Albania and Macedonia

“The Land of Concrete Bunkers”

July 2011

Situated in the Western Balkans between Italy and Greece in the heart of Europe, Albania and Macedonia remain remote and mysterious as they tentatively emerge from their isolation. Endowed with natural beauty, the mountain peaks, alpine pastures and un-crowded golden beaches have much to offer the adventurous traveller. Add to this the region’s ancient legacy and rich religious mix and you have magnificent Greek and Roman ruins, supplemented by well proportioned Ottoman mosques and Catholic churches; enough to keep the ardent photographer happy. Albania also has a ‘novelty value’ of visiting what was Europe’s last, most secretive and esoteric Communist dictatorship that survived the collapse of the Soviet Union.

 

A Brief History of Albania

 

Albania supported farming from around the 6th millennium BC. It was occupied by the Illyrians from around the 2nd millennium BC and their descendants can still be found in some areas. In the 7th century BC the Greeks arrived and established numerous self-governing trading colonies. The 3rd century BC saw an expansionist indigenous Illyrian kingdom come into direct conflict with the powerful nascent Roman Empire. A protracted war ensued which culminated in Rome exercising control over all of modern-day Albania. In 395 AD with the division of the Roman Empire, the region fell within the sphere of influence of the Eastern (Byzantine) Roman Empire.

 

Towards the end of the 14th century the country came under the influence of the Ottoman Empire. Between the years 1443 and 1468 Albania’s national hero, Skanderbeg (Gjergj Kastrioti), led his country’s resistance against Ottoman occupation. He remained undefeated for 25 battles and it was  only after the death of Skanderbeg in 1479 that Albanian resistance was broken. For over 500 years the Ottomans remained in Albania until a prolonged campaign of national resistance resulted in Albania declaring independence in 1912.

 

In 1924 the incumbent government was overthrown by the warlord, Ahmed Bey Zogu, who declared himself King Zog 1 in 1928. In the following years Albania formed a close relationship with Italy and as its indebtedness to Italy grew, the country became a de facto Italian colony.

 

At the end of the Second World War Albania lurched headlong into an extended period of Communist led isolation and repression. In 1946 Enver Hoxha declared himself president and ‘Supreme Comrade’ of the embryonic Peoples Republic of Albania - a position he held for the next 40 years. Hoxha initially allied Albania with the Soviet Union and in 1961 he broke off relations with the them and turned towards the Peoples Republic of China. The late 1960s saw Albania experience a brutal and repressive Chinese-style cultural revolution; the ensuing years saw the country turn in on itself and then become ever more isolated. The rule of the secret police, denunciations and torture, all cast a shadow cast over everyday life. Travel outside the country was prohibited, punishable by imprisonment. The 1970s ushered in a period of military paranoia, manifesting itself in the building of some 60,000 igloo-shaped concrete bunkers across the country. To counter the perceived threat of invasion the Hoxha regime constructed mysterious tunnels, underground armament factories and nuclear bunkers under every apartment block. After 47 years of communist rule, 1992 saw the arrival of ‘free elections’.

 

Today Albania looks more towards the west than over its shoulder to the east, as it does so the country tentatively contemplates future membership of the European Union.

A Brief History of Macedonia

 

Early Macedonian history is dominated by the empire-building exploits of its most famous son, Alexander the Great. His father King Philip ll (reigned 359-336 BC) had founded a powerful dynasty which Alexander went on to expand into a vast empire stretching through Egypt, the Middle East, Persia and India. With Alexander’s sudden death in 323 BC the empire fragmented as his generals fought over control of his legacy. In 168 BC Macedonia was absorbed into the expanding Roman Empire. With the division of the Roman Empire in 395 AD, Macedonia fell within the orbit of the Eastern (Byzantine) Roman Empire.

 

The latter years of the 14th century heralded the arrival of the Ottoman Turks who introduced Islam to a predominantly Christian country. By 1873 the Ottoman Empire was in rapid decline and its spiralling debts led to a collapse of the banking sector. This event was to precipitate a wave of Christian revolts against Turkish rule. The Ottoman Turks were ultimately to remain ‘overlords’ of Macedonia until 1912.

 

The end of the First World War saw Macedonian territory divided up amongst its more powerful neighbours. Historical Macedonian boundaries are divided between the Republic of Macedonia, Greek Macedonia and Bulgaria’s Pirin Macedonia. In 1929 Macedonia was absorbed into the newly formed Yugoslavia, an amalgam of modern-day Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia. In a referendum in September 1991 Macedonia voted to split from the Yugoslav federation. Following a vote in January 1992 the Republic of Macedonia declared full independence.

 

Like its neighbour Albania, the Macedonia of today is edging towards membership of the European Union.

 

The Journey

 

Upon arrival in the Albanian capital Tirana, it’s apparent that this is not the antiquated and anachronistic country I had expected to see; the airport complex is brand new as are many of the roads. Brand new car showrooms (including a Porsche dealership) line the route to the hotel and construction works are going on everywhere. The central hub of Tirana is Skanderbeg Square  (named after Albania’s national hero). On a plinth, in the middle of the traffic-congested square, stands a larger than life equestrian statue of the man himself. In years gone by, this plinth along with innumerable others would have displayed a statue of Enver Hoxha. Today we only had time for a brief stroll around the centre of Tirana and a more expansive tour will happen towards the end of the trip when we return to the city.

 

A couple of hours drive outside Tirana is the town of Elbasan, the old city walls are an evocative reminder of the town’s past. Today the inside of the walled enclosure has been modernised with elegant cafes and restaurants. From their terraces you can enjoy a coffee whilst being surrounded by beautifully manicured gardens - oblivious to the hubbub of the busy town outside the walls.

 

From Elbasan we drove through mountainous countryside and over the border into Macedonia. Our destination is the town of Ohrid, which is beautifully located on the shore of Lake Ohrid. At 300 metres deep and three million years old, this lake is one of the most ancient and deepest in Europe. In the afternoon we went on a tour of the atmospheric old town, famous for its multitude of churches. The most impressive is the church of Svete Jovan at Kaneo. Built in the 13th century it’s located high up on a precipitous cliff overlooking the azure waters of Lake Ohrid. This sublime and photogenic image is featured in almost every guide book. Another church of note is the 16th century Byzantine-style Monastery of St Naum, which is situated close to the border with Albania. The terracotta multi-domed structure boasts some fine 16th century frescoes and is set in tranquil gardens where the resident peacocks pose proudly for tourists. After a pleasant evening meal it was time for a stroll around the town. We found plenty of upmarket shops, youngsters out promenading, families out for the evening and all this created a lovely atmosphere. Un-surprisingly Ohrid has earned the meritorious accolade of Macedonia’s number one tourist destination.

Our too brief excursion into Macedonia concluded and we crossed back over the border into Albania; our destination being the town of Korca. The town’s new Cathedral is a striking layer cake style structure in pink, blue and brown –  similar architecturally to the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. As well as a museum of church icons, Korca contains the carefully preserved original first school in Albania; a room by room exhibition traces the history of the country’s education system. A short drive outside of Korca in the village of Mborja is the charming 13th century Church of St Mary. Vibrant frescoes adorn the walls inside, whilst the outside is a combination of exuberant multi coloured bricks, stone and terracotta tile work.

 

Albania is still an agricultural society and most people will grow some sort of crop in their gardens: usually vegetables, maize or grape vines. Many houses stand partially constructed and their owners work abroad in order to earn the money needed to complete the works.

 

The drive to Permeti took us through spectacular scenery of soaring mountains: lush green valleys; breathtaking hairpin roads that cling to the precipitous hillside and sheer drops to oblivion with the slightest driving error. The picturesque town of Permeti is situated on the banks of the Vjosa River, and apart from ourselves, it’s tourist free.

 

Due to Albania’s links in the past with the former Soviet Union, the Socialist Realist style of statuary is to be found in abundance across the country. Dedicated to glorifying the worker and the achievements of communism, its purpose was to elevate the common worker - whether factory or agricultural, by presenting his life, work and recreation - as admirable. Its aim was to educate the people in the goals and meaning of communism. Aside from their subliminal allegorical meaning, these statues make wonderful photographic subjects.

 

This morning started with a 45 minute walk to the quaint mountain conurbation of Benja. Somewhat isolated, this village is time locked in the past, access is via a steep-cobbled pathway. Transport in and out of the village is of the four-legged donkey variety. The village supports a church and a one-room schoolhouse. We were treated to a tour of the school, by a teacher who took great pride in showing us the facilities at his disposal where he takes classes for the six children in the village.

 

Our next stop was a photographic highlight; the splendid 18th century single span Ottoman stone bridge at Llixha. Elegantly straddling a picturesque boulder strewn river, this is a sublime beauty spot where the locals come to picnic and swim in the cooling waters.

 

The 11th century Church of St Mary in Leuba is a well preserved building with an array of splendid frescoes. Like many places we visited, entry to the church requires an arrangement to locate the key holder: this is usually an elderly resident of the village and a small gratuity is expected in recognition of this service. Official opening and closing times as such do not exist.

 

Our next port of call, Gjirokastra, is the birthplace of the former dictator Enver Hoxha. Because of this, special care was taken during the communist era to retain the city’s traditional architectural heritage. Gjirokastra’s magnificent early 19th century Ottoman houses are architectural delights. The steep cobbled labyrinthine streets wind between the elegant three storey stone houses. Our hotel is an authentic example of an Ottoman house, built on three levels, it has ornate carved wooden ceilings and grand stone fireplaces. Perched high up on the hillside it commands magnificent views across the city and beyond. The city’s dominant feature is the egregious brooding castle which occupies the eye line from every vantage point. Constructed piecemeal from the 6th century onwards, it was in use as a prison by King Zog, the Nazis and then the communists, until in 1971 it became the Albanian National Armaments Museum that you see today. A repository for all things warlike, its most bizarre exhibit is a downed 1957 US military jet that sits on the rampart walls of the castle. Our time here in Gjirokstra was far too short. It would’ve been nice to spend an extra day in what was the prettiest location, as well as the best hotel of the entire trip.

In the town of Butrint the best and the worst a location could offer me sit conveniently side by side. This beach resort models itself on the Greek island of Corfu, which is a few short miles away across the Ionian Sea. Beachside cafes blaring out music, sun loungers covering every square inch of sand, noisy children, banana boats and everything I could possibly dislike all conveniently lie in one place. On the other hand, its antitheses is located a short distance away: the fabulous ruins of ancient Butrint. Here, my penchant for ancient archaeological sites was amply rewarded as my camera and I were transported to heaven for a couple of hours. Set amidst a national park, the ruins are justly renowned for their scale, their beautiful location and their tranquillity. A 3rd century BC Greek theatre, a Roman bath house from the 2nd century AD, a 6th century AD Basilica, a Roman town house and a 14th century Venetian castle were just a few of the delights this site had to offer. Butrint is a microcosm of Mediterranean history representing in all its phases of development, the rise and fall of the great empires that dominated the region. Two thousand years of history are symbolized in an amalgam of monuments that span the periods from the Hellenistic times of the 4th century BC through to the Ottoman period of the 19th century. The bonus was that the site was completely deserted.

 

A short distance along the coast is Albania’s imitative version of Benidorm. The beach resort of Saranda is experiencing a construction boom beyond comprehension. New hotels are sprouting up on every available piece of land. Bars and restaurants line the promenade, whilst the beach is covered in sun loungers all lined up neatly in rows. This resort currently attracts mainly Albanian tourists, but increasingly day trippers from nearby Corfu make the short ferry trip across to Saranda. They visit the ruins at nearby Butrint and then add the Albanian stamp to their passport, before heading back home; Saranda has exchanged its soul for tourism. Given a change in peoples’ perception of Albania as a holiday destination, allied with a vigorous campaign to promote tourism, in ten years time Saranda could well be on the international tourist map. Saranda’s rather cosmopolitan outlook is in stark contrast to the vast majority of the rest of Albania.

 

Today we take a scenic drive on twisty hairpin roads surrounded by breathtaking mountain scenery. The hillsides are blanketed in a sea of never ending citrus groves and olive trees. The views, as the road progresses along Albania’s Ionian Coast, are spectacular. The Ali Pasha Fortress is set in an idyllic location in the isolated pictorial bay of Porto Palermo; the 19th century fortress replaces a much older structure. From a photographic perspective: it’s paradise. The road from Porto Palermo to the Llogaraja National Park is blessed with scenery that twists and turns its way along the Ionian Coast - this is where Top Gear filmed what they described as one of the best roads to drive on ... ever.

 

We arrive at Llogaraja mid-afternoon and being high up, there is a noticeable drop in temperature from the high 30 degrees we have experienced so far. It’s an easy one-hour walk to the summit of Mt Karaburun which boasts marvellous views. Atmospheric mist laps the undulating curvaceous hills, whilst the deep turquoise coloured sea caresses the coastline. Here in the densely forested park where deer and wolves roam it’s hard to believe that you’re merely a short drive away from the touristic cauldron of Saranda.

 

Passing through Vlora we were given the opportunity to photograph the town’s splendid Socialist Realist Independence monument. This particular monument is a wonderful example of the genre, square-shouldered figures marching forward proudly hoisting the country’s double-headed eagle flag skywards extolling all the virtues of the common man.

 

The ‘ruined’ ancient Greek city of Apollonia is set on gently rolling hills amongst the ubiquitous olive groves. Founded by the Greeks in 588 BC and dedicated to the god Apollo, at its peak this city supported around 55,000 inhabitants. The site is nowhere near as well excavated as that at Butrint, in fact only 5% of the site has been exposed. There are just two substantial structures that have been restored; a small theatre and the pillared facade of the 2nd century administration centre (Bouleterion). Due to the paucity of visible structures, any visit requires imagination to envisage what this site might’ve looked like in its heyday.

 

Enver Hoxha’s cold war paranoia lives on in the form of Albania’s 60,000 concrete bunkers; these ubiquitous mushroom domes can be found all across the country. Made from concrete and iron and weighing 5 tonnes, they can resist a full tank assault, and are almost impossible to destroy. We stopped to meet a farmer who is the proud owner of 18 of these bunkers strewn around his field. This photo opportunity exudes an extra terrestrial atmosphere.

Berat is one of Albania’s beautiful towns and was preserved, as a museum city, by the former communist regime. The town is situated over a gorge next to the Osumi River. Striking white Ottoman houses cling to the hillside and terracotta-tiled roofs and old stone walls give this town an aesthetic magnificence as well as its condign title of ‘The Town of a Thousand Windows’. Berat’s traditional Christian quarter of Kala is high up on the hillside with views across the entire region. Enclosed by the impressive 14th century citadel, Kala is home to numerous churches and some date back to the early 13th century. Down in the lower part of town is the traditionally Muslim quarter of Mangalem. This part of Berat is home to a variety of elegant mosques with traditional Ottoman style pencil minarets. The Sultan’s Mosque, one of the oldest in Albania, dates back to the 16th century. The Ethnographic Museum is based in an 18th century Ottoman house and there are displays of traditional clothes and other artefacts from everyday Ottoman life. Some of the rooms have been meticulously restored to their original splendour giving a tantalizing glimpse of how grandiloquent the house would once have looked.

 

The ancient city of Durres was, until 1920, the capital of Albania. Founded in 627 BC, invading armies of Romans, Normans, Crusaders and Venetians have plundered and conquered it down the centuries. Today Durres has numerous attractions to offer the visitor: the Great Mosque; the Byzantine city walls; ruins of Roman baths; remains of a Roman basilica and some fine Socialist Realist statuary. The Amphitheatre of Durres is the primary attraction here; built in the 2nd century AD it had a seating capacity of 15,000 spectators. It’s one of the major archaeological sites of the Balkans. Durres’ Archaeological Museum exhibits an impressive collection of artefacts from the Greek and Roman periods; the museum also offers the opportunity to shelter from the oppressive heat and to luxuriate in the air-conditioned environment whilst absorbing some culture.

 

Kruja is the home town of Albania’s national hero, Skanderbeg (1405–1468), who was born here some 500 years ago. Unsurprisingly Skander-delia is ubiquitous here: there is a Skanderbeg museum; an enormous Skanderbeg equestrian statue and the tourists shops lining the main street sell Skanderbeg memorabilia encompassing everything from scarves to kitsch statues. The Skanderbeg Museum is a majestic modern building opened in 1982. It’s built in the style of a fortified castle. Laid out on seven floors, this ultimate homage to Skanderbeg contains giant statues of the man himself, vast dramatic murals of his battles against the Ottomans and replicas of armour and weapons. Kruja’s Ethnographic Museum is located in a handsomely proportioned 19th century Ottoman house and is one of the preeminent museums in the country. Beautifully presented, it displays the level of luxury that would have been afforded to an affluent family of the times. This museum, like the Skanderbeg Museum, was a pleasure to visit with knowledgeable/informative guides and sympathetically arranged exhibits.

 

With the trip nearing its conclusion we arrive back in the capital Tirana. In the last decade Tirana has radically changed from the dull grey city of the past, into a modern and colourful metropolis. The trendy and affluent of Tirana frequent the bars and cafes in between visits to the up-market boutiques. Some of the dull grey apartment blocks in the centre of the city have been transformed into iconic art-scapes having been painted with multi-coloured vertical stripes, or concentric coloured circles. Stand in Tirana’s main square and two features catch your eye: an equestrian statue of Skanderbeg stands where once stood a statue of the Supreme Comrade Enver Hoxha, until an angry mob pulled it down in 1991 and if you cast your eye skywards, the pencil minaret of the elegant Et’hem Bey Mosque comes into view. Built between 1789 and 1823 this is one of the oldest buildings in the city. Forbidden for years to the general public, the district of Blloku was the haunt where top communist government officials had their villas. Today the area has been transformed by shiny new office blocks and trendy shopping arcades.

 

An Overview

My overall impression of Albania and Macedonia far exceeded any preconceptions I may have had prior to embarking on the trip. Where the mainstream European destinations tend to be too expensive, too crowded and too commercialized, Albania and Macedonia are inexpensive, authentic and accessible. Of course there are the enclaves of commercialism, like Saranda. These places give an insight towards what the future may hold for an emerging country like Albania, should it wish to embrace the rampant tourism beast. The infrastructure: roads; hotels and the general facilities were far in excess of the basic structures I had expected to encounter. Supplement this with ancient sites completely bereft of crowds, great food and a really excellent tour guide and it all amounts to a holiday slightly off the beaten tourist track that was a fantastic revelation.

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