to disturb our serenity  were frighteningly large bumble bees that buzzed alarmingly close to us from time to time.

We unfortunately were unable to see the exquisite animal and bird mosaic at the 6th century Baptistry as it had been covered with sand to protect it from the elements. However we did see the classical statues, busts, pots, jewellery and other artefacts unearthed by the Italian archaeologists in the 1920’s and 30’s, and now housed in a restored Venetian tower which serves as a museum.

At one time the Romans built a bridge and an aquaduct across the wide channel that links Lake Butrint with the sea. However, people can now only cross the water by using a cable ferry.

Butrint, the ancient Greek settlement developed by the Caesars into an idyllic Roman city, is not surprisingly a World Heritage Site. Like Pompeii, its more famous Italian equivalent, it was forgotten for many centuries, but unlike Pompeii, it is still largely off the Western tourist’s radar. We had the enchanting place to ourselves. ( apart from the “killer bees”)

After a long, lazy sunny afternoon of peace, history and beauty, we returned to modern Saranda on the local, ramshackle bus — after the driver had finished his fag that is.

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