Friday, 16 November 2012


A Trip to Albania, Part 1

Korcë Cathedral (in snow)
Over the past couple of years, I have been working on a book about Orthodox martyrs of the 20th Century. The general format was for each section to begin with a brief historical background, the bulk of the book being devoted to individual stories of heroism, to put faces to the dry facts and statistics. All was going well until I came to write about Albania under the communist rule of Enver Hoxha. I had no problem with the general background but details of individual stories were very hard to come by. I wrote to various people in the Albanian Orthodox community and, to cut a long story short, I was eventually invited by Metropolitan Joani of Korcë to pay a short visit and to meet with some of the survivors from the period. The result was that I eventually collected enough material for a small book on the subject which I am working on at the moment. If you are interested, you can find updates on progress with this and other books on The trip itself, however was quite a story in its own right so, over the next few blogs, I'll give a brief taste of my journey, both secular and spiritual.

In spite of a lot of bad publicity in recent years, it is a fact that Albanians are characterized in the main by friendliness to strangers and almost embarrassing hospitality. My first experience of this was before I even set out from Greece. An Albanian living in my village, no more than an acquaintance, found out I was visiting his country and immediately organized for his cousin to pick me up from Tirana airport to take me to where I could get a minibus for Korcë. Not only that, he lent me the sim card for his Albanian mobile because it would avoid the need to pay expensive roaming charges!

For practical reasons, the trip took place in February and from the aeroplane, the views of the snow-covered mountains of Northern Greece and Albania were breathtaking. Strangely, it didn't occur to me at the time that snow is usually associated with cold and that I would be down there within a few hours. Progress through immigration in Tirana was no problem, although it took a little longer than within the EU. Surprisingly, Customs Control seemed to be a mere formality. At the risk of upsetting other nations or being accused of sexism, I must confess that the policewomen on security duty must be the prettiest in Europe! I was met by my friend's cousin and whisked the few kilometres into the city, where I received the first of two culture shocks. Living in Greece, I have been known to be just a little critical of the standard of Greek driving. Well, I can now report that, compared with the Albanians, they're amateurs in the danger league. There seemed to be no road rules at all either for drivers or pedestrians and the air was full of the sound of horns and screeching brakes. All I could do was shut my eyes and pray, which I suspect is what most of the drivers do. Strangely, the system seems to work and accident statistics are no worse than anywhere else but I guess blood pressure problems are endemic.

Having arrived safely at the minibus park, I found another surprise. Ordinary bus services in Albania are slow as the buses meander around all the villages so, for long journeys, people use the more direct minibus (fourgon) services between the larger towns. However, there is no timetable for these and they only leave when they have a full load so it was over an hour before we set out. The return trip from Korcë four days later was even more fun as we only set off after 1)waiting for more passengers, 2) driving to the Vodaphone office for one of the passengers to buy a phonecard and 3) driving round the town three times touting for customers. As with the driving, however, the system seems to work and I learned some useful lessons in patience and a slower pace of life.

Once on the minibus and heading for Korcë, I experienced two much more positive aspects of Albania. First there was the landscape. Away from the towns, it must be one of the most beautiful countries in Europe. The drive through the mountains was spectacular, with snow-covered landscapes and towering mountains. I also had the chance to experience again the friendliness and kindness of the Albanians. Two young people, Brouna and Genti, chatted with me and generally took me under their wing. Brouna, who spoke very good English, helped me order lunch when we stopped for a break and then Genti refused to let me pay for it. And this in a country where most people are still in deep poverty! When I told them why I was in Albania, the conversation turned to the Hoxha years and the current state of religion. Brouna, a Roman Catholic, said that when she had children she would name them all after angels to make up for the years when religion was banned.

Although I was expecting the first night to be cold, I was unprepared for just how cold it could get. I was staying in the Metropolitan's guest house and , being a conscientious sort of chap, I turned off the radiator when I went to bed. After I had been forced to put three extra blankets on the bed, two pairs of socks, a sweatshirt and a pullover over my pyjamas and my anorak hood on my head, I realized I might have made an error of judgement! This was confirmed next day when Vladimir, the bishop's assistant, said I was crazy and insisted that I leave the radiator on all night. This certainly improved things for the remaining nights.   

Next week: I meet some of the survivors. 

1 comment:

Please feel free to give feedback whether positive or negative. It seems that the comment box won't work unless you complete the Comment as... box. I don't understand all the settings but suggest you choose anonymous and put your name in the text (unless you really do want to be anonymous!) Name + URL (email address) should also work. Due to increasing Spam comments, I've had to introduce word recognition (CAPTCHA) but don't let that put you off.