Macedonian Ramble: the Ghost Train to Tirana


The Albanian Railway System, awaiting fuel for the engines.

This is the second 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.

When not reading my fireside books, I was plotting my train journey for the next day by consulting an old Cook’s Continental Timetable (if the trains are thirty years old, then why not have a schedule of the same vintage?) and several rail maps that I had copied from the internet.

I also had from the website The Man in Seat 61 (devoted to rail passenger service around the world) an updated schedule, which showed an 8:15 a.m. train to Elbasan and Pogradec, the town on the border with North Macedonia to which I was headed (although there was some uncertainty in the posts about when the line ran between Elbasan and Pogradec).

What was clear was that the main line of the Albanian railways (Hekurudha Shqiptare in Albanian) detoured Tirana on the run from Durrës to Elbasan, which meant that I would not get a stop in the capital but would see the central valley.

I weighed a train ride versus a return engagement in Tirana, and decided to make a run for the morning “express”, as I had not taken any Albanian trains in 2000.

I cannot say I was adopting Paul Theroux’s motto, “Better to go first class than to arrive.” But I was looking forward to a train ride to the North Macedonian border, seeing various mountain peaks along the way, and reading my book about The Ottoman Endgame.

Replacement Bus Service to Tirana

I put in a wake-up call (on my iPhone) for 6 a.m., ate a full breakfast in the lobby at 6:30, and walked in the direction of the train station at 7 a.m., figuring I would have about forty-five minutes to buy a ticket and assemble a picnic for the journey.

When I rolled up to the station (now for the third time), I discovered that the fuel crisis of the previous day was still in effect and that no trains were running anywhere in the country.

At least now there was a station manager on duty, wearing a tattered railway uniform with some eagles around the collar. I found him in a small office off the main lobby, where a group of men were in the midst of a meeting that involved large consumptions of coffee and cigarettes.

The station manager shook his head when I asked about the train to Elbasan, pointing at the rolling stock, unmoved since the night before, with its graffiti and broken windows.

There’s no court of appeal when it comes to idle Albanian trains, so after taking a few pictures of the Durrës station in daylight, I walked to the adjacent parking lot and within thirty seconds had squeezed myself into the back of a packed bus headed to Tirana.

In no time, many more morning commuters had jammed their way aboard the bus, and the driver headed into the morning traffic toward Tirana, an hour to the east.

I was lucky to have a window seat on the crowded bus, which alternated between the highway (clogged with traffic) and parallel side roads, where still more passengers could be collected and shoehorned into the old seats.

Around 9 a.m. the bus stopped on the edge of Tirana and everyone got off except for me, as I was hoping that the ride would continue into downtown.

It did not, so I followed the scrum, which immediately boarded a local bus that was headed downtown, or so I hoped.

There I figured that I could take my bearings and come up with a new plan for the day, which now could include a visit to the Albanian National Museum and the Tirana house where the former communist dictator Ever Hoxha lived until he died in 1985. (More or less, Hoxha was a contemporary of the Yugoslav leader Josef Broz aka Tito, who died in 1980.)

The National Museum with a Flashlight

I was relieved when the second bus passed near to Skanderbeg Square, as I remembered it from my visit in 2000. Then it had the forlorn qualities of a forgotten communist Red Square. Now it felt like a Christmas market, with various stalls arranged so that Albanians could buy sweets or drink coffee next to space heaters.

I bought coffee from a vendor and retreated to a polished marble park bench, where I dug out my Albanian maps and guides, and plotted how I might get to the North Macedonian border.

The National Museum was closed that day for “renovation” (the guard out front shooed me away, as though I was a tomb raider). I remembered it from my first visit, when I went around the exhibits on a cold January evening, with one of the museum staff walking ahead of me with a flashlight.

On that visit it struck me that the political purpose of the museum was to make clear that Albanians are descended from Illyrians, not Slavs, thus a distinct race from the nearby and treacherous Serbs.

The museum also had a number of ethnic maps of the Balkans, with little dots that showed where various minorities had staked a claim. The maps matched a passage I later came across in Miranda Vickers’s The Albanians, which reads:

Following the establishment of Ottoman rule, no effort was made either to destroy or to unify all the diverse elements of the Balkan peninsula. Instead, national and local particularisms were enforced and deepened. In some localities Muslim, Serbian, Bulgarian, and Greek villages existed side by side for centuries with little or no cultural or personal intermixing.

Within Albania itself, there is a further divide, with two distinct tribal groupings. In the mountainous north (including Kosova) are the Ghegs, as Vickers writes, “based upon a tightly knit clan system connecting various isolated homesteads.”

To the south, in some of the fertile mountain valleys, are Tosks who, she writes, “constituted the bulk of the landless and subsidence-level peasantry.” Hence the basis of some of the tribal feuds (from the mountains to the valleys) that still wash over Albania.

Tirana’s Pyramid Scheme

Fortified with coffee and a plan for the day (when I was done touring, I would find a bus heading toward Pogradec), I set off in the direction of the National Arts Gallery, which I had not seen on my first visit.

In 2000 most architectural questions revolved around what would become of Enver Hoxha’s Pyramid (a monumental structure, not the bank scam, in the center of Tirana). The Pyramid was discussed in nearly all of our meetings. It had opened in 1988 as a memorial, almost a mausoleum, to Hoxha, but by 2000 it was a national embarrassment.

There were discussions about turning it into a conference center, another museum, or even a disco, but at the time it was a crumbling mess and closed.

On this trip, when I asked about its fate, someone told me that it had been saved from the wrecking ball, spruced up, but still had no official role—other than to cast the long shadow of Enver Hoxha’s collectivist dreams over a city of increasing new wealth.

I liked the Arts Gallery, as it seemed to have as many styles of painting—from impressionist to post-modernist—as Albania has had imperial masters. Wander through the galleries and you will see Turkish dervishes, Austrian counts, medieval horsemen, and Italian dilettantes.

Needless to say, socialist realism—happy workers bringing home the harvest, etc.—is well represented, but what saves much of the art on display from agitation propaganda is the warm, almost Mediterranean, summer light that illuminates what otherwise could well be the sad, troubled history that is set to canvas.

Enver Hoxha’s Presidential Dreams

From the Arts Gallery I set off to find Hoxha’s presidential palace. I had a street address and a map in hand, but still it took me several tries to find the right intersection.

Along the way I was pleasantly surprised—delighted might even be the word—to find that Tirana is no longer a dusty Balkan backwater, the punch line to various political jokes, but a pleasant, well-maintained capital city, with bike lanes, cafés, restaurants, and leafy parks. It made me long for my folding bicycle (which I had left behind on this trip), so that I could take in more than what I would see on foot.

Hoxha’s presidential palace—it looks like a two-story Italian apartment building, of a kind you might find outside Naples—is now an office building or conference center.

All I could do was take pictures from the surrounding iron fence. There was no sign indicating the name of the former owner, who for the most part has been whitewashed from Albanian history, in much the way that King Zog is also a forgotten man.

Hoxha was a World War II partisan who fought alongside Tito in trying to rid the Balkans of Italian and Nazi invaders. (Not all Albanians opposed the occupation, and an Albanian SS division, known as ‘Skenderbeg’, was one of the most ruthless Nazi units in Southeast Europe.)

Vickers describes his background:

The Yugoslavs appointed Enver Hoxha, one of the Tirana organizers of the Korca branch of the ACP [Albanian Communist Party], Party Secretary. Hoxha, the son of a Muslim landowner, had been born in 1908 in Girokaster, in southern Albania. He studied at the French Lycée in Korca [it’s near the Greek border, in southeast Albania] before going to Paris, having received an Albanian state scholarship to study at the University of Montpelier. Here he had come into contact with Albanian Communist exiles, including Ali Kelmendi. He later went to Brussels to study law. In 1936 he had moved back to Albania, having obtained a degree from neither France nor Belgium, to teach French in his old school at Korca. All but one of the founding leadership of the ACP were middle-class intellectuals, the exception being Koci Xoxe, a tinsmith from Korca.

Had the postwar years gone according Tito’s plans, Albania would have been swept up in the latest incarnation of the Yugoslav federation (its earlier version dated from 1918 – 1929).

After the war Hoxha pushed back on allowing Albania to join Yugoslavia, although Kosovo did (against its will). He did sign protocols about a “Balkan Federation” that would have included Albania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Greece, even though nearly all of those nations had territorial designs on the Albanian homeland.

Albania Organizes a Shoot

Independent Albania (roughly the geographical configuration that is known today) dates to the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 that ended Ottoman rule in Europe (Turkey hung on to the land between Istanbul and Adrianople, now Edirne).

In the first Balkan War, Serbia, Montenegro, Greece, and Bulgaria fought together to evict the Turks from their lands. In the Second Balkan War, after the first division of spoils ended unhappily, Bulgaria turned on Greece and Serbia, to reclaim parts of Macedonia that it believed belonged to it. (But it was badly beaten.)

In 1913 Albania, however, became a ward of Austrian imperialism (to deny Serbia access to the sea), and as is its head of state (locally he was called mbret) it was sent a German aristocrat, Prince William of Wied, who thought the key to good governance was to adopt an imposing dress code and to arrive smartly in Durrës on a royal yacht.

In Thunder at Twilight, which is about the collapse of the Austrian monarchy and has a chapter on Albania’s founding, Frederic Morton writes:

After the enthusiasm subsided punctually, the mbret held his first State Council. It addressed three problems. (1) What were the best shoots in the most secure areas? (2) What game was there to shoot? (3) What European princes should be invited to the hunt?

Maybe if William of Wield had not stepped ashore from his yacht in spring 1914, he might have put together some enchanted evenings for his royal guests. But by summer 1914, Austria was at war with Serbia, and Albania was too weak (even with William decked out in his cummerbunds) to resist its dismemberment.

In The Albanians, Vickers points out that the Allies went to war in the West to protect Belgian neutrality and sovereignty but in the East they cast a blind eye as its allies snatched up their neighbors: Montenegro took northern Albania (around Scutari), the Serbs moved into Durrës, and the Greeks pushed into what is now southern Albania.

Those land grabs lasted only until 1915, when reinforced Austrian and Bulgarian divisions, with German support, invaded Serbia and drove the Serbian army out of the country.

During harsh winter conditions, the Serbs, including their king, retreated from Belgrade to Kosovo and across Albania until they reached the Greek island of Corfu, where many soldiers died of wounds and illness. Serbia was no more (except as an idea).

World War I: The Gardeners of Salonika

During most of World War I, the front line in Southeast Europe between the Axis and Allied powers stretched along a mountainous line that ran from Durrës across Macedonia to Bulgaria in the east—lands later claimed by Yugoslavs, Greeks, Bulgarians, and Turks.

To establish another front in Europe, the Allies landed British, French, and Serbian armies in Salonika in 1916 (as the disaster at Gallipoli was ending), and these forces (nicknamed “the gardeners of Salonika” for all their trench digging) fought mainly Bulgarian and Austrian armies in the high grounds of Macedonia.

At Dobro Polje (a mountaintop near what is now Bitola, which was then Monastir) in September 1918, the Serbian army broke through against the Bulgarian army, and after that neither Germany nor Austria could keep the Allies out of southeast Europe. In some ways, it was the defeat that forced Germany to end the war.

The Peace of Paris (Versailles and related treaties) codified the earlier creation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, which included some half a million ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

Even then Kosovo had more Albanians than Serbs, but medieval Serbia had flourished around Prizren, Pec, and what is now Prishtina, and after the important victory at Dobro Polje the Allies didn’t have the heart—in their postwar treaties—to deny the Serbian claim to its ancestral lands.

Albania on Its Own

The rump state of Albania was largely left to fend for itself, although it no longer had its German prince in his smart uniforms on the throne.

During the unstable interwar years, Ahmed Zogu (a local politician from a land-owning family who fought with the Austrians in World War I) consolidated enough power between the lowlands and hills to declare himself King Zog I in 1928. It was a few years after that when he got his summer palace in Durrës, as close he would get, on that seaside hill, to a mandate from heaven.

In the 1930s Albania was an uneasy kingdom, as Greeks, Serbs, and Montenegrins all resented Zog’s nationalist claims and Italian flirtations, as did various tribal chiefs scattered across the fragile state highlighted by its taste for blood feuds.

By then Zog had to deal with Mussolini’s expansionist aspirations (earlier Italy had backed the king), which were to convert his kingdom in 1939 into an Italian colony.

Albania’s fate has been to be at the crossroads of many imperial processions.

No wonder Zog was the target of some 55 assassination attempts or that in the 1950s Enver Hoxha, in his bunker palace, had food tasters on his staff and turned Albania into a hermit autocracy.

Next: Tirana to Pogradec and the North Macedonia border. Earlier installments can be found here.

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 book, about traveling in France and the Franco-Prussian wars, is entitled Biking with Bismarck. His new book is: Our Man in Iran.