Monday, June 04, 2007

Monuments To Paranoia

Like all small nations the Albanians are inordinately proud of their history and culture and trace their roots back to the ancient Illyrians who lived in the region and occupied themselves by waging wars against the Romans and Macedonians. Their national hero, however, is Skanderbeg who fought the advancing Ottoman empire for some 25 years halting their advance into Europe and thereby helping to save Vienna and Italy from the 'Terrible Turk'. Every town here has a Skanderbeg street and every history museum delights in showing maps of his campaigns with coloured arrows denoting troop movements. Despite him being the first to forge the first idea of Albanian nationhood very little remains from his rule except for a few ruined castles and the adoption of his crest of a double-headed eagle as the national flag. The legacy of the more recent Communist regime, on the other hand, is readily apparent. Most visible are the many public sculptures in the Socialist Realist style typical of Communist propaganda of the heroic worker/partisan/farmer. More intriguing, however, for the observant bus passenger are the countless one-man bunkers and pillboxes that dot the countryside. Hoxha was paranoid about being overthrown and so he set up a network of over 700,000 of these bunkers all across the country to defend against enemy attack. If one looks closely though most of them are not directed outwards in anticipation of an external attack, but rather inwards to stop an uprising from within (perhaps there is some justification in this as America and Britain did try to overthrow Hoxha in the early 50's but failed disastrously due to tip-offs from a British double-agent).

The northeast of the country is the most remote and scenic region and is known as the Albanian Alps (for obvious reasons) with several peaks exceeding 2500m. Although I didn't have time for any hiking I wasn't going to miss the most scenic ride in Albania (possibly the Balkans?), which, paradoxically, is also the most comfortable in the whole country (Albania's roads are not the best). From the northern town of Shkodra minivans leave early in the morning heading eastwards to the cul-de-sac village of Koman. A large dam towers over the village and once a day ferries leave from the other side of the dam along the 60km artificial lake. Although the lake is very long at its widest it barely exceeds 50m and in parts the gorge forms vertical walls hundreds of metres high on either side and it looks as if the boat is heading straight towards one until, at the last minute, a bend suddenly appears from amidst the outcropping rocks. But this is no pleasure cruise - the ferry is the only link to the outside world for the handful of people living in the surrounding mountains. Every now and again the ferry would pull up to a cliff face where someone would be standing as if stranded. As the boat would get closer a rocky path would be faintly discernible winding its way up the steep sides to some cottage that would be hidden at the top of a neighbouring mountain. And even for the communities on the other end who have road connections the ferry is still the first transport choice due to the poor conditions of the mountain roads. So not only do you get a beautiful ride, but you also see something of the local life along the way: people coming back from town laden with their weekly shopping, perhaps with a couple of piglets stuffed in a sack, and possibly some of the older men will be wearing the traditional, white, pleated kilts and leggings that used to be worn throughout the southern Balkans. Because the ferry goes only once a day I had to hitch my way back along the horrendous roads via the aptly-named town of Puke.

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