On our last night at Buona Vila, we shared whisky, raki, and stories. Like so many countries we’d been warned not to visit, Albania was already revealing itself as a jewel. Lido, Spartak, and Ayesha had welcomed us like family at their wonderful beachside retreat, and we were reluctant to leave, but such is the nature of a nomad lifestyle. It’s heavy on fleeting friendships, and fond farewells, followed by the relentless quest for something which might be even better.
Perhaps it’s the transience that makes such brief encounters with people and places shimmer so brightly in your memories. Like how a sudden flare of magnesium sears its image on your retina, and remains long after it has burnt itself out, even when your eyes are drawn elsewhere. These kind people had informed our first impressions of Albania.
En route to the historic city of Berat, we stopped at the medieval Bashtovë Fortress. It was a slightly hair-raising squeeze to get our truck, The Beast, in, because the edge of its already narrow access road had collapsed. Once again, I was on the OSS (Oh Sh** Side), so at one point, I got a splendid view of one of our rear wheels while it was completely airborne.
The Venetians built the rectangular fortress at Bashtovë, which is at least five centuries old. It’s first mention is on a naval map dating to 1521, in Piri Reis’ book of navigation, although archaeology suggests they built it on top of an earlier, 6th century Byzantine structure.
Bashtovë is the only Balkan fortress built in a field. It lies on the Schkumbin river, a few kilometres short of where it flows into the Adriatic, close to where we stayed on the beach at Buona Vila. The Via Egnatia, the famous Roman road that connected Constantinople with the Adriatic at Dyrrachium (Durrës in today’s Albania), follows the Schkumbin for much of its course. The fertile plain was an important source of grain, which was exported from the nearby port. Bashtovë protected this critical route for troops and trade.
Even today, the grey stone fortress is impressive. It encloses an area 60 by 90 metres (200 by 300 ft) and is so well-preserved, it’s on Albania’s UNESCO ‘tentative’ list. An arcaded fighting platform runs around the inside of the walls, which are 9 m high and over a metre thick. Originally, there were seven towers, each 12 m high, although only three remain. We could clearly see the firing ports – three rows in the walls and five in the towers. These days, Bashtovë is a festival and events venue, although we had it all to ourselves.
Statistics confronted us later, when we arrived in Berat. The city’s record high temperature in May is 38°C (100°F), while the average is usually 25°C (77°F). The day we arrived, it was 36°C.
Away from the breeze at the coast, the simmering temperatures were almost unbearable, and the forecast predicted it would get hotter. We hid inside the truck with both our 12 volt fans running on maximum. The sound of our four pups panting reminded me of a chugging steam engine. By early afternoon, the rising temperature of the air circulating made the interior of The Beast feel like a fan oven. We fled to the campsite’s garden area and languished in the shade of fruit trees, which shed such a glut of apricots, the owner simply left them for guests, birds and insects to help themselves. Mark and I stuffed ourselves – they were the sweetest and most delicious apricots we’d ever tasted and during our stay, we collected a handful every morning for breakfast.
At least our confinement by the hot weather yielded a chance to catch up with some jobs. By now, the overheat alarm on the inverter was constantly going off. While I did the laundry, Mark relocated the invertor from its cupboard under the drainer to the open top of the battery locker to help keep it cool. (The invertor converts 12 volt solar power into mains voltage.) He got up to some other rearrangement roguery too, but more of that later.
In the golden light and velvety coolness of the evening, we walked into Berat along the banks of the Osum river. A convivial clamour greeted us as we approached the modern town centre and strolled down the wide expanse of creamy travertine that formed the pedestrianised Bulevardi Republika. Behind loomed the immense hilltop castle, while the dark windows of the medieval city stared down from the white Ottoman houses that cascaded down the steep hillsides on either side of the river.
In the Bulevardi, people spilled from pavement restaurants, or sat on low marble walls bordering a tree-lined strip of green that separated it from the road that followed the river The scent of candy floss or barbequed corn from street vendors’ carts permeated the air. The xhiro was in full swing. Like the Italian passegiata, once the evening tempers the feverish intensity of the day, Albanians come out wearing their finest, and parade up and down the main street of their hometown. We kept spotting the same families, along with groups of giggling girls in short skirts, or young men in skin-tight t-shirts wafting past in clouds of aftershave. Mark and I couldn’t take our eyes off a slim and elegant lady, whose flowing black locks set off her orange chiffon catsuit perfectly.
It was Friday night. Young, old, and everyone in between were all out, enjoying each other’s company. The city oozed a wonderful vibe of bonhomie.
This was our first night out in an Albanian city, and I can’t deny I had given in to some trepidation. I commented to Mark,
“I feel safer here than I would in Guildford!”
At the time of writing, Guildford, Surrey’s quaint and cobbled county town, set in the heart of the UK’s swanky stockbroker belt, had the worst crime rate of all Surrey’s major towns – and that included the den of iniquity that is Croydon!
Since Italy had repeatedly denied us pizza, we opted to grab one in Albania. We chose the Piazza Bara where Mark chose marinara and I had Vesuvio, a delicious mixture of tomatoes and ‘raw bacon’ (prosciutto crudo). The pizzas were excellent, although that is perhaps unsurprising. Italy and Albania are near neighbours, and have had a long, if sometimes uneasy, connection over the centuries.
In southern Italy, Albanian immigrants built Matera’s famous Sassi cave dwellings, while nearly 20,000 people (1.5% of Albania’s population) are ethnic Italians.
As early as 1043, Byzantine historian Michael Attaliates mentions a revolt by the ‘Albenoi’ against Constantinople. ‘Albenoi’ referred either to an Italian tribe, or Sicilian Normans. During the Fourth Crusade, in 1204, Venice won control over most of Albania. Venetian influence is very evident, as we’d seen at Bashtovë fortress.
Fifty years later, the Angevin Kingdom of Sicily seized the Albanian coast and Epirus, a mountainous region of southern Albania. (Alexander the Great’s ‘terrible mother’, Olympias, was a princess of Epirus. Plutarch alleged she slept with snakes in her bed!)
Italy kept its beady eye on Albanian territory through the centuries, and following WWI, The Paris Peace Conference divided Albania between Italy, Greece, and Yugoslavia.
During WWII, with Germany’s blessing, Italy invaded Albania and used it as a base to attack Greece. King Vittorio Emanuele III of Italy was crowned king of Albania, although his reign lasted only until Italy signed an armistice with the Allies in 1943, at which point the Germans invaded Albania. In 1944, Britain supplied weapons to Albania’s National Liberation Movement, which regained jurisdiction over southern Albania. In 1944, the National Liberation Movement appointed Enver Hoxha as its supreme commander – and he kept everyone out until 1985!
Italian is Albania’s most widely spoken foreign language. Lido’s dad, Spartak, did not speak English, but I could converse with him in Italian.
There are historical reasons for this. In the 1930s, the wonderfully named Albanian King, Zog, decreed schools should teach Italian. Yet, education and Albania’s time as an Italian protectorate is not the reason behind the language’s prevalence. It’s actually because Italian telly was better!
During Hoxha’s communist regime, despite government attempts to block foreign channels to make way for its own propaganda, many Albanians got very skilled at rewiring their goggle boxes to receive Italian TV!
On our way back, we spotted Axel and Mina, the Dutch couple we’d met at Buona Vila, sitting in a restaurant with Axel’s parents. We asked about the riots in Durrës.
“We survived the football hooligan flight!” they grinned.
A little further on, a chap stopped us to pet The Fab Four. In English, he introduced himself as Patrice. We had read that Albanians are very proud of their country. Patrice demonstrated this with aplomb.
Almost as soon as we’d introduced ourselves, he pulled out his phone and ran through a presentation he had prepared. Its purpose was to prove that Albania was the seat of world civilisation.
First, he showed us a roundup of traditional Albanian headgear, then a selection of statues in Greece, Turkey, and one in the Vatican.
“See!” he said. “All wearing Albanian headwear!”
With a shrug and a sheepish grin, he admitted his absolute commitment to his project.
“I was fined a thousand euros for taking that photo in the Vatican!”
Using the same headgear and hairstyle logic, he set out to prove that Athena and Medusa were both Albanian. With Athena, he had an additional coup de grâce.
“Athena is the Albanian word for the early morning, when it is a good time for a man and a woman to, you know. Make love,” he whispered the last two words. “Ask the Greeks. Ask the Italians – what mean this, ‘Athena’? They don’t have that word in their language.”
Our walk back was slow, since Patrice paused literally every two steps to rail upon another point of Albanian supremacy, before backing it up with his slideshow. He covered religion, government, how the British shafted the Albanians (the 1912 Treaty of London ceded half of Albania’s territory to Serbia and Greece), but then recovered the situation by helping them (arming the National Liberation Movement). When we reached our junction, hoping to get home before the dawn of the next decade, Patrice visibly weighed his options, then declared,
“I can go home this way!”
Fortunately, he had made most of his points, so we walked more quickly. I was still not wholly comfortable about being followed home by a stranger, but he seemed harmless and we didn’t want to be rude. Thankfully, he avoided an awkward moment when inexplicably, just before the campsite, he stopped suddenly and bade us farewell. He strode off purposefully, leaving us with the words,
“I need to get home.”
We felt the same way, and I hoped he hadn’t heard my whispered entreaty to Mark, “Don’t offer him a drink!”
I didn’t want a repeat of the fiasco in Matera when, just at the point when my lengthy cajoling had persuaded a drunk Romanian shepherd to pocket his phone full of family Facebook videos and leave us in peace, Mark interjected with,
“Would you like a whisky?”
Mentally, I slapped my forehead. It took another hour, plus half a bottle of Scotch, to get him out. I couldn’t help wondering whether his late night flamenco dancing, finger clicking, and resounding “Eeee HA!”s were what persuaded the van next door to move.
Our encounter with Patrice was interesting and entertaining, but very tiring. It was not a conversation. It was a lecture.
A couple from the campsite had overtaken us on our slow trek home. They were long gone by the time we arrived, which was unfortunate, because the huge metal gates were closed and we couldn’t get in. We shook them and called out to the few campers who were still outdoors, enjoying the evening warmth. Obviously, they knew better than to engage with a pair of idiots with four dogs rattling at the railings and begging to come inside when it was already ten of the Albanian clock.
A swooping sense of dread gnawed at me. Your fortunes can change so swiftly and after a lovely evening, all of a sudden, we found ourselves in the pitch dark on the outskirts of an unfamiliar Albanian city, locked out of our campsite. We could see The Beast behind high security fences, which brought to mind two things. Besides meaning there was no chance of climbing in, why were they there?
It reminded me of when I locked myself out of my backpacker hostel in the middle of the night, wearing only a t-shirt and pants. A situation that would have been bad enough anywhere, but this was in Coober Pedy, Australia, a lawless opal mining town where residents drank themselves into early graves and settled their disputes with dynamite. I couldn’t stop the warning from my guidebook that ‘lone women should be particularly careful’ ringing around my head.
Coober Pedy is way hotter than Albania, so most citizens live underground in disused opal mines. To get the full authentic experience, I had booked myself into an underground backpackers’ hostel, however the loos were on the surface. The cave door had swung shut behind me and automatically locked and in my state of undress, I didn’t have the key on my person.
Opal mines are not known for an abundance of windows through which a half-naked backpacker could climb, and deep underground, no one can hear you scream – or even hammer on the door. Half dressed in Australia’s answer to Sodom and Gamorrah, I was forced to loiter as inconspicuously as possible in the gloom until another backpacker needed to use the facilities.
Fortunately, in Albania, a campsite official heard us rattling like the ghost of Jacob Marley and came out to let us in.
“You didn’t warn us that you shut the gates a certain time – and you didn’t give us a key!” I said indignantly.
“The gates aren’t locked” he said. “We just slide them shut at night.”
When we went to bed, we left all the windows open. It was still 27°C (80°F) and 60% humidity. During our winter in Lancashire, we had such terrible condensation problems inside The Beast, we bought a temperature and humidity meter to monitor our moisture levels – a certain path to obsession with relative humidity!
The heat made it uncomfortable and at 2 a.m., the cockerel started, joining a dog who serenaded us at regular intervals throughout the night. The fans blew my hair around, making it tickle my face, and at one point, an insect, probably a member of the earwig colony who had adopted us, ran across my neck. It wasn’t the most restful sleep!
Bleary eyed the following morning, I experienced Mark’s most extreme instance of gaslighting to date.
I have mentioned before that Mark continually reorganises cupboards and drawers, particularly when he’s at a loose end. I never get used to opening my underwear drawer to be confronted by tins of tomatoes, or reaching for the canister of dog treat to find it filled with Basmati rice or a selection of aromatherapy oils and fragrant soaps. Given our grounding by the heat the previous day, he had truly excelled himself. When I went to turn on the hot water, the switch had disappeared.
I questioned my sanity out loud.
As if it were the most normal thing in the world, he piped up,
“Oh. I moved it into the bottom cupboard because it’s a shorter wiring run.”
Check out my comprehensive guide to Travelling With Dogs to Albania – What You Need To Know.
Most photos are my own, but I borrowed these for illustration purposes:
- Athena – Louvre Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
- Medusa – Livioandronico2013, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
- Albanian Hairstyles from Apollonia – Following Hadrian, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons