‘The music moved me to tears’: falling in love with Albania

Over the past four years, I have travelled to 17 countries for my book Goodbye Eastern Europe. In it, I try to chart a vanished eastern Europe, one in which cultural multiplicity and religious tolerance were the rule, rather than the exception. Albania was one of only a few places in which that legacy was not a memory but a living reality. Seeing it in action gave me hope, not just for the Balkans, but for Europe as a whole.

I felt trepidation before my first visit there in 2019. You could chalk that up to what the Bulgarian scholar Maria Todorova called “nested Balkanisms”: the tendency of every eastern European country to regard itself as the golden mean, and look at its neighbours (especially to the south and east) with suspicion. I’m Polish, and I’ve been travelling through the region long enough to have experienced every kind of basic material discomfort. But I’m also old enough to remember images broadcast from Albania after the fall of communism and the civil war that swept over the country in 1997. Even though much time has passed since then, I wasn’t sure what I would find.

My entry point was one of the most beautiful border crossings I’ve ever experienced, a wild stretch of shoreline along Lake Ohrid where Albania meets North Macedonia. A quick cab ride from the frontier to the nearby town of Pogradec was enough to dispel any lingering anxieties. After fortifying myself with a cappuccino by the lakefront, I got on a bus for Korçë, the cultural capital of Albania’s stark eastern highlands. Arriving at noon, the city seemed deserted. By nightfall, the bazaar was teeming with people dining outdoors at Italian trattorias and Albanian qebaptorë. I settled down for a plate of lamb qebap and Greek salad (“village salad” here – nationalism dies hard) and listened to a free concert by French indie-pop singer Clio.

I had come to Korçë to see the remains of Voskopojë. Also known as Moschopolis, or the “city of shepherds”, it was once the unofficial capital of the Vlachs, an often (but not exclusively) nomadic people who spoke a language similar to Romanian. In the mountains west of Korçë they built their own miniature Oxford, complete with an academy, printing presses and ornate churches. The town flourished for a century before being sacked by Ali Pasha, a warlord known as “the Muslim Bonaparte”, at the end of the 18th century, after which it sank into near obscurity.

Today, Voskopojë is a pleasant village in a small valley surrounded by fir-covered mountains. The press and academy are gone, but you can still see masterpieces by David Selenica and other Albanian icon painters in its many churches. Sometimes, though, it takes a phone call. The church of Saint Nicholas was closed when I arrived. At the front of it, I met two couples from Germany and France – the only tourists in town that day. We called the number on the door; a few minutes later, a kindly Vlach priest in black robes let us into a jewel box of multicoloured frescoes.

Later that day, I set out on my own down an old caravan path that used to connect Voskopojë with the great trading centres of the Balkans. I walked for an hour through pine woods without seeing a soul, until I came to a little stone pilgrimage church dedicated to Saints Constantine and Helena. The view of the valley from its porch stretched for miles, all the way to the Tomorr massif, the Mount Fuji of central Albania, and a place of pilgrimage for Christians and Muslims.

Delighted by my first trip to Albania, I was determined to come back. Life and the pandemic intervened, but in 2022 I returned with my wife for a two-week tour. We began in Tirana. Albania’s capital has much to recommend it: eclectic architecture, a lively cafe scene, bustling restaurants. It is also the best place in which to get acquainted with the darkest period of the country’s history: the 40-year reign of Enver Hoxha, the Stalinist dictator who ruled Albania from the end of the second world war until his death in 1985.

Just off Skanderbeg Square, an attractive villa that used to be the headquarters of the secret police has been turned into a museum of surveillance called the House of Leaves. Its exhibits, which include bugging devices, doctored surveillance footage and interviews with survivors of imprisonment, reveal the extraordinary lengths the communist regime was willing to go to keep its population in check. On a more aesthetic note, the National Gallery of Arts (currently closed for repairs, but scheduled to reopen at the start of 2024) has one of eastern Europe’s greatest collection of socialist-realist art. To me, its paintings of machine-gun toting women soldiers, heroic welders and sweat-drenched construction brigades evoke a past age as vividly – and thrillingly – as any illustrated chapel from the Renaissance.

Tirana’s museums stand out for the depth and creativity of their engagement with a difficult past. However, to get a real feel for Albania you have to leave the capital behind. Our first destination was the north, the home of the country’s Catholic minority and its tallest mountains. Traditionally a land of feuds and mountaineers, this is the “High Albania” described by Edith Durham in the early 20th century. We began our visit in the city of Shkodër with a trip to the Marubi National Museum of Photography, which showcases the work of Albania’s greatest photographic dynasty, started by Italian revolutionary Pietro Marubbi and continued through his Albanian apprentices. It offers a window into mid-19th-century Albania: Ottoman pashas, Catholic warlords, harem girls, and even a female freedom fighter.

Next, we went three hours north, to the valley of Theth in the Prokletije mountains on the border with Montenegro. In the past, Theth was cut off from the rest of the world by snow for six months of the year, earning it the nickname of Albania’s Shangri La. Until recently it could only be reached by a twisting gravel road over vertigo-inducing drop-offs – the last section was paved just last year.

Carved by glaciers, Theth has some of Albania’s most spectacular scenery. In recent years, it has become a destination for trekkers going to Valbona, a neighbouring (and nearly as scenic) glacial valley that can only be reached from Theth on foot.

After a few blissful days of hiking, interspersed with hearty meals of bean soup, tomatoes and fire-roasted bread at mountain lodges, we were ready to venture south. Back in Tirana again, we rented a car and drove to Berat, whose old town is a marvel of stone Ottoman-era houses perched one on top of another on a hillside whose summit is occupied by the remains of a Byzantine fortress. Berat also has the King’s Mosque, where men and women used to gather to listen to sacred music and socialise (although separately, in rooms divided by ornate wooden partitions).

This combination of Byzantine and Ottoman is characteristic of the south, which feels more Mediterranean than the mountainous north. It has some of the country’s best beaches, and is in sight of Corfu and Greece. The presence of the Greek minority (much diminished since the fall of communism, but still present) can be felt across the Albanian Riviera, especially in villages such as Qeparo, set amid olive groves at the end of a long bay.

But the south isn’t just a mix a foreign influences. It also has a strong local culture. The best place to experience it may be the city of Gjirokastër. The birthplace of Enver Hoxha and Ismail Kadare, Albania’s greatest writer and a perennial (and, in my opinion, long overdue) candidate for the Nobel prize in literature. As with Berat, it is a treasure house of traditional architecture – there are five-storey slate-roofed stone houses built more than 100 years ago by local landowners, each of which looks like a domestic castle.

But Gjirokastër features modern pleasures, too. I stumbled on one of these by accident. While exploring the area around the Bazaar Mosque in the centre of the old city, I came upon an underground space filled with little shops, bookstores and cafes. A young female stallholder invited me to explore another, hidden, passage coming off the main arcade. Admission was free but the entrance was unsettling: a long, dark concrete tube, dripping with moisture, extending deep into the hillside.

It turned out this was one of Enver Hoxha’s many bunkers, built in case of nuclear attack – only this one had been remade into a wondrous sound art installation, featuring a type of music I had never heard – or heard of – called saze, It is an ancient form, native to the high, rocky pasturelands of southern Albania. Its songs – many of which are laments for the departed – consist of stark, strong melodies sung polyphonically to the accompaniment of a violin, clarinet and lute. It reminded me of Byzantine chant mixed with the blues, and moved me instantly to tears. When I emerged into the light, I felt grateful once again to have had a chance to visit this country of knotty history, boundless hospitality and infinite surprises.

Source: The Guardian

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