SUNDAY 21st OCTOBER 2012.
TIRANA TO SHKODER
Shkoder is the biggest northern city in Albania.
Another bus ride and this time it was a small bus called a furgon. Furgons are privately owned and they depart when they are full, not at a specific time. This is a bit disconcerting but once you accept the fact, they are the only way to travel and are cheap as well. The railway system in Albania is in a poor state of repair apparently and when we have asked locals about taking a train they shake their heads and indicate not recommended.
As has happened on previous bus trips the driver motioned me to the front seat next to him and when he thought a photographic opportunity was coming up he would nudge me in the ribs with his elbow. And a bloke sitting behind me poked me in the back as well. I felt like a punching bag but didn’t complain as I guessed it was their way of being friendly. The driver had what I assumed was Albanian folk music playing and when he saw me tapping a finger he turned it up making sure I enjoyed the moment. Albanians are not only friendly but obliging as well.
The countryside between Tirana and Shkoder is not dramatic scenery wise but there is always something to grab me. I noted that there was a lot of water around and consulting the map I saw Shkoder is surrounded by water. The average yearly rainfall in the Shkoder area is about 2,000 millimetres (78.7 inches), which makes the area one of the wettest in Europe, rivalling the Norwegian coast around Bergen. In December 2009 and Jan 2010 there were big rains in the region resulting in massive floods causing the evacuation of thousands of people and the loss of much valuable agricultural produce.
There was more colour along the way today. New and many old buildings are brightly painted.
New service stations along main routes in Albania have a hotel incorporated into the complex. This is the case here.
The out of focus object at the top RH corner was a small bottle of olive oil with a herb of some sort in it. It was hanging from the rear vision mirror in the bus. I assumed it was a good luck charm.
The Shkoder bus dropoff point was near one of the main roundabouts in the city centre. Nearby was a café where we sat to orientate ourselves. We had the customary tea and coffee and an Albanian hot dog which is a toasted bread roll with a skinless sausage. We watched the traffic and noted the many bicycles. Shkodra is the bike capital of Albania because it is flat. Below is a link to a You Tube clip about a special ‘Cycle Day’ event in Shkoder. It is a lovely 2 minute film.
Behind the café was a hotel so we headed for it.
We spent the the day poking about, bought some food and a map as we decided tomorrow we would hire bikes and take a ride out of the city.
I’m thinking I would like to see this mosque painted red and white and the minaret like a barber’s pole.
There are over thirty people in this photograph and of the thirty there is not one woman. This seems to be the norm. The boys meet at cafes and bars between mid-morning and 2-00pm. After two the cafes and bars are deserted. Maybe the boys have gone home for lunch. At around five they all come out again. I know that in most Muslim countries women are not seen on the streets as much as men but Albania is not a Muslim country so that is not the reason.
The café and bar patrons drink mostly coffee and fruit juice; on this day I didn’t see any alcohol being consumed. I was going to have a beer but thought maybe it’s the custom not to drink alcohol between midday and two. There are women about but they don’t seem to associate with the boys.
Sunday is the day to dress in ’Sunday best’, a day for promenading, for socialising, and for family activity.
The following photographs show some of the locals out and about.
From my observations, older refined gentlemen in many countries have a tradition of getting into their suit on a Sunday. The only grandfather I knew used to do it. After the traditional baked dinner on Sunday he would don his suit and go into the city (Sydney) and stroll through the city streets and parks. I was only about seven years old at the time but I remember it vividly.
Bike riders do not wear crash helmets nor are children carried in child restraint seats in cars.
All around Albanian towns and cities there is a lot of digging going on. New pavers are being laid or old ones being replaced. There are no barriers to stop pedestrians wandering through the work sites even though there are gaping drains and trenches. People assess the risk and carry on.
Late afternoon we walked away from the plaza and found these couple of beauties.
MONDAY 22ND OCTOBER 2012.
BIKE RIDE TO SHIROKA VILLAGE ON LAKE SHKODRA
There is one major danger however and that is missing manhole covers. I was told the destitute have stolen the steel grates and sold them for scrap.
Local authorities are trying to reduce the danger to pedestrians and cyclists by replacing the stolen grates with wooden ones.
I’m surprised that the wooden ones have not been used for firewood.
After negotiating the missing manhole covers, a horse, a few dogs and pedestrians we crossed the Buna River via a Bailey bridge. Bailey bridges were developed in England during WW2 as a quick and easily erected bridge to allow crossings of rivers by military vehicles.
Soon after crossing the bridge we turned right and headed for Shiroka, which the tourist blurb said was ‘a quaint sleepy fishing village worth visiting’. It was definitely sleepy but I’m not sure it was quaint.
The island on which the partly built house stands was manmade. The builders would have built the elevated causeway first then dumped rock off the end to make the island, an incredibly expensive and labour intensive undertaking.
With a view like this it’s easy to understand why the people wanted to build their island house.
Along the way we found a cemetery and you know how I am about cemeteries. If you don’t, go to Leg 3 Tuesday 28thAugust. I’m not only interested in the headstones but the small detail associated with the monuments and memorials.
I assume this is the young Virgin Mary. If it is, she definitely has a goitre problem manifesting itself in the form of a spiders nest. The resident spider is on her right lapel.
The cemetery ground was meadow-like with many flowers. It was a pleasant place to rest, the sun was out and it was one of those rare magic moments when on the road.
When poking around cemeteries it makes one think about one’s own immortality and when headstones have images on them such as was the case today I look at the faces of the deceased and wonder about who they were, what their aspirations were and the circumstances related to their passing.
For me it’s frustrating not knowing the stories of people’s lives. I know it would be costly to engrave more information on a headstone than is absolutely necessary but it would be wonderful if there were a register somewhere detailing their history.
Years ago I bought a secondhand dictionary in Sydney and in the front pages were the names and addresses of three of the previous owners. The first was an English WW2 airman, the second a student attending Manchester University and another had his name only. Now, when I buy a book, I write in the front the date and where I bought it, relate the story as to where I read it and what I thought about the book from a literary point of view. In the back I write words from the book I don’t know and after looking up the meaning of the words I write it next to the word. If all book readers did this, imagine how interesting it would be when buying a secondhand book.
This monstrosity of a structure was one of Hoxha’s artillery emplacements. Not far out in the middle of the lake is the border between Montenegro and Albania. Obviously Hoxha considered it necessary to protect the border so this emplacement was one of many around the lake. Note the concrete undercut. This would have made storming the emplacement difficult from water level.
Near this artillery emplacement was another of Hoxha’s 700 000 or so bunkers. It was said that after the collapse of the Hoxha regime the abandoned bunkers were used as places where young lovers met. I can believe it, as on the ground near the bunker were items suggesting it may have been true! Some bunkers, especially larger ones, have been converted to houses, cafes and dog kennels. There was a poor dog living in this one. One thing that has saddened us on this trip are the conditions under which stray dogs live.
The free love photograph was not a setup, it was fair dinkum! These couple of items were at the doorway of the bunker.
The hotel where we are staying supplied the bikes we hired today. They were not the most up to-date models but they did the job adequately, however the seats were a bit hard and set too low.
After our afternoon siesta we went walking. Quite by accident we came across a small shop that specialised in olive tree products. For centuries, the number of olive trees under cultivation gauged a country’s wealth. There are already millions of established olive trees in Albania but the government is active in assisting farmers with the development of more olive plantations and on a number of occasions we have seen hillsides terraced, awaiting the planting of trees.
If you want to know more about the olive tree and these products go to http://www.ecoarteda.com
Following are a couple of interesting Albanian images.
These fans are driven by an electric motor. The power supply is provided by a small generator driven by a four-stroke petrol motor mounted inside the boxes at the bottom of the units. There were two fan heads per unit. Good for camping in the tropics, Tim!
Small businesses in Albania have their own generating plants as power supplies are sometimes unreliable. We had no daytime blackouts while we were there; there may have been either a voltage drop or a blackout one night as my laptop and camera battery failed to fully charge.
So far in this blog I have not gone into an extensive historical background relating to countries we have passed through. But in the case of Albania I feel there is a need because Albania is changing and we are going to hear a lot more about it in the future. It is also going to be a premium destination for travellers who want an off-the-beaten track travel experience. I hope that maybe some of the readers of this blog may visit Albania and, if so, the following historical brief may help you understand the country.
As in many countries of south eastern Europe, Albania has experienced ancient Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman (Turkish) eras. After 500 years of Ottoman occupation Albania gained independence form the Turks in 1912. Since that time other foreign powers such as Austria, Italy, Germany and the Communists have all had a hand in shaping the Albania of today. The first communist influence was the USSR, then the Chinese.
For 40 years the country was ruled by the legendary Enver Hoxha (1941-1984). He sealed the country off from the outside world. For Europeans, this time in Albania was a blank spot on the map. When Bev and I passed through the region in 1972 we were warned not to stray into Albania because if we had we may never have come out. Ever since our 1972 grand tour we have wanted to visit Albania and this odyssey has fulfilled the dream.
Hoxha’s main strategy was to keep the people in the dark. They lived in ignorance as to what the outside world was actually like. Hoxha’s propaganda machine managed to have the Albanian people believe that Albania was the richest country in the world and that the poorer countries were likely to invade at any time. He blocked all influence from the rest of the world, forbidding foreign travel for Albanians and not allowing outsiders in.
One of Hoxha’s priorities was to ban religion. He declared Albania an atheist state and he even forbade men to grow beards as a beard represented Islam. In order to exert supreme control, Hoxha’s government formed the Sigurimi, which was Albania’s secret police force that adopted repressive methods similar to the KGB and the East German Stasi. In order to maintain loyalty to Hoxha’s regime, the Sigurimi’s activities permeated Albanian society to the extent that every third citizen had either served time in a labour camp or had been interrogated and/or tortured by Sigurimi officers. Today Hoxha receives mixed reactions from Albanians. One thing people from neighbouring countries say is Albanians are very well educated so maybe that is a positive from the Hoxha regime.
During his later years of his reign Hoxha became increasingly paranoid to the point where he limited trade with foreign countries. As a result, Albania became one of the poorest nations in the world. Hoxha lost power when the Soviet bloc communist regimes fell and then only slowly did the situation in Albania stabilize. One factor that helped Albania onto the road to recovery was the aftermath of the Kosovo War 1998-99. During the war thousands of refugees fled into Albania and as a result a lot of foreign aid flowed in.
By European standards Albania is still poor but everywhere there is a lot of confidence that the days ahead will be good days. The people are extremely friendly and most are anxious to talk with foreigners to learn about what is going on in the world outside. On a number of occasions people with no English who we came in contact with wanted to shake our hand. There is a lot of discussion with regards the dark underside of Albania and no doubt it exists but we didn’t experience anything untoward.
The EU issued a statement in 2011 to the effect that Albania is on a rugged way to Europe. I assume this means it’s going to be a hard slog but eventually it will be a force to be reckoned with.
In closing I admit that I am no expert on Albanian history and some comments above may not be as simplistic as I have made out. If you want to read more, and I recommend you do, start with the European Heritage Library web page, www.euroheritage.net There are other interesting web pages too, even one attempting to revive Hoxha ideals.
Of all the cities we visited in Albania, Skhoder was the most interesting for us. We enjoyed the restored buildings from the Venetian era and the efforts in modernising the city. And in addition, it was extremely bike friendly. We have ridden bikes in a number of cities in the world but we consider Skhoder the safest.
Tomorrow we leave Albania and pass into Montenegro.
Our favourite images from Albania follow.
This image didn’t appear in the blog. I put it in to make sure people didn’t think some miracle was occurring!
Tomorrow we leave Albania and pass into Montenegro.