Happy Birthday Mama--From Malta to Venice with the Family Day 10--Albania: Off the bucket list


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Europe » Albania » West » Durrës
June 19th 2016
Published: June 21st 2016
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We were scheduled to take the Berat: City of a Thousand Windows tour but it was 8 ½ hours long. 8 ½ hours. Don’t think we can do this. We went up to breakfast and saw Skate who said she was on her own. As we finished breakfast, Michael came in and we asked him what he was going to do. He said he thought he’d take the Archeological Treasures tour. That sounded good so we took our tour tickets to the destinations desk to see if we could change them. Absolutely no problem. (Regent’s favorite words, actually.)

Got to the Seven Seas Show Lounge and met up with Michael. It was cloudy today and there was evidence of rain so I brought my linen jacket. I forgot my hat and sunscreen, though, so went back up to the room to get it. I called Julie while there and said we were heading out, what were they doing? She said she didn’t know but they had tickets for the archeology tour. I told her Mark, Michael and I were doing that and she said, “Isn’t that now?” Yes! She said, “Okay,” and hung up. Not sure I knew what that meant.

I rejoined Michael and Mark and in a couple of minutes they called Group 8. Just as they called our group, the Watkins came in. They were in group 10 so we were not going to be together. Shoot.

Our guide, Andi, is a high school history teacher who contracts to do tour work in the summer. He was very knowledgeable about the history of Albania for sure but also very frank about the realities of their communist history and the struggles they face as they make their way into capitalism and democracy. Our tour began with an hour bus ride to Tirana to visit the archeological museum. On the ride, he told us that building is a huge industry in Durres and Tirana right now because during the communist regime, people were not allowed to move from one place to another, and not even from one apartment to another, without government permission. He told us that Albania was a very closed society, even unfriendly to the Eastern bloc countries although it did forge an alliance with China the last few years of its totalitarian existence. Andi’s descriptions of how things worked was not surprising but really interesting to hear an first-hand account. He said that his mom and dad, after they got married, were given a 45 m2 apartment. When they had kids, they applied for a larger apartment but never got one so when the communists were kicked out of power, the first thing everyone wanted to do is get their own bigger place. He said people worked hard, saved money and built, then worked harder, saved more money, and built on. He said there are people who own 4, 5 and 6 floor houses and don’t have nearly the people or furniture to fill it so they have a huge house but only live in a small portion of it. This would help explain the architecture; it looks like all of their architects came from University of Lego. Very blocky and, uh, just blocky. Then there are weird buildings that are all curvy, still ugly, just curvy and ugly as opposed to blocky and ugly. Andi said that as soon as the communists lost power, everyone in the country wanted to do what they had not been allowed to do before. Could only live in the country? We’re moving to the city. Could not own a car? Buy a Mercedes. Could only build block buildings? My house will have curves. The area where the politburo had been housed was a non-accessible area during the regime. After communism fell, the people put bars and restaurants and night clubs in that area, all of the kinds of places they had not been allowed to have before. So there.

The bus dropped us off and we walked a short way to the Tirana Museum of Archeology. Another guide took over and she guided us through the museum, looking at artifacts from the Mesolithic and Paleolithic eras, and then heading into the iron and bronze ages and finishing up with the Greek, Roman and the Ottoman empires. Interesting to see how the technology advanced through the years.

Outside on the square there were large (like jumbo Tron large) TVs and lots of picnic tables set up. Andi told us that Romania was playing in its first European Football Cup and the match with Romania was tonight. All of this set-up was so people could gather and watch that. The Albanian flag was everywhere as well as people wearing red soccer jerseys emblazoned with the double-headed eagle. There were people with car flags with the Albanian flag. It was fun to observe the local excitement.

As we walked out of the museum, the Watkin group was just arriving. Liz had a dog in tow. I had noticed a stray dog earlier and said to Julie, “I think stray dogs are a problem here.” She said, “Ya think?” They had done the walk the city part of the tour first so she was definitely up on that. We took off from the museum to walk to the city center and there were two dogs that followed us the whole way. They had markers in their ears and Andi told us that meant they had been vaccinated and spade or neutered. He said it is a big problem in the cities of Albania; no one wants to euthanize them but they can’t afford to adopt them either. They dogs would run out into traffic and, as bad as Andi said the drivers are, drivers would hit their breaks to avoid hitting the dogs. One of the dogs started chasing cars, barking and whining. I said that surprised me that they didn’t seem afraid of the cars. Mark said maybe they get enough basic sustenance from the cars that it is worth the risk.

We walked to a local pub in the middle of a park and had a local beer. Michael said it was weak which meant I liked it since I don’t like my beer strong. Interesting enough, some children came in begging and they were shooed out. The dogs, however, had the run of the place.

After our refreshment break, we walked to the oldest building in Tirana, a mosque which dated from the Ottoman Empire. It was beautiful on the outside but we couldn’t go in as they were having prayer. Andi told us that the communists wanted to tear all of the old buildings down but a group of academics convinced the party officials to keep it since it was the traditional center of the city. Many other old buildings, however, were not as easily spared. Those were replaced with big blocky communist function-first buildings. Across the street from the mosque was the Albanian History Museum. The front of it was one of those classic communist-era mosaics with a woman in the front wearing traditional dress and holding a rifle aloft and a man next to her flying the flag and then workers behind them and then people from history including Karl Marx, all marching towards this great utopia of communism. Whatever sells papers, right? Andi said there is much controversy about that mosaic and others because people say that’s from a bad era, we should remove it but others say if we cannot erase our past. He also said restoring it is very expensive so at this point, everything’s on hold. It will fall off the face of the building so no restoration possible or it will be restored so money raised and all is well.

Andi talked a little bit about how people had spent time in prison because they were accused of being a traitor during the communist regime and that once you had a prisoner in the family, no one would want to associate with you. When we were on the boulevard (you know, us and the mopeds and the cars and the DOGS!) he said that the revolution that began the end of the communist regime was a group of students who marched down the boulevard and protested. Gutsy, that, in the climate he described. He showed us a bunker that had been built not far “Americans mostly but other Europeans and even Russia since Albanians had not had good success in keeping peace with most anybody.”

We got back to our bus and started the 1-hour trip back to Durres. It was mostly quiet (which was nice) and we mostly snoozed (which was double-nice!) When we got to Durres, we parked about a half-mile from the ship to visit the Roman amphitheater. The amphitheater was discovered in 1966 when someone went into his yard to dig a hole for a tree. He planted the tree, patted down the dirt and the next morning there was a large hole where the tree had once been. The amphitheater, which the locals knew existed, had been found. It is a huge amphitheater, seating 20,000. It was a regional draw for all of the people in the surrounding areas and mostly featured animal battles and gladiator fights. Andi showed us the area where they thought they kept the animals before the fights began. Very intricate system of tunnels and passageways and rows and rows of seats, all ruined now.

After the amphitheater, we went back to the bus and headed back to the ship. Andi was a good guide and we felt like we got a feel for Albania. I did not go to the show that night but John, the cruise director, said, “Well, you can now mark Albania off of your bucket list!” My main impression was that Albania is poor and struggling but at the same time proud and determined. I would love to go back in 25 years to see how they have progressed. I wish them Godspeed.

Back on board, we went to the pool grill to grab some lunch. I have to say, they have really good cheeseburgers on board, and I’m not that big a cheeseburger fan anymore. We compared notes with the Watkins who did not have nearly as good a guide as we did but did get to go to the mosque. They said that was the highlight of the day so I’m glad they got to do that. At the end of their tour, their guide said, “Thank you for visiting and please tell all of your friends to come visit Albania!” Katie was like, “Uh…no.” They have wonderful archeology and history in Albania but they have not mastered how to market it to western cultures. There was not a single postcard/t-shirt/souvenir schlock shop anywhere. None. Nada. If you WANTED to send a postcard from Albania, you couldn’t. The museum we visited was well laid out but very poorly lit, there were no guides to the exhibits in English or any language that I could see and no “souvenir” type stuff. It was hard to really study the artifacts and then hard to remember what we’d seen because there was nothing to take away, not even a postcard. Definitely had the feeling of growing pains and like I said before, I wish them Godspeed.

We took naps and then met the family for drinks at Galileo’s. It was Father’s Day and we had each written an acrostic poem for Jack using the base OLD FART. He apparently calls himself an old fart all the time so Mom said, “Let’s tell him what that really means.” It was really precious and meant a lot to Jack. At dinner we sat all of the fathers and future fathers at one table and all of the women sat at the other. I had a mushroom and feta cheese crostana, cream of asparagus soup, and miso-glazed sea bass. Yum, yum, yum. Passed on dessert since my cheese burger was still mostly with me.

I had awakened early that day and didn’t go back to sleep so, despite the fact that the show tonight sounded good, I took myself back to our stateroom. Good decision. Tomorrow, return to Montenegro. Fun!

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