An automobile in Albania

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This is an extract from my book “REDISCOVERING ALBANIA” (ISBN: 978-1326807108). The extract describes a visit to a historic town and problems with a rented car.

“When we have hired cars in the past, we have been presented with a car which is almost new and totally flawless. This was not the case with Enterprise at Tirana’s airport. We had ordered a Tata Indica car – I had chosen it because of the price and also because I had not driven an Indian car since 1994, the first and only time that I ever drove in India. Our Tata was distinctly tatty in appearance. It was covered in scratches and dents, all of which were carefully noted and photographed by the Enterprise representative and me. The upholstery was clean but looked well worn. He told us that the car was “quite new”; it had “…only done about 32,000 kilometres”. Dubious at first, I realised later that this unprepossessing vehicle was just the job for the terrain that we were going to traverse.

I had not driven for two years, the last time being when we hired a car in Palermo (Sicily) in 2014. However, I soon got into the swing of driving. I was pleased that we had not hired the car from an office in Tirana, where traffic is heavy, but from the airport where traffic is light. Soon, we left the main Tirana to Shkodër ‘highway’, and then began winding our way uphill to the small town of Krujë, which is where Albania’s hero Skanderbeg had his headquarters while he was combatting the invasion of the Ottomans.

Skanderbeg, the son of a noble-man called Kastrioti, was taken forcibly by the Turks to Turkey as a young boy (as many Christian youths were in that time). He was converted to Islam, educated as a soldier, and became a good fighter in the Ottoman Army. In 1443, aged 38, Skanderbeg along with several other Albanian soldiers abandoned the Turks. Soon, he took command of the Castle at Krujë, which became his headquarters from where he harassed the Ottomans, who were trying to invade what is now Albania. After many military exploits both in Italy and in Albania, Skanderbeg finally succumbed to malaria in 1468. This is a very brief account of the career of a man who saved Western Europe from becoming part of the Ottoman Empire. Albania did become part of the Empire, but in the words of a guidebook published in 1969 by Albturist, the state tourist agency of Albania:

Although their heroic efforts were not crowned with final victory, the Albanian people did not kneel down. Throughout the centuries that followed, our people continued their resistance against the Ottoman feudal regime.”  

The road became steeper and steeper until we entered the town in which level ground is a rarity. We parked the car on a steeply sloping street and made our way to a café, whose terrace provided a great view of the town’s castle, which overlooked us, and the old bazaar, which was several metres below us. From where we were sitting we saw one or two elderly people wearing what looked to us like traditional costumes, but most people were dressed in modern clothing.

We made our way along the shiny cobbled street that runs between the two lines of shops that make up the old bazaar. This has been extended since I saw it in 1984, but the extension has been made to look as if it were original. As in 1984, all of the shops in the bazaar are selling goods aimed at tourists: everything from tasteless ‘tat’ to some very lovely antiques. One particular shop contained superb examples of traditional Albanian handicrafts, some pieces including some wooden cradles for babies were quite old. Some weeks later in Tirana, we met, quite by chance, the shop owner’s cousin, the daughter-in-law of one of Albania’s foremost artists. Although the bazaar resembles what I remembered from my first visit in 1984, the town is filled with new buildings, including mosques and churches, which might have existed before Enver Hoxha destroyed them, but are now reconstructed or entirely new. Many but not all of the old Ottoman era buildings that made Krujë so attractive to me in 1984 have been demolished to make way for newer mostly less-attractive constructions. Nevertheless, Krujë, nestling in the wooded hills that surround it, is still a lovely place to visit.

After stumbling through the cobbled market, we began climbing the path that leads to the castle complex. On our way we passed an old (Ottoman?) structure that housed what must have once been the outlet for a spring. It was filled with fragments of old carvings including an eight-pointed star, and just above the outlet for the water two animals (lions?) facing each other.  Nearby, two young boys selling small round green plums asked where we were from, and then tried to sell us some of their fruit. Just before we reached the entrance to the castle, we came across a man sitting on a wall selling books. He was the author of the various volumes that he had set out for sale. We said hello to him, and told him that we would have a look at his books after we had visited the castle.

Parts of the vast area of the interior of the castle walls are still inhabited. Much of the space is covered with ruins of what had originally been Skanderbeg’s castle and then later the Ottomans’. These ruins include a solitary watchtower and the base of a large minaret. We had read that there was a Bektashi mosque, the Tekke (‘teqe’ in Albanian) of Dollma, in the grounds. A young man offered to guide us to it. Because the way to it was extremely rough and Lopa had a bad ankle, she decided to wait for me while I went to see the mosque. The young man explained to me (in good English) that he is a Bektashi, a member of a ‘sect’ of Muslims (although many Muslims disclaim them) that is halfway between Shia and Sufi. It is particularly popular in Albania, Bulgaria, and Anatolia. Unemployed as so many Albanian graduates are, he spends his time looking after the tekke and its surroundings. On our way along the path to the tekke, we met a woman, aged about 30, with her small child. She spoke some English, but mainly gossiped in Albanian with my new acquaintance. We stood next to what looked to me like an Ottoman hammam or bathhouse. It was, but it has been heavily restored with bright new roof tiles that detract from its character and beauty. After the woman left, he explained that when she had been orphaned, his family had informally adopted her and brought her up as a daughter.

The 18th century tekke is in good state of preservation. By the way, a tekke is a gathering place for Sufi and Bektashi believers. Its interior walls and ceilings are covered with delicately painted frescos and lines of Arabic or Turkish calligraphy. There are several tombs of dervishes within the mosque, and also some outside it in its grounds. Near the tekke, I saw some old stone fragments that looked as if once they had been part of an earlier structure, maybe a church. My guide introduced me to an elder man who lives in a recently built circular meeting place next to the mosque. The old man, I was told, had spent 12 years in prison during the Communist era simply because he was a Bektashi adherent. Some years ago I showed my friend Bejtulla Destani, an academic from Kosovo, pictures in a book by Albert Mahuzier who visited Albania in the early 1960s, in the years before Enver Hoxha outlawed religion. The book included a photograph of the imam or priest of the tekke in Gjirokastër. Without hesitating, Bejtulla said that it was most likely that that man would have been killed by Hoxha’s people soon after 1967.

The visit to the tekke took rather longer than I had anticipated. As we were making our way back to where I had left Lopa, a security man came rushing towards me shouting: “Mister Adam?” I nodded, and he led me not to where I had left my wife, but instead to the Ethnographic Museum, where Lopa was passing the time and also becoming concerned that I might have been kidnapped or worse. After being reunited, I took a look around the museum which was not only interesting on account of its exhibits, but also because it was housed in a very old Ottoman era building.

Our way back to the castle entrance took us past the impressive but incongruous fortress-like building, built in 1982 by the Communists to house a museum or mausoleum to honour Skanderbeg. I did not enter it in 1984, and not on this visit (because it is closed on Mondays). When we emerged from the castle, we stopped by the man selling books. He introduced himself as Professor Baki Dollma (he was related to the Dollma family after whom the tekke is named), a professor of history. Most of his books are in Albanian. We bought a couple that contained some English and were related to the history of Krujë. When he learnt that I also write books, the professor became very friendly, and kept addressing me as ‘Professor’.

We left the amiable professor, and returned to our car. I turned the ignition key, and nothing happened. I tried several times, and then assumed that we had been given a dud hire car. I rang Enterprise, and explained the situation, and was told that someone would ring me back in a few minutes. When this happened, I was asked if I had used the remote control. I told the person on the ‘phone that I had not the remotest idea of what she was talking about. I was told to look under the driver’s seat where I would find a little box on a cable, and that I should always press a blue button on it before starting the car. It worked. However, it would have been helpful to have known about this security feature when we took possession of the vehicle.”

 

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Conducted by an Albanian

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The Victorian gothic St Stephens Church in Gloucester Road has great acoustics for orchestral music. On the evening of the 15th of June 2019, we attended a wonderful concert of “Symphonic Dances” performed by the London City Philharmonic Orchestra. I have been to several other concerts where this ensemble has played. This time the orchestra had been enlarged so considerably that it only just fitted into the space available for them at the east end of the church. This magnificent collection of first-class musicians was masterfully and sensitively conducted by the Albanian conductor Olsi Qinami, who studied at the Academy of Arts in Tirana and then at the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris.

The ambitious programme consisted of three symphonic dance pieces, all composed in the USA. Variations on a Shaker Theme by Aaron Copeland (1900-90), son of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, got the concert off to a tuneful start. This was followed by a memorably good rendering of the vibrant Symphonic Dances by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), son of Ukranian Jewish parents. This exciting piece contains familiar tunes from Bernstein’s musical drama West Side Story. After an interval, there was a piece, Symphonic Dances, composed late in the life of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), who emigrated to the USA from Russia in 1918.

The three pieces were all by composers, whose families had ‘roots’ in the former Russian Empire, but each of them was completely different. All three were highly enjoyable. Olsi Qinami seemed to be able to get the best out of the orchestra seemingly effortlessly. He stood on his podium calmly without any dramatic gestures and achieved wonders with his large well-disciplined orchestra, which according to the programme notes contains players from all over the world including two with Albanian names (Pranvera Govori, violinist, and Idlir Shytu, cellist).

In summary, I am truly pleased that I did not miss this concert. It was pure joy throughout. Although Olsi’s previous concerts have all been outstanding, “Symphonic Dances” was his best so far. I look forward to the next, which will be in St Stephens Church on Saturday, 5th of October 2019.

Foreign exchange

CAKOR 75 Summit

 

A chance encounter in the former Yugoslavia has stuck in my memory

Sometime in 1975, I travelled from Peć (now in Kosovo) to Titograd (now in Montenegro) by bus. I chose to take the route that went via the wild and difficult Ĉakor Pass that traverses the mountain range shared by northern Albania and Montenegro, where I was heading. We reached the highest point on the pass after driving around a seemingly endless series of tight hairpin bends, and stopped there to give the driver a break.

While I was wandering around the treeless, grassy summit, admiring the views into the valley into which we would be descending, a grubby little boy approached me. He said something to me in a language, which I did not recognise as being Serbo-Croat. It was probably Albanian. Somehow, he made it clear to me that he wanted foreign coins. I thought that he was either a beggar, or more likely, just a curious youngster pleased to have chanced upon a foreigner. I gave him a few British coins, and then he rummaged around in his pocket. After a moment, he handed me a few Yugoslav Dinar coins, and left. He was no beggar, after all, but simply a young fellow with a well-developed sense of fairness.

After leaving the Ĉakor, we wound through the mountains to Andrijevica, a small Montenegrin town, which was enshrouded in rain and mist. Then, we descended gradually via a series of deep wooded canyons towards Titograd. All I saw of the town on that occasion was its bus station.

 

Picture shows view from the summit of  the Ĉakor Pass

Two names, one country

The Albanians now refer to their country as “Shqipëria”. Almost everyone else calls the same country “Albania” or some variant of this.

Here is an interesting article that discusses this difference: http://www.tiranatimes.com/?p=133209

Incidentally, the national symbol of Albania is a two headed eagle. This is appropriate for a country known by two names!

Bollywood in Albania

Films from India made in Bombay, the so-called Bollywood productions, are popular all over the world. When we visited post-Communist Albania in 2016, 31 years after the death of its long-time dictator Enver Hoxha, we encountered Albanian Bollywood fans in several places. The following three excerpts from my book “Rediscovering Albania” describe some incidences when we met local lovers of Bollywood.

In the northern town of Pukë:

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“Our shopping expedition continued in a tiny stationery/gift shop, where I bought a notebook. The sales lady wanted to know where we came from. When she learnt that Lopa came from India, she pointed at a small television set hidden under her counter. We saw that she was watching a Bollywood movie with Albanian subtitles. Every afternoon on Albanian television, there is an episode of a Bollywood TV soap opera. Those ‘in the know’ never ring ladies between certain hours in the afternoon so as not to disturb their enjoyment of this addictive show. The inter-continental cultural traffic is not one-way: in 2013, the Albanian actress Denisa Gokovi starred in a film (Phir Mulaquat Ho Na Ho) directed by the Indian Bobby Sheik.”

In the southern city of Korçë:

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“Weary and hot, we tried to retrace our steps back into the centre. Quite by chance, we began walking along a road that led straight to the Mirahorit mosque, which was closed when we arrived. However, some men were gathering outside it, and soon the imam arrived to unlock it for afternoon namaaz (prayers). They were all friendly and welcoming. While we were waiting, we were joined by a German lady, who was keen to see this mosque that dates back to 1496. Restored by a Turkish organisation in 2014, it was worth waiting to enter it. The interior was decorated with attractive frescoes depicting various mosques and Muslim pilgrimage places including the Kaaba.  One of the men who was waiting with us to enter the mosque asked Lopa where she was from. When she said India, he exclaimed “Rye Kapur”, that being his pronunciation of Raj Kapoor, a well-known Bollywood film star. As we had already discovered in Pukë, Bollywood is popular in Albania.”

In the large seaport of Vlorë:

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“This small building of great historic importance was dwarfed by huge cranes and ocean-going freighters in the nearby port area. Its windows had slatted wooden shutters, and there was a balcony projecting over its main entrance. It was from this balcony that Ismail Qemal read the declaration of Albania’s independence in 1912. Vlorë, which was invaded by the Italians in 1914, was the country’s first capital. In 1920, Tirana assumed this role.

We were guided around the museum, and shown photos, documents, and furniture, connected with the historic events that occurred around 1912. Driton kindly translated our lady guide’s interesting commentary into English. Sadly, we were not permitted to stand on the historic balcony because it has become too fragile. As we moved from room to room, I noticed that our guide was becoming more and more interested in Lopa, touching her occasionally. At the end of the tour, she told us that she loves watching the Bollywood films and soap-operas broadcast on Albanian television. It was a pity, she said, that Lopa had not been dressed in a sari. Lopa’s arrival in the museum had meant a great deal to her. It was as if one of the characters in the films, which she enjoyed watching, had stepped out of her television and into her museum. She said that Lopa was the first female Indian visitor to the museum since she began working there eleven years earlier.”  

Prior to 1991, Albanians would not have been able to watch Bollywood or even Hollywood productions. Under the dictatorship created by Enver Hoxha, which lasted from 1944 until late1990, the Albanian population was almost completely isolated from external influences. A few people watched Italian TV at their peril. If discovered, they would have risked dire punishment. Today, everything has changed; Albania is wide open to foreign culture.

 

REDISC ALB cover

REDISCOVERING ALBANIA by Adam Yamey is available from:

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They made Kalashnikovs here…

This  extract from “REDISCOVERING ALBANIA” by Adam Yamey describes a part of Albania where much weaponry was manufactured during the Communist era (1944-91).

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“We followed the River Osumi upstream [from Berat], passing an isolated working military camp with camouflaged concrete buildings. The road wound up the valley crossing numerous tributaries of the Osumi. Next to many of these small bridges there were construction sites, which were associated with the building of the Trans Adriatic Pipeline. This will carry gas from Kipoi (just east of the Greek city of Alexandropolis) to Seman (a few kilometres north of Vlorë on the Adriatic). From there, it will go under the sea and resurface at the southern Italian coast south east of Lecce. This gas-carrying modern ‘Via Egnatia’ (or maybe it should be called ‘Via Igniter’) will follow the valley of the Osumi, then curve around Berat, before heading westwards towards the sea. It is part of a huge project to transport gas from Azerbaijan to western Europe.

The town of Poliçan was a pleasant surprise. We were expecting to find a drab place because of its industrial heritage. Far from it: Poliçan was a cheerful, vibrant place. We parked at the top end of the sloping triangular piazza named after the large mountain (Tomorr: 2,416 metres), which dominates the area around Berat and Poliçan.  The piazza, is a right-angled triangle in plan. Its two shorter sides were lined with well-restored, freshly painted Communist-era buildings with shops and cafés.  We joined the crowds drinking under colourful umbrellas outside cafés on the Rruga Miqesia, which runs off the piazza towards the town’s cultural centre and Bashkia (both built in the Communist period). It was about 11 am on a working day. There seemed to be many people with sufficient time for sitting leisurely in cafés or just strolling up and down the street. A girl, who ran a mobile ‘phone shop (on her own), sat with friends at a table in a café near to the shop, and only left them if a customer entered her showroom. A long out of date poster on a building advertised a meeting in Tirana for adherents of the Bektashi sect.

Near the upper end of the triangular piazza, there was a new marble monument commemorating Riza Cerova (1896-1935). He was born just south of Poliçan, and became a leading protagonist in the ‘June Revolution’ of 1924, when supporters of Fan Noli forced Ahmed Zogu to flee from Albania. For a brief time, Noli became Albania’s Prime Minister. However, at the end of 1924, aided by the Yugoslavs and Greeks, Zogu made a counter-coup, and then assumed control the country. Soon after this, he had himself crowned ‘King Zog’. Following Noli’s defeat, Cerova joined the German Communist Party, and later returned to Albania where he led anti-Zogist fighters. He died during an encounter with Zog’s forces.

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Poliçan was important during the Communist period. It was home to an enormous arms and ammunition factory, the KM Poliçan, which was opened in 1962. This produced its own versions (the ASH-72 and ASH-82 series) of the Kalashnikov gun as well as other munitions.  The factory lies amidst cultivated terraced fields on the slopes of a natural amphitheatre away from, and beneath, the southern edge of the town. Workers used to approach the factory from the town by a long staircase. We counted at least twenty-five industrial buildings in the complex, many of them with broken or missing windows. None of the numerous rusting ventilators on these edifices were emitting smoke, and there were no signs of life. The slopes surrounding the factory below were dotted with concrete and metal entrances to underground stores and tunnels. During the unrest of 1997, KM Poliçan was temporarily taken over by criminal gangs while the city was in ‘rebel’ hands. The factory is still used, but mainly to de-activate out-of-date Albanian weaponry. It was difficult to imagine that the peaceful scene, which we observed from a track overlooking it, had such an explosive history.

We travelled southwards through cultivated countryside and past occasional forests, always following the sinuous course of the Osumi. At the edge of Çorovodë, the administrative capital of the Skrapar District, we saw a tourist information poster beside a squat hemispherical Hoxha-era concrete bunker. It portrayed an Ottoman era bridge, which we hoped to see later. In the town’s main square, there was a socialist-realism style monument: a pillar topped by a carved group: one woman with three men. One of them was holding a belt of machine gun ammunition. The base of the monument had ‘1942’ carved in large numerals. On the 5th of September 1942, Skrapar became the first district in Albania to be liberated from the occupying fascist forces. There was a bronze statue of Rizo Cerova in a small park next to the square. Elegantly dressed in a jacket with waistcoat, he is shown holding a rifle in his left hand. His face looked left but his tie was depicted as if it were being swept by wind over his right shoulder.

We ate a satisfying lunch in a large restaurant next to the park, the Hotel Osumi. It backed onto a fast-flowing tributary of the Osumi. After eating, we entered a café a little way upstream to ask for directions to the Ottoman bridge that we had seen on the tourist poster. We were surprised to discover a ‘black’ man at a table, chatting with several Albanians. He spoke perfect English, which was not surprising because he was born in Tennessee (USA). He was teaching English in Çorovodë under the auspices of the Peace Corps.  With pencil and paper to hand, he was compiling his own map of the town. When we told his companions that we were trying to find the old bridge, they advised us that it was only accessible with a rugged four-wheel drive vehicle.

Driving further southwards, we reached the spectacular Canyon of the Osumi (Kanioni i Osumit, in Albanian). It is about twenty-six kilometres long, deep, and narrow. At places where the road came close to the edge of the canyon, we obtained good views. From above, it looked as if the cultivated rolling fields and pastureland had been cracked open. The crack’s walls were steep sided, with dramatic striations of whitish rock. Far beneath us at the bottom of this fissure, the River Osumi flowed around its many bends. Standing at the canyon’s precipitous edge, we could only hear birdsong and water rustling over the river’s stony bed far below us.

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Retracing our steps to Berat, we passed an abandoned building with a fading circular coloured sign painted on it. It depicted a grey cow standing between a woman in a white dress, who was writing on a clipboard, and a man in a white coat such as doctors wear. In the background, a man in an overcoat holding a shepherd’s crook, was leading a flock of sheep towards the grey animal and its attendants. Around the edge of the picture, we read the words ‘Stacioni Zooteknise’, which literally translates as ‘zoo technical station’. The building with its peeling plaster and patches of exposed brickwork had once been an animal husbandry centre.”

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Adam Yamey’s book REDISCOVERING ALBANIA is available from Amazon, bookdepository.com, lulu.com, and is on Kindle

They helped Garibaldi to unify Italy

The Arberesh of Sicily are a group of people descended from Albanians, who left the Balkans in the 15th century to escape from the Ottomans.

Palermo, the capital of Sicily, is separated from the rest of the island by a crescent of mountain ranges. After the occupation of Sicily by the Arabs in the 9th century, the Bishop of Palermo moved his seat to Monreale, a small hill town southwest of the city. There, he built a cathedral and then, later, after the Arabs had been expelled, the Normans built a Benedictine monastery. Monreale, which overlooks the metropolis, is now a suburb of Greater Palermo but in mediaeval times it was almost 5 miles away from the old walled city.

Albanian refugees landed along the coast of Sicily during the 15th century while the Ottomans were fighting in Albania, ably resisted for many years by George Kastrioti Skanderbeg (1405-68). Some Albanians landed near Palermo about twenty years after the death of Skanderbeg. In 1488, the Archbishop of Monreale granted them some vacant, disused, plague-ravished land across the mountains about 5 miles south of Monreale. They were told to make the most of it, and they did so very successfully. In exchange for this ‘gift’ of land, the Albanian settlers were required to recompense the Archbishop with taxes raised on what they were able to produce.

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The settlers established a town on the south-east facing slope of Monte Pizzuta. Originally named Piana dei Greci, it is now known as Piana degli Albanese (‘Piana’).  With a present population of about 7,000, most of the people speak an archaic form of Albanian known as Arberesh, as their mother tongue. They are also fluent in Italian and Sicilian.

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Bilingual signs (Italian/Arberesh) in Piana

In 2014, I published a book, “From Albania to Sicily”, which describes the Arberesh communities in Piana and several other villages in western Sicily. In October this year, while staying in Palermo, we re-visited Piana for a day and a night.

The bus from Palermo to Piana winds through the mountains separating Piana from the capital. As we travelled along the sinuous road with its many hairpin bends, I looked at the slopes strewn with greyish boulders and pondered the difficulty of the terrain through which the Albanian settlers had to struggle in an era long before there were decent roads. Then, I remembered the landscape of wild, steep mountain ridges in south western Albania, south of Vlora. Travelling through the wild terrain south of Palermo must have seemed no different to what the settlers had left behind in Albania.

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San Demetrio Megalomartire

On arrival in Piana, I popped into the lovely cathedral of San Demetrio Megalomartire. This church has an iconostasis such as you would expect to find in an Eastern Orthodox church. It is home to worshippers who practise the Byzantine rites. The first inhabitants of Piana, who originated mainly in south-western Albania and the Morea (Peloponnese) were Greek Orthodox Christians. The Archbishop of Monreale allowed them to continue to worship according to the Byzantine rites, but they had to adopt the Pope in Rome, rather than the Patriarch in Constantinople, as their spiritual leader.

In 2016, we visited Himara in Albania. This beautiful seaside resort was one of the places where the Arberesh lived before escaping to Sicily. The old part of the town, high above the coastal resort, is largely abandoned, but it resembles closely the historic centre of Piana. Incidentally, Piana has a street named Via Himara, and, also, a restaurant called Valle Himara.

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One of the reasons for our recent visit to Piana was to present a copy of my book to the town’s excellent library that occupies two storeys above Piana’s centrally located Extra Bar, which is famed for its fine canoli. We were invited to meet Ing. Rosario Petta, the town’s Mayor, who showed great interest in my volume, and even suggested that it ought to be translated into Italian.

During our visit, we met many people who remembered us from our earlier stay in Piana. They greeted us like old friends, an indication that the Arberesh have not abandoned the Albanian traditions of friendship and hospitality. They have also not forgotten other traditions they brought with them from Albania. Although they dress like other Italians for daily activities, no opportunity is lost to change into colourful, decorated traditional Arberesh/Albanian costumes. This is particularly the case at Easter time, when visitors from all over Italy flock to Piana to see great numbers of people wearing this garb.

Eric Hobsbawm remarked that the people of Piana, “… had a reputation for rebelliousness …” He quotes the words of GM Trevelyan who said that Piana “… was the hearth of freedom in Western Sicily.” I wondered why of all the towns in Sicily, Piana was one of the most rebellious. GM Trevelyan puts it down to some kind of inheritance. Maybe, those Albanians, who preferred living freely rather than under the yoke of the Ottomans and also chose to leave their homes in the Balkans in the 15th century, were perhaps endowed with something, maybe even genetic, which engendered in them a love of freedom and equality. Who can say?

The Arberesh in Piana played an important role in assisting Garibaldi in his invasion of Sicily in 1860, the beginning of a series of events that led to the Unification of Italy. When GM Trevelyan visited the town sometime before 1912, he met leading citizens of the town, “… in their circolo, where a very intelligent and just pride is taken in the history of the revolution of 1860 and the highly creditable part played in it by the ‘Albanians’ of Piana.” Garibaldi, who began his campaign to liberate and unify the Italians in Sicily, proclaimed to the Sicilian Arberesh who fought with him that: “Avete combattuto come leoni” (i.e.: they had fought like lions).

During our recent visit to the library in Piana, we met a group of highly educated librarians, who showed great interest in my book. When we began discussing Garibaldi in Sicily, they, like several people we met in Palermo, displayed unfavourable sentiments about the Unifier of Italy. They all felt that the liberation of Sicily and its incorporation into Greater Italy was a bad thing for the island. What had once been a prosperous part of the Italian lands became impoverished whilst the previously impoverished north of Italy became increasingly wealthier. Many of the people we met in Piana and Palermo suggested that the liberator Garibaldi, a northern Italian, had not only liberated Sicily from the Bourbons, but had also ‘liberated’ much of Sicily’s wealth including the contents of the vaults of the island’s banks. I have yet to check the veracity of these surprising slurs on Garibaldi’s reputation.

Returning to Piana, this delightful little hillside town is an attractive, peaceful place to stay. There is accommodation in the town and in the countryside around it. You can explore the old town with its steep streets as well as the interesting Nicola Barbato Museum, the lake, and several old churches. Energetic visitors can enjoy breathing fresh mountain air on the slopes of Mount Pizzuta and other nearby peaks. If you speak Albanian (or Italian), you will have no difficulty communicating with the hospitable Arberesh. Although the Arberesh language differs from Albanian, Albanian-speakers can easily converse with the Arberesh. If, however, you are hungry for Balkan food, Piana will disappoint.

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Various restaurants in Piana, including the first-rate Antica Trattoria San Giovanni, serve wonderful Sicilian fare. Signor Salemi, who established the Antica Trattoria, was a child in May 1947. He was present at a large public political gathering on the 1st of May at Portella della Ginestra (close to Piana), when members of a gang of bandits led by the bandit Salvatore Giuliano opened fire on the unarmed people, massacring about 12 folk including children as young as he was and a baby. But, that is a tragic story that I will save for another time.

Wherever you go in Piana, you will see the Albanian double-headed eagle and Albanian flags. Road direction signs and other public notices are frequently bilingual: Arberesh and Italian.  In the Cathedral, I noticed a huge poster recording the 550th anniversary of the death of the original settlers’ compatriot, Skanderbeg. The people of Piana retain their ancestral homeland, Albania, close to their hearts.

book cov

LEARN MORE ABOUT THE ARBERESH BY READING
FROM ALBANIA TO SICILY

by Adam Yamey.

Available on Amazon and bookdepository.com

An Albanian outpost

In about 1480, Albanians fleeing from the Ottoman army that was invading Albaia were given land in Sicily, just South of Palermo.

They built the town of Piana degli Albanesi on this land, and it is still thriving. Most if the inhabitants speak an archaic form of Albanian as well as Italian and preserve many Albanian traditions.

This picture shows a bust of Skanderbeg in Piana degli Albanesi. George Kastrioti Skanderbeg, national hero of the Albanians, resisted the Ottoman army for about 25 years, saving western Europe from becoming part of the Ottoman Empire.

Gifts of the grateful

In the 1980s, I visited my friends in the former Yugoslavia frequently. Also, I visited Albania and what is now independent Kosovo. During my trips, I picked up a large vocabulary of Serbo-Croat, including quite a selection of outrageous swear words. Grammar has always been beyond me in foreign languages, and often in my own. My interest in Albania and my brief visits to Albanian-speaking parts of the Balkans resulted in me acquiring some vocabulary in Albanian, but far less than in Serbo-Croat. Until the 1990s, I believed that my fragmentary knowledge of these languages would be useless outside the Balkans.

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Prizren in Kosovo, pre-1990

During one trip to Belgrade, a friend arranged for me to be an observer in a clinic of a leading oral surgeon. I turned up at a large hospital and spent a couple of hours watching the surgeon reviewing a series of his patients. Although I was grateful to be allowed to watch the great man, I learned little that was relevant to practising dentistry. However, one aspect of this clinic interested me greatly. As each patient entered the consulting room, he or she presented the surgeon with a gift: a bottle, a large piece of cheese, a ham, etc.

The last patient to enter, a man in a somewhat shabby suit, entered and sat in the dental chair without having presented a gift. After his mouth had been examined, the surgeon took the patient and me out into a corridor. We walked through the hospital to a room with locked doors. My host unlocked it, we entered, and he locked the doors behind us. After a brief conversation, the patient handed the surgeon a small brown envelope, which he thrust into his jacket pocket. Then, after the doors were unlocked, the patient went one way, and we went another way. As we walked along the corridor, my host patted the pocket containing the envelope, and before bidding me farewell, said: “Pornographic photographs.”

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Poster of Marshal Tito in Sarajevo, Bosnia in the 1980s

My last visit to Yugoslavia was in May 1990.  Soon after that, wars broke out in the Balkans, and the former Yugoslavia disintegrated painfully to form smaller independent states. In the early to mid-1990s, there was terrible strife in Bosnia. Many people fled as refugees to places including the UK. In the late 1990s, Kosovo suffered badly from warfare between the Serbs and the ethnic Albanians. Many of the latter fled to the UK.

I moved from one dental practice outside London to another in London, an inner-city practice, in 2001. A significant number of my patients there had come from the former Yugoslavia as refugees. I was the only person in the practice who could greet them in Serbo-Croat or Albanian. Maybe, I was only one of a few dentists in London at that time who had this ability.

To the Albanian speakers my vocabulary was restricted to words such as ‘hello’ and ‘good-bye’, which brought smiles to their faces. Following a trip to Communist Albania in 1984, I recalled the Albanian words of political slogans such as “Long live Enver Hoxha”, “Enver’s party”, and “Long live the Peoples’ Party of Albania.” As many of my Albanian patients had come from Kosovo rather than Albania, these slogans meant little to most of them.

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Travnik, Bosnia, 1975

My limited Serbo-Croat was more extensive than my Albanian. I could entertain some of my Bosnian and Serbian patients with polite small-talk. Many of the ex-Yugoslav patients, like those I had seen long before in Belgrade, brought me gifts. Even those, with whom I felt I was not getting along with well, brought me, usually, bottles of home-made alcohol (e.g. rakia, slivovitz, and loza) that had been distilled by relatives who had stayed behind in the former Yugoslavia. These strong alcoholic drinks were delicious, smooth, and delicately flavoured. One fellow plied me with DVDs of the latest Hollywood and other films that he had ‘pirated’. One lovely lady from Bosnia presented me with a pair of earrings, which her uncle had made, to give to my wife. She wears these often, and she is very grateful.

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Many Middle-Eastern patients also felt that it was appropriate to bring me gifts. Thus, a lot of delicious baklava and other similar confections came my way. Delicious as these were, they were neither good for my teeth nor for my general health. A Hungarian family kept me supplied with large gifts of paprika powder, and there was a Romanian gentleman who brought me nice bottles of wine. Incidentally, the only words of Romanian I know are “thank you” and “railway timetable”. Once, we employed a Romanian dental nurse and I told her my Romanian party-piece “Mersul trenurilor.” She pondered for a moment and then replied “Ah, the programme of the trains.”

Once, my dental nurse, a friendly West Indian lady, and I were standing near a window facing the main road when a delivery van stopped nearby. A man was delivering trays of baklava to a nearby shop. I said to my nurse: “Why don’t you see if he’ll give us some to try?” She returned with a tray of baklava. Carelessly, because I was in a hurry to see my next patient, I put a large lump of baklava into my mouth, and then bit hard on it. As I was doing this, I heard a deafening bang in my head. The baklava was not too fresh. I had split a molar tooth into two parts, the smaller of which was loose in my gum.

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Baklava

Unlike this disastrous piece of confectionary, the gifts kindly given to me by my patients did no harm. Furthermore, what I believed to be a useless tiny vocabulary of Balkan languages proved to be quite useful.  

Finally, you might still be wondering whether anybody ever took me aside to present me with an envelope containing pornographic photographs. To satisfy your curiosity, I can tell you that nobody did.