Editor’s Introduction: The original chronicle was published in 1957 in Albania when Naum Prifti was employed as a journalist at Ylli (Star) magazine. Decades later, it was translated by his late brother Peter Prifti. In the summer of 2020, the family’s wishes to revive the riviera trip with Naum now at 88 were practically scrapped by the global coronavirus pandemic. Instead, a virtual trip was deemed a satisfactory substitute. With that in mind, I edited and condensed the English translation of his coastline travels to present to my father on his birthday, on March 7 of this year. Naum was 25 when he wrote the essay. Although I admit I am partial when it comes to his writing at any age, I noted that the flowing lyrical style, captivating descriptions and the effectiveness of the sensory details, ranging from anxiety to exhilaration, brought back a flood of memories of my own trip to the marvelous Albanian riviera from the years of my youth. So what started as an idea of a virtual birthday tour may also be a gift to the past and future travelers who never cease to answer the call of the road. For those who have already visited the-Vlore-to-Saranda coastline or those who wish to live the experience themselves, you may find yourself immersed in this reading. The most vivid passages describe the anxious drive uphill the Llogara Pass or the cutting across steep and gravely mountains of the South, the calmness of vistas that appear unexpectedly like the Medieval Castles or scattered villages on little hills, but most of all, the seemingly endless turquoise nuances of the Ionian sea.
BEHOLD THE ALBANIAN RIVIERA!
As a young journalist, I was fully aware that I had only read about the marvelous riviera from Vlora to Saranda. So much so that when asked if I had visited, I avoided giving an embarrassing answer by muttering quickly: “Visit the seacoast? Of course. Very beautiful!”
One feels even a bit sour when considering that tourists from around the world tour our riviera and write their impressions from the journey while some of my fellow journalists and I, who are locals, had not visited, or worse, read stories about the seacoast written by guests. Some lovely passages were printed about the lives of villagers and farming and about the incomparable natural panoramas of these parts.
A classic depiction was penned by the inspired and sympathetic hand of a master poet who left behind the dampness of his fog-wrapped country, and sailed by boat to a port in Spain. He then visited the entire delightful coast of the blue Mediterranean. Upon coming to our shores, his wondrous pen memorialized the unforgettable lines about Albania and Albanians. To read Childe Harold is to be seized by the desire to experience the breathtaking landscapes described of his poems!
“As nature’s volcanic amphitheater,
Chimaera’s Alps extend from left to right:
Beneath, a living valley seems to stir;
Flocks play, trees wave, streams flow, the mountain-fir…”
At last I was assigned to go there. Aware that my report would not compare in capturing a description of the charms of our seacoast and its people, no matter how well-written my piece would be, I wonder anxiously if I would be capable of relating accurately all that I see and feel about Riviera’s natural beauty.
I do not travel by sedan, or taxi, I ride a mail truck on its daily run from Vlora to Himara. The driver, a young man of pleasant looks and curly hair, warm cheerful eyes, may have seem more sympathetic to me simply because he does not object when I ask if he would let me ride up front with him.
We leave Vlora close to noon time; yet it seems even later, on account of the overcast sky and a light autumn rain. It is a bleak November day that makes you feel desolate even sitting at home. In the waiting room of a transportation agency, you feel more like a bear in an iron cage. Whenever I travel I take a book along to read when I stop in places where I don’t have any friends or relatives. But on that particular day, the book is not holding my attention and I cannot help swearing a few times at its author.
The road form Vlora to the Llogara seems long and even dull save for the landscape strewn with year-round green shrubs that take away the general somber appearance of autumn in these parts.
Now we are about to drive uphill to Dukat. Before starting the climb, the driver stopped the truck to check the tires and tighten the bolts on them. I am conflicted between patting him on the back for being careful and feeling apprehensive that taking all that precaution meant that he feared something might go wrong. I must admit that the traveler would be way off the mark for thinking the drivers on this route are afraid! The narrow, dangerous country road to Llogara, would make most people dizzy walking on foot. To these hero drivers, like any job that gets to be commonplace, it doesn’t seem like much. And by now, they regard this as a run-of-the-mill route and, hold on to the wheel, as they hum or sing as if they had nothing to worry about.
The truck jolts riding over pebbles and potholes. Fiercely wailing winds that rush through the cabin and all around signal that we are getting closer to the Lloraga pass. The raging wind grows mightier causing the tarpaulin cover of the truck to swell like bellows, and Jako-the driver– almost casually steadies the wheel with one hand, and with the other reaches out the window to hold down a corner of the tarpaulin.
I ask myself to remember why the place is called Llogara. I have a notion that the word derives from a Greek word llagar that means clean, clear.
This notion is supporter from some inhabitants of Himara, who tell me that several years ago a summer camp was put up here for foreign tourists, just to admire the panoramic view and enjoy the fresh water and clean air.
“That place will either cure you or kill you,” they tell you. And they’re right, as far as I can tell.
The Fury of the wind intensifies the closer we get to the Llogara pass, where winds never cease year around. The dark pine trees that grow nearby are not coniferous, and nothing that shoots up high in the air would survive the winds, so they appear shriveled and stunted, as if a sword lopped their heads off.
The driver tells me with relish that in these parts many years ago a powerful blizzard blew off a donkey loaded with corn, along with its master, and dashed them against a rock some twenty meters away. Jako even points out the rock, as if he had personally witnessed those terrible moments.
The sky is overcast and bleak. Beneath clusters of rolling gray clouds, a few small, pitch black clouds similar to the smoke from a dynamite blast, fly away. Presently you look up and are surprised to see the gray clouds swell and turn menacingly black. At last, we reach the Llogara pass.
It appears as if all of a sudden a gigantic curtain goes up us, revealing a marvelous scene. My heart throbbed with such rapture captivated by the beauty of my homeland. Such miraculous view is beyond the capacity of man to imagine. Just picture yourself traveling along a long vexing road, going up a mountain with little to distract the eye, and then reaching a lofty pass where suddenly you discover a new world with an awe-inspiring presence.
Below your feet, some 900 to 1000 meters down the ravine, the sea stretches in all its majesty, and on the surface of the sea, beams of light like the one artists paint on icons to depict the holy spirit, come down from chinks in the clouds. It’s as if the light did not want to abandon the sea in the fave of the approaching storm. Elsewhere the sea takes on the color of the clouds and appears bleak, agitated, stern. From high up it appears like a plain full of cracks, but from a closeup look you realize the analogy does not hold up. The surface is alive, vibrant and noisy. Look closely, at the coastline, and you will see an ever moving bright line like liquid silver, that kisses the shore and then retreats as if embarrassed. But driven by passion, it comes back, and the sea with its silvery lips kisses again and again the sacred soil of the shore.
Along the entire coastline where the sea meets the land, a greenish blue line runs like an infinite band as a light border between land and the sea. Beyond that line the sea has a stern and angry look. The rays of the sun, the water surface like a mirror, and the sea all play in the threatening storm with the mocking pose of the powerful. Farther away a veil of mist, and the sea fuses with the gray clouds that let the rain down.
Directly ahead are the neat white-painted houses of Palase and Dhermi, while to the east sit the Mountain of Lightning, fog-bound and silent, imposing and sublime. But the silence is misleading as these mountains may unexpectedly unleash their powers and whole region will shake and tremble. In Palase, cypress trees stand tall and straight, as if to soothe the brooding storm and slow down its momentum. They quiet your spirit with their serenity and beauty. Farther down are the orange orchards, and all together these plants wish to show, it seems, the gentler side of this terrain.
We are driving on the downhill side of Llogara. This is a haughty mountain covered by solid rock, and the gray surface has blended with great effort with sage brush and stunted grass that grows between the cracks of the rocks.
About an hour later the sea grows murky and foggy. A wind-driven rain breaks out and ‘wakes up’ verses by a popular local poet blending melancholic and nostalgic notes:
The night is coming,
The sky darkens,
The sea thunders,
The wind blows
And lightning flashes.
Come out, my love,
Come out and listen,
To the voice of love.
The rain is not long in coming.
Big raindrops, signaling a storm, strike the windshield of the truck and soon the tarpaulin top rattles like a taught drum. Fiery lightning rends the sky, tracing a zigzag pattern that momentarily imprints itself on your eyes. The streaks of lightning chase one another rapidly, and with a rapid pattern around the peak. “The Mountains of Lightning,” is truly an apt name.
The storm continues. Thunder. Lightning. Sky and earth tremble. The peaks of the Acroceraunian Mountains, – the other synonym for them – lie hidden behind a gray fog, as if they were too frightened to witness what is happening at their feet. But such a supposition does not hold fort these mountains. If you look at them carefully, you will come to believe that it is not the clouds that come down on them, but that the mountains have lifted up their heads and rent the clouds and are saying to the stormy sky, “Do your worst; we do not fear you.”
The heroic harmony is destined to make the viewer feel the incomparable power and beauty of nature in Albania. It is meant to be admired without bounds.
We drive on. The driver takes no notice of the storm whatsoever; he goes on smoking quietly. When we reach the midway point of the Llogara incline, we are obliged to make a stop at the Coast Guard station. Several uniformed guards greet us and chat amiably. All at once the rain stops, but the wind continues with unabated fury. The truck cabin rattles and if the wind really wanted to, it could well blow it off into the ravine. Jako was worried that since the tarpaulin top was torn in a couple of places, the raging wind would blow the truck sky-high, like a child’s kite.
Since the road at this stretch is too narrow for two cars to pass, Jako advises the next driver who pickes up the shift to be careful when he reaches the pass. We continue our downhill drive. In the distance, the cypresses of Palase seem like stems of the hellebore plant, which grows on the slopes of high mountains. The houses of the Palase are pretty, nearly all are two stories high, with stuccoed walls and wide windows.
To give you an idea of how small their land holdings are, I’ve heard people say, by way of making a comparison, “I have a farm, but what good is it? If a donkey rolls over to scratch his back, his tail would stick out.” But I never believed that farms could ever be that small in reality. Moreover, I wonder if it is proper to call “Farms” those tiny plots of land that people around here wrested from the rocky mountain, at the cost of much effort and pain.
Rising one on top of the other on the slopes, those “farms” give the appearance of a staircase on the side of the mountain.
But nature is bountiful here. Just like an oasis nestled in the midst of the desert, the coconut tree in the depth of the jungle, to quench the parched inhabitants from the heat. In these regions, the wilderness has provided olives, lemons, oranges, figs and tangerines.
The truck drives through villages Dhermi, Ilias, and then Vunoi. This last one was not entirely, unknown to me. The home place of two of my fellow workers who had shared with me jokes and digs that locals use commonly in their daily speech.
We stopped only briefly in Vunoi, just long enough to drop the mail, as chauffeurs say. Positioned on a steep slope Vunoi seems neither very big nor very pretty, when seen from the highway which runs through it. The village leaves the passerby with two opposite impressions. You still find burned down houses there, which indicates suffering and abandonment and also you find electric poles that carry electricity into the village.
The rain begins anew, and from time to time there are streaks of lightning. But the calm sea, waxing majestic easily snuffs out the fiery arrows of the sky, just as Gorky says in his famous poem Thunderbird: “The sea seizes the arrows of lightning and extinguishes them in its bosom.”
Despite the rain, girls and women go by in the streets carrying sacks and bundles of kindling wood on their backs. Their cheeks are flushed from the rain and the strain of their loads.
We arrive in Himara, or more exactly in Spile. The offices, postal services, shops, clubs – all are located here. Unlike the people in town, nature is still unfriendly to us, for it rains heavily and we rush out from the car and dash into a coffee house. The driver ordered two black coffees and the manager served us the coffee ‘on the house’ as one serves a guest, and chatted with us. I know that our villagers have remained loyal to the ancient custom of hospitality for which we are renowned, but I appreciated the gesture since that job was his livelihood. This gesture and overall hospitality make the people of Himara stand apart in welcoming friends or out-of– town visitors.
As darkness grew, the stormy sea was whipping up waves that crashed noisily on the shore. It roared, tossed and convulsed as if it wanted to vent all of its anger at the sky and the rain for needling and disturbing its peace. “He who sows the wind, reaps the whirlwind!”
In the evening, I went to Gogo’s coffee house. The place wasn’t much to look at. It reminded you of those coffee houses in the Middle Ages as described by that Dumas in his novels. Dingy- looking, it had only one window, and even that one was on the side of the entrance. A few small tables without covers, and an assortment of chairs and stools, was the sum of the visible wealth of the store. The coffee house had a pure quality grade raki, distilled from grapes which would win over even non-connoisseurs. It was the sort of spirit you could drink half a bottle and still keep a clear head.
This was the kind of grape brandy Barba Haraqi was drinking to drown his sorrows. Judging by his looks, he was an elderly man in good health. Evidently he had done only light work in his life, and avoided being bruised and frazzled. Even though he did not know me, he invited me to sit down at his table. I thought he had a little too much to drink, but all the same I joined him. We began to chat. As is customary with Albanians, they first ask you where you’re from and what kind of work you do, and then they ask your name. That’s the way our conversation began, too. He was pleased to learn that I was from the Gramozi mountain region, where the sun rises on the local folk a bit earlier than on some other folks. It turned our that he, too, was from the same region.
“I’m also from that part of the country,” he said, “but it’s been years since I left and settled here. Let’s see, how long ago was that? Forty or fifty years? Something like that.”
If you listen closely to his idiom, you could pick up certain sounds that differed from the speech of the Himariots. He does his best to persuade me that it behooved him to treat me, instead of the other way around. “You are a guest here,” he said, “and it is up to us to honor you and to treat you well, so that you do not feel…” He tried to find the right word, but couldn’t and grimaced in despair, “how shall I put it… that you don’t miss home.”
We talk for quite a while. Barba Haraqi was a mailman for eighteen years. Close to two decades of delivering letters, telegrams and court summons. In that span of time he had been a witness to many events. This elderly man had shared the sorrows and joys of people to a greater degree than others. At times the mailman is somber and silent, his hand can scarcely knock on the door, his voice trembles and shaking his head, grief-stricken, he hands over the telegram carrying some terrible news. It is different when he brings news of a wedding, an engagement or the birth of a baby. Then he is light on his feet, full of cheer and he travels with wings of joy.
Every job in the world is important in its own way, and each one complements another. At the club, I had the opportunity to meet another character of Himara, Necho “manager of air, sea and land transport”. However, since Himara has neither an airport nor a harbor, it’s plainly clear that he is responsible for only land transport. I noticed, too, that in Himara they do not refer to older people by generic terms such as “Uncle” out of respect, as is the case in some regions. Instead, they use the popular term “Barba,” which they have taken from the Greek, but has a distinct Albanian ring to it, in the way they pronounce the word.
The club itself is located on the coast and is housed in a small neat building. On the southwest side it has a wooden veranda, that juts out over the sea, and it must be a very pleasant and popular spot during the warm summer months. The club’s interior was adorned with color printing of paintings by Shishkin, with hunting scenes and panoramas of Russian forests. Apart form these, there were a few postcard in loud garish colors, the work evidently of a paint dauber. Usually, a lot of people come to the club in the evening to chat and drink that blessed “seat of the distillery.” that loosens their tongue. These who cannot drink because of doctor’s orders or pocketbook restrictions, drink coffee and survey the scene.
Yet they want to go to the limit and sing as they drink. After all, what kind of alcohol is that which doesn’t make you feel like singing! That’s why singing goes on in the club till late at night. From there, the sea on side, and the mountains on the other, listen to these melodies. The following day I paid a visited with the local official. He had a calm but lively face, slightly thick lips and sea – blue eyes that gave him a grim serious look.
He speaks with a gentle voice and was cordial with me for as long as we chatted casually. It is only when I ask him about the accumulation of the medicinal herbs that he turns gloomy and begins to give me a report in official jargon and a cut and dry tone.
I have the patience to listen to his report to the end, and decide not to ask him any other questions about his job. Instead, I invite him to take a stroll with me, after work for a friendly chat. “Citrus fruits will be our main culture; we shall be known as the citrus fruit district, that’s what the specialist say,” said Kosta Loli, who spoke about future plans with passion and optimism. Together we visit the oil processing plant, the winery and whiskey distillery, and the consumers’ depot.
The Ionian Sea gives no signal of calming down. Although there is no wind, the waves splash with fury on the shore, overlaying the fine sand with a white foam. I could spent hours watching that scene as the foam dissolves and vanishes in a few moments, only to reemerge in the next episode. Waves resemble time. A little farther the waves break against the rocky coastline that plunges vertically into the sea. The rough face of the rocks seem to weep, as the foamy water spray over them and bounded off like ivory beads.
That night, I stay in Himara. In the afternoon the still swollen and choppy sea make me wonder about the powers of nature as if I am taking a philosophical journey.
By now the wind had stopped and I expect to see a smooth, placid sea. Yet the sea does not let go of its anger easily, for it rumbled and roared. Seeing the sea rage like that I could no longer picture it as tranquil and docile. So, when a native tells me that in good weather the sea of Himara is gentle and smooth as a pond, I had trouble picturing it.
As in every little city, here also the most important event of the day was the arrival and departure of the truck with its load of passengers. With its hills full of olive trees, the rocky cliffs that raise up from the sea, and the playful waves that snuggle up to them, Himara is pretty in every season. When the orange and lemon trees are in bloom, then the air is fragrant with their scent, and you can’t have enough of it.
The following day in the afternoon the weather is pleasant and the sun is shining, all good signs to get on the road to Saranda. Barba Necho instructs the driver to let me ride up front with him. We drive on a narrow road that windes among verdant hills, leaving the beautiful Himara behind us. Because of the heavy rainfall in recent days, here and there we run into puddles whose surfaces sparkes like glass under the sunlight.
The driver is intrigued that this is my first trip in these parts and tries to satisfy my curiosity by telling me everything he has been told, or has found out by himself.
He tells me that since the sea is stormy at Himara, the odds are it’ll be calm in this part of the country. And indeed, as soon as we drive past the hills of Himara, we come across a small rock-bound inlet where the blue waters of the sea shine like the surface of a mirror. No waves, no roar. Yet the mighty sea looks after this inviting inlet, like a cherished offspring, as to not disturb its sleep.
Shortly we reach the Porto Palermo pass. At this spot one encounters “a second” Llogara. Wheareas the Llogara landscape blends the dramatic charm with sublime grandeur, here at Porto Palermo you find a sorter beauty, – sweet and serene and slightly melancholic. A tiny peninsula extends out to the peaceful waters. From afar one can discern the walls of an old castle on the peninsula to the mainland. A road runs along the strip to the castle.
The castle of Ali Pasha of Tepelena – his base of transactions with the outside world. I gaze at it with a feeling of traveling back in time. On the road a troupe of mounted horsemen riding at full galop, a cloud of light yellow dust whirls behind them, while their white woolen cloaks and deep-pleated skirts, play with the wind, flutter brightly like old banners of freedom. The troupe of horsemen rides like a storm over the narrow strip into the castle. At the gate, their leader, the aging Ali Pasha dismounts and walks haughtily into the castle. His horse follows him, neighing and thrusting his head up into the air. From the parapet of the castle, the trumpeters with their long trumpets pointing skyward greet the arrival of their chief with a ringing flourish, and pray to Allah to lengthen his life and augment his glory. The castle, built by Ali Pasha men, stands as a testimony to his skill as a strategist in his time.
Close to the highway on the sea side, there is a venerable little church. It is said that he built it for his beloved wife, Vasilika. As the story goes, Ali Pasha Tepelena called a number of masons over and asked them to complete the work within one day “If you do not finish the job my sunrise, I shall put you to the sword…“But what was the reason for such a great haste?
As continue our trip, the scenes change in rapid sequence, like the frames of a cinematic film. I feel, at once, an actor and a spectator. The Bay of Borshi scenery is breathtakingly beautiful. The blue sea below, tranquil and drowsy, has found a place to rest and sleep in this bay that stays green summer and winter, and the eye relaxes on the peaceful plain – a unique spot in the Riviera. And in the middle of it, there is a farm. It distinctly resembles landscape paintings by the great masters.
Qeparoi comes into view sitting up high in the mountain. On the opposite side one can see the houses of Borshi. In such a setting, anyone can feel like a poet, and it seems perfectly natural to me now why these villages have such a rich folklore, and balladeers.
While driving uphill toward Borshi, we came across an old man on a mule. He wore glasses and looked like a dandy. He had spread a couple of blankets over the saddle of the animal. Several tote bags hung from the back part of the saddle. Casually, I asked the driver:
“Who is that man?”
“You don’t know? He is a mason. A real oddball, that guy. Look at him: you always see him on a mule. He goes around like that from one city to the next. They say he never hits his mule with a stick or kicks her. He lets the beast go at her own pace; never hollers at her. It doesn’t matter how fast or how slow she goes, be it summer or winter. And whenever he happens to be when night falls, there he lays down to sleep. Bread and food he carries with him. Spoon, fork, salt, cooking pot, everything… he has them all in his bags.”
“Does he have anybody at home?”
“I hear that they say to him, “You are shaming us.” But that doesn’t bother him. “What I do is no concern of yours. As long as I have strength in this bones, and my mule, I don’t ask you for anything.”… Believe me, there’s all kinds of people in this world.”
“True enough, but not too many like him around.” I realized that he was an evangelist.
The driver stepped off the truck and walked to the back of the vehicle to “set the passenger straight.” I noticed that he took time out to “walk a few steps” with all the passengers who got off, and made no attempt to refuse the tips they offered him. Each time he returned with a smile, and would say – as if to ask my permission- “Shall we go now?”
Up in the mountain, Qeparoi seems like a Medieval castle. We linger somewhat in Borshi because the driver goes to buy a basket of oranges. I also get off, and I notice by the side of the road a monument dedicated to the martyr, Sofo Meksi. I recall a song that was popular during the war as I stood silent by the monument. I had heard that song as a child in my village. “On the outskirt of Borshi…” The somewhat monotonous melody had a heavy, militant cadence and blared like a trumpet. It must be the reason why it stayed with me ever since.
The monuments, the reconstructed bridges – reminders of the war. In Protopape the road runs very near the seashore. The storms assail the old dumped tank and the waves mock it and the cold iron, demolished, gloomy and silent.
We are approaching Lukove. Here the olives have ripened. It’s harvest time. The motor road in Lukove passes right through a well-cared-for olive orchard. A few old women and children are gathering olives that have fallen on the ground. They do not hurry. I have the impression that they are going to finish the job in their own good time, and that grandma is telling the little ones a gable about royalty, as she goes abut gathering olives; otherwise, the children will get bored and run off.
The sun is setting. The deep bluish-green waters of the Ionian Sea seem too be afire as they reflect the red rays of the setting sun. The invisible shadow of dusk sweeps over the face of the mountains, and the leaves in the trees change color and take of on a darker hue. Way up in the mountain, a man walks along, contemplating this serene evening in all its silent and imposing majesty. The visitors in these parts rave about the blue, diaphanous skies atop the mountains; the ravishing sun, and the pristine nature.
In the future there will be villas that sit aside a motor highway, and fully asphalted roads that wind their way along the beautiful seacoast, all the way from Shen Gjin in the north to Butrint in the south. We drive southward, and arrive at Shen Vasil, a village in a lovely setting, but terribly poor. Located on a mountain pass, the village’s only aset is the sage plant, which grows all over the mountain. This medicinal herb has a high market value, and is found in a surprisingly wide area. The age-old plant covers the face of the mountains, and from all signs it is doing far better this way than if it were cultivated by hand.
We ride downhill on a bare, dry road that cuts across the front of a steep and gravely mountain. Below us on our left lies the plan of Vurgu, scattering of villages here and there, and in a mountain gorge, the town of Delvine. From where we are, the only thing we can see clearly is the top of the minaret that rises above the roofs and the houses.
We are nearing Saranda. The first surprise here for the traveler is the entrance of the town from the southeast. You expect to see it ahead of you, whereas in this instance we skirt the town, leaving it behind us, and it is only after a mountain pass that dainty little Saranda appears before us, with its houses coated with stucco, its orchards, its lovely harbor and the surrounding hills. It is evening. We drive through a street lined with pine trees. The street lights have been turned on. Some of them are reflected in the waters of the harbor, and seem like fallen stars.
Opposite Saranda one can see the isle of Corfu, which at the moment is slightly murky in the evening. A beacon of light flashes every eight seconds like a magic eye, signaling to weary seamen the joyful news that the harbor is not far away.
The night is cool. Lulled in the murmur of the waves, I slept soundly through the night. The next day was sunny, and fragrant with the scents of autumn. I visited several orange groves, the harbor, the Tourist Hotel and after completing my official task, I took a leisurely stroll here and there within town, the workshops, factories, apartments buzzing with sounds and city life.
The Ionian Sea is perfectly calm. The white pebbles sparkle beneath the surface, and fish with silvery scales swim about in all directions, happy that the storm is over. A little boat rocks gently in the water, and high up its mast a sailor tries to get hold of something, while another sailor shouts orders at him form the deck beneath.
Where the cold water of a mountain stream rushes in the harbor, the sea has taken a different color – a bluish hue which seen from above, seems like a band about five palms of the hand in width and about two to three hundred meters in length, like someone cut away form the sea.
The next day, as I was having lunch, a priest comes over and sits down at my table. He has a thin, long face and peasant features. His eyes are small and dreamy, his forehead broad and straight. His lower lip is slightly curled, as if the curl is meant to give him a more imposing appearance. But overall he has the appearance of a spiritual person. There are some priests in our villages that are more like farmers than clerics. They work like everybody else.
They roll up the sleeves of their robe and plow the fields the whole blessed day. As for religious services, they see them as a social function and a chore that has to be done. It wouldn’t be out of place if I should mention here that one of the many priests in our village, when it came to swearing an oath, never swore by Christ or God, but kept faith instead with ancient pagan oaths. He would say: “I swear by this fire… by this earth… by this bread!” and did not think it was sinful to do so. He was not run-of –the-mill priest, either, but a bright learned man.
The priest I meet in Saranda belongs to that category of clerics. His sparse beard, which tapers to a wedge-like point, without any meat; he takes out a chunk of bread from his pocket and starts to eat. I am surprised to see him sit down to such a meager lunch. I ask him where he is from and where he is headed for. He tells me he is from a poor village high up in the mountain, some eight or nine ours on foot from Saranda. Neither olives or oranges grow in his village, because of its high-altitude and very cold climate.
“What do you have in your village?” I ask him.
“Walnuts. We have lots of walnuts.”
The priest speaks Albanian haltingly. I ask him about the church and some other things that had to do with his calling. He purses his lips mournfully as he prepares himself to talk about an unpleasant subject. It troubles him to see religion loosing ground even in the most remote villages, and it may be that he longs for the days when men still lived with fear of God in their hearts and looked for mercy from the Almighty.
“Bah! It’s only the old folk who come to church these days. The young don’t pay much attention to these things any more. The times have changed.” Pleased with our talk, the priest thrust his hand deep into his pocket and came up with a handful of walnuts, which he set before me on a plate. I did not want to take them, but he insisted.
I carry on with him for as long as propriety allows at a restaurant table, but later I regrett that I did not press him to tell me something about his life. Even so, form what he told me, I am convinced anew that religious sentiments never struck too deep roots here. And historically many Christians changed their faith at the time of the Tanizat, just so they could evade payment of taxes.
As in every little city, in Saranda if you make the rounds of the town a couple of times, you have seen everything there is to see within two hours. That’s why visitors in town habitually wind up in the hunter’s club, if they don’t go out for a stroll. The club is the focal point for meetings, scholarly, discourses, singing, drinking, playing dominoes and backgammon. Saranda has other clubs, as well, and far prettier than this one, but none of them is as popular or as celebrated as the hunter’s club. What makes this club especially attractive are the birds that stand proudly over the bar, and seem to greet the guests with their eyes that shine like glass.
In the club you see clients in a variety of costumes and you can more or less guess what part of the country they are from. A very old man with very big ears and a white skullcap is haggling over the price of some sheep he was trying to sell. He pulls all the stops in praise of his merchandise to the would-be-buyer, but the other listens in silence and pretends he is not impressed.
Apart from the stories the hunters share, in the club I hear two fairy tales in broad daylight, and I’m not all all sure whether this sort of thing does credit to the club.
The tales are told by a villager from Papase of Hiamara. He has a longish face like a horse, and black, bushy eyebrows. His name escapes me, but I recall that he had a broad, large-boned chest, from which issued a strong, manly voice.
The first tale was about a sow that found a pot of gold. Since everybody who heard the tale laughed, he too joined in and laughed along with them. The other tale was about a clever rogue who was to marry the daughter of the king, provided he fulfilled three conditions set forth by the king. The first condition was to put a priest in a sack, but with the full consent of the priest. I don’t recall what the second condition was but the third called for taking the ring off the queen’s finger, and again with her consent. Using all his wiles and bravery, the rogue managed to fulfill all three conditions and ended up marrying the king’s daughter.
In the afternoon I am joined by a fried to visit Vrion, a small village, on a little hill that rises like a dome in the middle of a plain. I think Vrion illustrates revealingly the transformation of Albanian villages. Long ago, the village was a landed estate, where peasants lived and worked and bey was master of the estate, the landlord. Now one can visualize the plain of Vurg as a flourishing orchard year-round. Instead of waters that flood it all winter long, there is harvest two and three crops a year.
We return to Saranda around sunset. As the sun descends slowly to the sea, the whole sky turns a flaming red. Its reflection forms a path of shimmering of gold that stretches to infinity. Saranda is a jewel of our seacoast. It is a tourist site of charm and harmony. No wonder visitors rave about its beauty, and some sigh with a hint of envy.
Author’s Note: As a matter of record, I wrote down some impressions from my first trip along the coast of the Ionian Sea. Though I cannot say whether these notes amount to much, I consider this diary to be a tribute to my nostalgia for the breathtaking views and the unique folks of the Albanian riviera.