Macedonian Ramble: To the Albanian-North Macedonian Border

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The “main line” in Albania to the North Macedonia border.

This is the third 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.

Much more than I thought I might, I enjoyed my walk around Tirana. I stopped at an excellent bookshop and admired several shelves devoted to Albanian history, including Arthur Evans’s Albanian Letters, a book about “Financial Relations in the Fascist Period,” and an account called From Stalin to Mao: Albania and the Socialist World: always judge a country by its book covers.

I would have been happy departing with an armload of books, but there was no room in my small backpack. The books did enliven my walk, however, and whenever I was dragging from my early start in Durrës I would stop in at a sidewalk café (there were many) and drink Turkish coffee.

Zog’s House of Usher

Late in the morning I pointed myself in the direction of the bus station offering connections to Elbasan and beyond. Along the way I passed an opulent mansion with a plaque on the wall out front, listing all the residents in the last hundred years, which made for a crisp summary of Albanian history.

The villa had been home to one of King Zog’s ministers (later executed by Enver Hoxha), the North Vietnamese embassy (1950), and then, at the time of independence in 1990, the Forestry Department.

It was subsequently returned to the family of the executed Zogist minister, and made the residence of the Greek and then the Spanish ambassador.

Since 2017 it has been the private residence of a wealthy American-Albanian family (whose SUVs were parked in the driveway) that apparently owns 18 McDonald’s restaurants in Michigan, where the family patriarch is also the honorary consul for Albania (“I’m lovin’ it…”).

The Bus to the Border

In the bus parking lot, I hunted around until I found a mini-van that had, on its windshield, a sign for Pogradec, the border town where I was headed.

The driver buried my backpack in the back, under a pile of appliances in cardboard boxes, and gave me a seat on the empty bus, although in no time all the other seats had filled up and several men were standing (well, stooped over) in the aisle.

I had ambitions to read my book along the way, but instead I passed most of my time looking out the window, especially as the mini-van left the lowlands around Tirana and began ascending into the hills.

For much of the first hour of driving, we were on a new autoroute, which sliced its way through what would have been a pretty part of the country, had we stuck to the old road.

Our first stop was Elbasan, a small city or large town, and what interested me was the railroad station, as I curious to see if any trains were running that day (they were not).

The Elbasan depot was behind the bus station on the main road in town, but from what I could see it was a forlorn affair—the end of a dreary line. (My favorite railroad stations have restaurant tables on the platforms, lively newsstands, and, as I found once in Malaysia, tropical fish tanks.)

A few people got off the bus in Elbasan (extracting their luggage took a while), but the main stop between Tirana and Pogradec took place at a rest stop in the middle of nowhere near the town of Xhyrë, where we spent almost an hour while the driver had his lunch and most of the passengers smoked cigarettes.

I used the occasion to eat something and read my book about the 1912-13 Balkan Wars, and then, tired of resting, I climbed a nearby incline and found the train tracks that once connected Elbasan (if not Durrës) and the border town (with North Macedonia) of Pogradec.

There I put to rest, at least in my own mind, the hope that there will ever again be train service between Elbasan and Pogradec (perhaps part of some Trans-Macedonian network). The tracks were covered with fallen branches and weeds were growing between the ties—on a line to nowhere.

Hoxha’s Albania Goes to Ground

Eventually the driver finished his coffee and cigarette, and the passengers reassembled in their seats for the last hour of the ride. The bus wound through portions of “high Albania” (the title of the 1909 Edith Durham book) until at last the road descended toward Lake Ohrid, which in size and shape reminded me of Lake Garda in northern Italy.

I didn’t read my book on this section of journey so much as I flipped through pages and notes, trying to figure out what had caused Albania, in the years after World War II, to turn into a hermit nation (symbolized by all those one-man bomb shelters scattered around the country’s fields).

Was it Hoxha’s paranoid personality foisted upon the impoverished nation or was it something more that caused Albania to seal its borders and renounce contact with the world?

By the time Hoxha’s communist party consolidated power in the postwar world of the late 1940s, the country was just another Soviet satellite in Eastern Europe, shut off from the West and dependent on Moscow for industrial goods and foreign aid.

Hoxha didn’t mind the isolation, as he was in lockstep with the Soviet Union, but he did remain wary of Italian, Greek, and Yugoslav encroachments.

Relations with the Soviet Union improved after Tito broke with Stalin in 1948—the enemy of my enemy is my friend—although Cold War tensions in Greece, and that country’s civil war, much of which was fought in Epirus, soured relations between Greece and Albania. Nevertheless, at least until Stalin’s death in 1953, Hoxha happily toed the East European party lines.

It was the Sino-Soviet split in the late 1950s that sent Hoxha’s Albania into its spiral of isolation. Having grown tired of Nikita Khrushchev’s revisionism in the Soviet Union, not to mention his growing rapprochement with Yugoslavia, Hoxha sided with China, a relationship (based on Chinese trade credits) which lasted into the mid-1970s, after which Hoxha’s Albania broke with Mao and became an orphan of the international system, a creature drawn entirely into its shell.

Amanda Vickers writes:

Hoxha’s policy of trying to practice ‘socialism in one country’ was totally impractical for Albania. The best he could manage was a policy aimed at mere survival…. Shortly before his death, in a speech to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the liberation, Hoxha made a final denunciation of ‘the Titoites, the Soviet revisionists and those of the counties of Easter Europe and Mao-Tse-Tung’s China which had ulterior, hostile, enslaving aims. We tore the mat from them and told them bluntly that Albania was not for sale for a handful of rags, or a few roubles, dinars, or yuan.’

Actually, as Vickers points out, Albania did derive some benefits from its shifting alliances, as the moment Tirana tired of one overlord, it moved on—leaving behind a raft of unpaid debts.

Hoxha died in 1985. His fragile communist crony coalition blew up in 1990, just as Yugoslavia entered its own death spiral. Vickers writes: “It is Albania’s misfortune that she should emerge from such an extended period of isolation into a Balkans seething with as many national grievances and rivalries as when the Albanian state was proclaimed in 1912.”

Lake Ohrid in December

The bus pulled into a parking lot in the center of Pogradec, where all the passengers (we were about twenty in all) wrestled their buried boxes and luggage from the back of the bus.

I had three options for getting to the North Macedonian border—to hail a taxi (although none was around), to catch a local bus (good luck with that), or to walk (I figured it was about seven kilometers to the frontier).

For weeks before leaving home, I had studied this border, without coming to any firm ideas on the best way to get across. Nor was the question one of the more popular threads on Tripadvisor.

As I was pulling my backpack from the baggage scrum, I asked one of the men from the bus if he knew how I could get to the border with North Macedonia. We had been sitting near each other but had not exchanged any conversation during the trip.

It turned out his name was Darhon, and when he heard that I was headed to the border, he offered to drive me in his car, which was parked near to the bus parking lot. I helped him with some of his appliance boxes, and a friend of his, who had met Darhon at the bus, came along for the joy ride.

Darhon and his friend were about my age, and once we were in the car, they were laughing and joking, as good friends do. Both of them warmed to my stories about Tirana and the train not running from Durrës (“no, not for years”) and my plan to visit the Orthodox monastery of Sveti Naum; and then to head along the lake to the town of Ohrid (“One of them said: “Yes, it’s very close, but we never go” although what I heard was “Better you than me” and then much laughter.)

Darhon owned a lakeside hotel and restaurant, but this was off-season, and he had time to work on the building. We drove past the hotel and out along the lake shore, which in summer would have been full of campers and tourists, but which now, in December, looked unkempt and cold.

Leaving Albania on Foot

Darhon and his pal dropped me on the Albanian side of the border crossing next to a row of flags. When I asked them if Albanians were allowed to cross into North Macedonia, they shrugged, implying that, well, yes, it was technically possible, but who would want to go?

Until the break-up of Yugoslavia, North Macedonia (previously called the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia or FYROM) was one of the constituent republics. But a large Albanian minority around the Tetovo (not far from where Mother Teresa was born in Skopje) had complicated relations between Albania and North Macedonia, a strain that was continuing into thi era.

The concept of Greater Albania (which dates to the 1878 League of Prizren) includes much of North Macedonia along with all of Kosovo (Kosova today), swathes of northern Greece, and the Sandzak of Novi Pazar (part of Serbia).

Needless to say, North Macedonia is not a follower of the League, and all the international support for an independent Kosova leaves the country feeling vulnerable and isolated, with many of its border crossings into Albania little used.

Heading off from my new friends, I had no trouble getting my passport stamped at Tushemisht – St. Naum, so that legally I could leave Albania. But when I asked the border guard how far it was to the North Macedonian border, he gestured that it was a mile up the winding, lakeside road. I trudged off on foot; so much for a seamless European Union.

No cars or trucks passed me on my walk across this barren no-man’s land into North Macedonia, and after a while I started to feel like a character in a John le Carré novel, heading into the cold.

Next: Sveti Naum to Ohrid. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, and The 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.