Less than 8 km away from Himare, we stop for a cup of coffee. A fluent English-speaking boy runs a small café on a beautiful viewpoint. We feel like a bite of something with our coffee and get in contact with our host. He can make a cooked breakfast for us, but then we want to sleep first instead of cycling, he fears (and so do we 😉)
We put sugar in the coffee and enjoy the view. Upon leaving, we realize that, with all that English, we don’t know whether to say thanks in Greek or Albanian. We decide to just ask. The boy laughs and says “Yes in Himare Greek is quite an issue”. Greece apparently sponsors the university education of people from that region, to keep it that way, but it is all base on very old traditions. “We just speak Albanian”. That gives a completely different color to the story of our campsite owner.
Meanwhile, a few days further in Elbasan (where the new tent has arrived 😀) we stay in the apartment of Alesio and his family. We are received and invited for coffee and a tour of the city by his good English speaking friend Klevis.
The tour starts with a cup of coffee in the Roman castle that dominates the center of the city. A beautiful terraced garden where we can get to know each other and we can ask a whole bunch of questions about the history of Albania and get a glimpse into the current situation of the country.
These Albanians are also so friendly again (a question about where we can best eat traditional Albania food leads to at least 3 phone calls) and proud in their own way. The Greeks flag on every house, here we can not possibly pay the bill for the coffee. It is a matter of honor we understand: Alesio pays.
Alesio says that the fortress (originally of immense dimensions) was part of the security of Rruga Egnatia, the route from Constantinople to Italy (which in turn connects to the Via Appia in Rome), and was later used by the Ottomans as a military position.
Klevis talks about how the Albanians would like to join the EU, but Albanian politicians are reluctant to commit to European regulations (because they would personally be disadvantaged by it). He talks about corruption and money laundering that annoys him and about the unemployment that burden the Albanese.
In Elbasan, the former communist steel industry has been decimated because of its association with the dark old days, but it is still the largest employer in the region. We saw that when we approached the town, large mountains of coal and huge yellow clouds above the archaic factory halls. “Legally, they have to apply airfilters, but they don’t, they pay off those responsible to turn a blind eye.” And my question whether the stagnation in Ukrainian steel leads to a revival is answered negatively. Unfortunately, there seems to be a current financial problem because import is cheaper than the Albania production. The same applies to Albania fruits and vegetables. Because there are no cooling facilities, apples, for example, cannot be stored and are forced to be destroyed. Even water from this region cannot compete with import. Frustration allover offcourse.
We also talk at length about how Albanian society has many different religions: (Greek) Orthodox, Islamic, Catholic and other Christian churches and how well that goes together. Church and State are separated and he is proud of that. Even though it is sometimes politically sensitive, the interaction with, for example, Greeks (many Albanians work in Greece in the winter) is also very natural. They both need eachother. Whoever you help, you treat with respect is deeply rooted in the Albanian tradition and has become the famous hospitality. It annoys both friends that tourists have to pay more than locals. In this way, Albanian society is disadvantaged because Albania losses its price advantage to Greece and Macedonia. When we ask where we can buy scissors, Alesio first goes in alone so that we can get the right price.
And when they show us around the neighborhood within the castle walls (where mosque and Orthodox church stand side by side), Klevis is genuinely surprised and annoyed when a woman in the church objects to tourists (who do not pay) with a raised voice and waving finger. He takes his time to put in a good word for us in a respectful tone, Alesio makes a donation, and then the priest gives us a tour of the 2 remaining 14th century fresco’s, the (closed) catacombs (which were part of secret corridors to flee in repressive times) and an explanation of the icons and rituals when preaching in an Orthodox service. Our sincere attention apparently made up for a lot: upon departure we were invited to take pictures.
Outside, we understand that this is the last Orthodox church in Albania that is still independent of the Greek Orthodox Church. Something that gets a slightly different meaning when, a little further down the road, we are invited by a priest to visit a tiny hidden church that has recently been restored. He and his colleague are decorating the church with laurel branches for Palm Sunday. “Yes, the Catholics use bread on their cross, but the Orthodox keep it pure.” This is a National Albanian Church. Oscar and I both get a candle to light and I get to take a picture outside.
It is super fun to get an insight into the local experience of history, culture and politics. That really gives our day and journey a deeper meaning. For Klevis and Alesio, too, our meeting really seems to be of added value. They practice English and have also learned new things about their city during the visits to the churches and recognize the strength of their own culture by telling about it. All in all a great day.
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