Thursday, July 10, 2014

Albania, Albania - You Border on the Adriatic

Where is Albania? Well, as anyone who is a fan of Cheers should know, Albania borders on the Adriatic and is mostly  mountainous. Darla and I along with our Dear Comrades Li Wei and Ann Yao, decided to verify this by visiting Albania for ourselves.

Yup, mostly mountainous. And quite beautiful too.

I love the cool Albanian flag with its Double Eagle. This symbol has roots in Byzantine culture.

We were so lucky to have the help of our Rollins friend, Denisa, whose Albanian family, once alerted about our imminent arrival, showered us with hospitality. In fact, if there were a World Cup for Hospitality, Albania would be a strong contender for the championship.

When our plane landed in Tirana, Denisa's friend Xhustin (sounds like "Justin") met us at the airport and took us to our hotel. Then we headed out for a walk to a local restaurant/casino in the center of the city.

Clockwise from the left: Li Wei, Ann Yao, Xhustin, Shy Person.

Xhustin - amiable and charming law student who also loves acting.

Right next to the restaurant was a public park full of families enjoying a pleasant evening, while clusters of sweet, innocent children played merrily nearby.

                          Sweet, innocent children.

Though it was two days short of July 4, we were treated to some cool fireworks.

Albania is sometimes described as a Muslim country, but in fact the population is made up of both Muslims and Christians, the former outnumbering the latter somewhat. In the heart of downtown Tirana is a beautiful mosque.

Also in the heart of Tirana is a statue of George Kastrioti Skanderbeg, an Albanian national hero who led a rebellion against the Ottoman Turks.

Also, a large pyramid structure whose purpose I don't understand, and neither did the Albanians I asked.  ???

On the pyramid: peace symbol graffiti.

From Tirana, we made our way south toward Lake Ohrid, which lies on the border between Albania and Macedonia, a country similar to Albania, but one which, lamentably, does not border on the Adriatic.

License plates: Albanian on the left, recognizable by the double eagle symbol, Macedonian on the right, with the Cyrillic letters.

                                          Lake Ohrid

We all enjoyed a wonderful lunch at a lakeside restaurant with Denisa's Mom, Xhemile and her cousin, Xhentil.

Ann puts a poppy flower in Xhemile's hair.

Albanian drivers are very brave, I will give them that. Also, they are very skilled, for if they were not skilled, none of them would survive into adulthood. On the mountain roads, one has to accustom oneself to seeing sharp cliffs falling away a few inches from the side of the car as one's vehicle zooms along at 80 kilometers per hour. As a coping strategy, I imagined that I was on a Disney World ride that had multiple safety features invisible to us passengers. When our driver chose to pass on a blind curve on one of these mountain roads, I coped by imagining I was already dead.

                           View from a speeding vehicle.

On a mountain road, a plaque honoring the partisans who fought an invading German unit in 1944.

One of many horse carts we passed.

A surprising feature of Albanian society is that everybody seems to have friends everywhere. The drivers who hauled us across country from Tirana to Lake Ohrid and so on, seemed to honk and wave at about every tenth person they passed. This is a nation of family and friends, it seems.

In Denisa's hometown of Korce, "the city of serenades," a beautiful cathedral dominates the center of the city.

More delicious food, this time from the restaurant Oaz, owned by our friend Denisa's sister's fiance's parents. (See note above on "a nation of family and friends.")

Denisa's sister, Tonsela, and her Mom with the owners of the restaurant. They prepared the meal, which was fantastic. They would not let us pay for it.

In the mountains above Korce is the village of Voskopoje, which in Medieval times was one of the most important urban centers in Albania. Now it's a pleasant pastoral setting with a couple of old monasteries nearby.

Albania is interesting in so many ways. Albanians themselves are particularly fond of the United States. Their favorite president seems to be Bill Clinton, mainly because of his bombing campaign that forced the Serbian government to stop brutalizing the Kosovo Albanians in the 1990s. In Kosovo a large statue of President Clinton symbolizes the Kosovars' gratitude to him.

                                           Bill Clinton Statue

Albania's second favorite president is George W. Bush, who visited this country in 2007 - the only American president ever to do so. We were told that when he came to Tirana, 500,000 Albanians swarmed into the city to catch a glimpse of him.

Bush visited the town of Fushe Kruje just north of Tirana where he was also greeted with enthusiasm. In fact, the people of Fushe Kruje built a George W. Bush statue a few years ago to commemorate the president's visit.

OK, so I don't see eye-to-eye on every issue with my Albanian friends. But still, what a wonderful trip, and what warmhearted people we met.

Faleminderit, my friends!