What better place to end my Albanian adventure than the home of the National hero, Skanderbeg? This mountainside city is also the site of one of the most important and visited museums in the country. Having discovered much of the history and heroes of the Illyrian home of the Albani, this final stop was to teach me so much more.
I left Berat to travel north-west, beyond the city of Tirana and up into the mountains once more. En route I passed through the wide, agricultural plains which feed the capital. The scenery here is a mish-mash of old world and new. As I left Berat, I passed a workman who was shovelling gravel into panniers on the back of a mule. Peasant farmers still trundle along the road on donkey carts piled high with hay.
Mechanisation is gradually replacing the traditional ways – strange, little motorised trailers and tiny, battered tractors are in evidence too. Large expanses of new poly-tunnels are afforded here, while in other parts I had seen remnants of glasshouses with few panes of glass and sheets of recycled plastic tacked here and there. Wheelbarrows and ladders are multi-purpose and I saw a car delivering plants with the stock simply set on the roof!
However, the Durres and Tirana suburbs are quite modern with the familiar sprawl of furniture warehouses, bathroom showrooms and car sales plots. As I passed Tirana airport, there was a surprising lack of aeroplanes in the sky. In the UK, a main airport such as this will have several planes circling in the nearby airspace, as some land and some take off. Tourism is obviously still more land-based in Albania, with arrivals over borders and through ports.
Moving up the coast, there lies a hidden, wetland paradise. The Divjaka – Karavasta National Park is still under development for tourism, but nature doesn’t need any such help. This complex of protected ecosystems, including The Karavasta Lagoon, is home to the only coastal breeding Dalmatian Pelicans and also breeding buffalo and many other rare species of flora and fauna.
While exploring the further stretches of the area, and having seen some pelicans on the furthest island from where I stood, I was stopped by the park sheriff. I half expected to be told I was where I shouldn’t be or some such official line, but this charming young man was delighted that foreign tourists had found his patch and couldn’t have been more helpful – even offering the loan of equipment to birdwatch. We chatted amicably about his country and mine for a while, before I had to continue on my way.
So, having skirted the Capital city via the new motorway network, the mountain range I was headed for was a welcome sight. Climbing up one more twisting and turning slope, I could see Kruje ahead. It certainly looked worthy of a national hero.
George Kastrioti Skanderbeg,(1405-1468), led a league of Albanian princes against the forces of Islam. He successfully repelled 13 attempted Turkish invasions, between 1444 and 1466, making him a hero throughout the West. He set up a further alliance with the Venetians and continued to resist Turkish invasion throughout his life as self-proclaimed Lord of Albania
Since then he has become a romantic, nationalist hero and mythical figure, written about through centuries by authors around the world. Fifty years ago the government marked 500 years since his death by raising a monument to Skanderbeg, in the middle of Skanderbeg Square in Tirana. 2018 will mark 550 years, and so shall officially be “The Year of Skanderbeg”.
The imposing Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg Museum, inside the Kruje castle walls, is all about Skanderbeg of course. Just inside the entrance is an impressive sculpture of the man himself, surrounded by his supporters. I was surprised to see that one of these figures was a woman, who it turns out was his sister. Albanians, it seems, appreciate a strong woman, as I have seen more statues of women on my Albanian travels than in the UK.
Albanian women do seem to be a driving force. Several of my hosts had mentioned their mothers to me or they were the ones cooking the tastiest, traditional dishes for the family business. The first women’s association was founded in 1909, with the previously mentioned Urani Rumbo and others founding a women’s union in 1920. As if further proof were needed, as I struggled with a heavy suitcase on the last morning of my stay, the mother of the house grabbed my bag and cantered effortlessly down the hill to the car with it. Albanians are proud people, so it doesn’t surprise me that they are also proud of their women.
I had already come across some Albanian shop-keepers, so as I stepped carefully down the cobbled slope to the Old and New Bazaars below the castle entrance, I was prepared to run the gauntlet. As in other spots popular with tourists, most of the shops were selling the same red t-shirts and souvenirs with the Albanian flag symbol emblazoned on each. Plenty of rugs and needlecraft textiles, though native in design, bore the look of mass production ( perhaps in China?)
Fortunately, in amongst these dens, there were a few real artisans. A couple of weavers worked at their looms and a leather worker had his work strung up outside the unit. One man claimed the felted slippers were his own work, despite every other shop having exactly the same ones in vast quantities.
As I returned up the hill, to my accommodation within the castle walls, my faith in Albanian artists was thankfully restored. Two young brothers had the artwork of one pinned to a railing. The artist was shy and spoke no English, but his brother the salesman was polite, un-pushy and sold me a small pen drawing of the castle, which I shall treasure for its originality.
Just inside the walls sat an elderly minstrel, playing a traditional instrument. In return for a small donation, he posed for a photograph and played me what I guessed was a folk song. He was typical of many of the older generations of Albanian men, who now sit at roadsides watching the modern world go by. I am sure they have seen so much change in their lifetimes, their stories would be worth interpretation. If only I could speak better Albanian!
Just opposite the Skanderbeg Museum, the National Ethnographic Museum provided a fascinating insight into Albanian’s social history. A traditional house built in 1764 within the fortress walls, and home then to a wealthy Turkish family from Tirana, is preserved to show the way they would have lived. Each room is laid out in historic style with fascinating displays of textiles and crafts, including a Raki distillery, an olive press, a women’s room with bridal costumes and a very ornate gentlemen’s room
As my Albanian Adventure drew to a close, sitting atop the craggy mountain eating delicious Albanian, home-cooked food, watching the sunset over distant peaks, I reflected on this amazing country and its people.
I had come here completely ignorant of the country, expecting rugged roads with sparse comforts and danger lurking around every corner. In total contrast, I found warm, welcoming people with a sound sense of humour, great pride in their developing country and so much worth preserving. If you like the natural environment, you will love this country. The abundant flora and fauna show that Nature manages things better than any man.
The country may lack financial wealth but it is rich in so much more. The wealth of natural species thriving here would shame many “managing” the land in other countries. The people are open, relaxed and friendly and their hospitality knows no bounds. Road rage seems non-existent and horn tooting is more a polite way of saying “I’m here” or thank you.
As I have travelled around the provinces, dialects changed but the slow pace of life, slow food, slow traffic all works wonderfully. So what if the shower leaks,or the door sticks or something appears a little “unconventional”? These people have seen so much struggle and strife and have very little, yet they know what really matters in life.
Several fellow travellers that I have spoken to express the same fear – that tourism will grow inevitably and this little gem of a destination will become spoilt and become just another place to have a cheap holiday. Wherever there are people, the influx of fast food and processed snacks and drinks are already resulting in plastic pollution.
I urge you to come and experience the wonder of Albania. But please travel responsibly. Respect these proud and friendly people. Try a little of their language and they will smile, even laugh, and repay your attempts hundredfold. Don’t compare their simple accommodation to other countries; relax and enjoy the quirkiness. And finally, don’t worry about traffic – they don’t! Relax and go with the flow – as I heard said here several times, “avash avash” (slowly, slowly) is the best advice anyone could have in our hectic western lives.