Τρίτη, 22 Μαΐου 2012

Thursday-Hit the North (and come back within the day)

I wanted to see the towers. I also wanted to see the sanctuaries. I wanted to see what the areas described in the journey of Gjork Berisha, before he was killed by the Kryjekukke family. I wanted to witness all the wonders witnessed by those American scholars that where chasing after the voices of those singing Homeric narratives. But no. The plateau of Kosovo, described by the creator of all those characters, Albania’s prolific writer, Ismael Kandare, was too far away for a simple day trip. The furthest away from Tirana we could move was Shkoder. Well that could be enough too. At least for a first visit to the Albanian North, or what they called “deep Albania”. The part of the country where the tradition of prince Lek’s orders still survived. The Kanun. That is the traditional law that every Albanian must follow on just about every issue of his everyday life, from simple day-to-day matters, ‘till the settling, or continuity, of the famous Albanian blood feuds. Honour killings still exist in the north. So does the right of every family to claim vengeance over its members that where killed by a member of another family. And though these laws where banned during the Hoxha regime, they came back in the nineties, partly thanks to Sali Berisha (a northerner) turning a blind eye to the phenomenon. The road passed through a Northern Tirana suburb where “no one wants to end up” , as my stepfather’s friend Solace once said. That is because a lot of Northerners migrated there. The place looked run down and definitely is in a bad shape. Loads of traffic too. We where on our way up north where everything looked abandoned and derelict. No evidence of development here yet, except a wide array of furniture stores and some mini malls. The weather looked typical of the Albanian North. That meant that it was cloudy, moist, and pockets of rain followed out Touareg in its every step. Towns and villages passed by, even when we where, again, what looked like the typical Albanian highway. A narrow strip of grass was standing between northbound and southbound lanes. To our left and to our right, the mountain ranges that form Albania’s natural landscape where closing slowly closing in on us. All of a sudden we where off the highway and moving along the perimeter of a mountain. The weather had deteriorated and by now it was purely raining cats and dogs.. Even visibility was, at times, very limited. Thank god by the time we had reached the outskirts of Shkoder there was a break in the bad weather. The sun was shining again and we where beginning to get the feeling we could walk around town. We where fatally wrong, in this sense. First of all as soon as we entered town the stormy weather came in again. And then, there was nothing much to see in town too. It looked like the only things we could visit, the castle and the lake, where a hard catch for the day. And as we tried to negotiate the narrow road that goes around the lake and into Montenegro, the weather went from bad to much, much worse. We where mostly unable to see or spot anything from the windows, except what lay a few feet ahead of us. And again, it looked in a dreadful shape. In the following days Djodjas would tell us that this is what the weather is usually like, over there. Moist and rainy. We ate nearby, and went on our way back to Tirana. Along the way my stepfather tried to fill the Touareg’s tank with petrol for the first time in his two year stay in the country. The employee in the gas station (someplace in the middle of nowhere), did not speak any English, my Italian did not come in handy either, but my stepdad managed to explain what he wanted to him, using his limited Albanian vocabulary and some signs. A few seconds later, and while the machine was pumping in gas, he overheard me making a silly joke on the price (while the price was in Lek, there was a Euro Sign (remember the Euro to Lek rate is 1:140) painted next to the display, because the machines had been imported second-hand from Italy), understood what I was saying and laughed with us (explaining in greek that the price was in Lek). The jokes continued, and soon another car came in, the occupants of which joined in the conversation and the laughter. We met five guys who where speaking greek, in a gas station, somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Northern Albania... The people I meet in my travel never cease to amaze me. Having a full tank now, we moved down toward Tirana, to gain some early sleep time. The next morning we where starting a three-day trek along the Albanian south….

Τετάρτη, 9 Μαΐου 2012

Wednesday – Around Ohrid and a small ride to Durres


After a night of really heavy rainfall, and a lot of deliberation whether the weather would allow us to continue our trip we woke up to clear blue skies. The visibility was perfect and we could see across the lake, into the FYROM side. So after big breakfast, we moved toward the border. This time I would make it across. All of the car’s papers where in order. So where our papers. We started out and within fifteen minutes of driving on a non-descript narrow road, we reached the border. We cleared both immigration control and customs with great ease. The difference between the roads in Albania and the roads in FYROM became obvious. Though the roads in both countries where equally narrow, roads in FYROM where better maintained. We spotted about two potholes in 60 kilometres. After 20 kilometres on mountainous but lakeside terrain we reached Ohrid. Ohrid is a city of roughly 100,000 inhabitants. It is home to one of the best preserved medieval towns in the balkans, and some of the most beautiful Byzantine churches in the area. It is also a popular tourist attraction for German, Austrian, Yugoslav and Russian tourists. On a clear day one can see as far as the Albanian mountains on the other side of the lake. And, guess what, there’s machine gun nests here too. Seems like Tito was afraid of his neighbours too. Thinking of all this, we where approaching the city. Within a few hours we where passing by large hotels . We where in the outskirts.of the city. After a lot of rounds around holiday apartment blocks, we finally reached the centre of the city. Ohrid, in the summer months is a busy lakeside tourist port. Small boats do daily cruises that start from here, and move along the scenic shoreline. But the real beauty of the town is its historic centre. Its old town is one of the best preserved ones in the whole region, and a lot buildings with a design owing to Turkish, neo-classical and medieval influences are scattered in it, lying between it’s paved roads . There are a lot of Byzantine churches here. Most of the are basyllikas and they are decorated in a manner that is very common around the whole region. They follow the principles of the “Macedonian school”, a group of painters that where working in Northern Greece, Southern Bulgaria, Albania, FYROM and Serbia, the whole of the historic byzantine region of Macedonia. That means that there are more bright colours in the paintings inside the church, and even some characteristics of the bodies of the people depicted are visible, contrary to typical shapeless and dimly painted pictures of the era. Notable churches aside, the city is ideal for walks and maybe late night serenades. There is a lot to see in the old town, and one can get a beautiful sunset/sunrise, if one wants to climb on higher ground around the old town. After about five hours that seemed like ten minutes we decided to resume our circle around the lake and start the return journey. We left the shoreline a few miles before the city of Struga. We then started climbing a very scenic road, that looked as if it was climbing but, in the middle of a ravine. We finally crossed the border about an hour later. But by the time we had reached Elbasan, we decided that it was still early and we could still visit Durres for some lunch before we returned to Tirana. So we avoided the curvy road going straight ahead, and decided do move south-east to Kavaje, and then straight to Durres. After leaving Elbasan the quality of the road became much worse. And to make things even more difficult, there was an endless string of lorries on the road, that where moving to Durres, in order to get to the boat to Italy. It took us a few hours to reach what looked like a real highway (in the map). But when we reached it things did not really change. Although there was some sort of barrier in the middle dividing the upward with the downward lanes, there where again the usual holes on the road, accompanied with parts where the tarmac was non existent, or where works where in progress. But even there we could not see anybody working there. As it seems they where waiting for money to come in via some sort of a relief programme, so that they could complete the highway, or even repair it. We reached Durres at around four’o’clock. The outskirts are full of high-rises, expensive-looking apartment buildings for holiday lofts and expensive hotels. Clearly there was too much money pouring into the real-estate business there. Just enough to create a real-estate bubble. The rest of the city looks like a crossover between a port city and an expensive seaside resort-neighbourhood. The seaside is full of cosy restaurants and café’s. We decided not to inform Sollace of our whereabouts, for fear of him footing the bill for us again. But my stepfather wanted to take me to a tavern where he had eaten with my sister and friends, and could not remember its name. So we called another friend, the chief anesthysiologist, a man called Djodjas. He did not remember either but offered to ask around and call us back. The next call came from Sollace telling us that we should not go to that tavern, but a restaurant lying next to it. Nothing remains a secret in Albania, for no reason whatsoever. This is a small society of a little more than two million souls. So secrets tend to leak… Gossip on relationships, dates even corruption can be heard almost anywhere. It looks like everyone knows everybody here. Anyway a huge meal of fish and tons of laughter later we left and took the only well paved highway in the country. The one that leads to the airport and Tirana. We would have an early night because the next day we would hit the north for a day trip.

Παρασκευή, 4 Μαΐου 2012

Tuesday-moving toward lake Ohrid


For the first time, in a few years, I had seen something like this. We where on the highway to Elbasan, travelling on our way to Lake Ohrid. The highway, sort of speak, was a plain commercial road full of turns and lorries. The state of the tarmac showed, at times, that it was last repaired ages ago. And the state of the railroad tracks that they had not been used since the nineties (let alone the eighties). The first bumps appeared shortly after we had passed next to the gate of the Berisha residence. Up until then we where in an area where rich Albanians and government figureheads live. We passed a Greek private school, a new (huge) mall, and a tunnel which was under construction. The company undertaking this work is, which else, AKTOR A.E. owned by the Bobolas family, a family of Greek media and construction moguls. And this would be the last piece of progress we would see for the rest of the day. The rest of Albania seemed to be left awaiting its fate. So we where counting the turns and the holes in the tarmac appearing on the way to Elbasan. It took us about an hour to reach. The outskirts of the city, the second largest in Albania according to the latest statistics. The first thing to see when driving into the town are the chimneys of the steel mills.. Albania is an open ground for foreign investors and outsourcing. A lot of foreign multinational companies have set up shop here. Cheap labour and a small but financially powerful elite that can buy anything are the reason why this is happening. Low corporate taxes are another one. This steel mill is owned by a big Turkish company. Other than that, the area looks like a typical non-descript city of a country that used to belong to the East Block. Almost run-down housing projects, and derelict streets. With the help of the Touareg we march on eastward towards the lake. We pass over bridges and next to railway tunnels. Those where built in the fifties and the sixties by the Chinese and the Russians. Nowadays there is absolutely no Chinese or Russian presence in the country. Actually the presence of nationals coming from these countries was gradually suspended by the Hoxha regime, during the years. The first to invest in works in Albania where the Russians and the Yugoslavians. But when Tito and Stalin parted ways, Ho1§xha took Stalin’s side. So Yugoslavians where deemed a source of dangerous “revisionist” influence, and promptly expelled from the country. In 1953 the successors of Stalin started having a different political approach. This caused a rift between China and the USSR, and, Emver Hoxha sided with China. So, the Soviets where replaced by the Chinese. But when Mao died, another internal struggle occurred. China steered away from the Maoist Orthodoxy, and Albania decided to stay on its own, upholding the original ideas of Maoist and Stalinism. The Chinese, of course, where promptly kicked out. And when, in 1991, the government found out that the food surplus would last only six days, and Albanians started to flee the country by land or sea, suddenly the foreign inverstors came marching in. The economy became grossly unregulated, and pyramid schemes, owned by PM Sali Berisha, began to take (economically) the centre stage. But in 1997 these schemes collapsed, people took arms against the government, and ousted Berisha. He only returned to the political centre stage in the 00’s. Now he is still holding the Democratic Party with an Iron Grip, and is currently the PM. However despite these changes, there is no real change in the average Albanian’s life. The vast majority still lives in poverty. After passing a number of small towns with similar features we started to climb another mountain. And then there was the steep way down, towards the lake’s shores. It was a clear day and we could see the other side of the lake. There we came across our first machine-gun nest. The whole country is ridden with those. It seems like there was o shortage of soldiers, arms and ammunition in the country. And the nests where controlling strategic points and crossroads. Anyone found travelling without a permit was promptly arrested. Not only did the regime keep borders closed, but it also restricted movement between cities and villages. There was almost no freedom of movement in Hoxha’s Albania. The conditions on the road where deteriorating too. There was no lanes any more, just large holes and bumps on the tarmac. Along the lake there where a lot of stalls. The owners of these stalls where advertising their merchandise. It consisted of eels and perks. We stopped in downtown Pogradec to get some clean air, a view of the lake, and take a break. Our next stop would be a restaurant called St Naoumi, some seven kilometres away from town, according to a trusted friend of my father’s called Sollace. We took a walk on the lakeside. There was some empty bars in the area. Clearly it was tourist area, and clearly we had visited it during off-season. We walked the street a couple of times and left for our restaurant. Our friend proved unreliable in the matter of the distance. The place was fourteen kilometres away. But, nevertheless the food was excellent. And, to our astonishment,our friend had called the restaurant and asked to pay himself on his next trip there. Now that was a surprise. We moved on to Hoxha’s favourite holiday spot, which was a stone’s throw away from the border, where we would spend the night. After a good two hours we set off for the town. After discovering that there was nothing going on there (off-season being the reason), we decided to move to Korce, a big city about sixty kilometres to the south of Pogradec. But after an encounter with a traffic jam caused by a folded lorry, we decided to move back to our hotel. The next day we would cross the border…