Waking up in our van high in the mountains of the Mak region in Albania as the sun casts its rays from above the far eastern ridge is undoubtedly special. In the cornfields the labourers are using their hoes to hack at the weeds between the rows of six-feet tall plants, calling out and chatting to one another. A man from the nearby village leads a donkey in a harness followed by two consumptive-looking pale-brown cows as they head for the pasture at the top of the lane. Our dog raises himself onto his haunches and yawns lazily before shifting a couple of yards into further shade as it ebbs away across the courtyard. The church stands stone-fresh and gaunt as an Italian nun enters its wooden doors before attending morning prayers.
And yet all this bucolic bliss comes at a price – not for us, but the Albanian people living here.
Owing to Anne’s fluency in the Italian language we have learned how the Roman Catholic church set up a project here in 2002 in order to help the local children overcome some of the social problems that have beset the community since the death of Hoxha and the collapse of the totalitarian system he put in place as Albania was proclaimed the world’s first atheistic state. Most of the priests were shot dead or imprisoned. People were forbidden to pray to God. Wives hid their religious faith from their husbands for fear of reprisal.
Along with these repressions, and more particularly following the end of communism, the mountain people of northern Albania still retain their custom of ‘Kanun’ – similar to the old Italian code of vendetta – whereby murders committed by male members of a family lead to ‘blood feuds’ that may end in the killings of all the men in the family. The code extends to relations between men and women and the nuns told of how they have been required to hide local people so as to protect them from some form of ghastly revenge.
Gent, the young man from the village who has been involved in the various projects, confirmed all this and added some personal details of his own; for example, explaining how his entire family acquired a ‘negative’ name when an uncle fell foul of the communist regime, were thenceforth unable to access any state privileges, and his father spent a lifetime working in the local chrome mine (for which he now receives a state pension of €150 a month).
(Not even King Zog, Hoxha’s predecessor, was exempted from the Kanun and required police protection when he jilted the daughter of a respectable family after promising to marry her. In his novel ‘Broken April’, Ismail Kadare relates graphically how the centuries old codified rule system operates in practice – as I have tried to show in my work ‘Question’ what can happen in terms of revenge killing when the law fails to protect the population from economic exploitation.)
So, yes, the surrounding mountains are beautiful to look at – but their appeal has been costly in human terms.
Well, after watching the England football team lose to Croatia in the semi-final of the World Cup it was time to head back out along the mountain road up to Burrel and follow the river Mak out towards the Adriatic coast road. The roads in Albania are the worst I have ever come upon; the potholes aren’t so bad because they are at least usually visible in advance; no, the worst danger is subsidence, which you can’t actually see until you are pretty much on top of it. So far, the old car has coped admirably – so much so that there is a danger we will anthropomorphise it and add it as a family member (subject to vendetta and all!).
We were only able to locate an apparently abandoned campsite at our intended next destination of Krujё, where the tourists are now being lured and parking spaces openly touted, so continued on the coastal road southwards to the port town of Durres, where we thought we might take a hotel room for the night, but following a second glance at the developments fronting the sea decided to press on for a further couple of hours through the burning heat of the afternoon instead.
Travelling through Albania, we really are made aware of being in a foreign country. Anne is pretty handy with European languages, we can both read Cyrillic and understand Slavic languages to some degree, but Albanian offers us no clues whatsoever and even the signs and hoardings are almost indecipherable. Somehow we manage, and the kindly patience of the people we meet mitigates any real confusion. Add to this the really intense heat and rolling, dusty countryside in the lower reaches, and I would hardly guess that we were anywhere in Europe at all.
So, ‘travelling’, what is its appeal? Self-discovery, might best sum up the passion it instills. As a tourist, you are directed to particular pre-arranged destinations over which you have little or no say: you remain the passive partner. Not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with that; on the contrary, such an arrangement is often the perfect antidote to the daily demands of life. But as a traveller you choose where you are to go and when, what you are to see, and with whom you are to communicate: you become the active partner. As a result, you expose yourself to various dangers, disasters and misunderstandings, it is true, but the pay-off is that you become responsible for the enterprise and make any discoveries personally.
We located the campsite close to Berat which we intended to use at some stage of the journey and after a meal prepared for us by the site-owners settled down for the night behind the mosquito net we just installed. I was still driving in my sleep and barely succumbed to full unconsciousness (not as bad as after driving along the hairpin roads of Montenegro where for nights afterwards it felt like I was laying in a boat out on the ocean…).
This morning we awoke to hot early sunshine – and a group of youngsters from Flemish-speaking Belgium who had appeared overnight and were sleeping off their journey in pod-like single tents.
I have had to wait until the campsite emptied during mid-morning before embarking on this – seventh – Balkans weblog.
In the perfect mountain silence and seclusion of the Suc church compound, it felt like you were waiting for God to speak (…now that Hoxha and his henchmen were out the way). As though some personal revelation were forthcoming. I don’t know if atheists ever experience this or any similar feeling. As for the peace it instilled – that is, the feeling of peace – it is surely not a human condition, not one that humans can realise by themselves. Peace is a holy, cosmic disposition only available through spiritual means. Peace must be actively sought, and only then can it be found.
Posted in the shade, near Berat