Northern Epirus: Bunkers, Dictators, Gothic Cities and the Greek Minority

“Why would anyone want to go to Albania, don’t people usually escape from there?” That was the typical response from friends when I told them that I would be visiting Albania.

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Despite the awkward questions and puzzled reactions, I caught the small Delphini from Corfu, a 50 minute journey from the picturesque Greek island to the “dark” side.

The “dark” side is a country that is acknowledged as being Europe’s poorest. In recent years more people have been going out than in. In Greece alone there are approximately 500 000 legal and illegal workers and migrants from Albania, compared to a population in Albania proper of 3.5 million.

So why would anyone venture to the unfamiliar territory of Albania, when they could spend their summer surrounded by the comforts of the Greek islands? Well the Greeks have been going to, and living in, that area for thousands of years. In fact, Southern Albanian is part of the ancient and Byzantine area known as (Northern) Epirus. It is the birthplace of Olympia, Alexander the Great’s mother and Pyrrhos, whose hard fought, epic victories over the Romans inspired the phrase “Pyrrhic victory.” Many great cities of antiquities are located on the northern coast of Albania, including Epidamnos (modern day Durres) and Appollonia.

Since the state of Albania came into existence over 90 years ago, the territory of Southern Albania has been disputed by Greeks and Albanians. Like most states that share borders with Greece, boundary lines are often in dispute courtesy of the strange interpretations by the foreign powers that unfairly redrew all Balkan boundaries in the Twentieth Century.

Enough of the history lesson and back to the boat ride on the Delphini. I had heard that the Greek minority equates to approximately 250 000 people. However, I was not prepared to be sitting on a boat surrounded almost entirely by Greek speakers. I sat next to a nice man, Georgos and he told me he had been working in Greece and is now returning home to the Albanian port, Saranda (the real name of the port is actually Aghioi Saranda-Forty Saints). He quickly told me that his first language is Greek and despite living in Southern Albania, he felt proud to be Greek. In the tradition of Greeks, and just to prove a point, he took me to the back of the boat, for a cigarette and ouzo. So as the boat sailed into Albanian waters, there I was sharing an ouzo with Georgos and another person, a Christian Albanian.

Within no time, the Delphini was sailing into the pretty port of Saranda. From the boat, it appeared to be another little port in the Mediterranean. I quickly recalled a book I had read about a traveller who arrived in Durres in the 1990’s only to be greeted by abject poverty and children diving off the docks to retrieve a few gold coins that Italians and other foreigners were throwing into the water. I quickly realized that there were no children diving into the docks and the port was nice and well maintained. Not exactly a picture of abject poverty. However, as I made my way through the market to find a room, I was soon reminded that this is a poor country. The market was filled with many struggling people, doing their best to sell anything, anything that could be bought. The sellers were mainly Albanian and Roma, but most of them could speak Greek and were glad to take my Euros. The Albanian currency Leke, by the way, is one of the few currencies in the world that does not get traded outside of its home country. Not even Italy or Greece will change the currency.

This weary traveler (admittedly late nights in Corfu had caught up with me) eventually found a room at Hotel Lily. The owners (Lily and his lovely wife) were happy to take in a Greek, becoming excited to learn that I was from Australia. Their café located on the bottom level soon contained many Albanians that were interested in why I was visiting their country. “Was I mad?” was usually the phrase that greeted me when I told people I was just visiting. It was no different at the café and in the neighbourhood.

Saranda is an interesting port and reminds me of the pretty Aegean port of Kusadeci in Turkey (Asia Minor) as there is so much to do in a relatively small place. Its population is approximately 35 000, and there is a beautiful Greek church, Ayios Nikolaos, and a number of Greek taverns and shops. In fact, the shops that are not owned by Greeks usually speak Greek or play Greek music. I really felt like I was in mainland Greece, not in another country. I even tried my best to find Albanian cuisine, but ended up eating Greek food every day.

Whilst Saranda has plenty to offer for the visitor on a four or five day stay, its beaches are not as pretty as I had hoped. However, the further you go out from the port, the better the beaches become. And they are generally devoid of beach bars and loud music-so a good place to go for quiet and relaxing swimming.

Other minorities in Albania include the Vlachs, Roma, Skopjians and small tribes that are descendants of the ancient state of Illyria in the north of the country. For a country with an oppressive, totalitarian past and a negative reputation towards its ethnic minorities, I was pleasantly surprised by what I came across in the south. Muslims and Christians working together, socialising and interacting. I spent many an afternoon at the coffee shops talking with Greeks and Albanians. There were very few segregated tables, as there seems to be a genuine effort by all of the people to work together and treat each other with respect.

I met Lucas Mosakos at a cafe bar. Tall and well dressed I expected him to be a model. Instead he was an artist, having decorated the shop with his own design. His young Albanian colleague was adding the colour to the Greek alfrescos. I was having trouble explaining to the young waitress my order in Greek when Lucas volunteered to translate. Soon I was having a drink with Lucas and was joined by a group of young Albanians who had lived and worked in Greece. One of the boys had operated a drinking establishment were men went to meet women in Krete. As had become the standard question, I was asked, “Why would a person from Australia come to Saranda?”

It was at my daily afternoon discussions that I soon learned that despite the occasional tension and animosity in Greece towards Albanians, Northern Epirus is filled with people trying to get on with their lives. Under the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha which ended in 1985 after decades of rule, minorities were given no rights. Schools that taught Greek were closed down and those who advocated their cultural beliefs were persecuted. Albania was in effect closed to the outside world until the collapse of the communist regime in 1991. Probably the most bizarre contribution to Albania is Hoxha’s bunkers. Virtually the entire countryside is littered by thousands of UFO styled, steel bunkers that were built in the belief that Albania might enter into a nuclear conflict. So whilst Albanians starved and people were persecuted, the communist regime felt it necessary to build bunkers.

Getting from place to place in Albania can be tricky at the best of times if you do not have a vehicle or bike. I met Dimitri Fotis at his periptero on the beach. Playing Greek music and wearing his Euro 2004 jersey, it was not hard to figure out his culture. Dimitri told me that there are 100 Greek villages in Northern Epiros that speak Greek or are Hellenic. Dimitri and his father Xristo became my tour guides of the Greek villages. These villages were small, pretty, inspiring and at times full of life. The larger towns that I visited include Delvine, Finiki, Butrinti-were we had to catch a moving bridge to cross the river and is also the site of ancient Greek ruins, and Gjirokaster. I am extremely greatful for their assistance, allowing me to travel to my desired destinations.

Gjirokaster is not only an amazing town of 40 000 people, it is has become a world heritage listed site. The town is a former Byzantine stronghold and is a special place for Greeks. The day I visited this historic town, clouds gathered and threatened to rain. It was overcast and combined with the dark features of the buildings, highlighted by a Byzantine castle at the highest point of the town, it felt like I was in a Gothic movie. This is a must see destination. It’s romantic, Gothic, historical and very lively, all at the same time. This town reminds me of Spain’s world famous medieval town, the heritage listed, Toledo.

Having previously visited ancient and Byzantine villages in the Ukraine, Asia Minor (Turkey) and Magna Graecia (Italy), I have seen how proud the people of the Greek villages outside of Greece are of their culture and the past. Some of the proud villages, including Dervitsiani and Kakavia, display banners in the town centre that read, “Kallos Eirthate.” This means welcome to our village in Greek and it is also translated into Albanian, any traveler will feel welcome when they visit. Also on the main highways, the government has posted signage in the Albanian and Greek languages.

After several days at Hotel Lily, I farewelled the owners and moved to the biggest hotel in Northern Epirus. In doing so, I inadvertently became Hotel Olympia’s first guest as I stayed there just before its official opening. As a budget traveler, I rarely stay at 4 star hotels, however, it was hard to resist a place named after the Gods and Alexander the Great’s mother.

The likeable and energetic owner of Hotel Olympia, Konstantina Beziani, is also the Director of Minorities in the Office of the Prime Minister and a Deputy Minister. Her role is to work with ethnic (Greek, Skopjian, Serbian and Montenegrin) and cultural (Vlach and Roma) minorities. She told me that the Greeks are the largest grouping of all the minorities in Albania. The last 5 years has seen a real improvement in the political environment for minorities. Konstantina Beziani’s father Theoddhoros Bezianis is a founding member of OMONIA, the Democratic Union of the Greek Ethnic Minority in Albania. OMONIA has for many years been at the forefront of lobbying on behalf of the Greek minority and promoting Greek culture in Albania. He organises the renowned Festival of Pigoni on August 15 every year.

At Hotel Olympia I was also fortunate enough to meet Georgia and Ana Beziani, who study in Athens. Considering that it was a hot summer, they must have been wondering why a Greek-Australian was not on the Greek islands somewhere. Ana and Georgia’s first language is Greek, followed by Albanian and English. Like Lucas and many other Greek-Albanians, it is heartening to see how strong the Greek youth feel about their heritage. As opposed to the young Greeks of Southern Italy who are struggling to keep their Greek identity, the young people in Northern Epirus will maintain their culture.

In October 2004, Kostis Stephanopoulos, who was the Greek President at the time, told the Albanian Government despite the questions over Northern Epirus, Greece and Albania will be working strongly for a better future. Since then new schools for Greeks have been funded and established by the Greek government. In 2005, the Greek elementary school Omiros in Korce and the Computer Science Department in the University of Korce were financed by the Greek Foreign Ministry International Development Cooperation Agency. It is also worth mentioning that Albania is a very important trading state for Greece and trading relations continue to grow and flourish.

In keeping with the spirit of being Greek and all things bizarre, I came across a remote Greek village. The locals were building a Greek church, however, what amazed me was the use of authentic ancient Greek columns that had been dug up and used to support the structure of the church. In many respects, this is a metaphor for the Greeks in Northern Epirus-a very old civilization drawing upon their past to help build a long lasting future.

To answer the question as to why I came to Northern Epirus or Southern Albania, well it is a very interesting and exciting place to visit. Whilst it lacks the tourist comforts of other European countries, it is a unique place that is special to Greeks and students of history. Albania has many ancient and Byzantine Greek sites that are well preserved, such as the Butrint National Park. Hopefully there will come a time when organised tours are coordinated and tourist numbers increase. The friendliness of the people (I was driven around by Dimitri’s father for hours on a very hot day is a typical example) is exceptional and the potential for economic growth is evident. It’s hard to believe that as recent as the 1990’s there were major problems between ethnic Greeks and the government. Whilst various problems remain, Albania has certainly come a long way in recent years from the persecution of minorities and the building of bunkers.

For more information contact: ineuropewithbillycotsis@yahoo.com.au. To get to Saranda in Northern Epirus, catch the Delphini or other daily ferries from Corfu. Visa’s can be purchased at the border for $20.

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2 Responses

  1. Very interesting article. Thanks for that

  2. Please deal with real subjects. The notion of ‘Northern Epirus’ is a recent creation. In reality, objectively speking, Epirus has never been Greek. I know, you might be thinking ‘how could this be!’ Just read history, and focus on what the ancient authors say about Epirus. The ethnic character of south Epirus was changed after the Greeks took over in 1912.

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