Wednesday, July 08, 2009

What professionals drink in Albania

I would have called it "What professionals drink in Korce," but in that city they drink Korce Birra, the local beer, which is, I'm sorry, dreadful.

But there are other beers in Albania, including the amusingly named Kaon, which is an anagram of "Koan." And it really isn't bad beer!

Albania was quite a surprise - a beautiful, mountainous country with dirt-cheap resort cities and cafes and lakes and endless opportunities to explore.

One of the truly weird things about Albania is the hundreds of thousands of concrete bunkers that dot the landscape like a pestilence of gigantic mushrooms. These bunkers, most of which are roughly four meters in diameter and protrude from the ground by about two meters, were built during the Hoxha era and were meant to protect Albania from a NATO invasion. Hoxha got help from the Chinese, and every family was supposed to have at least one, especially in the agricultural regions. The idea was that mum, papa, Uncle Afrim and grandma would ensconce themselves in the bunker when the Americans came (or the British or the West Germans or whoever) and man the machine guns.


According to this BBC story, the bunkers cost twice as much as the Maginot Line and used three times as much concrete.

I was in Albania on an OSCE election observation mission, and despite the grueling schedule, I enjoyed almost every minute of my time there (except for the last few hours of my 20-hour shift on election day, when I was non-lucid).

My area of responsibility was the territory north of Korce, stretching to a picturesque lake where we had lunch on the afternoon prior to E-day. Village life is what you would expect, with donkeys carrying bundles of brushwood here and there, curious children, and old women who might ask you in for a cup of tea - something my Icelandic partner and I were treated to in a sleepy village 10 km north of the city.

There is a significant Greek Orthodox community in the Korce region, something I hadn't expected, and Italian is spoken widely, a holdover from the days when Albania was in the Italian sphere of influence. 

And in Korce there resides a fascinating Sufi sect, the Bektashi, who combine elements of Shi'a and Sunni Islam. The Bektashi were banned by Ataturk and then fled to Albania, where they settled in the early 20th century. The
Bektashi web site is here.

I plan to return as a tourist and spend at least a week just driving and taking photos. There is a huge, eerie petro-chemical plant between Tirana and the Adriatic that one could spend two days at just framing and waiting for the right light and shooting. Just splendid dead-tech.

So here are a few shots of rural Albania, with a couple of pictures of downtown Korce, including the famous Greek Orthodox cathedral and a typical street scene. Incredibly lovely...