Monday, 27 July 2015

Albania – Run to the hills

July 25-26

Hello everyone!

It’s now time to head north in order to get back to Prague. This involves travelling through a variety of young nations which used to be part of Yugoslavia. Many of these countries will be similar in terms of language, food and culture. One, however, doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest. That place happens to be my first stop: Albania.

Indeed, Albania is known for not fitting in. It is one of the very few European languages not to be derived from the Latin or Slavic families. It also famously went through a period of isolation throughout the Cold War, somehow managing to shun the Yugoslavs, Americans, Russians and Chinese at various points until it was left with no one else to turn to.

View of Gjirokaster's 'New Town' from the top of the Old Town hill

The quality of transport in Albania: mostly better than this, thank goodness...

They were led into isolation by a dictator called Enver Hoxha, a man who seems to be from the Stalin school of political repression. Interestingly enough, he was born in the hillside town of Gjirokaster: where I am now.

Enver Hoxha: universally unpopular in Albania since his death in 1985

His house, larger than most, is still visible on the street. The fact that it is advertised as an ‘Ethnographic Museum’ rather than ‘Hoxha’s House’ may give you some insight into how he is viewed nowadays, particularly by the younger generation. The plaza you see below used to have a large statue of Hoxha, with him looking over the town and being omnipresent. It’s not there now: read into that what you will.

The House of Hoxha's birth

What was once the lookout point of Hoxha's imposing statue has now been converted into a bar

I learnt this, and much more, on a walking tour of the town conducted by two high school students: Edita and Elisa. They also showed me some of Gjirokaster’s hidden secrets, such as the ‘Crazy Street’, so called because of the strange noises that drunk men’s shoes would make on the wet and wobbly cobbles.

'Crazy Street'

This is a wall. The silver part is the remains of pop-out cutlery. Make do with what you can...

The town is steep in many senses. The old town is situated at the top of a particularly sheer slope; I had great fun lugging my backpack up it whilst avoiding the incoming storm.

The last 5% of the road I had to lug my backpack up

 It is also steeped in history. The old town is itself a UNESCO Heritage Site. The most obvious link to its past, however, is the castle which, from the new town at the bottom, seems to reach the clouds.

View from Gjirokaster's castle

The castle is one of the largest in the Balkans and possibly one of the oldest, with evidence of a 7th Century BC Iron Age settlement. It was an important defensive location for the Ottoman Empire during their centuries of rule in the Middle Ages.

The little-cared-for interior of the castle

The contrast of beauty and brute force

Eventually the castle was used as a garrison and, during Hoxha’s early rule, a prison for communist protestors. Part of the prison now houses machine guns captured from the Italians and Germans during World War 2. It also contains an Italian Fiat tank, one of only 283 produced.

A German rocket launcher from WW2

Look at me, I'm driving a tank!

One of the stranger additions to the castle is an American spy plane which lost its bearings and had to land in Tirana. Why it’s ended up here, I have no idea.

The American spy plane

What aren’t steep are the prices. £1 is roughly 200 Albanian lek. I’m sure you can imagine my joy at paying 350 lek for my dinner and beer below. The food is a Gjirokaster speciality called Qifqi (pronounced tyif-tee – remember I said that the language was like no other?), which are essentially fried rice balls. You could make the argument that quality, both in terms of food and drink, costs money. Not my most satisfying meal.

How to have a lovely evening for less than £2

Being perched high in the hills, overlooking precarious-looking slabs which are fashioned together to makes roofs, Gjirokaster is a spectacular sight and possesses some extraordinary views. It’s been a rather sedate introduction to life in Albania but one which I’ve enjoyed.

Love you all


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