I have received news of two books about Albania. One, an intriguing novel, is written by American born Kim Malaj. The other, a collection of Albanian folk tales is written by her husband, Arti Malaj, who was born and brought up in Albania. I look forward to reading them in the future. Why not give them a try, and let me know how you enjoyed them?
THE NOVEL:”CASTLE OF TESKOM” by Kim Malaj
‘Shiny ember rocks are fuel for time; the dull rocks are a fool’s dime.’An old nursery rhyme, or so they think. Itra and Danae stumble across an ancient secret kept hidden behind a reflection in time near their Albanian home. A faded memory and cryptic messages have propelled them to risk an encounter with foes from Greek mythology, altering their perception of Albanian folklore and reality. Itra and Danae grapple with events set in motion centuries ago and must choose toprotect and serve or risk having the secret exposed. Will love, loyalty, and lineage be enough to hold them together, or will they lose their way in auniverse they are only beginning to understand?
THE FOLK TALESNORTHERN ALBANIAN FOLKTALES, MYTHS AND LEGENDS
by Arti Malaj
Generations of Northern Albanian are known as great storytellers. They shared many folk tales, myths, and legends with their descendants. The collected short stories include mysterious legends of lost treasures, mystical tales of mountain fairies, superhuman powers, century-old witches, blood feuds, and more written by a twelfth-generation Albanian. The lands described in the stories are still visible today, and locals share a sense of wonder and respect the mysteries that hide beneath. Northern Albania is a true treasure of raw natural beauty and a hidden gem in Southeastern Europe.
I WISH THAT I had taken a photograph of it when I was visiting Tirana, the capital of Albania, in 1984, the last year of the life of its long term dictator and admirer of Josef Stalin, Enver Hoxha (1908-1965). I managed to get at least one photograph of a statue of Stalin in Albania, the only European country that still displayed monuments to this by then mostly discredited Soviet dictator. However, in May 1984, I failed to take a picture of something I have never seen outside Albania or in Albania when I revisited it in 2016. What I failed to record on film was the sight of men walking along the streets with heads of flowers whose stems they were holding between their teeth. Their lips were hidden behind the blooms. I mentioned seeing this to several people who have visited Albania, and none recall seeing flowers being carried that way. So, I was beginning to wonder whether my memory was playing tricks as time passed.
A few days ago, I was browsing the bookshelves in an Oxfam charity shop when I noticed a travelogue that contained a few pages about the author’s experience of Albania, which he visited several decades before my first encounter with the country. I was thrilled and relieved that my memory had not failed me when I read the following words he wrote:
“The inhabitants of Tirana love music and flowers. You can see men going around with roses in their mouths. They seem to use them as an extra buttonhole.”
These words, translated from German, were published in the “Frankfurter Zeitung”, a German newspaper, on the 29th of June 1927. They were written by its journalist, the Austrian novelist Moses Joseph Roth (1894-1939), better known as ‘Joseph Roth’. The book in which I found his articles on Albania is “The Hotel Years”, edited and translated by Michael Hoffmann and published in 2015. The anthology of Roth’s writings covers countries, to mention a few of them, including Austria, Hungary the USSR, Germany, Yugoslavia, and Albania.
Roth visited Albania in 1927 and published six articles about it between May and July that year. He mentioned the love of music in Tirana. This observation relates to both the mandolins played mainly by Albanians who had unaccountably, in his opinion, returned to their country after having lived abroad, mainly in the USA, and to military bands. During his sojourn in the capital, he notes the seemingly endless army exercises and parades that are carried out throughout the day.
With regard to the Albanian army, it was his impression that they were poorly equipped:
“Now the army has Austrian rifles and Italian ammunition, bullets that jam, magazines that can’t be clicked in, British knapsacks that can’t be secured with Italian straps, covers for field-shovels and no field-shovels with which to dig trenches, Italian officers who don’t know commands in Albanian, …”
And, he asks:
“For whom do they exercise? Surely not for their country? Because half the country is unhappy with their government – for reasons of idealism.”
Reading this, made me wonder why Roth was sending reports from Albania between the end of May and the end of July in 1927. Near the end of his largely unflattering description of the country and its people, he wrote:
“Albania is beautiful, unhappy, and for all its current topicality, boring.”
Although Albania is anything but boring for me, I was curious about its “current topicality” during those months in 1927. Roth’s readers probably knew, but that was long ago.
I looked at various issues of the “Times” newspaper of London and other sources to discover what might have interested the world’s press in Albania at the time that Roth wrote his articles. On Monday, the 6th of June, the Times noted that diplomatic relations between Albania and its neighbour Yugoslavia had broken down. On the 27th of May, Mr Juraskovitch, an interpreter at the Yugoslav legation in Tirana, was arrested and his house was burnt down (www.jstor.org/stable/25638310?seq=1). Naturally, the Yugoslav government objected. On the 31st, Tzena Beg, an Albanian representative in Belgrade, explained to the Yugoslavs that Juraskovitch was an Albanian citizen and that compromising documents had been found in his possession. Mr Sakovitch, the Yugoslav chargé d’affaires, disclaimed all knowledge of this and demanded the release of Juraskovitch. Hussein Beg Vrioni, the Albanian Minister for Foreign Affairs, said that his case was purely an internal matter. On the 4th of June, the Yugoslav legation was withdrawn from Tirana. The following day, the Albanian government declared that it was taking the case to the League of Nations.
On the 5th of June, the “Times” noted that many Albanians feared that this diplomatic incident would create anxiety and unrest in the country, and many felt that the flames were being fanned by a third party with a great interest in Albania, Italy. According to “The Annual Register, Vol. 169- for 1927” Italy had:
“…sent to Berlin, Paris, and London a Note calling attention to alleged preparations on the part of Yugoslavia for an immediate invasion of Albanian territory. The crisis had arisen as the result of the arrest by the Albanian police of a certain Jurascovich, charged with espionage on behalf of the Yugoslav Government. Refusal to release the alleged spy led to the withdrawal of the Yugoslav Minister from Tirana, and to the Italian Note. The matter was, however, satisfactorily settled between Italy and Yugoslavia.”
Eventually in November 1927 after much Italian antagonism to the French and their cordial relations with Yugoslavia:
“ … the Italian Government published the text of an Italo -Albanian Treaty of defensive alliance.”
This was not the first attempt to forge an alliance between Italy and Albania as is illustrated from the following quote from “The Annual Register”:
“Relations with Italy and Albania were disturbed at the end of 1926 by the first Tirana Treaty and became more strained in March, 1927, when the Italian Government addressed a Note to the Great Powers (Germany, Great Britain, and France) accusing Yugoslavia of military preparations against Albania.”
Thus, Albania was being dragged gradually into the strong influence that Italy held on it until the Second World War had begun.
Roth travelled to Albania around about, or just after the Juraskovitch affair had begun. This might have been one reason for his visit. Another thing that might have attracted his attention, which was reported in the “Times” of the 10th of June 1927, was the growing unrest of many Albanians, particularly in the north, resulting from dissatisfaction with the government of Ahmed Zogu. However, by mid-July, a couple of weeks before Roth’s last article about Albania, the two countries, Albania and Yugoslavia, had come to a more or less satisfactory settlement of the Juraskovitch affair.
My surmise is that Roth came to Albania not out of curiosity but in connection with the diplomatic incident and the strained relationship between Albania and its Slav neighbour. My impression is that the urbane Roth cared little for what he observed during his time in Albania. His description of his arrival sets the tone for much that appears in the anthology of his Albanian travel writings:
“ … the hut, like so many attractions these days, has a guest book; sitting over the book is a man in a black uniform, rolling himself a cigarette, and this is the Albanian border police. A master of the alphabet, but unused to writing, he sits there whiling away the time of new arrivals by painstaking scrutiny of their passports … I cut short his study by offering to set down my name for him … Workmen are repairing the road. There are always two hunched over together … they collect little scoops of sand on their tiny shovels or in their bare hands, pour it into scars and potholes, sprinkle a few stones on top … and stamp it down with their bare feet …”
Roth also remarks on the telegraph wires linking Durres with Tirana. They were:
“… strung not on masts, but on crooked trees, which have been lopped and cropped. They used to stand by the wayside, a home to birds … now they are redesignated as telegraph poles … equipped to transmit journalistic reports – the twitterings of political sparrows – to Europe…”
Whereas Roth’s descriptions of Albania in 1927 are hardly flattering to the country, some other travellers, who visited it that year, published a far more flattering account in the same year. The travellers were Jan Gordon (1882-1944) and Cora C Gordon (née Turner;1879-1950), who wrote and illustrated a book called “Two Vagabonds in Albania”. It is amongst the best books I have read about the country. Unlike the critical and disapproving Roth, they take a delight in what they observed and convey that beautifully in their text and the illustrations they created.
Roth would be amazed by the changes that have occurred in Albania since his visit in 1927. I was also staggered by the changes I saw between my first visit in 1984, when I saw men with flowers in their mouths and motorised vehicles were few and far between, and 2016 when Tirana had become a modern city with traffic congestion and tall buildings to rival those found in any of the world’s large cities.
WE WERE NOT EXPECTING to see anything like it when walking down Chapel Street in the centre of the Cornish town of Penzance. What we saw immediately recalled the pseudo-Egyptian, art deco Carerras Building near Mornington Crescent in London. The building in London is far larger than that we found in Penzance, the Egyptian House. The Carreras Building was built in 1926-28. The Egyptian House was built far earlier, in 1835-36. Admittedly, the two buildings hardly resemble each other but when I saw the one in Chapel Street, I immediately thought of the structure in Mornington Crescent.
The Egyptian House is a regularly shaped building with an extraordinary façade. The front of the building is decorated in colourfully painted bas-relief with ornamentation that evokes thoughts of Ancient Egypt. The windows of this three-storey building are not rectangular. Each of them is framed in isosceles trapezoids (the top and bottom of each frame are parallel, the top being shorter than the bottom, and the sides of the frames form truncated isosceles triangles). All three layers of windows are framed in a large decorative isosceles trapezoid. This creates the illusion that the façade is tapering rather than rectangular. An informative merchant, who spoke to us from his shop across the road from the Egyptian House, pointed out that although the windows on the three floors look different in size, this is also an illusion; they are the same size on each floor.
The decorative features on the building include pillars with lotus capitals, sculpted human heads, a royal coat of arms and an eagle. Above the centrally located front door there is yet another feature, which I will describe soon. But first, a little bit of history.
“… was a stationer and bookbinder in Penzance, Cornwall, who was also dealing in minerals by 1830. Such was his success that he was able to build the famous Egyptian Hall, “Lavin’s Museum”, in Chapel Street in 1835–36.”
The building he created was typical of the early 19th century craze for building in the ‘Egyptian style’. It is said to resemble the now long-since demolished Egyptian Hall in London’s Piccadilly and the Oddfellows Hall in Devonport (constructed 1820s). Also, some of the tombs in the older, spookier, part of London’s Highgate Cemetery were designed to evoke the architecture of Ancient Egypt. When Lavin died, his son Edward sold his father’s collection to Baroness Burdett-Coutts for £3,500.
The building became neglected and fell into disrepair. By the 1960s, the façade was in a poor state, In the 1970s, the building was restored, and its original colouring reproduced. Now, it is maintained by the Landmark Trust, which rents out rooms within it to visitors at a high price, so we were informed by a local.
The decorative feature that intrigued me most is on the lintel above the front door. It is a bas-relief depicting two outstretched wings attached to a centrally located sphere from which a pair of bird’s heads each, on their own curved necks project. The bird’s heads are shown in profile with their beaks pointing in opposite directions, one to the left and the other to the right. The style of the depiction of the birds is pseudo-ancient-Egyptian as are many other of the ornaments on the building. As I am fascinated by the double-headed eagles that are used as the symbols of many places including, for example Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, Russia, and Karnataka, I was immediately curious as to whether what is above the doorway is a depiction of a double-headed eagle (‘DHE’).
Greatly simplifying matters, the earliest archaeological evidence of the DHE is in sites in Ancient Mesopotamia (3000-2000BC). The civilisations that thrived there were contemporary with Ancient Egyptian civilisations. Although DHE motifs have been discovered in Ancient Egyptian sites, they are not as prevalent there as in the lands between the Tigris and Euphrates. Without getting bogged down with the history of the usage of the DHE, I want to speculate on why Lavin included the two-headed bird decoration on his Egyptian-style building.
Was the centrally located motif simply chosen for its decorative symmetry or was John Lavin aware of some connection of the DHE with Ancient Egypt? Or was he making some reference to Cornish families, such as the Killigrews and the Godolphins, that included the DHE in their coats of arms? Sadly, I have no answer to these questions yet.
Our ‘discovery’ of the Egyptian House in Penzance was just one of many lovely things we saw during our brief first visit to the town. I have already written about the Turks Head pub in Chapel Street and I hope to reveal more of the town’s interesting sights in the near future.
MY FASCINATION WITH MILITARY bunkers began after visiting Albania in 1984, when the country was stilled being ruled by the last regime in Europe that still revered Joseph Stalin. Tiny Albania was surrounded by potential enemies, Greece, Yugoslavia, and Italy across the Adriatic. Having had his country invaded many times in the past, Albania’s dictator, Enver Hoxha (who ruled between 1945 and 1985) was determined to make the country as impregnable as possible. One approach that he adopted was to cover (literally) the entire country (towns and villages included) with small (and large) concrete bunkers, many of them were hemispherical in shape. As Albania was never invaded after 1945, the effectiveness of these concrete structures that looked like a severe rash of pimples was never put to the test.
Bunker at Torcross
The same can be said of the numerous concrete bunkers that were constructed in many strategic places all over England before and during WW2. Fortunately, the Germans never managed to invade the UK, with the exception of the Channel Islands. Judging by how useless the Maginot Line proved to be in France, I suspect that the British bunkers would have been fairly useless had the Germans invaded.
Today, we visited the tiny hamlet of Torcross in south Devon. It lies at the southern end of the long causeway that separates the sea from Slapton Ley, a large freshwater lake. While sitting at an outdoor table on the sea front at Torcross, I was staring at a picturesque rocky outcrop when I noticed what I thought was a rock with a rectangular slit cut in it.
Looking more closely using my camera’s zoom lens, I realised that the slit was really there, but it was cut in something that was not rock, but a thick concrete wall. The wall looked identical in texture to the rocks surrounding it. I realised that what I was looking at is an old bunker that ovelooks the long stretch of Slapton Sands, which is on the sea side of the causeway. It overlooks what would have been a perfect beach for a foreign invasion force to land.
In fact, the stretch of beach known as Slapton Sands was used by an invasion force in 1944. It was not a hostile force belonging to the Axis powers, but a friendly one used by Allied troops. The troops, mostly Americans, were using Slapton Sands to practice or rehearse the planned landings (on D Day) that were about to take place in Normandy as a prelude to recovering Western Europe from German occupation.
As I have described in another post, the rehearsing Allied troops were attacked by German boats, resulting in the tragic deaths of over 700 young Americans. The Germans, based in France, attacked the beach at Slapton Sands because they had picked up very busy radio signal activity in the area. Luckily for the planned invasion of France, the German attackers had no idea of what was being rehearsed at Slapton. Had they known they might well have returned to do even more damage that might have sabotaged the D Day invasion plans.
An amphibious tank, recovered from the sea in 1974, stands at Torcross as a memorial to the men who lost their lives during the German attack of the boats and other military positions at Slapton Sands.
Hence, it blends with its surroundings far better than it would have had it been built in concrete. Whether or not this and the other bunkers nearby were of any use when the Germans attacked during the very early hours of the 28th April 1944, I cannot say. However, I feel that given the devastating results of the German attack, this is unlikely.
Today, Torcross is a popular place with visitors. It has several eateries and places to stay. During past visits to this delightful spot, once the scene of a horrible tragedy, we have eaten good seafood at the Start Bay Inn, which is only a few feet away from the tank memorial. The inn was established in the 14th century, when it was known as ‘The Fisherman’s Arms’.
Visiting Torcross provides a good place to reflect on the heroism of those who fought in WW2. Little did those 700 or more men lost in this place in 1944 know that their sacrifice has allowed us to enjoy holidays at this beautiful spot. Whenever I am at Torcross, I have mixed emotions: joy because of the place’s great natural beauty, and sadness when I look at the tank memorial and remember why it is there. Had the D Day landings been thwarted, who knows under what kind of regime we would be living today.
THE DOUBLE-HEADED EAGLE, the symbol of Albania, has fascinated me ever since I first became interested in the country in about 1967. This much-employed imaginary creature, whose origins go back at least 3000 years before the birth of Christ, is not only the national symbol of tiny Albania but also of Imperial, and now modern, Russia. A year or so ago, I was walking along Golders Green Road in northwest London, one of my childhood haunts, when I saw something I had never noticed before. It was a block of flats on which I spotted a large sculpture of a double-headed eagle. The building is appropriately named ‘Eagle Lodge’.
According to Pam Fox, author of “The Jewish Community of Golders Green” a detailed and fascinating book published in 2016, Eagle Lodge was one of a number of mansion blocks built on the sites of former large villas with extensive grounds that used to line Golders Green Road. Next to the mention of ‘Eagle Lodge’, Ms Fox refers to her endnote number 1, which reads:
“It was designed by a Polish architect who carved the Polish eagle onto its façade, giving the block its name.”
Although I doubt that Ms Fox’s book attracts many Polish nationalist readers, this footnote would certainly upset them. The Polish eagle used heraldically or as a symbol has only one head. Having been subjected to domination by the Russians for many years, to confuse the single-headed eagle of Poland with the double headed version used by their Russian neighbours would not go down too well amongst the Polish fraternity.
As for the “Polish architect”, there is another problem. Eagle Lodge was, according to the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, designed by MV Braikevitch and built 1935-37. Mikhail Vasilievich Braikevitch (1874-1940) was a Russian engineer and art collector born in the Ukraine. I found an interesting pamphlet published by the London Borough of Barnet, which contains the district of Golders Green. Titled “The 1917 Revolution & Barnet’s Russian Heritage”, it says:
“Possibly the most interesting Russian resident was Mikhail Vladimirovitch Braikevitch of Woodstock Avenue. He had been an important engineer in the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway, was the mayor of Odessa before the war, and had been a member of the interim government, who ran Russia between February 1917 and the October Revolution. Remarkable as all these things are, it was his art collection which was most important. Having settled in England, he started to collect works of art smuggled out of Russia from fellow refugees – both in London and Paris – and amassed one of the best collections of Russian art outside of Russia itself. On his death in 1940, he left the collection to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, but we can imagine an ordinary house in Golders Green with some of the greatest works of Russian art on the walls.”
It was at Braikevitch’s suggestion and following a visit to his home in Golders Green that the undeservedly lesser known but remarkable Russian composer Nicolas Medtner (1880-1951), a contemporary of Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, shifted from Paris to London in 1935. The composer and his family settled into a new home on Wentworth Road in Golders Green.
Braikevitch, like Medtner, was buried at Hendon Cemetery and Crematorium, not far from Golders Green. The architect’s funeral was held at St Philip’s Russian church, Buckingham Palace Road, London. So, all things considered, it is highly likely that the architect of the rather unappealing looking Eagle Lodge with its double-headed eagle was not Polish, and that the bird with two heads has nothing to do with Poland as erroneously suggested by Ms Fox in her end note.
I HAVE LOVED BOOKSHOPS ever since I can remember. In my teenage years, I used to haunt the shelves of Foyles, a multi-storey bookshop in Tottenham Court Road. The store is named after its founders William and Gilbert Foyle, who established their business at Station Road in Peckham in 1903. A year later, they moved it to Cecil Court, an alley near Leicester Square, which still contains several bookshops. By 1906, Foyle’s had a branch on Charing Cross Road, which is where I got familiar with it.
In the second half of the 1960s, Foyles was a very well-stocked bookstore even if it seemed a bit confusing to its customers. There were separate departments specialising in various topics distributed over at least three floors. I discovered soon enough that behind the bookshelves in some of the departments there were yet more shelves, and these contained second-hand and remaindered books often at reasonable prices. It was amongst these hidden shelves that I found a rather useless but picturesque road atlas to Bulgaria, published in Bulgarian, and a wonderful detailed street map of East Berlin, “Haupstadt der DDR”. This map carefully avoided mapping the city’s contiguous West Berlin. It gave the impression that East Berlin bordered the edge of an area of uninhabited desert.
The language department was very interesting. It stocked books on every language from A to Z. It was there that I discovered a copy of “A Short Albanian Grammar” by SE Mann, published in 1932. This hardback book with dark green board covers was priced at 15 shillings (i.e. 75 pence). I was particularly excited to find this volume as my interest in Albania was already becoming quite well-developed. However, 15 shillings was way beyond my budget in 1968. That year, I began studying biology for the A-Level examinations that had to be passed to enter university. It was then that a chance to obtain this book arose.
During the first year of the A-Level course, I entered the school’s Bodkin Prize biology essay competition. I wrote a long treatise on the life of the woodlouse. This was my first ever bit of serious research. I visited the Science Library, which was then housed in a part of the then disused Whitely’s department store in Queensway. There, I translated a long article written in French about the reproductive system of the woodlouse. From what I can remember, the woodlouse can reproduce asexually, a process known as parthenogenesis. I was awarded the second prize. The only other contestant was my classmate Timothy Clarke, whose older brother, Charles, was to become Home Secretary between 2004 and 2006. Tim won the first prize.
Thesecond prize was 15 shillings to be spent on books. I asked the school to spend that money on procuring me the copy of the Albanian grammar book in Foyles. To my great annoyance, my choice was turned down and I was asked to choose again, making sure that at least one book was a hardback, because it was to be embossed with the school’s crest. I chose two books. One was a costly paperback on genetics and the other was the cheapest hardback I could find. To this day, I still do not possess a copy of Mann’s book.
Returning to Foyle’s, let me tell you about its payment system, which resembled, so I was told, the system adopted by shops in the Soviet Union. First, you had to find a book you wished to purchase. Then, you took it to a desk in the department where it was shelved. A shop assistant took the book and wrote out a paper bill. Next, you had to take the bill to one of the few cash desks in the shop. After queuing, you parted with the correct amount of money and then the paper slip was stamped. Following this, you returned to the department where your book was being held and queued up again to exchange your stamped paper slip for the book, which you were then free to take away. This laborious payment system survives today in the government run khadi (home-spun materials) shops in India. These old-fashioned shops, often smelling of moth balls, are picturesque to say the least.
Foyles was bewildering to the newcomer stepping off the street. Like the tiny alleyways in Venice, it was a great place to lose your way. However, if a customer was looking for something specific, this was not helpful. So, quite sensibly, there used to be staff standing near the entrance to help customers find what they were seeking. Some of these no doubt poorly paid staff had poor command of the English language. On one occasion I heard the following:
“May I help, Sir?” asked a young lady with a strong Eastern European accent.
“I am looking for choral music.”
The assistant hesitated and then pointed at the escalator while saying:
“Please try the engineering department.”
That was long ago, back in the late 1960s.
Foyles moved out of its home on Charing Cross Road in 2011 and occupied another building a short way from it on the same street. Its current premises occupy part of the former St Martin School of Art, where my mother used to work in the sculpture studios in the 1960s. I no longer shop at Foyle’s but remember it fondly.
ON SATURDAY THE 17th MAY 2020, an act of cultural barbarism was performed in Tirana, the capital of Albania. The National Theatre of Albania in the heart of the city was demolished. It is unclear who ordered this demolition of a much-loved cultural monument located in a part of the city where property prices are high. The theatre was built in 1939 during the period that the Italians, under Mussolini, were ruling Albania. It was originally a cinema designed by the architect Giulio Berte, but later its screen was replaced by a stage.
In 2016, my wife and I visited Tirana and attended a dramatic performance at the National Theatre. I have described this in my book “Rediscovering Albania”:
“…we visited the National Theatre, a building that dates back to before Communist times. A Pirandello play (Play without a Script) was to be performed in Albanian that evening. The charming ladies clustered around the ticket desk assured us that we would enjoy it because it was going to be full of song and dance. We bought a couple of tickets … The rectangular auditorium of the National Theatre was delightfully old-fashioned, with many drapes and an upper gallery that extended around three sides of it. Everything was red including the plush upholstery of the comfortable seats. Although we did not understand a word of it, the Pirandello play was acted beautifully. The expressive acting was so good that we were able to get a rough idea of what was going on. Some years earlier in London, Lopa and I once attended a performance of Gogol’s Government Inspector acted by a Hungarian troupe entirely in Hungarian, and on another occasion a play from Kosovo in Albanian, during the course of which one of the actors threw a fake chicken at me! On both of those occasions and also in Tirana, great acting compensated for our inability to understand the words. If the actions of actors move me more than their words, I feel this is a sign of truly skilful acting. As the great Constantin Stanislavski said: “The language of the body is the key that can unlock the soul”. This is exactly what the actors in Tirana achieved. The audience was appreciative, and, unlike at the opera, hardly anyone used their mobile ‘phones during the show.”
That has now disappeared. So, has also the unusually attractive appearance of Tirana as it was when I first visited it in 1984 during the dictatorship of the faithful follower of Joseph Stalin, Enver Hoxha. In those repressive times, Tirana was a quiet city with only one high-rise building, the 12-storey Hotel Tirana. Of course, back in 1984, times were tough for the average Albanian citizen. They remained quite difficult during the decade following the ending of Communist rule in 1991. Even now, many Albanians prefer to increase their prosperity by seeking work abroad.
When we visited Tirana in 2016, I found it to be a far busier place than it was in 1984. The traffic was busy – a sign that motoring, an option not available to most Albanians during the dictatorship, had become popular and also affordable. Some of the charm of pre-1991 Tirana remained, but many picturesque old buildings, examples of traditional Turkish and Balkan vernacular architecture, had disappeared (or were about to). In their place, there were many high-rise buildings of little or no architectural merit. I suspect that whoever ordered the demolition of Tirana’s historic, much-loved National Theatre has in mind to construct yet another aesthetically unpleasing edifice.
If as Shakespeare said, “All the world is a stage”, then the demolition of this theatre in Tirana is yet another tragedy enacted on that stage.
REGIMES RISE AND FALL, as was the case of the Roman, Ottoman, and British empires. Each has left a physical legacy in the form of buildings, works of art, and a plethora of monuments. In India, a part of the both the former Mughal and British Empires, visitors flock to see their tangible remains.
In the late 1980’s, it was turn of the Soviet Empire to decline and fall. In many of its former ‘colonies’, its citizens hastily tried to erase its physical traces. Statues were toppled and monuments destroyed. Some of these artefacts were removed from public view by governmental authorities (maybe because they feared a possible return of Russian domination?)
For good or evil, the Soviet Empire has had a profound influence on what followed in its wake. Whatever one thinks about the Soviet Empire, it has become a significant part of 20th century history and it is a shame to try to erase memory of it. This was also the opinion of the Hungarian architect Ákos Eliőd, who designed the Szoborpark (Memento Park) in the countryside near Budapest.
The Szoborpark opened to the public in 1993. About 6 years later, we drove to Hungary from London. We stayed with a good friend of ours, Ákos, a pioneer of Hungarian rock music, and his family in his home in the outskirts of the hilly Buda section of Budapest. It was Ákos who alerted us to the existence of the Szoborpark.
One sunny day, we drove to the park. It was a wonderful place containing a collection of the Soviet era statues and monuments gathered from all over Hungary. It was/is a treasure trove for those who like or are fascinated by socialist realism art forms, an aesthetic that I like. We spent a couple of enthralling hours in the hot sun, wandering about this open air exhibition.
I took many photographs of the Szoborpark, which I have ‘unearthed’ recently. One of them is of wall plaque celebrating Béla Kun (1886-1938) son of Samu Kohn, a non obervant Jewish lawyer. He was the dictator of a short-lived communist regime that terrorised Hungary for a few months in 1919. With its downfall, Kun fled to the USSR, where he organised the Red Terror campaign in the Crimea in 1921. He was executed in 1938, a victim of Stalin’s anti-Trotskyist purges.
Many years after seeing the Szoborpark, my wife and I visited Albania in 2016, more than 3 decades after the downfall of its highly repressive Marxist-Leninist regime piloted for 40 years by its dictator Enver Hoxha. Interestingly, all over the country there were still numerous monuments erected during the dictatorial era. Many of them were in need of tidying up or cleaning, but they were still there despite being daily reminders of what was a difficult and fearful time for most Albanian citizens.
We believed that the endurance of these monuments erected during difficult times was due to at least two factors. One of these is that many of them were put up to celebrate heroic feats of Albanians carried out against their German invaders during WW2. The other is that despite Hoxha’s repressive regime, many things were done to move Albania from being a Balkan backwater in the former Ottoman Empire to getting nearer to being a 20th century European state.
This is not to say that statues of Enver Hoxha, Lenin, Marx, and Stalin (the mentor and hero of Enver Hoxha) were not pulled down in Albania. They were, but fortunately a few have been preserved by an art gallery in the country’s capital Tirana.
In countries like Hungary and the former Czechoslovakia, the arrival of the Soviet Army and the Russian domination of their countries was not felt by most citizens to have been even remotely beneficial. Obliteration of memories of this era were not surprising in places like these.
To conclude, I am glad that I have neither lost nor obliterated the photographs I took at the Szoborpark so many years ago.
The River Pineios, which drains into the Aegean Sea near Stomio, runs along a ten kilometre, often very narrow, at times almost a thin cleft, the Vale of Tempe in Central Greece. Ancient legend has it that the valley was cut through the rocks by Poseidon’s trident. The Vale was believed to be the haunt of Apollo and The Muses. Other mythical characters are said to have visited in this valley. Whatever the truth of all these, the mythological associations and beauty of the Vale attracted the attention of the writer/artist Edward Lear (1812-1888), who was touring what is now Greece in May 1849. He was very keen to visit it.
In 1851, Lear published an illustrated account of his travels in the Western Balkans, “Journals of a Landscape Painter in Albania”. Although most know Lear best as a composer of verse, much of it humorous, he regarded himself as a painter primarily. He was without doubt a good painter and sketcher, but this is not what gave him lasting fame. The title of his book included the word ‘Albania’. This is appropriate because much of his travelling in the Balkans was done in what is now Albania and parts of central Greece that used to be important centres of Albanian people during the existence of the Ottoman Empire. Lear’s book on Albania is one of the loveliest books ever written about the country.
After seeing the spectacularly located monasteries at Meteora (close to the River Pineios), Lear wrote on 16th May 1849:
“I had been more than half inclined to turn back after having seen the Meteora convents, but improvements in the weather, the inducement of beholding Olympus and Tempe … prevailed to lead me forward.”
On the 18th of May Lear recorded:
“…I set off with Andrea, two horses and a knapsack, and a steeple-hatted Dervish, at whose convent in Baba, at the entrance to the Pass of Tempe, my night’s abode is to be.”
Baba is described in the Seventh Edition of “Handbook for Travellers in Greece” (published by John Murray in 1901) as:
“A pretty Turkish village. On the opposite side of the river stands the ruined fort of Gonnos, which commanded the entrance to the defile.”
The village of Gonnoi close to the southern end of the Vale is, I imagine, named after this fort. The long out-of-date guidebook pointed out that in Greek ‘tempe’ means ‘cutting’ or ‘chasm’.
On the next day, Lear noted:
“The early morning at Baba is more delightful than can be told. All around is a deep shadow, and the murmuring of doves, the whistling of bee-eaters and the hum of the bees fills this tranquil place.”
After visiting the village of Ampelakia near the southern entrance to Tempe, Lear moved towards his goal, the Vale. He wrote:
“…I went onward into Tempe, and soon entered the celebrated ‘vale’ – of all places in Greece that which I had most desired to see. But it is not a ‘vale’, it is a narrow pass – and although extremely beautiful, on account of the precipitous rocks on each side, the Peneus flowing deep in the midst, between the richest overhanging plane woods, still its character is distinctly that of a ravine or gorge.”
After much wonderful descriptive writing, Lear concluded:
“Well might the ancients extol this grand defile, where landscape is so completely different from that of any part of Thessaly, and awakes the most vivid feelings of awe and delight, from its associations with the legendary history and religious rites of Greece.”
“As it was my intention to pursue the route towards Platamona…”
‘Platamona’, or Platamon, to which Lear referred is a small seaside town on the coast of the Aegean Sea. It is overlooked by Mount Olympus and within sight of the mountains Pella and Ossa. It is some miles south of Katerini. It played an important role in my life.
Every summer, my PhD supervisor Robert Harkness (died 2006) and his wife Margaret (died 2003) drove their caravan across Europe to Platamon, where they camped for about eight weeks on rough ground near the sea. I travelled out from England to Platamon with them on one occasion and did the return journey on another. Travelling via France, Germany, Austria, and the former Yugoslavia, the journey took almost ten days. During one of my visits to Platamon, in 1977, I mentioned that I was keen to follow in Edward Lear’s footsteps by visiting the Vale of Tempe. Robert and Margaret were keen that I should do this.
The modern road along which we drove, the Athens-Thessaloniki National Highway, ran high above the gorge along one of its edges. From this road, there was little if anything that could be seen of the Vale. Looking at today’s maps, it is evident that that road still exists, but a newer highway travels in a straighter route in a long tunnel, marked on the map as “Platamon Tunnel”. The latter only opened in 2017. It shortens the journey from Thessaloniki to Athens by several hours.
Robert and Margaret drove me to a spot near the southern end of the Vale and left me there, planning to meet me again when I reached the northern end of the gorge. I had no idea where exactly the Vale began and if there was a footpath in it that I could walk along. I began walking up through a sloping field to two men who were sitting there looking after their goats.
My Modern Greek was limited to a very rudimentary vocabulary. Using sign language, pointing at my feet, and mentioning the name ‘Tempe’, I managed to convey to these gentlemen my question about how to walk through the Vale. They pointed to a railway embankment high above where we were. I understood, or at least believed I did, that one had to walk along the railway track to see the Vale.
I climbed up to the embankment and began walking on a narrow gravelly path next to the railway track. Soon, a long passenger train with carriages belonging to various different European national railways passed me quite slowly. I could see from signs attached next to the doors of the carriages that this train was an express that connected Athens with Munich. I continued walking in the direction of the Vale. The track was on an incline and the further I walked, the higher the embankment was above the terrain below it.
Eventually, the track entered a curved cutting lined on each side with jagged rocks. Suddenly, I heard something behind me. I forced myself against the rocky wall of the cutting just in time to avoid being crushed by a diesel locomotive travelling at a high speed. The engine sped past and I continued walking, somewhat nervously.
The track emerged from the cutting and traversed a high sided embankment at the far end of which there was the entrance to a dark tunnel. Seeing that ahead, I decided that it would be dangerously foolish to proceed any further along the track, the main railway line connecting Athens with the rest of Europe.
I stood on the embankment and looked around. To my right, I could see the River Pineios far below in what looked like an attractive narrow valley. I decided that as I was not prepared to risk my life in a dark tunnel, I needed to get off the railway track. So, with some trepidation I sat down and slid down the steep embankment until I reached its base far below.
At the bottom of the embankment, far below the railway line, I found myself on a level footpath that ran along an embankment that led down to the river. It became clear to me that this path was once the foundation for an old railway that had been replaced by the one which I had just left. As I walked along, I realised that this old railway bed was what the two gentlemen had meant by walking along the railway track. The path wound its way through the depths of the Vale following the course of the river. The scenery down in the valley did not disappoint. It could not have differed much from what it was like when Edward Lear walked along the Vale 129 years earlier.
After a while, I reached what must have once been a railway station. I had arrived at the old railway station of Aghios (Saint) Paraskevi. This was part of a group ecclesiastical buildings. A suspension bridge for pedestrians ran from near it across the river to the other shore. Away from the river, there were some picturesque pools. The whole area was luxuriant with many trees, some with branches hanging over the stream.
The religious compound was not present when Lear walked the Vale. The old railway was built in 1910 as was the present church of Aghios Paraskevi (that stands on the site of a 13th century church). The bridge that I crossed was constructed in the 1960s. Before that, pilgrims could only reach the church by boat (see: https://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2012/07/st-paraskevi-in-valley-of-tempe.html).
About two kilometres further on, the Vale reached its northern end. I found Robert and Margaret sitting in their Land Rover in a car park, enjoying hot tea from a thermos flask. I cannot remember whether I told them about my lucky escape whilst walking along the railway in the rocky cutting, but if I did not, which is likely because I would not wanted them to have been worried, now it is far too late. My two dear friends are now no more than fond memories, and the Pineios still flows through the Vale of Tempe.
Illustration is one of Lear’s pictures of the Vale of Tempe in 1848