The price of my newly purchased t-shirt didn’t trouble me; it was more about whether I would actually wear it? Having the life-sized face of a once-celebrated icon on one’s chest on my first visit to a fascinating country would undoubtedly raise the kindest of Albanian eyebrows and, hopefully, the odd nod of approval? After all, Norman Wisdom, albeit deceased, was their adopted Clown Prince or so I had read. His antics in many films, revered almost worshipped by the communist regime of Hoxha. Indeed, our Norman was one of the very few westerners permitted on state television during the isolation years of the Stalinist dictatorship.
I chose to dress sensibly for my first night out in Blloku, the flashy district of Tirana, an emerging, fascinating yet somewhat chaotic capital city. After a stroll spent taking in busy cafes, restaurants and bars full of young people sitting out and enjoying themselves, vibrant life all around, exciting Indo-European beat, all resonating with a southern Mediterranean/Middle Eastern vibe, I enjoyed a fine meal, reasonably priced with a glass of surprisingly good wine.
And the complimentary glass of raki was a bonus, the second was declined, but it arrived anyway and duly consumed. The waiters seemed genuinely interested, offering their ebullient, efficient best as I devoured lamb cutlets and a perfectly cooked side of grilled prawns and vegetables.
Whilst examining what appeared to be someone else’s reasonably priced bill, another encore unfolded, the presentation of a magnificent oversized, somewhat ludicrous pomegranate, pips like grapes, again au gratis, and yet another raki. Chin dripping with ruby juice and nodding with gusto, my first experience of Albanian hospitality was first class; I was hooked as well as feeling somewhat euphoric, possibly drunk. Did the eagle on the wall really have two heads?
The following day after a delicious omelette with fresh fig jam, sliced beef tomato covered in oily herbs, salty feta, cucumber, yoghurt, and Turkish coffee, I took a cab as I had read that public transport from Tirana was somewhat random.
Once out of the bustling city, journeying to the coast was most pleasant…towards bustling Durrës, then onto busy Fier and then through the main port city of fashionable Vlorë. I then turned further south through verdant fields sun-kissed coastal villages while taking in the landscape, the living, day-to-day reality, and the haunting relics of the past.
The day was warm, my mind wandered as the country continued its seduction as I sat a little too comfortably in the back of a new, yellow Mercedes with radio blaring trying to make sense of this land of eagles, which looks both ways, east and west, proud, fluttering and strong, emerging again, shaking off pained bygone days.
Nearly 200 miles of nature’s smiles, caressed and impressed. Fresh figs, honey hives, sweet roasted toffee’d corn, and pomegranate stalls passed me on my journey. Burnished farmers tanned by golden solar rays; leathery brown families, back-breaking work, fields axed with earth dyed hoes and spades; mule-drawn hay-carts winding along hillside roads while the drivers chatted on Japanese cell phones.
Such is Albania.
Then mooing, the bleating of sheep; the bells of goats and donkeys; a shepherd’s call, even a plump, porky pig grubbing and honking just off the track. The sniff of sage and something much headier growing wild and abundant. Towns honouring saints and heroes, a nun, a rebel, maybe a villain or two, a bride and groom holding a pose.
Water collectors, herbal tea sellers, long conversations among past and present. With every fleeting moment, surprises abound; my synaesthetic mind struggles; a kaleidoscope of tasting colours and hearing shapes.
The car passed bumpily through a town and then along a hypnotically weaving coastal road. The battle between sleep and the blasting traditional and complex polyphonic folk singing suddenly became too much. I felt uncomfortable, hot and thirsty with my head spinning; it was time to stop.
From my open window, I glimpsed a frame of azure blue, a bobbing bucket hat too. The owner of the latter, a figure splashing in the shallows just off the Radhimë road near Orikum. I mimed to my driver to pull over, and we found a dappled spot on the edge of the rough shingly beach.
It was a beautiful scene with rustic weathered bamboo umbrellas and ripped, bleached, blowing white sails in the foreground against the jaw-dropping backdrop of the picturesque peninsular of Karaburan. In a dash, I was out of the car and paddling in the beautifully clear water, cooling my face and arms.
I stood in childlike bliss with the ridged surface of small sandbars forming then squelching beneath my feet. White hat chap was also enjoying his moment, now turning onto his back, kicking his legs, moving towards me, not swimming exactly but splashing and exercising his little brown arms, then boxing the water, clearly giving himself a good workout.
I stood and admired the scene. He appeared of a significant age, yet he had such vigour. He greeted me dripping wet with a toothy smile, no towel, only his bathers and his hat. He was a small man of small structure, no more than 5ft 1’’.
It was then we made a connection, as he excitedly spluttered, ‘Mr Pitkin’ and prodded at my shirt. ‘Come, come!’ and at pace, he led me barefoot across the beach, seemingly unaware of the pebbly surface to a pastel-shaded residence set back on the other side of the road.
I was ushered to a seat in dappled shade with soft shadows cast by shutters against a well-worn wall; a cacophony of chickens heralded our arrival and with the fragrance of citrus fruits, ginger and eucalyptus working some mood magic.
The day was closing but still warm, and I was glad of a Korca beer, almost too cold, kindly brought by Mrs Hat.
It was soon apparent that she was used to entertaining her spouse’s late afternoon catch and today’s haul of a jovial, hungry and thirsty Welshman was a big bonus. She instantly made me feel at home, gesticulating animatedly that the oven was at its peak and pointing to the whole lamb, head an’ all, crisping on a spit. With great skill, the roasting operation was being conducted by two burly lads, possibly her sons, as mother’s orders were more than familiar.
Mr Hat soon returned, carrying a tray with plates of what appeared to be golden tar coloured bars of sweet goo together with a bottle of the now too familiar homemade clear liquor and two glasses.
He duly poured a generous measure in each. He toasted my arrival with a ‘gezuar’, cheers in Albanian, and we easily worked a conversation of sorts about our relative interests and family until the little glasses were emptied then refilled.
I had never tried honeycomb fresh from the hive, and I felt a little foolish as I didn’t at first recognise the treacly delight offered to me. To this day, I cannot believe how sweet and natural it tasted as it burst against the roof of my mouth and ran over my tongue. I nearly choked on this edible gold; nuggets plucked from the richest seam, most definitely the food of the gods! As is customary, a saucer was provided for the bits.
My t-shirt and I were introduced to others as pairs of locals, and passers-by joined us on the terrace for drinks and lively chat—lots of genuine smiling and exaggerated handshakes, more raki and careful bites of delicious honey crust. Through one of the others, I asked my new friend about this spot, his guesthouse, and why he was so fit and happy?
Having retired myself two months previously and the third age emerging ahead of me, I dearly wanted to know his story as he appeared to be very content in his dotage. I was interested to learn he had recently undergone major heart surgery and was well ahead in his plan to retain full fitness.
Having lived and worked through some very tough times, he was now busy with his small hotel and restaurant, clearly exhibiting a deep appreciation of thoroughly enjoying life.
All food prepared on the premises was sourced within a few kilometres, including fresh fish from the bay, organic meat and vegetables from the family’s smallholding out the back. The menu presented only needed a glance as few dishes were listed, indeed a sign of the freshness and novelty of home cooking. I smiled when I saw a generously sized plate being carried to the grilling shack with raw peppers, mushrooms, a large courgette and onions as invited as minor players joining what was going to be a fine feast.
The smell of oily herbs, freshly cooked lamb and perfectly cooked vegetables married well in the hungry, still, evening air. No zephyr of breeze to lift the fug of niceness or disturb the mood of being in a timeless moment, enjoying that real discovery of goodness; simple, unsophisticated deliciousness.
My hosts seemed perturbed as their heads moved in subtle horizontal tandemness at my savouring of every morsel. My appreciative silence was not enough; had they not seen anyone tasting such biblical fayre? They were shaking their heads as in a Bollywood film yet smiling. This, I soon learnt, is the custom of the southern Balkans.
Over a dense portion of sweet halva, a homemade dessert, I also learned that the land is one of the ancient codes of honour, ‘Besa’, for example, emphasises compassion and tolerance of others’ views, which links personal honour to respect for and equality with others.
I had no idea that Albania was the only Nazi-occupied country that did not give up its Jews during World War II. All citizens took in and protected them irrespective of religious affiliation and at significant risk to their safety.
Decades of isolation and inward-looking have not weakened the people’s resolve or hospitality. Indeed, with the cruel curtain wide open and the thumb of paranoia lifted, the unfolding process is both thrilling albeit somewhat cautious. The Republika e Shqipërisë, as it’s known to Albanians, is secular and tolerant; its nation, culture, mysteries and UNESCO sites are all ready to be explored.
I was astounded to hear that Mr Hat was nearly 80 and for most of his working life had been a sailor with the Soviet Fleet and had travelled extensively, although with a frown then a wicked smile, he proudly announced ‘in a metal tube under the sea’.
All I could add, being euphorically tipsy by now and not sure I fully understood everything he said, I blurted out,
’Does that eagle on the wall really have two heads?’
After raucous laughter, we bid farewell, one wrapped snugly in a proud nation’s flag, the other in a baggy new shirt.
Albania, the land of eagles, lambs and shepherds is part of the Balkans, bordered by Greece, Northern Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro, and across the Adriatic Sea from Italy’s boot. It has many entry points via land and sea and its modern airport close to Tirana is well served by major airlines. I stayed at the following hotels on my journey south: Hotel Theranda in Tirana, Hotel Regina in Radhimë, House Nika in Radhimë, Hotel Olivio in Dhermi and Hotel Nebo in Ksamil. The Norman Wisdom ‘limited edition’ shirt can still be purchased from ‘djtees’ for £15.