hidden europe 6

Albania: the conversation hour

by Christopher Portway

Picture above: Village life in Lin, Albania (photo © Sophie Barta).


guest contributor Christopher Portway experiences Albanian hospitality in the village of Lin on the shores of Lake Ohrid

There is something extraordinary about the way that many folk travel. The imperative to 'see' as much as possible means that we actually 'experience' next to nothing. We jet to far flung lands and leave again without so much as having learnt a word of the local language. The waywardness of our western affection for speed is always impressed on us in our visits to the Balkans. Well we remember the withering look when we declined an offer of coffee in the Macedonian village of Radozda, a wee village with lots of fishing boats on the west shore of Lake Ohrid just north of the Albanian border. We were shamed by the sheer disbelief on the part of the old man by the lake that a stranger really did not have a moment to pause. Explanations of a plane to catch and the need to 'press on' only compounded the old gentleman's incredulity. What is this imperative that has us so enslaved, a discipline that is construed as an insufferable madness by those we encounter along the trail? "Might you not wait a while", pressed the man, "if only to allow your souls to catch up with you?"

When Edith Durham travelled through the Balkans one hundred years ago, she took seven years to explore Albania and adjacent areas of Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro, and, even then she confessed to having rushed to the extent that she could "not always precisely remember the manners and customs of each district". But for the remarkable and flamboyant Englishwoman, as for many other travellers of her generation, speed was the enemy of understanding. Travel should surely proceed at a pace that allowed offers of hospitality to be generously accepted. Edith Durham managed this most adeptly, and seemed to drift through Albania from one glass of raki to the next.

A generation later, in 1930, the Albanian Stavre Frasheri struggled through Mirditë in snowy winter, acting as guide to an American intent on measuring heads. The august American was an anthropologist rather than a hatter by profession. Between them Frasheri and the professor recorded not just head sizes but also the famously open doors everywhere in this region of northern Albania. Even in the remotest and poorest villages, he recorded how the guest was accorded the highest honour, even if the locals were somewhat bemused by the American professor's commitment to his tape measure.

hidden europe guest contributor Christopher Portway reports from the shores of Lake Ohrid in eastern Albania. The best traditions of Albanian hospitality are, it seems, undiminished by time.

It is in the nature of things, when travelling in some of the remoter parts of Europe, that sometimes you get a little lost. I think the village was called Lin, but that wasn't absolutely clear. There were no obvious road signs as I approached the cluster of houses that sits neatly on the shores of Lake Ohrid. Shimmering waters to the east, and the Macedonian border just a stone's throw away to the north. I went in pursuit of art. It was said that atop the hill behind the village, protected by an improvised metal shelter, were some extremely fine excavated mosaics. In the event, it was the village and its people that caught my interest. After a heavy dose of culture visiting many richly frescoed and icon laden churches in the Albanian community of Voskopojë away to the south, this was a moment when a diversion into everyday village life was a real respite.

Related note

Bulgarian affairs

Bulgaria is gearing up for more visitors from neighbouring countries, having just announced that from Saturday 19 December 2009 travellers from Macedonia and Serbia making short visits to Bulgaria will no longer need to secure a visa in advance.

Related article

Sharing sacred space

The clean lines that we think divide religions often become very blurred in the Balkan region. Thus shrines may be claimed as sacred by adherents of more than one religion. We look at the phenomenon of syncretic shrines.