Monday, February 26, 2018

Country #107: Albania

Have you ever been just minutes into something and already known that you were going to love it? I have. It happened last week when my friends and I arranged a tour with MH Travel to take us from Podgorica, Montenegro into Albania.

Our guide, Dean, who had designed and developed this tour himself was explaining why he felt the need to do so. It was obvious he had a passion for this off-the-radar destination and wanted to share his discoveries but what drew me in was his reasoning: "It's the most punk rock country there is. Everyone does whatever they want but it just works." I like countries. I like punk rock. And a dash of anarchy makes everything a little better. I was intrigued.

The border crossing, which is the subject of the majority of complaints on the few blogs covering travel in Albania, was completely painless. We were through both border checks in less than 10 minutes. Apparently this is not the case during the summer, when waits can be hours long.
As we drove past the checkpoint, Dean addressed the two things people expect to see in Albania: the mafia and lots of bunkers. Well, really he addressed one thing. He was a bit vague about the mafia stuff but he did explain how communist dictator Enver Hoxha had blanketed the countryside with cement bunkers. Over 750,000 of them, to be precise. He wanted the people to feel that war was imminent, which considering he cut ties with first Yugoslavia and then Russia- for not being communist enough- was probably not too much a stretch. Although that war never came, a grossly disproportionate part of the national budget went towards building all these mini fortifications.

Fast forward to 1990, when communism fell, and Operation Build-a-bunker was finally abandoned.  This still left them with roughly 749,999 bunkers too many. A lot have been destroyed but it is a costly process and many still remain. Some are being recycled as storage facilities, hostels, cafes and exactly one tattoo studio.

As we were coming up on the studio, Dean told us about its proprietor, Keq Marku Djetroshan, a man who has been featured on Vice.  After doing time in a couple of Yugoslavian prisons for unknown reasons, he left for the US. I'm not sure how long he was there before he found himself back behind bars, this time in NY. While on the inside, he taught himself how to convert a walkman into a tattoo gun and a new career was born. He returned to his native Albania and set up shop in an abandoned bunker, which if you think about it, is pretty fricking punk rock.

As we were checking out the shop, he showed up to welcome us. During the usual small talk, I mentioned that I was Cuban. 

Keq: Oh really? When I was in the US, I met a lot of Cubans. Good people. Very hard workers.

Me (on the outside): Oh wow, that's great to hear.

Me (on the inside): (Please don't say in Prison. Please don't say in Prison.)

Keq: I met them in Prison.

Time to go. We continued past the scenic Prokletije mountains on our way to Shkoder, one of Albania's oldest cities.

Here, we were given some time to check out the main shopping street, which was hopping, possibly because it was Valentine's Day. Or perhaps it is just always busy. Dean let us in on some advice he had received from an Albanian friend about driving in a place where there appear to be no rules whatsoever: "Always wear dark glasses so that they don't see your fear."

I checked out a couple of souvenir stores and wondered why Mother Theresa magnets were such a popular item. It turns out that although she was born in Macedonia, her family was originally Albanian. I thought better than to ask about the other favored knick knack: Godfather shot glasses.

Sitting above the city of Shkoder, on a very prime piece of real estate is Rozafa Castle. 

It is believed that the castle was originally built by the Ilyrians and then captured by the Roman in 167 BCE. Later came the Venetians and the Ottomans, who put their spin on things. Today, judging by the number of condom wrappers we found in one of the underground tunnels, it serves the role of love motel for Shkoder's youth.

The castle is named after the legend of poor Rozafa. The story tells of three brothers who would work all day building this castle only to have it all come crumbling down as soon as night came. Frustrated and surely falling way behind deadline, they asked a wise old man what to do.  What he should have said: "You are not using any cement or mortar, just stacking the rocks like a damn game of Tetris. Of course, this shit keeps falling." (Note: this is absolutely true. There is nothing holding the pieces together. Also, yes, I know Tetris had not been invented yet but whatevs...)

What the "wise" old man did say: You just need a little human sacrifice is all. Don't say anything to your wives but whichever one shows up with your lunch tomorrow, bury her into the foundation and all your problems will be solved.  If ever there was a time to seek a second opinion, this was it but this was a construction crew with no cement so good judgment was not really their thing. The oldest and middle brothers went home and spilled the beans, telling their wives to steer clear of the work site. The young one, said nothing, until his wife, Rozafa came skipping along with the lunches she had probably spent all morning preparing for these idiots.  When told of her fate, she had one request, which should have been "Fuck you. Fuck the horses you rode in on. And give me back those lunches." but instead, she asked to be buried with one breast exposed so that she could continue to feed her newborn baby. Legend has it that milk continued to flow from the walls of the castle.

I didn't see any milk but the view of the entire city and the Buna and Drini rivers was pretty spectacular.


After having the castle pretty much to ourselves for an hour, we continued in the direction of the capital, Tirana. We were heading to historic city of Kruja. Well hidden up in the mountains, it has all the makings of a perfect little tourist town.

There is a picturesque 450 year old artisans' market selling every kind of antique and handicraft you can imagine.

There is a fantastic restaurant, set among the ruins, serving local wines and cuisines.

And finally, there is a 5th century castle turned into a museum honoring the Albanian hero, Skanderbeg. As a youth, Kastrioti was sent as a hostage to the Ottoman empire, where they trained and educated him. He served the Sultan for 20 years, advancing through the ranks before deserting the Empire and returning to Albania (and to this castle). It was from here that he led a small scrappy band of fighters in defending against repeated Ottoman sieges. This at a time when the Ottomans were leveling everyone in their path. They were so impressed by Kastrioti's skills that they compared him to Alexander the Great (or Lord Alexander/ aka Skanderbeg).

Think about it, one dude with maybe 3000 fighters, holding off one of most powerful militaries in the world, not once, not twice but three times. And doing it while wearing a skirt and a goat helmet! If that's not punk rock af, I don't know what is.

Night time had fallen and it was time to return to Montenegro. It had been an altogether too brief visit into country #107 but every moment along the way confirmed my initial impression. This little punk rock country is an easy place to fall in love with.

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