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New Europe

Day Twenty-five: Tirana to Krujë

The Bektashi monastery 
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High above Krujė, I walk with a pilgrim up to the Bektashi monastery.
Michael Palin - New EuropeToday we get to see for ourselves the fabled pot-holes of Albania, for we're driving out of Tirana to the hill town of Krujė. After some mild rattling through the streets of Tirana, the really good vibrations begin about a mile from the hotel at a notorious interchange called the Blackbird Roundabout, so named after a brothel of the same name which used to stand on the site. It's an ambitious mess, more half-started than half-finished, caught in a deadlock between mayor and Prime minister. Whilst they argue, the roundabout resembles a slowly moving car park. A section of motorway, unconnected to anything else, lies stranded in the middle of this chaos, like some ancient dolmen.

Once past this stretch of urban no-man's-land things improve. A narrow highway lined with an unfeasibly large number of furniture warehouses, petrol stations and good old-fashioned ads with cowboys pulling hard on Marlboros takes us out along the flat plain to the north-west of Tirana.

This neither country nor city road is a touch depressing, and not helped by the appearance of the word 'Shitet', on many of the buildings, though this, I'm later assured, means 'For Rent.'

Krujė is dominated by a terrific battlemented castle set on a rocky crag with a fine view across the plain and out over a hazy Adriatic. In the same year as Henry V was inspiring English soldiers on the battlefield of Agincourt, the Turks swept into Albania and captured this mighty fortress. Enter national hero Skanderbeg (who had learnt his fighting from the Turks) to retake Krujė and hold it against not one but three Turkish sieges.

His success is the reason for all the bazaars, museums, guest houses, restaurants and lines of schoolchildren filling the cobbled streets and pathways. The defence of Krujė, though ultimately unsuccessful, is seen as the golden age of a country without a lot to celebrate. Krujė is a national shrine.

Illir Mati, my guide, is a cheerful, chatty, middle-aged Albanian, much given to smacking one hand with the palm of the other to reinforce his, many, opinions. His father was an admiral and he himself spent twenty years as a submarine engineer. When Albania was part of the Warsaw Pact they had twelve Soviet submarines but after Hoxha split with Russia this was reduced to four. Three of these were, as he put it, 'for show'. Only one was maintained, and that saw little action. Ordered to keep an eye on 'enemy activity', they patrolled the Otranto Channel and used their periscope to scan topless sunbathers on Italian beaches.

We walk up to the castle through a bazaar selling peasant furniture, wooden cradles, butter churns, cow bells, water jugs and Albanian flags and scarves. Vehicles aren't allowed up here so heavily laden donkeys push their way through. Illir pithily sums up Albania's transport revolution.

'From donkeys to Mercedes in twenty years. With nothing in between!'
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Twenty-five: Tirana to Krujë
  • Country/sea: Albania
  • Place: Krujë
  • Book page no: 62

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