A Macedonian Ramble: Albania High and Low

by Matthew Stevenson


From a bookstore in Tirana, the capital of Albania.

This is the first part in a series about a journey across what used to be called Macedonia, which is now divided among Albania, North Macedonia, Greece, and Turkey.

Just before the world closed in on itself, I decided to travel overland from the Albanian coastline to Istanbul, roughly along the front lines of the Balkan Wars (1912-13) and those of World War I (1915-18). In many ways the fighting on these remote peaks of Macedonia, on a craggy fault line from the Adriatic to the Bosphorus, defined the postwar fate of Europe in the 1920s, if not that of the twentieth century.

Even now Europe remains hostage (meaning at risk of future wars) to what in the nineteenth century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck called “some damn thing in the Balkans.”

Flight to Tirana

Even though it was December, I decided to ride my bicycle with my small hobo’s backpack to the Geneva airport, knowing that when I returned I would need the bike to get to a meeting where a car would be a nuisance.

I confess I warmed to the challenge of leaving on a Balkan adventure from a bicycle stand. In this case I found one opposite the airport police station, which gave me some assurance that the bike would be waiting for me on my return.

EasyJet, the airline I was flying to Tirana, the capital of Albania, has a strict one carry-on bag policy on its flights, and before everyone boarded agents with hostile intent circulated among the passengers, to decide who had failed to respect the fine print of the airline’s rules and needed to cough up penalty fees.

In addition to my backpack, I had with me a small briefcase, for books, maps, and my tea thermos, but it failed to catch the attention of the luggage police.

After a scrum to get on an airport bus, I found my window seat for the flight to Albania, which I had last seen on New Year’s Day in 2000—dreaded at the time as Y2K (the day all computers were supposed to stop working), although perhaps less of a risk in abacus Albania.

On that first trip, I was with a small group of investors who were bargain-basement hunting for investments in the unsettled post-Communist country. We stayed at a tired hotel in Tirana—then a city of few charms and stray dogs—and each day drove into the countryside to inspect remnants of past five-year plans, such as old oil refineries and sugar factories. Because there was little heat in most buildings, we wore overcoats throughout most of the meetings.

I was not in a buying mood on that trip—one man in the group did bid on an off-shore oil drilling concession—but I did enjoy getting a look at Albania, which I knew only from its literature, mostly books written in the early twentieth century by several courageous female writers (including the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, from the Little House on the Prairie, Rose Wilder Lane).

On that first trip I read Edith Durham’s High Albania, which was published 1909. It’s an account of an overland journey through what is now Montenegro, Kosovo, and Albania, which were then on the fault line between the failing Ottoman Empire in Europe and several successor states, Serbia among them, that wanted to drive Turkish influence out of the Balkans. Durham writes:

An Albanian once gave me a message to European politicians in general: “If a man tells you that he knows about the Near East, ask him what is the difference between Lek Dukaghin and Lek Kapetan? If he cannot tell, he should let the Near East alone. We suffer from people who interfere and know nothing.” The question, I fancy, would “plough” many a Foreign Office.

[Answer: Both were medieval leaders and tribal chiefs in lands now ascribed to Albania, and had their lives overlapped I am sure they would have devoted considerable energy trying to kill one another.]

The Ottoman Endgame

On this later trip one of the books I was reading was Sean McMeekin’s The Ottoman Endgame: War, Revolution and the Making of the Modern Middle East, 1908-1923, which, despite the subtitle, often deals with the many Balkan Wars after 1878 that reduced Turkey’s presence in Europe.

For centuries, the Ottoman Empire was the controlling power in what we now call Albania, North Macedonia, Greece, and Thrace—all of which were on my route across the southern Balkans.

After Turkey lost its 1877-78 war with Russia, its European possessions were whittled down to little more than a toehold in eastern Thrace, between what is now Edirne (formerly Adrianople) and Istanbul.

At the same time, Turkey’s victory over the Allies in the 1915 battle of Gallipoli, and its defeat of the Greek invasion in Asia Minor after World War I, allowed it to emerge from the many Balkan Wars as a unified state.

McMeekin’s book is long—about 500 pages in my copy. But I had it on my Kindle and read it in snatches, enjoying his insight into whatever (formerly Turkish) lands I was traveling through.

One of his themes is the endless interventions of the European powers in the Ottoman Empire’s internal affairs—modern history as an update on the earlier Crusades.

For example, in setting the stage of Turkey’s decline and eventual rise, McMeekin writes:

The plight of the empire’s substantial Christian minority, nearly a third of the population, was a perennial excuse for Western intervention; indeed, the Crimean War was literally fought over disputed Orthodox and Latin “protection rights” for churches in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

At the same time McMeekin doesn’t excuse Turkey for its nearly endless atrocities, including the Armenian genocide, although he does quote one of the last sultans, Abdul Hamid II, who, before he took power in 1876, asked plaintively: “What can you expect of us, the children of slaves, brought up by eunuchs?”

Durrës by Night

Instead of booking a hotel that night in Tirana, from the airport I decided to make my way to the coastal town of Durrës (it was Durazzo in Italian, when it came of age as an Adriatic port and vacation spa) and spend the night there.

Online I had found Hotel Boutique Vila 8 that advertised bicycles for its guests, and my hope was to rent a bicycle and ride around Durrës in the late afternoon or early evening, and then the next morning to catch an Albanian train to the North Macedonia border.

I didn’t notice huge changes in the Tirana Airport in the last twenty years, although on that first trip, while my Swissair plane was boarding passengers, one of the pilots who was standing beside the aircraft busied himself by throwing a stick for an airport dog. Now at least the runway dogs were more restrained.

Without checked luggage, I managed, after getting off the plane at 15:15, to catch a 15:30 shuttle bus between the airport and downtown Durrës. The fare was LEK 480, about five dollars, which I paid in Swiss francs (many Albanians live in Switzerland).

The bus dropped me in front of the Durrës train station, amidst a fleet of waiting buses, most of which were spewing exhaust. On foot, I struck out for the Boutique Vila 8, about a fifteen minute walk from the bus terminal (okay, a random parking lot with more than a few stray dogs).

I had printed walking directions to the hotel, and once I got my bearings from the bus station, I walked along sidewalks of what felt liked polished marble— Durrës is a little slice of Venice on the Albanian coast.

It was a warm afternoon for December, although as the sun set during my walk a damp chill filled the air. I detoured to several classical-era ruins—one a large Roman amphitheater—in downtown. What’s left of a Byzantine market had the look of a housing project arcade.

Leaning over various railings, I tried to imagine the various civilizations that have called Durrës home, and I gave up counting after thinking of Greeks, Romans, Normans, Turks, Bulgarians, Austrians, Serbs, Italians, Germans, and Albanians.

It reminded me of a Willy Loman quote in Death of a Salesman, in which he says: “…I still feel—kind of temporary about myself.”

Albania Runs Off the Rails

The Boutique Vila 8 gave me a delightful room with a canopy bed, but with a view directly onto a street light. (It felt as thought I was sleeping in prison.)

The desk clerk rummaged around in the cellar and produced an old mountain bike, which, after pumping up the tires, I took for a three hour spin. Mostly I rode on sidewalks, as Durrës drivers did not strike me as overly sensitive to the requirements of visiting cyclists.

First, I headed back to the railroad station, where on a platform in the gloomy darkness I spoke to a man (I doubt he was a railway official but he knew the system) who said that no trains were running anywhere in Albania. For the moment he said there was no oil for the engines but encouraged me to try again in the morning.

I pushed my bicycle around the forlorn railroad station (a sign from better days listed hopeful connections for Pogradec, Elbasan, Vlore, Shkoder, and Tirane—the principal Albanian towns) and peered into a dank waiting room.

On one of the tracks I saw a train full of broken windows and covered with graffiti. I assumed it was the dead end of derelict rolling stock, until my new railroad friend explained that, when there is oil for the engines, this is the main-line train. (It brought new meaning to the phrase “crack express”.)

King Zog Skips Town

I found a seaside restaurant for dinner, which had an indoor seating area (and in December just a few people at the tables). I had fish soup and pasta, but could not see the water, as only darkness was apparent beyond the boardwalk and breakwater. In summer, however, I am sure Durrës is jammed and a party town.

For my after-dinner entertainment (the hotel desk clerk had talked up a nearby casino nightclub), I decided instead to see if I could find what remains of King Zog’s summer palace, which is located on a hillside above Durrës.

Zog was the last monarch of Albania, who fled in 1939 when Fascist Italy invaded the country. Zog made it to Greece, which is an accomplishment, given that he was traveling with much of the country’s gold reserves, and later he fought fascism from a suite at The Ritz Hotel in London.

Zog died in 1961, never having returned to Albania. His greatest achievement as king was to have survived some 55 assassination attempts—a statistic that puts into perspective the Albanian taste for blood feuds and revenge.

Even with a low, bailout gear on the mountain bike, it was a push to get up the steep hillside on which the summer palace was located. Nor did I know exactly where I was heading. All I had (to read under street lamps) was an old map that I had printed from the internet; it showed the general vicinity of the palace overlooking the water.

Finally I asked directions in a small convenience store, where the owner pointed me higher up the hill, which is where I found the palace locked behind imposing gates.

I still don’t know if the palace (think of a Hollywood mansion from the 1930s) is now a museum, state ministry, health spa, or private villa, but I stood at the end of the driveway, looking through the chain-locked gates, until I decided to glide down the hillside and spend the rest of the evening back at the hotel, reading my books. That seemed to offer more excitement than Durrës by night, at least in December.

The Many Albanian Questions

The innkeeper made a fire in the lobby fireplace, and around a square wooden table I arranged my maps, computer, and books, as if I would be spending the winter in Durrës, not simply one night on my way to Lake Ohrid.

One of my books I had with me was The Albanian Question: Reshaping the Balkans by James Pettifer and Miranda Vickers. It was published in 2007 when I got my copy directly from Ms. Vickers, with whom I shared a London publisher.

I had decided to put off reading the book until I went back to Albania, but twelve years had passed before I found the occasion to break open my copy. I knew that I would like it, as I had previously read two other books published by Ms. Vickers—The Albanians: A Modern History and Between Serb and Albanian: A History of Kosovo.

I am not exactly sure how Pettifer and Vickers divide up the chores of their collaborative writing, but my sense is that Pettifer, for much of his career a foreign correspondent, does more of the on-the-scene reporting and last-draft writing while Vickers, an academic, fills in the details of Albanian history and politics.

That night in front of the fireplace at the Boutique Vila 8 I only read the first chapter, entitled: “The Pyramid Banking Crisis and the Democratic Party Government,” which picks up the story of post-communist Albania in 1997.

An earlier book of theirs described the 1990 revolution and the early years of independence from Ever Hoxha’s weird brand of Maoist communism. (In many fields around the mountainous country he sprinkled igloo-like bomb shelters that came with sniper slits in the concrete—so that Albanians could defend themselves against an invader.)

This book tells the Albanian story from the banking crisis through the Kosovo War in 1999 and then into the 2000s, when Albania began its slow growth toward modern statehood (defined, in part, as new gas stations, more modern hotels, and better roads).

Kosova: The Era of Russian Good Feelings Ends

Later, when I finished reading the book, I was interested in the authors’ take on the banking crisis, as it was in its wake that I had first gone to Albania in 2000.

In the late 1990s, so-called pyramid banks, variations on Ponzi schemes and the excesses in the seventeenth century involving Dutch tulips, had bankrupted the country by bleeding off what few savings people had into dreams of lottery-like returns on their meagre investments.

When the government went broke, it led to general anarchy across the country, part of the reason how and why so many Albanian army weapons ended up in the hands of Kosovar irredentists.

In the book Pettifer and Vickers make the point that the West left Albania exposed to a generation of instability by leaving Kosovo out of the 1996 Dayton Peace Accords, which gerrymandered the rest of former Yugoslavia between Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians but which was silent on the almost two million Kosovars (most of whom, but not all, are muslims) left to fend for themselves in the rump state of Yugoslavia (in which Serbs and Montenegrins predominated).

They write: “In reality, the omission of the Kosova question from the Dayton Accords had fatally weakened the leadership of the Kosova Democratic League (LDK) and Ibrahim Rugova.”

What happened in 1999 is that Yugoslavia (what was left of it anyway) fractured again, when the Kosovars (who are of Albanian origin but independent of Albania) decided to break away from their Serbian overlords (for whom Kosovo represented Serbia’s ancestral lands); and war followed.

In the 1999 fighting between rump state of Yugoslavia and Kosovo rebels, weaponry poured over the border from fractured and anarchic Albania while NATO, led by the United States, flew air cover for the Kosovo Liberation Army, thus insuring that Yugoslavia (only later did it become Serbia) would return to its 1878 Treaty of Berlin borders (limited to the lands around Belgrade).

The war delivered de facto independence to Kosovo, renamed Kosova, but in a larger sense it ended the brief era of good feeling between NATO countries (the United States and the European Union) and post-communist Russia, which saw in the war of Kosovo’s liberation a German-led encroachment into the East against ethnic slavs (in this case the Serbs).

If you want to understand Putin’s estrangement from the West, begin by studying the 1999 war.

Next: Tirana to the North Macedonia border.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.