Legacy of War and Legacy of Peace (Kosovo and Albania)

December 2004


We reached the Albanian border checkpoint and the officer there asked us if we needed a visa although he had a board saying which citizens needed a visa and which did not, just above his head. Paul asked if there was some toilet around and the officer told him to go in the bushes. After going down the mountains on a relatively poor and quite bumpy road, we stopped in Kukes for people to eat something. The next thing I remember is reaching Tirana at 6 AM. The Clock Tower and the Opera building were nicely lit in blue and yellow, making Skanderbeg Square impress newcomers in a pleasant way. The area was neat and quiet. It would soon totally change, as, by the time we checked in a quite good hotel close to the centre, the square got full of people and streets got packed with cars. Blood was rushing like crazy in Tirana's veins, people were running around, there were hundreds of buildings under construction, cars were going everywhere, horns were loudly blown, people were shouting. One could feel this city being active in a way which I could compare to that of Pristina / Pristine or Bucharest.

After asking around about the place where "furgons" to Shkodra started from and after walking for 20 minutes or so, we got on a van and started. These vans would only go when full, and they were about the fastest means of transportation in the country. The road to Shkodra was good, except for the first score kilometers after exiting Tirana, where they were widening the lanes, process which meant virtually demolishing everything there was to the right and to the left of the road, from improvised cottages, to two storey apartment buildings. Traffic was chaotic and it meant that one could go anywhere his / her car could go, including construction sites, sidewalks (where they did exist), yards, parks or else. Life was loudly singing a fast beat song in Albania and this made me enjoy every second of the trip that had just begun. Soon enough the road got clear, the asphalt layer was relatively fresh and traffic got much smoother. We got to Shkodra, with its old streets, small shops, with many people walking around accomplishing the Ottoman touch of the place. Old and sometimes poorly maintained (if not about to fall apart) houses preserved superb, even though sometimes hidden, pieces of fine decoration, while some street corners drew the traveler back to the Middle Ages. A large Catholic cathedral made the city quite diverse and even more attractive, with its great wooden ceiling, tastefully painted and decorated. Leaving the centre, we walked towards Rozafat Fortress which was located on a hilltop overlooking Lake Shkodra, a few kilometers off the city. It provided a fine view over the surroundings and it had a great location. A couple of middle-aged men were working to set up a restaurant on the fortress premises, which made us wonder what Albania would look like 10 years later. Eventually we got down on the road and a man was kind enough to call a van driver he knew, which picked us up and, after twice making the tour of the city shouting out loud "Tirane! Tirane!", filling the van, started towards the capital city. When entering Tirana, traffic was very busy and, partly because of this, out of a 3 lanes per way road entering the city, we got 6-7 rows of cars per way, of which at least 3 were always off the road, sneaking around buildings, trees, other cars and pedestrians that looked like ghosts in a haunted castle.

The following morning I had a walk in the capital, enjoying its funnily, joyfully painted otherwise typical communist buildings, its old Turkish bridge, its remnants of the old bazaar area and, most of all, its street life, where people were moving around in a noisy way, taking advantage of every second life was about. Later on we got on a bus to Durres, the main harbour in the country, going along a crowded highway. The city preserved some fine, picturesque, early 20th century buildings, as well as a pleyade of fancy cafes, a heterogenous crowd and a very noisy atmosphere, where the loud music coming from a theme park by the sea blended with the shouting and laughing of the many youngsters enjoying their winter holidays. A few Byzantine walls and a relatively well preserved Roman amphiteatre turned the city into an interesting experience. The Blue Guide Albania I had tried to create an exclusively static, structural image of the country, with many exaggerations on certain places, a general lack of directions here and there, as well as missing vital information on people. I therefore abandoned it for a while and preferred to ask around, hence discovering that the language to use in most situations was not English, but rather Italian. Many people worked in Italy or at least had to interfere with Italians: it seemed that WW2 had ended in a different way than the one we all know as far as Albania was concerned. It seemed that King Zog and his Italian government were still there, up and strong...

With the help of a few very nice young men returning from Bari for the holidays, we got on the right bus and, after changing buses, we eventually got to Fier, where an old man speaking some French showed us to a taxi that would take us to Apollonia; he was nice enough to even settle the price for the return ride with the driver: the equivalent of EUR 6. We got a ride on an old Mercedes where the driver kept on playing a mixture of Balkanic music, including Serbian (which he still called "jugoslovenski"), Romanian and Albanian tunes based on the same Oriental beats. Eventually we reached the old fortress with the sunset, just to enjoy its shades better than we could have ever done in full daylight. The Shen Meri Monastery had something of Italy and Byzance, a fine vaulted way and interesting stone carved decorations on the church in the middle. The Acropolis, as well as the well preserved, even though small amphiteatre looked impressively in the reddish light of the sun sinking in the Adriatic a few kilometers to the West. Two nicely looking restaurants that would have been full of tourists in other countries, given the location on the very premises of the archaeological site, were almost empty. Sun was setting over Albania, with the hope to rise up again the following day.

We got back to Fier and the taxi driver helped us find a bus further to Vlora. We reached this other harbour at about 6 PM and fell for a taxi driver's suggestion of taking us to a cheap hotel, possibly out of being tired or - better said - just out of being stupid. The hotel was nice and cheap, but the taxi ride added USD 5 more to it, just a good means of getting back with the feet on the ground. However it was Christmas Eve and definitely not the moment to look back in anger. The main street in the resort was bordered by new buildings, fancy hotels and fine bars, while lines of palm trees made it look "right", possibly leading the country to a tourist influx generating the much needed local wealth as opposed to the one solely coming from Albanians working in Italy and Greece at that moment.

The following day we started at 7:30 AM on a poor van: we had a 133 km. road ahead on the way to Saranda and it would take 5 hours. The scenery was just superb, as the narrow road was going in curves along the coast, crossing steep ridges, then going smoothly among plantations of olive or orange trees. Shepherds would go with their sheep on dry pastures, while the few villages completed an otherwise idyllic image, shaken every now and then by the sometimes pretty bad road, where when two vehicles met, one had to pull a little aside so that the other one could go. The beach was most times pristine and untamed, with rather few coastal hotels. A few Orthodox churches brought a Greek-like scent to the picture. The only things that scrambled the relaxing view were the omnipresent, round concrete bunkers located on the beach or on the hillside. Sometimes intact, some other times broken, covered by grass or painted in vivid colours and hence turned into tourist attractions, they stood for a good history reminder of a leader which thought, just like Romanian Ceaușescu in the 1980s, that he can defy the entire world and live on his own. Eventually we reached Saranda, a pleasant resort where, trying to find a bus, van or convenient taxi to take us to Butrint, we were approached by three young men: "How are you, dudes?"

This is how we met Ari, a character which would mark the journey in a unique way. After hearing our destination and thinking for a short while, Ari offered us a drive there, asking us only to pay for the fuel. At the age of 37 now, Ari had left Albania when young, before the communist rule fell. After nearby being shot by the Albanian border patrols, he had got to Greece. "But Greek mother fuckers hate us, they give Albanians no documents to work there, and so we have to hide from their police. So some of us end up stealing things, others find an unofficial job, we have to manage one way or the other. And they are nationalist mother fuckers, they call me <<Aris>>, and I say <<fuck you, mother fuckers, my name is Ari, I am not Greek>>." We were lucky though: "Americans are OK, they helped Albanians in the war against Serbs in Kosovo, you know. Romanians are OK, we have Vlachs here and there are some Albanian - Romanian societies." So, sneaking in Greece, Ari had eventually got caught by the police and he had had to leave the country, however not before meeting a Dutch woman he had married, this way getting a passport and the key to other places. He had moved to the Netherlands, he had traveled to the US and he was nowadays bringing second hand cars from the Netherlands to Albania. With all his obvious defaults, Ari was one of those tough survivors one rarely has the chance of meeting, one of the two or three people of a kind I have ever met.

He took us to Butrint, which we visited and enjoyed, with its nice location on a peninsula, being surrounded by the lake and the still obvious remnants of the Roman aqueduct. Well hidden among a dense vegetation, the ruins at Butrint preserved the sense of discovery a journey is about, and this made it unique in its own way on my Albanian tour. The view from the castle - like building on the top of the fortress hill was very impressive, especially Westwards, towards the sea and over to Corfu Island with its high mountains. We went back to Saranda and we learnt there was no bus to Gjirokaster that evening, so we got a room in a cheap hotel just in front of the parking from where buses started, so that we could take an early bus in the morning. The evening was quiet in Saranda, only with a wedding hosted by a larger restaurant, throwing breaks of music and noise every now and then to the neighbourhood.

We reached Gjirokaster after crossing a spectacular mountain pass. The town did not impress one in a straight, obvious way like the author of the guidebook said. It rather created a moving, almost thrilling atmosphere, with all those old houses, some of which were about to fall apart; it felt natural, not artificially or conveniently restored to please anyone. Great stone carving works blended the decorative appearance with the defensive one implied by the rough history of the place. People and random cars were moving along stone - paved narrow streets like a fata morgana in the desert. People exchanging money were waving their heaps of leks at a crossing under finely worked forged iron balcony balustrades. Reddish tiled roofs seemed to go on forever down the town hill, sinking in the flat valley underneath. The hill was topped by a quite large fortress where the old and new military purpose was obvious, as the old stone structure had been joined by an Ottoman clock tower and by a couple of metallic structures belonging to the Albanian army which had used to have a base on the fortress premises itself, together with a prison for the political convicted, where many had seen the sudden sunset of their life thread in the 50s and 60s.

We went down and soon found a van going to Kakavije. It was raining when we got to the border point where the line of cars stretched over almost 1 kilometer. Taking advantage of the "alien" status, we walked to the front of it and asking an official, we were shown to a separate office from the others, we got the exit stamp and, without being asked anything else, we walked across the border into Greece. Ten minutes later we were on a bus to Ioannina. A fancy, brand new bus, no noise coming from people, no bumps in the road, no heaps of luggage and - wow - real bus tickets for a change; however exactly those little things made the ride less enjoyable, less human, turning it into a mere transit ride. We reached Ioannina which did not seem to me too different from towns on the other side of the frontier, except for the better road and better maintained buildings. Soon we had a bus to Thessaloniki. A ride through the rain, snow, rain again and eventually dry warm wind, staring at the imposing rocky cliffs where the monasteries of Meteora are located. A ride ending in a city where churches and other monuments were lit at night, where everyone was out in the streets, where bars were full of the holiday touch, where people spoke English and stopped at the red traffic light. A bus ride followed by a train ride, sharing the compartment with a middle-aged Romanian working in Greece and going home for New Year's, telling me how "bad" Albanians and Bulgarians were compared to Greeks. Many rides indeed, but I was still in the Balkans, the land where love and hate are inseparable feelings one can never watch from a safe distance but feel on his / her own skin.

I was to get back to Bucharest, change the small backpack for the large mountaineering one, relax for an hour or so, then get on a night train and meet some friends in Vatra Dornei the following morning, then go hiking in Rodna Mountains, go down on December 31 and spend one of the greatest New Year nights ever on the empty train to Bucharest joined by a Spanish girl studying in Cluj and her boyfriend, two Polish mountaineers and a couple of Russians which, not possessing a Romanian visa, had illegally crossed River Tisa into Romania, with the sole purpose of going to see Dracula and not having a dime of Romanian currency to pay for train tickets. A quiet night between years that would only be disturbed by the train stopping at midnight somewhere in the dark and the engine driver blowing the horn for over a minute to mark the event and then with the conductor coming in every now and then for a chat, as he was obviously bored because of the lack of passengers. A morning crossing a Bucharest filled of petard scraps, broken bottles of sparkling wine, confetti and dizzy people going back home after a night of party, with unusually empty streets and no cars parked on the sidewalk in the central area... Happy New Year 2005!



A country which is flooded with history, where one can never ignore the past, a past that, however, is not always clear enough so as to provide straight answers for emerging present time questions. Like many of its neighbours, it appeared on the map and was recognized because some wanted to grab it and defy other emerging Balkan countries, then it was left aside when interest raised elsewhere. BW2, as well as WW2 can still be witnessed in Albania as if they occurred yesterday.