Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Life is a Promise in Durres, Albania

Text by Morelle Smith | Photographs by Morelle Smith and Jason Rogers | Creative Commons   
Morelle Smith crosses the Adriatic from Barri to Durres and marvels at the biggest Roman amphitheatre in Albania and the Balkans, while taking in a fresh dose of optimism from a violinist from a dismissed orchestra

"Life is a promise," says Fatmir, and he gestures away from himself, as if into the future - "and then again, a promise."

We are sitting outside the Joy café in the main street, in Durres, Albania. I’d arrived by ferry from Bari, and the street from the port slopes up gently into the main square and then levels out. The sloping street is lined with travel agents, cafés and shops. There are bakeries and patisseries, shops selling byrek - pastries with slivers of salty cheese inside, and sufflaq - pitta bread stuffed with lettuce, tomatoes, onion and halal meat, generously smothered with mayonnaise.

As I walk through the main square a man comes up to me, asking if he can help, if I need any information. I say I'm looking for somewhere to stay and he says he knows a family who lets out rooms. He is friendly, with greying hair and blue eyes, wears a pair of grey worn trousers and a checked shirt. He invites me for a coffee at the Joy café, which seems to be his local café, before we head for his friend’s house.

Like many Albanians he is interested in foreign people as contact with them is the closest they are likely to get to another country. Despite the fact that their country is now a democracy and so they are in theory free to travel, visas for the rest of Europe are so hard to acquire for Albanian nationals, that travel, even for journalists, is virtually impossible unless you have a lot of money. But it turns out that Fatmir has done more travelling than most, as he tells me on the way to his friend’s house.

He’s a musician, he says, he plays the violin. Under Hoxha’s dictatorship he was part of an orchestra, and travelled to various countries, Italy, Germany, and Turkey, where the orchestra put on performances. But now, he says, there is no orchestra. His English can be circuitous and sometimes hard to understand but I gather that he now does something that involves both music and computers.

We leave the main street and go up a path which passes by the side of the amphitheatre. Fatmir points out the entrance to me but the arena itself is half obscured. You could visit it tomorrow, if you're interested, he says.

I am following him along a maze of paths, fascinated by what I see. We turn away from the amphitheatre and continue on a path that goes underneath a red brickwork arch, a relic of the time when Durres or Durazzo as it was known then, was a Venetian port. History eloquently arches over and curves around these narrow paths bordered by sparse grass, which continue into slightly wider streets, that are still earthen tracks, the walls of the houses grimed and stained, the balconies of rusted and twisted metal, rubbish littering the corners.

Just before we reach the boulevard that stretches along the seafront, Fatmir stops outside a metal gate. Beyond the gate is a path, bordered with greenery, leading to an old house, creepered with vines and grandeur with a porch almost completely obscured by shade-giving vines. The sun-bleached and weather-worn brick walls are deeply entwined with dark green creepers and scented yellow flowers. Fatmir tries the gate but it won't open. He then stands back a few paces, puts his hands to his mouth and announces his presence in the traditional Albanian way.

Long before the invention of doorbells and knockers, Albanians were accustomed to communicating over vast distances, especially in the mountains. And even in the cities, people call from the streets, up to a balcony or open window, so you would often hear calls of "O Andri!" or "O Erioni!" floating through the evening air. The vocative case in Albanian is not just some quaint throwback that you find in Latin grammar where people regularly made imprecations to the gods. Here, it is robust and practised and very much a part of life. In response to Fatmir's call, a woman comes out of the house, walks along the path and opens the gate for us. An animated conversation takes place but the upshot of it is that they are expecting people, and have no spare rooms.

But Fatmir is on a quest now, and says there are other places we can try.

"I will not let you on the street," he says, and so we walk along the wide boulevard beside the seafront, where there are various kiosks selling pizza, byrek and ice-cream. At an intersection very near the gates that take you into the ferry area, he turns left then crosses the street and goes into a paved area behind a wall. To the right of this path there is a round Venetian tower and the wall is of Venetian brickwork, still well preserved. We walk up a path bordered with orange and yellow flowers, that leads to the Hotel Mediterran, its façade painted pink, with the balconies trimmed in blue. Sheltered from the street by the high Venetian wall, with its view out over path and flowers and to the round tower, it feels like cloistered luxury. We climb steps up to the reception area which is deserted. Eventually a young woman appears and Fatmir speaks to her. She gives me a key to a spacious blue tiled room with blue walls. The balcony has a view over the flower-bordered path and the Venetian tower.

Inside the room, I put down my backpack, and thank Fatmir profusely.

He gives me his phone number, and says if I'd like a coffee tomorrow I can contact him. After a shower, I go out for a walk in the streets. Near the Venetian brick archway, there is a pile of empty plastic bottles and an old woman dressed in black, is sifting among them. The air is filled with familiar scents - roasting corn and the smell of hot oil that byrek is cooked in. Some of the pavements are neatly paved, with circular designs, some have holes and all are covered in dust.


The next morning I head up to the main square, back underneath the Venetian archway, and on to the Roman amphitheatre, which is the largest in the Balkans, according to James Pettifer’s Blue Guide. I am the only visitor. A very friendly young woman gives me a personal guided tour in Italian. We go down steps into underground vaults and caverns. The amphitheatre is still in the process of excavation and the passages are lined with photographs of the archaeological findings. Some of the exhibits themselves she tells me, are in the museum here in Durres, and some are in other places; she mentions Vienna and Istanbul. When I show surprise at the treasures being in foreign museums she smiles and shrugs her shoulders. Once again it seems, Albania's heritage and treasures have been plundered.

But the jewel of their discoveries is La bella di Durazzo - a mosaic of a long-faced, solemn woman with hair piled on her head, her face turned slightly away from you as if she was looking back to some remembered past or as if, like some Cassandra, she could see a future that no-one wanted to listen to, never mind believe.

Hundreds of years later, she has been unearthed but no-one now knows what her words were or even who she was. Her enigmatic features are all we know about the past, covered up for centuries. Perhaps she saw the wars to come and the covering of history that would lie beneath a mound of rubble, while the city, known then as Epidamnos, was fought over by Rome, Venice, Serbia, the Ottoman Empire and in the twentieth century, Italy and Germany.

The past of this country, once known as Illyria, is rising up again, among the modern tower blocks and the concrete buildings of the recent era, and the dusty, littered streets. The past is surfacing again, entering the present as if it had never really left, claiming its rightful place there through its careful brick and stonework and mosaics as if it is assured that it is beauty only, and the love and skill of craftsmanship, that can endure through time.

In the galleries underneath the arena, tucked away under the ranks of seats, there is a small early Christian chapel, with an original mosaic on one of the walls. I imagine that it is still there because nobody could manage to remove it. It’s behind a gridwork of bars with solid perspex in between the bars. It is the same sandy colour as the stone, and it depicts, in black outline, two winged figures - the archangels Michael and Gabriel according to James Pettifer. Their features and expressions are of the same kind that you find in icons - something deeply knowing, grave and understanding, a visionary knowledge that refutes all ephemeral emotions and puts its roots deep into what endures forever.

The guide says that its time for her lunch break but we have come outside now onto the arena itself, which is not separated or sealed off in any way. I thank the guide and after she leaves I sit on the partly-uncovered stonework of this massive amphitheatre.

The sky is deep blue and cloudless and the September sun is hot. The autumn may be around the corner with its darker, nostalgic days, but my new acquaintance, Fatmir, is right: life is a promise. There is a small mosque, painted brilliant white and lemon yellow, just beyond the semi-circle of houses that curve around the far side of the amphitheatre. Someone leads a cow around the path, then they turn off, out of sight. A couple of Italians filming on the other side of the vast arena look remote and incongruous in this ancient world. Then the muezzin sings out the call to prayer which coils itself around me and the meridian sunlight glitters on the uncovered stones of the amphitheatre of ancient Epidamnos.

Read Morelle Smith's blog on
Read more of Morelle Smith’s stories on Rivertrain, her blog about writing and travelling

Read more about Albania on
Albania: Monastery at Mesopotam, Photographed by Massimiliano Fusari
Gjirokastër: Albania’s Town of the Stones
Albania: Four Reasons to Visit Europe's Least Known Country
The Blue Eye Water Spring in Southern Albania Beckons with Coolness
Byllis, Albania: Ancient City in the Sky

Readers' Comments:

"Ms. Smith, thank you for a wonderful article about Durres. I recently returned from a two-year assignment in Durres as an American Peace Corps Volunteer. Your story reminded me of the sounds, sights and smells that I will always cherish about this city. I'd like to share one correction: while the round tower near the sea is 15th century Venetian, the remnants of the walls and the arch that you describe are not. They were built in the late 5th century CE by the Byzantine emperor Anistasius I, a native of Durres. As you suggested in your story, Epidamnus- Dyrrachion-Durrazo-Durres is indeed a 2500-year old treasure trove of Balkan history."
Matt Taylor

"Hallo Matt, and thank you for that! So the walls and arch are even older - wonderful! I'm so glad you have good memories of your time in Albania, a wonderful country and people."

Dear Morelle,

"Thank you for your wonderful piece on Durres.  I just wanted to add something pertaining to the natives' way of communicating.  It is not because of highland custom that Durres natives shout names and are animated, (they are after all lowland & seaside folk) but because they are Mediterranean, and as such, much of their behavior resembles that of other Mediterraneans---such as that of the lively, animated Neapolitans'. 

With best regards from a Durres native and a Balkan Travellers contributor,"
Anjeza Bojku




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