The untraveled path – on The Jerusalem Post (2005)

Several months ago I was invited to participate in the development of rural tourism in Albania. Enticed by the unknown, I rose to the challenge, as did my friends, and I ended up leading my first trekking group to the southern coast of Albania.

In glorious May sunshine, we spent a week walking along the Albanian Riviera, over herb-clad mountains, past beaches, sparkling bays, and archeological ruins, and through inhabited and uninhabited villages, all the while meeting local people.

We trekked down the most beautiful coastline, which borders the Adriatic Sea and the Ionian Sea, and lies between Serbia, Montenegro and Greece. The island of Corfu stretched before us, just a short ferry ride away.

Although Albania is a little larger than Israel (29,000 square kilometers compared to Israel’s 21,000 sq. km.), its population of 3.5 million is around half that of Israel.

The Albanians are generally recognized as the most ancient race in southeastern Europe, descendants of the Illyrians, who were the core pre-Hellenic population that extended as far as Thrace and Italy.

The Albanian language, which is distinct from the tongues spoken by the neighboring nationalities, is particularly interesting as the only surviving representative of the so-called Thraco-Illyrian group of languages, which formed the primitive speech of the inhabitants of the Balkan peninsula.

Albanians further claim that Greek mythology was borrowed, in its entirety, from the Illyrians. Zeus survives as Zot in the Albanian language of today and the invocation of his name is the common form of oath among modern Albanians, as well as the word for God.

The Romans ruled Illyria for about six centuries. Under Roman rule Illyrian society underwent great change, especially outwardly. Art and culture flourished, particularly in Apollonia, whose school of philosophy became celebrated in antiquity. To a great extent, though, the Illyrians resisted assimilation into Roman culture. Illyrian culture survived, along with the Illyrian tongue.

The Ottoman Empire also extended to include Albania, and signs of all these periods can be seen in archeological remains and buildings still in daily use.

Only in 1992 did Albania bring down the dictatorial communist regime that had oppressed the nation for some 50 years, mainly under the despotic rule of Enver Hoxha.

After living under the influence of first the Russians and then the Chinese, and discarding both for their ideological insufficiencies, Albanians closed themselves off to external contact. It is only recently that they have begun reaching out to make contact with the outside world.

TOURISM IS an ideal industry for such a beautiful country. But developing this industry is no easy task, particularly when there is no budget, infrastructure, or concept of how to cater to western tourists.

Major national roads are few and far between, potholed and at times too narrow for two buses to pass each other. Hotels offer basic amenities – hot water and efficient plumbing shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Gary and Judy, two Peace Corps volunteers stationed in Saranda, where their mission is to help promote tourism, suggested that rural tourism would be a good starting point for developing the tourism industry. They sold the idea of trekking groups to the local equivalent of a travel agent and from there the project took off.

Our travel agent, Ben, was originally from the Albanian Riviera. After the fall of communism and the opening of the country’s borders, he left Albania for Corfu where he opened a travel agency. Now he was persuaded to look back towards home and become a pioneer in the field of group trekking along the southern Albanian coast.

We set to work. To start I had to convince Ben that we really did want to trek, and not just for one day but for seven days. (Albanians had a hard time understanding why anyone would want to walk, given the option of any other form of transport.)

Then Ben went from village to village, recruiting family members and others in his search for facilities required by the group. Gary poured over aerial photographs and identified old coastal trails. He then walked them, reestablishing and marking them as he went. Judy studied and interpreted local cultures, helping us over periodic hurdles.

This role became increasingly important. For example, we discovered that shaking one’s head from side to side means “yes” whereas sticking one’s chin up is the way to say “no.” Judy then taught us proper greetings, which consisted of half a dozen formal exchanges before broaching the subject at hand.

Our trek began in Saranda, the main town on the Albanian Riviera, just a one-hour boat ride from Corfu. The town sprawls around a beautiful bay, and a chaotic heap of new and old buildings, interspersed with the remains of buildings that had been dynamited because they were illegally built.

Against this backdrop, caf s have sprung up where young men and women promenaded in tight jeans and skimpy tops while elders donned formal attire – the men in classic shirts and jackets and the women in knee-length skirts and blouses reminiscent of the ’50s. Among the back streets the scene was different. Fewer women were seen, and men sat together in caf s and restaurants, whiling away another day of unemployment.

In the center of town there was a large excavation of a fifth-century synagogue with a fine mosaic floor design of a menora. This site, which is still undergoing excavation, established the presence of one of the earliest Balkan Jewish communities. In acknowledgement of the significance of this find, the authorities began rerouting a major road through town so as to enable the full site to be excavated.

THE LOCAL ferry boat took us up the coast to Kakome, an idyllic and deserted bay from which we began our trek. Gazing at the brilliant sparkling water that lapped around the beach, and the shrub-covered mountains rising just behind, we quickly took notice of one of Albania’s national sights: sitting there on the beach was a row of bunkers that consisted of little grey concrete domes with slits.

The geopolitically strategic areas of the country are covered with close to a million bunkers. They were built in the 50s by the communist state, one per family, as protection from greatly feared attacks by surrounding countries.

It was here that we encountered our first obstacles to the development of tourism in Albania. We learned that the bay was marked as the future site of a Club Med resort, and would therefore be off limits to anyone who wasn’t a guest of the hotel. As we walked through the countryside, meeting the occasional shepherd or wild dog, we constantly encountered relics and signs of Albania’s turbulent past, a stark contrast to the now peaceful rural setting.

We followed our guide Ben, our trailblazer Gary, Drekko (Ben’s uncle, and a local goat herder), and Mushka the mule. We felt intoxicated from the strong scent of flowering sage and the breathtaking views in all directions.

Many of the villages we walked through seemed sparsely populated. Disintegrating cobbled paths led us past dilapidated stone houses with beautiful tiled roofs, that appeared derelict until we noticed an old woman dressed in black sitting silently in the doorway, waiting no doubt for the return of a son who had long gone to Tirana to find work and send money home.

And then we reached Himara, a major coastal village linked by Ottoman-era bridges to the old, largely deserted village stretching up a hill to a castle.

Our hotel was literally on the beach. The restaurant owner prepared long trestle tables laden with delicious local food – salads, savory pastries, fried cheese, baked eggplant, succulent lamb – and of course, homemade wine. Ben’s parents were from this village and meeting them was a highlight for us.

Ben’s father, a national poet during communist times, had been sent to Himara to develop cultural life. One of his achievements was to set up a local polyphonic singing group, which performed for us without accompaniment, and while eating and drinking.

We were moved when the group sang a song in our honor; the words were related to the suffering of Jews in the Nazi era and the hope that only happy and better times lie ahead for us. (The Albanians are proud to announce that Albania was the only country overrun by the Nazis where there were more Jews at the end of the war than at the beginning. Not one Jew was killed, and many refugees were taken in from bordering states.) This evening of polyphonic singing took place on Israeli Independence Day and ended with all of us singing “Shalom Aleichem.”

IT WAS a fascinating experience to meet the local people. Whereas 70% of Albanians today are Muslim, the coastal area where we walked comprises mainly Orthodox Christians who have family and other connections with nearby Greece. Many of them speak Greek. Monasteries and chapels in villages like Old Dhermi are returning to life after half a century of disuse. Eyes opened wide when we said that we live in Jerusalem.

Attitudes to religion appeared to be eclectic. It is not unusual to meet a family whose members belong to different religions, one to Islam, one to Christianity. Widespread tolerance is shown, with neighbors paying respects to each other on their festive days.

As we walked from village to village, we generally stayed in local hotels. The warm welcome and pride in their beautiful country, inevitably accompanied by great curiosity as to why we were visiting, more than compensated for poor services.

When a hotel owner in Qeparo personally went out fishing for our dinner – before starting his day’s work as mayor of the town – and then served us homemade wine as we sat watching the sun set over the Ionian Sea, the lack of hot water faded into insignificance. From his young daughter we learned that they did not remember foreigners ever coming to their hotel.

Communication was not easy. Local people did not speak English and we barely managed to master half a dozen Albanian words. But the effort was worthwhile. Every faleminderit (thank you) we produced was rewarded with smiles, and hugs that completely transformed their sometimes severe and suspicious facial expressions. We had only to look at their faces to be reminded of the hardship they had lived through.

In the village of Piluri there was no hotel, so we stayed with local families. And here, for the first time, we really sensed how tough life could be in Albania. Without a word in common, we all felt overwhelmed by the warmth of the hospitality offered by these exhausted, hardworking farmers. In the home where I slept, there was no hot water, and washing facilities were almost nonexistent.

The wife cooked on a gas burner in the corner of the bedroom and kept her few foodstuffs in a cupboard. In the morning, her husband, dressed in his best suit, sat opposite us as we ate a huge breakfast of fresh, boiled milk, homemade cheese and butter, bread, sweet tea, Turkish coffee and Raki. We were each given a gift of a hard-boiled egg for the journey that lay ahead. The wife spent some time in the bedroom adjusting her headscarf before she was ready for a picture. Only after many more kisses and hugs were we allowed to go on our way.

It is our hope that this marked the beginning of the Albanian bed and breakfast industry.

We then found ourselves back in Saranda. But our adventure was not over. One last and special treat awaited us: the Butrint National Park, a World Heritage site just south of the port of Saranda.

The ancient city, inhabited since prehistoric times, comprises at least 10 archeological sites and a diverse range of natural resources and wildlife habitats that support 14 globally endangered species. Its best known monuments, dating from the 4th century BCE, include the acropolis and the lower city, which contains bath houses, temples, palaces, and a fine theater. From the early Byzantine period we saw the basilica and baptistry with its spectacular mosaic floor.

The park, extending beyond the city borders, comprises a rich selection of Mediterranean flora and fauna all beautifully preserved and nurtured in a completely natural style.

Shortly thereafter we were home, sharing with family and friends what had now become memories.

NOMI PAYNTON, THE JERUSALEM POST

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