Days 73-88: Return to Albania (Shqipëri)

“People with Love” – Bari to Durres, ferry – Wednesday 10 June

Based on previous experience with Adriatic ferry terminals, we ensured an early arrival at the large port area. Word-of-mouth seems to be the way of finding out where and from whom to buy tickets, where the customs scrutiny might be, and which of the ferries lined up may be the correct one for your intended destination. With 5 hours to spare, it took nearly all of it to do the required tasks…and then we still nearly got on the ship to Montenegro! After all that, the 10pm scheduled departure stretched to midnight. Not to worry, we had a glass of wine with some dinner [at the surprisingly cheap cafeteria], and got ‘upgraded’ to a 4 berth cabin with shower and toilet…and a window. [Bad luck we weren’t going for 7 days, because the sea was calm too.] The delay in leaving, and a further delay docking meant Enea, our Albanian ‘son’ [see 2012 ‘Cycling Across Borders’ travel blog]who was waiting for us on shore from 7am, was a bit frantic by the time we finally got through customs at 10am. You can image the delight in our greetings, though he was still perturbed the ride he had organised for us to get into Tirana had fallen through.

So it was a bus and taxi that reunited us with the juxtaposed mish-mash of scenes that is Albania – of Mercedes and donkeys, of flash coffee shops and piles of rubbish. Dropped at the suburban student digs of Enea and his sister Blerina, they were full of apologies for the small apartment [bedroom, lounge, kitchen, bathroom]; we reassured them it was better than any accommodation Elly and I had experienced as students – and just fine “for people with love” as father Lushi had deemed us. Blerina had prepared a lunch of delicious roast potatos and chicken which we demolished, not having eaten all morning; then it was a walk to the supermarket to get supplies. Through the evening we caught up with what the busy kids were doing: Enea trying to get all sorts of projects finished for his second year of architecture studies, and Blerina doing volunteer work with the Albanian Human Rights Organisation and completing her masters comparing the decisions of international courts on the legitimacy of applications for self-determination of Kosovo and Crimea. Wow!

“We will fix the Roads” – Tirana – Thursday 11 June

With the children busy for the day, Jordy, Elly and I prepared to walk the 2km into downtown , but as just as we were about to leave one of Blerina’s friends came to take us to the local phone-shop so we could be ‘in communicado’ with the Serjani family. For the amazingly low price of $6AUD Jordy got a sim card and a plan! At a tourist agency In the main square we found a map of the city and commenced our official sightseeing at the National Museum. Unexpectedly, but not really after Lushi heard of our whereabouts, we were met by his ‘friend’, one of the curators, to help explain things! Displays started with the Neolithic of 3000BC to the Albanian hero of the 1400’s Skederberg, through to Independence in 1912, King Zog pre WW2, then the overthrow of communist dictator Enver Hoxha in the early 1990’s. Blerina was anxious to meet us after lunch, and be convinced we were ok, under instructions from Lushi! Continued our walk to Mother Theresa Square, the well-used city green park with lake, then back home; a political rally and Lushi awaited.

In a few days time, on Sunday 21 June, elections will be held across the country for mayoral positions in each municipality. Apart from the usual intense interest in politics in Albania, this election has attracted further attention because the municipalities have been rationalised [a la Jeff Kennett] in a process in which Lushi has been involved. The local rally for the socialist candidate for Tirana Mayor was a music blaring, celebrity endorsing, flag-waving festa. Lushi arrived with strong hugs for all, and we were introduced to his brother and son Flori who was co-organiser of the rally and media advisor to the same-party Prime Minister! Blerina translated key points of the candidates speech, and true-to-type, he promised to fix the roads in Tirana…specifically replacing the street grates and utility covers that had been stolen for scrap metal. Well, good luck with all of that.

“Is problem for me Michael!” – Tirana – Friday 12 June

Similar to the previous day, Blerina had work, and Enea was catching bits of sleep after working studiously with mates through the night. But Lushi had some surprises – following a work meeting he met us at the Archaeological Museum, where more ‘friends’ guided us through the exhibits and the revamped basement archive, out of-bounds to the public. The archive, of boxed and shelved antiquities like pottery and sculptures, was renewed courtesy of a grant from the USA, but lack of funds meant progress with cataloguing and research had stalled indefinitely. We felt very privileged, especially when one historian presented us with a recently published [in English] hardback book of ‘Recent Significant Archaeological Finds in Albania’. We immediately asked him, and all the ‘friends’ to sign it. Albanians are very grateful for interest in their country and generously show it.

We wandered off, but before long Lushi was on the phone, and minutes later we were picked up by his ‘friend’, the artist Leon Cika, who also has worked as a photographer for Reuters newsagency for 20 years. His home/gallery in the foothills around Tirana was jammed with his oil paintings, mainly of scenes in the historic shades-of-grey, stone-building regional towns of Berati and Gjirokaster. Beautiful – but typically Elly and I couldn’t agree on one to buy! So Leon was left with all his works, not unhappily, as he was stockpiling for an upcoming exhibition. In the fresh evening air, we drank beers and analysed the world according to Leon…“The government is crazy, people are crazy, everything is crazy.” Again we felt overwhelmed when he presented us with a published book of his evocative photographs of Berati.

The final surprise of the day was having to drive! Lushi had organised a car for us to use over the weekend, so in a mafia-style, night-time drop-off, the car was dropped outside a coffee-shop. A brief exchange about the ‘goods’ and we were left with a VW Toureg…alas for Lushi, an automatic. “Is problem for me Michael, non have experience automatic. Is problem for you?” No, but driving in Tirana is! Still I only had a couple of blocks to negotiate and traffic was light – phew.

Eat, Swim, Pray – north of Tirana – Saturday 13 June

The Serjani family was reunited when Violetta arrived from Gjirokaster by the early morning bus, bringing hugs and our homemade breakfast of chocolate brioche with sweet pastry roses. Forecast for a hot day, we prepared for a day at the beach. With my reluctance to drive [!], nephew Flori drove the borrowed car, both he and wife Eva looking forward to a day’s break from busy lives of political campaigning and supermarket management respectively. Naturally the Albanian trip could not be completed without a stop for coffee [espresso or macchiato, take your pick], and catching up with family en route [Violetta’s sister, her son and his wife and baby, and daughter who joined us at the beach].

Adriatic beaches are either pebbly or sandy – this one a wide stretch of sand with the usual grids of deck chairs and umbrellas. Great for soccer, throwing the tennis ball, and volleyball except that the grey sand was red hot! But still a beautiful swim and relaxing time with the extended family; continued at a beachside fish restaurant where our lunch was all paid for by a friend Mikel who turned up out-of-the-blue! The only hiccup to proceedings was getting slightly bogged in the sand – typically the solution was swiftly [ill] considered and executed – call on ten young lads nearby and have them lift and push to extract us. They did that, but managed to re-align some of the front panels such that the driver’s side door wouldn’t open cleanly. No worries, Mikel borrowed a massive meat cleaver from the restaurant, and in a manoeuver that had Elly and I cringing, used it as a lever between the catching panels to create some space…only a couple of creases and paint chips on the borrowed machine! All this time, Lushi was on the phone trying to arrange tickets and a ride for Jordy and Enea to attend a soccer match between Albania and France about 100km away. All was falling into place but a driver couldn’t be located; reluctantly Lushi abandoned the plan, the ticketseller down-the-line none too happy he was left with the expensive, black market tickets on the eve of kick-off!

Next highlight was the nearby Church of St Anthony of Padua, in the foothills above the village of Milot. It is a massive Catholic, pilgrimage site in the days leading up to the finale on the saint’s feast day of 13 June. Close to chaos and an absolute mess! Flori got through roadblocks by mentioning who he was, saving us a 4km walk uphill, then tried for one too many and incurred the wrath of a policemen who didn’t care for a ‘friend in a high place’ and cursed at him! Prompting Flori in a pique to promise to ring his superior and get him sacked!! I hope all was forgiven when we joined the thousands of other pilgrims burning candles, storming the chapel, touching different statues and bits of rock where the saint had sat, rested his head, and gazed at the rock?? I checked later on Wikipedia for verification of his time in Albania…none, but can you have faith in wikipedia?

The Big Albanian Wedding – Milot – Sunday 14 June

Whilst the Serjani family were attending [with us as tag-alongs] the midday wedding breakfast of the son of a family friend, it still didn’t stop Lushi arranging a morning coffee meeting with couple of journalist mates. It was a red letter occasion, as one of friends was introduced as a hero who had ‘been there’ pulling on the rope that toppled the massive statue in Tirana of communist dictator Hoxha twenty-five years ago. Imagine that! He was very humble of his protest feats, made moreso by his ‘mates’ who quickly re-labelled him from ‘Hero’ to ‘Fallen Hero’ when he rose to leave before they had finished their coffees! Albanians certainly have a sense of humour.

Naturally we arrived late at the wedding lunch [Lushi at the wheel, now feeling confident about the automatic] and felt conspicuous as we entered the packed 250 seat venue and sat at the ‘friends of the groom’s father’ table. There was more meat than a carnivore could eat, more beer and wine than an alcoholic could consume, and more dancing [table by table] than an extrovert could handle. In amongst all that there was money being showered onto the floor in front of the bridal couple who looked content, in a very reserved way! A great, noisy, happy experience complete with some traditional dress dancing.

Leaving a little early and clapped out by the lined-up groom’s family, the festivities weren’t over…we had to honour home-visit invitations from Mikel [from yesterday], and Gheni [a young fellow at our table at the wedding]. More wine, coffee, raki, gifts and stimulating conversation. Mikel, for example, adamant people in Albania are poor because of the government.

On our way home we lamented our poor car. It was overheating and when we stopped for fuel it wouldn’t restart. A call to the owner and we were told just to wait for it to cool and it would fire up! We did that, but still required a jump start with the most dangerous set of MacGyver jumper-leads ever – a couple of lengths of electrical wire wrapped around the terminals. Just in the outskirts of Tirana on a 4 lane stretch of ring-road in the semi-darkness it came to an abrupt stop again! I quickly put on the hazard lights, and suspecting this sort of thing was a regular occurrence in Albanian traffic, Jordy and I managed to push us across two lanes of traffic to a car park! We put the girls in a taxi, and waited again. Half an hour later, without the need for jumper leads, it started again. How’s that for a day out!

“Italians tell more lies in business than Albanians” – Tirana – Monday 15 June

Elly’s holiday was ending – final arrangements had been confirmed to get her back to Sydney to assist with caring for brother-in-law Nigel in his difficult struggle with a brain tumour. [Nobody could do it with more nobility than you Nige – and that’s a fact not a platitude.] She was keen to pack, so Jordy and I went to buy his soccer shirts – we bargained well and he has added to his collection a Paris Saint Germain and Portugal shirt for $27 each. He has enough shirts for two teams now, so when he plays FIFA X-box/Playstation/Whatever he can always be on someone’s team I suppose!

Self-proclaimed Masterchef Lushi prepared macaroni with bean sauce for dinner – and he earned his moniker. We uncorked the Gheni-gifted bottle of 1971 vintage Italian wine purchased there, and found it [unsurpringly] to be ‘off’. Lushi remarked “the Italians tell more lies in business than Albanians”!

The Bicycle Expert – Tirana – Tuesday 16 June

Delivered Elly to the airport at 8am – marvelling at how little traffic there was. Her huge bag weighed in just under 25kg so our worry about excess load was unfounded despite the enclosed wine and books. Waved her off and hoped all would go smoothly over the next two days?

Back home it was a bit of a disaster area: Blerina had broken her glasses and had an exam to go to, and Enea’s late night regime had left him so fatigued he could not hand in his homework! Lushi was off to meetings so I was left to do the dishes, and motivate Jordy into sorting out his travel insurance into the UK. I was unsuccessful in the latter, and openly frustrated strode out on a long walk to see if the National Art Gallery was open. It wasn’t open but I checked out some bikes en route to see if they would suit Enea. They started at 280E – much more than I expected, as many people [mostly students and old men] cycle in Tirana. When Enea returned from Uni in the arvo we checked out a nearby secondhand bike bazaar which amounted to about 10 shops with several bikes each. The cheapest clapped-out, two-wheeler was still 100E – that’s 14,000 lek! I selected one and gave it a thorough check over – an aluminium-framed German touring bike that had been given an overhaul and looked the goods. Tried to get more than his proffered 1000 lek [18000 to 17000] discount but he was unmoving even after we walked away twice. We probably showed too much interest, and he knew the higher prices being asked for inferior machines around the corner. Not wide tyres but front suspension and suspension seat for the rough roads of Tirana. Enea was rapt when we offered to contribute 15000lek [and for once Lushi didn’t complain either!]; he was even happier when Jordy donated his helmet, and I handed over one of our bike locks and front light. He will be the only Albanian cyclist with a helmet! And he immediately used it to study/show it off with some friends that evening.

After tea, Lushi had a sudden idea of driving out to see his friend, an imam, but he had never been there before and was confused by new roadworks and no signage. It was getting dark, the car was overheating again and Lushi’s driving skills at night were no more reassuring than his daytime form. I suggested a return, and he concurred. But with a stop at bar to meet a “friend”! Ended up being two friends – a young policeman [who had married a cousin of a cousin of a cousin?], and an old colleague [the president of the Press Association of Albania and TV political analyst]. Amazing conversations again. A policeman earns 420E per month [just enough to get by on], and there are over 50 analog TV stations and over 120 newspapers in Albania [for a population of 4 million].

“Everyday is still a good day” – Tirana to Drymades Beach, bus – Wednesday 17 June

Jordy and I were off sightseeing to the Albanian Riviera for a few days. ‘Masterchef’ Lushi cooked up an omelette for us, and delivered us to the furgon/bus just before midday. It was a slow trip along the coast- almost 5 hrs including a half hour toilet/drinks break at Llogara National Park. Even the warm rain that pelted down at the top of the spectacular pass could not spoil the stunning views off 2000m mountain to the beaches below. The winding road was the equal of any coastal drive in the world. Love to cycle it! Saw Caesar’s Pass at the top, where the Roman Emperor had tracked rival General Pompey northwards before defeating him near Vlore; and the Flag Tree, a huge pine bent by the strong mountain winds into the shape of the double-headed eagle Albanian flag.

Dropped on the roadside above Drymades Beach, we were thankful the 3km road down had been bituminised since reading the ‘Lonely Planet 2012’… it helped the wheels of my bag run a bit better! Eventually got to ‘Sea Turtle Kamping’, being frantically worked on along with all other tourist businesses in preparation for the delayed summer season. We were the only patrons, and unfortunately the super package deal of tent accommodation and meals I’d seen on the net wasn’t running yet. But it was interesting talking to young host Tom who had dream of seting up the camping in the generations-owned family orange and olive grove, regained after losing it for 50 years during the communist period. He also organises a techno-electronic dance festival on the beach with international DJs and 3000 attendees. Sauntered to the beachfront Noan Resort Restaurant for a peaceful meal with service from an english-speaking waiter, who, when we commented on the lack of trade, optimistically replied that “everyday is still a good day”.

Jordy and I later concurred as we lay in our comfortable, quiet tent with just the gentle sound of the sea rattling the rocks on the beach, playing a game of ‘guessing the person’ we had met on our holiday so far. There have been a lot of people to recall.

Environmental Unconcern – Drymades Beach – Thursday 18 June

Tough life being on holiday at the beach. Should we swim before breakfast, kick the soccer ball, or just read a few more pages of our books? Decided on swim, kick, breakfast, read, sleep. The beach was clean, and luckily got deep very quickly or it would have meant more fumbling barefoot steps on the pebbly shore and sea floor. The pebbles meant we had to dry off kicking the soccer ball on the ‘esplanade’ though, to the curiosity [and probably bemusement in the case of my skills] of the workers and waiters.

A walk up to the shops at the top of the hill, just to prove we weren’t completely lazy, then back along the beach and rocks looking at the old communist concrete bunkers and joining trench lines. I wonder who Hoxha thought would want to invade little old Albania?

Back at our beach we had amusing entertainment watching several blokes trying to make a temporary jetty, using an excavator and piles of pine logs. It was an OH&S nightmare, especially when the piles seemed to be in place and it came time to cut them off level. How else but stand barefoot and barechested in the bucket, lean out over the water with the chainsaw and zoom away. But what to do with the offcuts? Just let them float away of course and provide a hazard for any swimmer, sailboarder, jetskier, yacht! And there’s the problem, there is little collective communal care or aesthetic; there is only concern for their patch and/or task.

Another read, then at the civilised hour of 7pm, we dined at a different restaurant on soup, salad, and seafood. Nice but not brilliant according to Jordy, and even though they had excellent internet they had mosquitos, so they went on a blacklist. Returned to Tom’s campsite and watched he and his workers playing cards – a variety of ‘Emperor-Scum’ which is a family favourite. Chatted over a beer about all sorts of subjects including the understandable lack of an environmental mentality.

Bad Walking – Drymades Beach – Friday 19 June

Same same – swim, eat, read. Oh, and use the internet to check emails.

Feeling a little guilty of the good life, and a little curious, I decided on long walk into Dhermi village, and beyond to an old Greek Orthodox Church and cemetery above it, then further uphill following the town water supply pipe and goat trails to the crest of one of the mountains rising beyond. Chose one peak because it looked like it had the remains of a significant wall at the top, but it was just the outcrop of rugged rocks with some stones moved about to create chest height goat pens or wind shelters for shepherds in centuries past. I rebuilt one wall that had fallen down a bit which was fun. Not fun though, that on the descent I took my glasses off, holding them in one hand on a steep section due to sweat running onto them [and the slight difficulty in judging distance with the multifocal lens], and tripped scraping one corner of a lens on the incredibly sharp and angular rocks. “Bad walking Michael!” Oh well – glasses being relatively new to me I had pessimistically expected to have lost them by this stage of the trip! Stepped more carefully down after that, purchased late lunch of biscuits, apples and water for myself and Jordy, and returned at almost 4pm in time for a swim and shower before [a well-deserved on my part] dinner. Delicious soup and spaghetti with lightly grilled home-made bread from a village nearby. The Noan Resort has served us well and we decided to implement our plan of leaving the camping, and checking in tomorrow for its package deal of room, beach shelter and breakfast for 20E!

“The line connecting these moments” – Drymades Beach – Saturday 20 June

Left Sea Turtle early and went around the corner to the Noan Resort so we could get full use of our free deck chair for the day on the beach! Added bonus was getting our clothes washing done for free.

A few more people had turned up for the weekend, but the kilometre long beach was still sparsely settled. Lovely! Three swims interspersed with lots of pages read of ‘Museum of Innocence’ written by Turkish Nobel Prize awardee Orhan Pamuk. It’s an intriguing tale of a guy who sets up a museum in tribute to an early lover he was never reunited with. It takes careful reading as each sentence is laden with philosophy about life and love, guilt and innocence, time and its passing. One particular premise took my fancy on this sunny shore of the Mediterranean– that time, though divided artificially into equal segments, does not have the segments pass equally. Some moments take an eternity to pass, and some years flit by in an instant. And the line connecting these moments, made me think of all the things happening at home unabated…of Elly looking after Nigel, of Oma needing higher doses of painkillers. Time is not a straight regular line; bit like my swimming really.

Election Day – Drymades to Gjirokaster – Sunday 21 June

What a timely decision it was to move camp. During the night there was a thunderous electrical storm and downpour that may have drowned us. The added bonus was that downstairs eating an early breakfast, the storm may have damaged the stereo system and we didn’t have to eat to the sounds of James Blount and Sia…again.

Luckily also, one of the hotel workers drove us up the steep hill with all our luggage to wait for the furgon to Himare. Another spectacular coastline journey, and we were in the next ‘beach’ town waiting for a connection onwards. Just unloaded onto the footpath and a private ‘taxi’ rolled up. “Where are you going? Sarande. I will take you. 500lek per person”. “Sorry, we will take the bus. Or 350lek?” I reply. “Nooo – the bus is 400.” “Ok, 400”. He accepts and we are in a Mercedes with 2 other blokes heading south. They spoke good English so again it was full on conversation comparing countries, taxi drivers, and politics. They came from the north but had chosen not to vote as it is not compulsory and they were disillusioned with government. Only a brief wait in Sarande before the furgon to Gjiorkaster departed so the 150km trip that could have taken all day ended up being only 4 hours and $9AUD. Bonus.

It was interesting seeing the changes in Gjiorkaster in the three years since our previous visit. Approach roads had been renewed, more of the distinctive grey, stone walled and roofed Ottoman houses were restored, and business premises had been facelifted with new windows, paint and fittings. Foreign philanthropic money, and foreign visitors have been trickling in of late.

After a welcoming Violetta late-lunch, we accompanied the Serjani family to vote. A measure of the country’s development is that this election has been conducted without too much aggravation, manipulation or demonstration. Everyone seemed in a festive rather than dark mood. In just a couple of minutes they emerged with the indelible ink on their thumbnails showing they had voted once, and could only vote once that day! Lushi and I promenaded the streets talking with everyone he knew, while Enea and Jordy did similar in the other direction. A night out for ‘the boys’ – but we were home by 10pm, they at 4am!

Comings and Goings – Gjiokaster – Monday 22 June

With Enea holding off his return to Tirana, in order to see Maggie coming from that direction in the afternoon, it was a quiet morning with a bit of Lushi guided sightseeing: a mandatory coffee at a bar his brother [who had an uncanny resemblance to Spike Milligan] had opened only 2 days, a drink at a flash hotel recently opened in the old town, then ‘cifci’ [shallow fried rice and mint balls] at a restaurant where we were greeted as old friends, having been a ‘hit’ when last in town.

Violetta cooked up another spread of local delicacies in honour of Maggie’s arrival from Tirana. Sadly we had to farewell Enea, and decided to console ourselves with a walk to a lake on the edge of town which had been landscaped into a public picnic and recreation area. Paraphrasing Lushi’s…‘it’s amazing what can happen when there is an election approaching’! It even had a bike path around its 1.5km perimeter.

Theatres and Castles – Labohove, Gjirokaster – Tuesday 23 June

Mid-morning Lushi drove us 10km out the road for a program of well-ruined, ruin visiting. The first was a small Illyrian/Roman village of little note which floods for 4 months of the year, so it’s future is perilous? At the nearby village of Labohove, there was once a significant castle atop its hill, but the interior buildings were demolished in/after WW2 and the soccer-filed sized area within the walls is now used to keep chooks and sheep! Not a bad thing – might as well recycle these places.

More impressive for me in the village was a huge 530 year old plane tree, and adjacent older natural spring, that had inspired writings from Lord Byron on his perambulations across the southern Mediterranean in the early 1800s….”this is a wonderful place and I have never tasted so delicious dishes and I have never seen so beautiful girls”. To check his opinions we wandered about town, and ate a restaurant of a ‘friend’ of Lushi’s . I can report two things have changed in 200 years.

We were in big trouble with Voiletta when we got back late in the afternoon because we couldn’t eat the lunch she had prepared! Instead of eating, everyone but me had a siesta, to rest up before our evening engagement listening to a visiting Swedish choir in the entrance hall of the Gjirokaster castle. We had been in the same venue on our previous trip and marvelled at the acoustics that allowed every Albanian’s phone call, loud conversation with a neighbour, chair scrape, photo click and early exit to amplify and totally dominate the performers singing and playing!! Nothing had changed in 3 years. And the hilarious thing was Lushi told me a story about a visiting violinist last year who stopped playing and said he would leave if people continued to talk…loudly passing this on with a chuckle while the choir was singing a soft love-song! [‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do’?]

Following the polished performance, which ended with the Swedes singing an Albanian folk song in passable Albanian evidently, we met Sardi the organiser, and regional cultural affairs director, who happened to be the person who accepted our offer three years to work voluntarily in the Antigonea Archaeological Park. Pleased to see us, he invited us to the after-party of a meal with the choir, and impromptu flamenco concert [a Columbian/English couple!] and traditional dance display put on for the visitors. A true multinational event .

“In Communism time” – Butrint and Sarande, driving – Wednesday 24 June

The program from Kommandant Lushi involved a 80km trip to the UNESCO listed Butrint Archaeological Park and a swim at the summer resort city of Sarande. True to form, he had co-opted contacts to enhance our day, beginning with a guided tour by young Master of Archaeology Gheni, who had worked with Lushi at Antigonea.

Butrint on the shore of a large estuary, is quite a special site, having traces of civilisations dating back 8,000 years covering Bronze Age, Hellenisitic, Illyrian, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, medieval Venetian and Communist. Extensive work has been done since an Italian researcher began in the early 1900’s – his notes remain, but not a lot of the material he uncovered! ‘In communism time’ [as Lushi refers to it], excavation was organised and thorough, though it did not impress Russian Leader Krushcev in the 1950’s…’leave the Romans and Greeks to their history, better to push all these stones into the sea and let us build a submarine station’. That didn’t happen, [though a 3km aqueduct ruin was essentially removed for cropping fields] and Butrint is one of the best studied and tourist-visited sites in Albania.

Gheni pointed out a couple of things that were new to us. Some stones next to the theatre were inscribed with over 600 names of freed slaves and their compassionate masters. Importantly there were names of compassionate ‘mistresses’ also – the only example of females having the power to free their slaves during the Hellenistic period! And in Roman times there was an established order of importance to where people sat in the half-circle entertaining/dining area; the most important person sat on the left front [as you face the half-circle] around to the jester/entertainer on the right front. [I’m going to reorganise out lounge room!]

We were able to thank Gheni by giving him lunch in his nearby seaside, home-town of Ksimili – some delicious fish. ‘In communism time’ the town was an olive grove; on its fall, the resident workers and others recognised its prime location and went on an unregulated construction spree. Now building approvals have stopped as the unpopulated prospective apartments/hotels stand-out like sore builders’ thumbs.

We had time for a swim at Sarande, in front of the Grand Hotel, before catching our private taxi for home. One stop en route, at a huge mountain spring called ‘Blue Eye’. It looked like Ewens Ponds near Mount Gambier at home, where underground torrents bubble to the surface – huge volumes, crystal clear and 10 degrees. Again ‘in communism time’, things were different and the complex of abandoned and decrepit concrete troughs indicated a thriving fish farm, utilising the water supply had been in operation. The road in matched the fish tanks, and the taxi driver was none too happy to have his livelihood risked on the bumps. Fair call too, as we had to save one rental car tourist from disaster – he had driven one front wheel of his vehicle into a hole so deep his sump was grounded! In true Albanian style, the taxi driver jumped in, and while we lifted/pushed on one side he revved backwards out of the mess to the accompanying scraping sound of metal on rock. All seemed to be ok – no fluid leaks or unmuffled exhaust…and the front door still opened properly!

The next incident was more devastating. A few kms short of Gjiokaster there were police road blocks in place. About lunchtime four policeman had been shot [one killed] while checking a car for weapons/drugs/criminals going into the notorious village of Lazarate. In communism time the town had been responsible for agricultural crop production – post-communism the most profitable crop for their skills became…marijuana. And How! For twenty years it was a lawless enclave, and the law stayed well clear. In 2012, as a condition of entering the EU, the government was forced to act, and with 800 army and specialist police they swooped in a one-day, shoot-out invasion that ended the industry and encouraged people to grow zucchinis instead! But it doesn’t take machine guns to produce quality vegetables, and a militant cell were obviously piqued at the vastly different financial returns. Not even the fact the incident got the 24 hour election result coverage off the television stations gave cause for rejoicing.

I looked at Lushi in the front seat – in a past life he would have been there reporting the incident and making forthright comment. Such work post-communism had almost cost him his own life on one occasion when he was bashed by some disgruntled subjects/readers of a feature article. The international association of journalists called on the government at the time to ensure free speech and fully investigate the incident. Lushi and family were offered the chance of resettlement in the USA which he declined – he was, and is still, passionately committed to making his country a better place from within. [All strength to you mate! As one of your ‘friends’ stated, you are ‘a sweet man, as sweet as sugar”.]

Talking the walk – Gjirokaster – Thursday 25 June

Our last day in Albania. Last time I wrote that, I thought I would never return. This time, I am more certain I may?

While Lushi attended a meeting in Tirana, and Violetta was at work [27 years managing the finances of the local university], the kids and I wandered the steep streets and shops chatting and reminiscing, purchasing a couple of souvenirs to use up our local lek, and eating cifci at our ‘friend’s’ restaurant so Maggie could say hello…and goodbye.

All that remained was to eat a farewell feast for dinner – a whole roast lamb with accompanying spinach burek! And try to wake up at 5am to catch our bus to Greece.

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