14 May

It was our last road trip in Albania.The near 3 hour public bus journey from Berat to Tirana cost just 300 leks ( about £1.80.) As we travelled through the countryside, I gazed out of the window and noted what I saw — market gardens growing tomatoes, vegetables and poppies; vines and olive trees; flocks of sheep guided by shepherds with sticks; tethered donkeys, mules and horses; a scrawny horse pulling a cart with a cow tied by its horns to the back; a sprinkling of churches and mosques; groups of men drinking and smoking in little cafes, idling the day away ( there is high unemployment in Albania). At one point I was shocked to see two men slaughtering a cow on a concrete slab out in the open! There was blood everywhere. It was horrible but made me pleased that I have chosen to be a vegetarian. Then suddenly the buildings got taller, the traffic got a lot busier and we were back in Tirana, being surrounded by a posse of taxi men as soon as we disembarked.

On our very last day we got two contrasting pictures of Enver Hoxha’s communist dictatership which has now thankfully faded away. In the National History Museum we learnt about how he gained power after a reign of terror in the 1940’s. We also learnt a little about what it was like to live in fear, in an isolated, tyrannical regime. Then in the National Art Gallery we stared in amazement at the massive “lies” perpetrated by the large, colourful Socialist-Realist paintings on display. They showed happy people working side by side in the fields and the factories, men and women together in a contended, ” equal” society. Equally happy soldiers worked alongside them, giving the impression that they were helping the people rather than suppressing them which is what actually happened in real life. These pictures were part of a propaganda campaign that created the sick delusion that everyone was deleriously happy, whilst in reality they had had their human rights stripped away and had been cut off from the rest of the world. The many concrete bunkers that still litter the country are proof of the delusioned, paranoid state the country had been in, up to only 2 decades ago.

In our brief travels Eric and I encountered many open, friendly, happy Albanians. They seemed to be embracing their new-found liberty with both arms. After centuries of subjugation, war and terror, Albania deserves a bit of peace and contentment. As we sat in a sunny Tirana park on our final afternoon, we remembered just a few of the people we had come across on our travels.

There were the kids in Korca who abandoned their football match to help us find a museum. There was the elderly hotel receptionist who proudly told us that she had translated Charles Dickens into Albanian and produced the published book to prove it. Then there were the two taxi drivers, both kind and valient in their different ways. One – Artu- had undertook a tricky 10 hour round trip to get us through the spectacular White ( Gramoz) Mountains. The other, whose name we never learnt, had a car that was low on fuel and seemed to be stuck in second gear! Despite this he still drove us 26 kms along rough roads to a remote village that harboured an old frescoed gem of a church, found a woman to unlock it for us, then drove us back again, all with a broken gear box! There was the man who opened up Albania’s first school ( now the Education Museum in Korca) when we rattled the gates and proceeded to give us a running commentary on it in Italian. Finally we thought of the men in the smoky football bars of the capital, who all gladly moved along so that we could get a better view of the screen.

It was the people who, in the end, gave us our most vivid memories of the no longer so mysterious country of Albania. They were kind, thoughtful and generous , and helped to make this such a fantastic trip. At the moment Albania is relatively uncommercialised and unspoilt. Go before the Coca Cola and McDonalds signs start to appear!


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