Albanian people have seen many invaders and suffered unbelievable strife over the centuries. Less than 30 years have passed since the collapse of the Communist regime. Yet the story I heard over breakfast, on my second morning in this fascinating country, un-blinkered my eyes to more than basic historical facts,. The dome-headed bunkers and war memorials, emergent from the grassy slopes throughout the countryside, were about to take on much greater significance.
The Albanian language is an unfamiliar tongue to many travellers, yet a small effort made to acquire even a few basic words in any country always reaps huge rewards. As our host, a quiet and unassuming figure, brought the now familiar, local dishes, I enquired how he came to speak such excellent English. His response, “I will tell you my story”, was unexpected and intriguing. The ensuing monologue was one I felt should be heard by more than my two incredulous ears.
This man had been a soldier in the Albanian army. He explained how, as the communist leadership began to crumble in the late nineties, his battalion was sent to the south to deal with the uprising. Under orders to shoot the local people, he knew that he could not follow this command. “These people were not our enemy” our host explained, “we had no wish to shoot them and were much troubled by the prospect”.
The commanding major shared their unease, and as one the whole battalion decided to abandon their station – countless lives must have been spared thanks to this brave action. However, for our new friend, this was to be the start of an incredible journey. He found himself unable to return to his home and family, fleeing for his life with little but his rifle and the clothes on his back. In brief, he escaped to Italy by boat, but he found no haven there. The police were capturing refugees on the beaches and returning them to their home country, but he evaded their ranks and managed to make his way miraculously via Paris and Brussels to London, living on his wits and blessed with luck and the kindness of strangers.
As a refugee in London, he found sanctuary and lived and worked legally in the city for eight years. He enjoyed this life, despite dreadful living conditions and a Pakistani landlord who attempted to radicalise him and his friends. He worked in the construction industry, which earned him the skills and money to return home, once he knew it was safe to do so in the post-Communist era. He now manages the family guesthouse, which is being completed as tourism funds it. He lives simply and peacefully with his wife and little boy, thankful to have survived to see this day.
Listening to this modest man’s tale, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of his countrymen I have passed before in the UK, ignorant of their stories. “Never judge a book by its cover” has long been one of my mantras, but the importance of this hackneyed phrase hit home hard as I reflected on how easy it would have been to make assumptions about this ordinary-looking man. Having shared his extraordinary story, he went on to talk more about his country over a pot of mountain chai.
Surprisingly, different religions are quite tolerant of each other in Albania. The minarets of Muslim mosques had been noticeable on the drive to Pogradec, and as I travelled on further south I found Christian churches too. Although there is rival funding pouring into the country, as witnessed in the Saudi-funded road construction around the capital, there is also a sense of the population having “a foot in both camps”, as history has seen so many shifts in popularity of first one then another over the centuries.
Heading south-east on my second day of adventure, a missed turn created the opportunity to glimpse daily life in the back streets of Pogradec. Cheery locals waved as this unexpected hire car trundled over their cobbled lanes. Passing sleeping dogs, cats slinking into gateways, weathered old women dressed in black, a ramshackle mix of old and new was apparent everywhere. The art of recycling seems to have long been a way of life here. Piles of second-hand bricks sit at backs of buildings awaiting their new purpose. Elderly men passed, burdened down with huge bundles of mixed plastic, presumably a modern-day cash crop. Anything that can be repurposed is put to good use in a culture of resourcefulness.
Despite its poverty, this country is caught almost under siege between East and West, yet has an abundance of many good things. I was not surprised to learn that its people rank as 13th happiest in the world. The verdant agricultural plains offer natural, organic produce that we can only dream of in the long-wasted British soils. The countryside environment, untouched by spray or intensive farming abounds in healthy flora and fauna not seen in such plenty for decades elsewhere. The perfume of meadow flowers fills the car as it passes. The sound of many “red-listed” birds assaults the ears – cuckoo, yellowhammer and corn bunting aplenty! The low-intensity farming lost in other “developed” countries, survives here as proof that Mother Nature knows best.
This abundance spills over in the attitude of the people. Globally the hospitality trade is finely tuned, but in Albania, it is very much a work in progress. However, here true hospitality may be found in spadefuls. People wave as you drive past, a lady in a bakery generously added some free biscuits to our purchases and what was to be our third host welcomes all his guests with coffee and raki after their long drive up the mountain.
Driving south from Pogradec to get to my next destination, I passed through the popular destination of Korce. This city is the sixth largest in the country, so it offers many good museums and places of interest for tourists. Unfortunately, as I was travelling through on a Monday, they were all closed, so I passed on to explore the less visited town of Erseke, nestling at the foot of the Gramos mountains.
I had ear-marked the ethnographic museum here for a visit but knew as it was Monday, it too was likely to be closed. However, as the door lay slightly ajar, I looked in. The ladies inside spoke no English, but I gathered the museum was indeed closed. However, they beckoned for me to follow them inside and I was given a guided tour accompanied by few words of English but much gesticulation by way of explanation. The exhibits included a fascinating array of local archaeological artefacts, folk art and craft, costumes and wartime memorabilia.
Despite the lack of English interpretation, the most memorable images to strike me were the many pictures of local partisans who had fought during the Second World War. Amongst those who had died were several very young boys – a fact made all the more sobering by the sight of local lads lounging outside the cafes nearby as I left the building. The adjacent square holds a memorial and statues, but the images of those brave young citizens will stay with me much longer.
Moving on, the road led up the long steep and winding alpine road to that night’s destination – the guesthouse at Germenj. This chalet-style building perches on the mountainside with a spectacular view of the valley below and a perfect veranda from which to watch the sunset. As already mentioned, the welcome was as one of an old friend and by nightfall, I was learning to dance like a Greek with fellow guests and listening to the most eclectic choice of music in Albania!
Reflecting what an ever-changing landscape I had passed through in just two days and on the amazing people I had found along the way, I fell asleep wondering what on earth day three of my Albanian adventure could possibly hold.