By Mark D. Vickers*
I had taken a few days away from Tirana to explore another part of Albania that I hadn’t as yet visited, and this tale comes from the part of the journey where I left Peshkopi and was heading for Fushë Lurë.
It is certainly a beautiful area of the country but I was traveling not as a tourist and as I only had a limited time it meant I couldn’t hang around anywhere for too long.
I should say from the outset that this was at a time when few foreigners were visiting some of the remoter places on my schedule, but I should also say that personally I never felt threatened or had any problems. Whether that was because, at that time, I was speaking quite reasonable Albanian, and I had learnt as much as I could about local customs (but more of that later), or just plain luck I cannot say for sure. Maybe a combination of factors, but also, as I have seen in just about every country where I have lived, foreigners do tend to like to exaggerate the dangers and talk up the negatives, perhaps in an attempt to make themselves seem more interesting! I am not suggesting that there weren’t/aren’t genuine risks and very real concerns and “challenges”, but I am sure that those become more dangerous if one treads in ignorance or with a misguided air of over-confidence which can so easily be misinterpreted as pomposity.
Nevertheless Albanian friends, please do not think that I am a foreigner blind to the many terrible things that have happened, and continue to happen, nor the very real struggles that many suffered. I am all too aware of those, but so many negative things are written and heard and my aim is therefore to tell of my many positive experiences in this beautiful and unique country. I have lived all over the world, and whilst I am cognizant of the negatives, somehow Albania touched my heart and continues so to do, and I therefore wish to share some of that passion with those who have only heard of the negatives.
My view was that I was a foreigner in someone else’s country, and it was therefore for me to make the effort, to go the extra mile to read, observe, learn as much as I could, not the other way around. Nevertheless the Albanian traditions of hospitality repeatedly surprised me and drew me into the talons of the welcoming eagle that protected and guided me on my journeys.
I became so fascinated and enamored with Albania that I growingly felt that at least a part of me must be Albanian! This feeling started from the first month I spent in my beloved Shkodra, when and where somehow I felt so much at home, and continued to increase the more I saw, and the more I learnt, about the real traditional values of the Albanian people. Such traditional values are so much richer than those modern misinterpretations which some use and which soil the original beauty into sordid criminality which would disgust the true heroes of Albania.
Anyhow, I digress. At that time accurate maps were hard to come by. I had one, but it lacked the detail I needed for my travels, and I tended therefore to use old Albanian army sheet maps which I had come by. I would have loved to have stopped to spend more time in Peshkopi. I groan at the “tick it off the list, been there, seen that” type of “busy tourism” which so many nowadays seem to employ, and which can only give one a most rudimentary over-view which is usually so inaccurate as to be worse than not visiting at all. And yet how many times do such transitory visitors who spend a few days in a place make grand statements which suggest that they are somehow “experts”! As I once said to a friend whose holidays are always of that nature – the General visiting a regiment only sees what the Commanding Officer wishes him to see, and all too often goes away believing that morale is high and everything in order, even on the eve of a mutiny! Anyhow, that was the case for me during this trip and I only managed a one-night stopover in Peshkopi.
187 kilometres (116 miles from the capital city, Tirana) and a mere 20 kilometres (12 miles) from the border with Macedonia, Peshkopi is the main city of the district (rreth) and county (qark) of Dibër. I had read a little bit about its ancient history, at least enough to know that its first inhabitants were in the pre-Christian era. As I sat in my simple hotel room that night I wished I could tell all those people who know so little about Albania that in fact it is the most ancient and fascinating culture in Europe.
I vaguely remembered reading snippets of Peshkopi’s history, and how it was clearly seen on 11th century maps. After the Ottoman expansion across Albania, Peshkopi had become almost completely Muslim by the late 16th century, despite the Christian history of the town which had been recorded in some detail right back to the early 11th century. The Turks built a large barracks in the town in 1873. In 1910 the town had been active in the uprising against the Turks, fighting for independence, and the town was liberated from the Ottoman grip on 16th August 1912. But, as happened elsewhere in Albania, although the Albanians had believed that they were fighting the Turks with the other Balkan States as allies, the Serbs were in fact looking to destroy the Albanian country and Albanian people, and in December 1912 they invaded Peshkopi themselves.
Albanian groups retook the city on 20th September 1913, only for the Bulgarians to invade in January 1916. The locals bravely resisted as best they could, despite all that they had already suffered during the fights against first the Turks and then the Serbs.
But this was still not the end. The Austro-Hungarians were allies of the Bulgarians and in April 1916 they deployed a force to punish the locals for resisting the Bulgarians. Houses were burned and numerous locals were executed for resisting the invaders. After the end of the First World War the Austro-Hungarians, being on the losing side, left the area in September 1918.
In 1939 the Italians invaded Albania, occupied Peshkopi by mid April, and remained in the area until they left the Axis in 1943 when Albanian Partisans then retook Peshkopi. Still Peshkopi was not at peace as Partisans fought with
Balli Kombëtar forces, and then in July 1944 German forces occupied the city, but were expelled later that same month. Fighting continued in the area for another few months until the area was dominated by the National Liberation Army (Ushtria Nacional çlirimtare) (communists), and then 45 years of extreme communism followed.
I wished I could spend more time in such a fascinating place, but to really even scratch the surface of how inhabitants now felt about their troubled history would take much more than another few nights, even if I could stretch my break away from Tirana. I believe that we ignore history at our peril, but nevertheless history is not a subject to be considered in the cozy armchair of an air-conditioned study without risking misleading and meaningless conclusions. History needs to be taken in a geographical context and with all possible time and cultural aspects considered. Of course the best historians do so, but still to really get a feeling of the relevance of history today there is nothing like spending an extended period of time in a place with its people.
But I had no such luxury, with limited time and more places to visit. I wished to visit Fushë Lure and had been given the name of the local doctor there who apparently would arrange somewhere for me to stay for a night. He was expecting me, and so after a simple but adequate breakfast it was time to look at my map and get moving again.
As I left Peshkopi I couldn’t help but think of all the fighting that had occurred across this area, against Turks, Serbs, Bulgarians, Austro-Hungarians, Italians and Germans, and then if that wasn’t enough Albanian fighting Albanian as the different factions fought for control of the area.
I had studied my map and found what looked like an interesting route. All was going well and I was thoroughly enjoying the beautiful countryside. After a while the narrow road reached a junction which wasn’t appearing on my old map. A group of youths were hanging around, doing what – I had no idea, there was nothing there but a couple of roads, well, tracks. My assistant was driving at the time and I told him to stop. He was much more nervous about the stories of “being careful in these remote places” and after a “are you sure boss?” he gingerly brought the vehicle to a halt. I called out to the teenagers and they came over with big grins. After a couple of polite greetings I asked “which way is Grykë Noke?”. They all pointed to the right and away we went towards the couple of houses a few hundred yards away, my assistant looking noticeably relieved. What he didn’t notice, but I did, were the boys laughing heartily as we pulled away. I didn’t add to his stress by telling him!
Past the first house, 90-degree turn right, yes, all correct according to my map, but yikes, hit the brakes! Right across the impacted earth road was a huge pile of rocks. It was impossible to pass. So that was why those teenagers were laughing! There wasn’t even room to turn the vehicle around unless we reversed into the land of the neighbouring house, and that I wanted to avoid unless invited. So we sat there for a minute or two whilst I looked at the map. Sure enough where those laughing teenagers were standing there was another track heading in the direction of Fushë Lurë across the mountain, but according to my old map it looked impassable to vehicles higher up. I got out of the car to look at the impossibly large pile of stones. It didn’t take me long to realize that there was no way we were going any further on this small road.
As I looked for how we could turn the vehicle around, the owner of the house next to the road appeared. I went over and introduced myself and explained where I was trying to go to and where we had come from. We chatted for a while and he enthusiastically told me that of course we could reverse into his land, but that before I left we must take some refreshments with them. So here we were, in Grykë Noke, not exactly sure which way we would be going to reach my destination, and yet invited most warmly in to a complete stranger’s house – yet again Albanian hospitality was melting my heart. Before I knew it we had three generations of his family all wanting to offer coffee, fruit, and how about some raki? I had brought some other types of fruit from Tirana and so told my Assistant to go and get some and we shared it out, having a delightful little break with them all. I discussed with the gentleman my predicament with regards routes and he explained that the track I had seen, where the youths were probably still laughing at how they had sent these foreigners to a dead-end, was much better than it appeared on my old map and that it would safely get me en route to Fushë Lurë. So after a few photos it was back in the car and away we went, back the way we came.
90 degree turn, and there is the track junction, and there were the boys, laughing as they saw us return! I told my Assistant to stop. He was even more reluctant than he had been the first time, but did so. I dropped the window and laughed and expressed my thanks to them, and then said in a half-serious tone of voice: “it was so nice to visit old friends in the village, but now we need to get to Fushë Lurë – it is this track I think, isn’t it?” Then I burst out laughing so they knew there were no hard feelings. Yes, they pointed up the hillside.
But before I knew what was happening they had opened the back door of the car and bundled in one of their friends. My Assistant was nearly apoplectic, but the youth was in and the door was closed. He was grinning broadly and looked harmless enough. The other boys said with peels of laughter “he will make sure you head in the right direction”. I turned to my Assistant – “the first rule when we get in the car – lock the doors”. Breaking every rule. Too late!
Away we went up the hill, which increasingly looked like a mountain. I chatted away to our passenger: what was his name; where did he live; were those his friends (silly question!); he did realize this was a one way journey and we weren’t returning to Grykë Noke, didn’t he; and so it went on. I was confident with my Albanian language then, but whatever I said, he just laughed. I tried using the Shkodran accent I had developed. Still nothing but laughter. What was wrong? I had just been chatting to that nice, welcoming family for an hour without problem, so why were all my attempts at friendly conversation met with nothing but laughter? Now even I was starting to worry!
As we reached nearly to the top of the mountain-pass our “guide”, who hadn’t said a word, suddenly slapped me on the shoulder and with his hands signaled that he wanted us to stop. My training kicked in and I quickly glanced around – seemed safe enough – no one else around – no ambush – nothing but fields and woods some distance from the car. Ok, stop. Out jumped the lad and came to the front window which I lowered with a smile, and he shook my hand warmly, still laughing. I wondered what on earth was so funny. Was my Albanian really that hilariously bad? He pointed to his chest, then across the fields to a distant stone house, and just before he turned to go he laughed loudly, gave a big shrug and pointed to his ears and mouth, shrugged again and skipped happily across the field. I burst out laughing and watched him all the way to his house, occasionally turning to wave. I waved back each time and felt that I was now part of the joke rather than simply the ignorant subject of it. This happy guy couldn’t hear or speak, but he could laugh, and he did so, almost continuously! And I am sure the lads who had found him a free ride up the hill from Grykë Noke were probably also still laughing! My Assistant was the only one not laughing. He just sighed a big sigh of relief and probably swore at me under his breath!
Thankfully the small mountain road continued to be much better than my old map had suggested and we made good progress, relishing the beautiful views.
All I had was the name of the local doctor, so as we approached the village of Lurë and I saw a young guy at the side of the road smiling I told my Assistant to pull over. I dropped the window and again in my best Albanian offered my greetings. I then politely asked if he knew where the doctor might be. The smiling man approached the car and as he got close to the window yanked up his shirt to reveal a huge scar crossing his stomach area. What is it with today I wondered – my Assistant looked concerned again! Was he proudly showing me the scar to illustrate what a great doctor they had in the village, or was it a warning of what might happen to me? I decided from the smile on the chap’s face that it was probably the former, at least I hoped so! I wasn’t quite sure how to react to this display of the doctor’s handiwork, so just said “oh, very good, and where can I find the doctor?” With more smiles and a friendly wave I gathered that the doctor’s house was right around the next bend. Sure enough, it was. The doctor told me that he had arranged a place for us to stay higher up in the woods, and gave me clear instructions how to get there. I thanked him warmly and as we pulled away to look for the track through the woods I hoped that we could see something of the Lurë National Park and its famous 14 beautiful lakes which had existed since the Ice-Age. We passed one which I deduced was the “Lake of Flowers” and we caught glimpses of one or two others.
The track we had been sent on wove its way uphill and through the forest, but it was slow going and full of small sharp stones. On we went, but it was impossible to miss the rocks and tyre eating jagged edges. Sure enough, just a few hundred metres from what was surely our destination a tyre burst. Earlier on in this particular trip we had already had one puncture and had been unable to get a repair or replacement tyre. We started the journey with two spares, but now this puncture meant we had nothing left in reserve. As I said earlier on, I had never had a problem, but nor was I so naïve to believe that some of the areas which I still intended to visit on this journey would have seen many foreigners. But we were stuck – we had no option but to use our second spare wheel and hope for the best – në duart e Zotit – in God’s hands.
The owner of the big house saw us and came out to see what we were doing. In no time we had the spare wheel fitted and pulled over to the solid looking stone building. The owner asked us to park right outside the window where, he said, he could keep an eye on the vehicle during the night. It seemed that the house was designed to be some sort of hostel as there were at least 5 or 6 bedrooms, maybe more. Initially he gave us one room with 2 beds, but I have a bit of a thing about sharing and avoid it whenever I can. It took me some time to persuade him to give us two rooms, and he repeatedly told me that we would have to pay for two rooms, and why would I want to do that when there were two beds in one room. Eventually he was reassured that I understood and was prepared to pay.
He told us what time we could eat, and suggested we did so outside. I explained to him that I didn’t eat meat or fish, but that anything at all, a bit of bread, some cheese if he had any, or potatoes, really anything but meat or fish, would be more than welcome.
We had a couple of hours before the appointed suppertime so decided we would explore the forest on foot. I didn’t want to risk using the car any more than we had to, at least until we were away from that dratted sharp stone road. The forest and hills were so calm and tranquil, no noise except the occasional bird and the bubbling streams and cascading waterfalls. We walked as far as we dared go before the light starting to fade and we made our way back. Somehow we missed the track and there were a few moments of anxiousness as we looked around and tried to figure out where the house was. Thankfully we spotted it – somehow we had returned on a track lower than the house and we were a good ½ mile from where we should have been. But it was worth every step just to walk amongst those towering trees, to see and feel the cold water cascading down the hillside, and to watch the light gradually disappearing. European beech, silver fir, black pine, and the now very rarely seen Bosnian pine (threatened with extinction), what a glorious place. I had read that the area was still home to brown bears, lynx, wolves, martens and roe deer, but regrettably we saw no sign of any of them. The negative point was that I was also aware that there had been considerable illegal logging and de-forestation which had greatly affected the area. Anyhow, as I said earlier on, whilst not blind to the negatives my aim is to talk more about the positives. I recalled the great Albanian poet Gjergj Fishta (1871-1940) famously saying “Kush nuk ka pare Lurën, nuk ka pare Shqipërinë” (“Who has not seen Lurë has not seen Albania”)
We reached the house just in time to sit outside at the big wooden table and for supper to arrive. What a feast. I have always taken the view that I am the troublesome one with my diet, and I never want to make a fuss although won’t waver from my diet, but even though I never met another vegetarian in my three years in Albania, the effort that always seemed to be made to provide me with a wonderful meal always amazed and frequently embarrassed me. I hope I was not too much trouble for anyone. We had byrek, bread, cheese, salad, tomato, yoghurt, fruit, coffee, and plenty of raki and beer if we wanted it.
Before I had even taken a bite a group of men suddenly arrived from the village, including the doctor who had so kindly arranged this excellent place for us to stay. It seemed that word had got out that there was this strange foreigner who seemed to speak Albanian, either that or the local men simply wished to give us a warm welcome. Perhaps both.
We chatted away and the food was scrumptious, and the raki flowed freely! I remember my Assistant wasn’t much into the raki, but maybe that was a good thing as I intended on leaving at first light, and he could drive again. Once more Albanian hospitality was the most fabulous experience. Here we were, two foreigners, in the middle of a remote forest, and we were being treated so amazingly well. I was happy, perhaps with a slight “raki buzz”, when out of the corner of my eye I saw a lady slip out from the house. She was dressed in black, face covered. I called out “oh lady, thank you so much for the lovely meal. It is delicious.”
The whole table fell quiet and I instantly realized I had made a grave error in calling out to her. The men looked at each other, then to the house owner, then to me, then to each other. It felt like an eternity before the eldest of them exclaimed, “it is alright, he is a foreigner, he doesn’t know our traditions”. He then turned to me and instructed, “You shouldn’t speak to the lady of the house. If you want to comment about the meal you tell the master of the house, and if he wants to tell his wife what you said that is up to him.” Oh my word, what a mistake. I prided myself on studying the traditions and trying my very best to respect them, and here I was behaving no better than any other tourist. I apologized profusely and was reassured that no harm was done, but I had learnt my lesson and never would be so careless again.
So that is the tale of that leg of this particular trip away from Tirana. The next day was time to head north to Kukës for another overnight stop before heading west to my beloved Shkodra, and then south to Tirana.
7th May 2018
*Lieutenant Colonel Mark D Vickers was the British Defence Attache to Albania, 2005-8, and has retained many links with the Albanian people ever since. He feels a special connection with Shkodra. He has written several articles about the country and its people and painted numerous paintings of Albania which provides him with a catalyst to tell people in other parts of the world about the country which captured his heart.