Read, Write, Run, Roam

Albania

Church on Sunday: Saint Mary Vlahernas, Berat Castle, Albania

After our first excursion to a Berat church ended at a locked gate, we hired a tour guide to see the churches in Berat’s castle district. Berat tour guides help put the castle buildings in perspective. More importantly, they also hold (or more accurately, pass around) the few keys that open Berat’s medieval churches in the castle. The castle district consists of a stone wall surrounding churches, mosques, and medieval buildings that people still live in today. Though we saw cars climbing up the hill, we had to rely on our own two feet to get there. Only residents are allowed to motor past the ancient walls.

Despite Berat’s history of Ottoman/Islamic Rule, the church exteriors in Berat city are well-preserved. We spent most of our time and camera battery life on the oldest church in Berat: Saint Mary Vlahernas. It dates from the 13th Century and was restored at some point in the 16th Century.

Yet what remained preserved was nearly destroyed during Communist rule, when government officials painted lime over frescoes, removed religious symbols and used churches as storage facilities. The frescoes are falling apart, but one can still see the work of Nicola, son of Onufri.

Nicola was quite talented, but never quite lived up to his father, Onufri. Onufri is known for introducing more realism and individuality into facial expressions. His works are on display at Berat’s ethnographic museum, a treasure trove of iconography. One of the most interesting frescoes exemplifies Berat’s proud inclusionary nature: an icon of Mary with mosque minarets in the background.

He also developed “Onufri Red,” a special shade that, some say, was never repeated again. Onufri took the secret of his red shade to the grave, but fortunately his works–and his son’s works–live on, for now.


Discovering the not-so-undiscovered beaches of Albania

Our last stop in Albania was in Dhermi, on the Ionian Coast. Everything I’d read about Albanian beaches described them as an “undiscovered paradise.” A New York Times article made it seem like the perfect spot for some quiet and relaxation. In response to the article, a reader wrote “I’ve wondered since 1992–my first trip to Albania–how long it would take this area to be discovered.”

As it turns out, one man’s discovery is another man’s lifelong vacation spot. The Ionian Coast isn’t  South Beach, but it’s not the set of Castaway, either.

Here’s the thing about “undiscovered places:” there’s usually a reason why foreigners don’t flock to them. In Albania, it’s because it’s freakin’ hard to get there. The roads from Berat to Dhermi were rough–a theme here–but they improved as we drove through the  mountain forest of Llogara National Park and down to the shore. We passed several busses taking the same route, but I wouldn’t recommend it.  I’ve read that the bus rides are terrifying–and not just because the drivers have their doors open the whole time.

Yet when we caught our first glimpse of the coastline, I was in awe.

It turns out that Albania still has plenty of empty beaches, but many are inaccessible by road. Sunseekers must hike there or find an illegal boat ride. Since we needed to find a place to stay that night, we moved on.

We passed several hyper-developed towns before leaving the highway to check out Dhermi. Our hotel manager in Berat said it was one of the quieter towns along the highway, and in retrospect I completely agree. There were three hotels, at least two restaurants, and miles of open blue water ahead of us. Jackpot.

What the beach lacked in isolation it made up for in excellent calamari, big glasses of wine, and the most perfect temperature of water in the world. But I’d be kidding myself–and you–if I said it was ideal. Abandoned buildings line the beach. There were problems with water pressure, i.e., there was none. Generators strained to keep the lights on and disco music blaring. Trash was tossed all over the place. Dhermi seems to be caught between trying to be a rustic family vacation spot or the next Budva, but accomplishes neither. On the bright side, we were there at the height of tourist season, it was half the price of a Montenegro vacation and I’m still dreaming of that water.

If we’d had more time in Albania I would have considered camping out on an inaccessible beach via boat. We were told it was illegal to transport foreigners by boat in Albania, but with a wink and a nod that told us it was not an insurmountable problem. After all, Albania may be off the beaten path for foreigners, but it’s a well-worn road for Balkanites.


Finding old-world hospitality in the ancient city of Berat, Albania

 Travel rule #1: do as the locals do. We ignored this rule in Berat. Most people were hiding from the heat or waiting to break Ramadan fast, but we ignored the 100 degree temperatures to explore the city.

Berat is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Europe. It’s known as The White City or The City of 1,000 Windows, depending on the guidebook. The nicknames stem from the oversized windows on traditional white houses lining Berat’s hills. We later learned that Berat is also known as The City of Two Thousand Steps. Hilly steps, as it turns out. We were sweating like calves in a cevabdzinica.

We were there to see the sights, but felt like the main attraction ourselves. Strangers called out to us from their front steps or simply stared at the new people in town. A note to other traveling housewives: women walking alone will be stared at without hesitation. People were simply curious–or lascivious–and it was safe, but like nothing else I’ve experienced in the Balkans.

Muz and I walked up (and up) a path to see the 13th Century Church of St. Michael (Shën Mehill). We were sweaty and tired, but figured it would be worth the hike.

It was, naturally, closed.

Let us in!

At least I could get my lens past the gate…

Most of Berat’s churches and mosques aren’t open to the public; access requires knowing the person(s) with a key. We had read this fact, but thought high tourist season would be different. It’s not. We climbed back down the path and I wondered if coming out in the afternoon had been a giant mistake.

Yet the travel gods were smiling upon us. As we walked back to the old town, we passed a couple carving a stone plaque. I asked if we could take photos of their work, and they graciously said yes. Upon learning we spoke English, the husband summoned his daughter to come outside and translate his greetings. Thirty seconds later, he invited us inside his home for coffee.

I had heard that Albanians are known for their hospitality, but was surprised to be welcomed so quickly. I probably shouldn’t have been; Albanian hospitality is famous in the Balkans. Part of this attitude stems from the Kanun, an 15th Century (or older) set of Albanian laws and customs. Under Kanun, a man’s home was his fortress, protected by his honor. A guest in his home was also protected under this honor and treated with the highest respect.

Though the Kanun was outlawed by Hoxna, its rules regarding guests live on. Muz was served raki (home-brewed brandy, like rakija) and I received a sweet liquor and a bowl of preserved fruit (slatko). We talked about each others’ lives, the world in general, and how much Albania has changed in the last thirty years. The man of the house said that under Hoxna, he would have been arrested for inviting us in. His kind smile told us that even under those circumstances, he still might have welcomed us in his home.

We spent the next day exploring the city’s attractions, but our visit with this family will remain one of our favorite memories. We came to Berat to see well-preserved Albanian culture. We left grateful to experience it firsthand.


A concrete reminder of Albanian history: the pillbox

They’re ugly: reinforced concrete “mushrooms” that are impossible to destroy. They’re everywhere: on mountains, beaches, random fields. They’re unmistakeable: they’re Albanian pillboxes.

An estimated 400,000-700,000 pillboxes were built under orders of Enver Hoxha, Albania’s ultra-communist, ultra-paranoid, isolationist dictator. While “protecting” Albania from foreign languages, news and ideas for 40 years, he built the pillboxes as part of a military defense strategy. It’s said that there is a pillbox for every Albanian family.

We spotted our first pillbox within 20 minutes of entering Albania. We continued to see them throughout the country, but it never became boring. The pillboxes come in a range of sizes. Some are large enough for 6 people; others could barely hold two. I even saw a triplet of small pillboxes connected through tiny tunnels. One thing is for sure: they weren’t made for comfort.

They weren’t made for pennies, either. Pillbox construction dominated Albania’s budget, leaving little for roads, housing, and industry. At least they were built well; it supposedly takes months of hard labor to dismantle the concrete domes. Some people have taken to painting them different colors, though we never saw those. It’s too bad, because I had visions of someone re-purposing pillboxes as Mario Bros. mushrooms or R2D2 helmets. Think about it:

Are there some great similarities here, or what?

Today, most pillboxes seem to be used as garbage dumps or outhouses, but there’s a small movement to find new life for these indestructible icons. Treehugger.com noted that some pillboxes have been turned into bar additions and eco-friendly hotel rooms. Yet it’s hard to imagine this

turning into this:

Let’s hope these pillboxes can find new purposes before they’re systematically removed. Albanians may see pillboxes as a nuisance, but I see them as passports to history.


Crazy, colorful Tirana

Tirana is the bustling capital of Albania’s mediterranean madness. Palm trees poke out of cracked sidewalks. Cafes, battery vendors and motorcycles fight for sidewalk space. Mini dustbowls arise from ubiquitous construction work. Looming above it all are buildings in every color combination imaginable.

Communist governments aren’t known for designing attractive apartment buildings, and Tirana was no exception. After the fall of Communism, development (but not design) skyrocketed. The result is a mishmash scheme of awkward roads and dilapidated concrete monstrosities. A warning to urban planners: visiting Tirana will make your head explode. However, before that happens, you’ll be cheered by striped buildings.

The colorful buildings are the work of former Tirana Mayor Edi Rama. Rama, a trained artist, was elected mayor in 2000 when he was only 36 years old. He started repairing the city’s broken infrastructure, but it was (and still is) a daunting challenge. When he realized he didn’t have the money to repair/reconstruct the worn down buildings, he decided to paint them every color imaginable.

The decision was controversial. Residents didn’t get to choose which color they wanted, and I imagine more than a few babas don’t like living in a green building covered with arrows. Others might think that the program is merely lipstick on a pig. I strongly disagree. (Though I wouldn’t mind seeing a building covered in lipsticked pigs. Just an idea, Albanians…)

The painted buildings are a perfect compliment to the wacky city. Sure, the power may go out three times in one afternoon, but maybe that’s expected when you’re surrounded by polka dot buildings. Oh, there’s a donkey and a horse grazing in the heart of the city? Well, at least they’ve picked a pretty spot to hang out in.

Besides, the buildings are merely a backdrop to more jaw-dropping sights, like the pyramid commemorating Enver Hoxha.

The Rama buildings, as I’ll call them, give Tirana an exterior as colorful as its existence. Many capital cities are unworthy of tourists’ time. They’re merely places to sleep while you’re waiting for a train, or where you’re forced to go for business conferences. Tirana’s buildings made me want to walk around the city, look around/up corners and ask myself, “what else is lurking around here?”

Best of all, the colorful city may inspire creative new architecture, like this building.

If art can’t change the world, at least it can help change the face of Tirana.


Albanian Rules of the Road

I could write about the Albanian leg of our Balkan Bonanza Road Trip all month. It’s as wild and weird and wonderful as everyone told us it would be. Right after crossing the Montenegro-Albania border, we realized that the (already flexible) driving guidelines in the Balkans did not apply. It took us a while to figure things out, but eventually we devised three handy rules for surviving Albanian roads.

Rule #1: Animals rule.

Just as we entered Albania we swerved to avoid a group of wild goats. They were unimpressed by our car’s size, speed, or ability to make them into tasty goat burgers.  Since we were in the countryside, we figured animals are used to having the right of way. Little did we know that horses and donkeys in the capital city of Tirana that felt the same way, or that we’d find cows forming an adopt-a-highway group. When in doubt, brake for animals—it gives you time to admire the cool scenery.

Rule #2: Road rules need not apply, as there are no rules…and sometimes no roads.

The Shkodra (Montenegro) border crossing to Tirana was rough. Literally, rough. A long stretch of the North-South highway is transitioning to paved road. I thought potholes only happened to asphalt; I was wrong. To complicate matters, there are no reflective signs to keep drivers on the right path. Instead, small boulders help keep drivers off graded roads.

 

This was considered a decent road. Addendum to Rule #2: if an Albanian tells you a road is “ok,” it means you can get through it. If a road is “bad,” do not attempt it in anything but a Hummer. Despite the crazy driving, it all seems to work pretty well…unless you’re this guy.

Rule #3: Even if there are rules, it’s perfectly acceptable to make up your own.

Driving in Albania is a combination of Cannonball Run, Days of Thunder and Dude, Where’s My Car?  Albanians have only been driving for about twenty years, when the Hoxna isolationist regime lifted. The traffic code is less than ten years old. All of this has led to a certain…creativity in Albanian driving. Drivers ask themselves, Why leave those large pedestrian paths alone? Why not make a two-lane highway a three-lane highway?   Just roll with it. Preferably at slow speeds.

This attitude doesn’t only apply to the road. Trademark rules? Nema probelma in Albania, according to fried chicken joint AFC. That’s Albanian Fried Chicken. Naturally.

The Colonel would be most displeased.

Driving in Albania is not for the faint of heart, but it did allow us to see a part of Europe that’s largely unexplored. We had a great time, met wonderful people, and emerged with a miraculously unscathed car. I’ll be writing about our Albanian adventures all week, so stay tuned.