topics: sanduic (food), HISTORY, Illyria, Danube, Emperor Diocletian, Ottoman Empire, World War I, Skanderbeg, AEDP, school life; jump to dispatch

BikeAbout Log


Rider Notes: April 1, 1998

Food of the Day: sanduic

As you might have guessed, a "sanduic" is the Albanian version of the sandwich. It almost always consists of cheese and ham (or something like bologna) in a roll with a copious garnish of mayonnaise. Sometimes toasted, sometimes simply warmed up in a microwave, it is a cheap, filling, and (sometimes) tasty meal.

Person of the Day: Angela, Mirj, and Swela

During our stay in Tirana we have been lucky enough to have three friends/guides/translators for our visits to schools. Angela click to view a photograph, Swela click to view a photograph, and Mirj click to view a photograph are all studying social work at the University of Tirana and all three also work for the Albanian Education Development Project, helping to coordinate school activities related to the Students Government Project (see Rider Notes for more). Their connections at the schools allowed us quick access to classrooms, and their excellent English skills helped us make our presentations to the students. Without them our visits to the schools would have been impossible so we would like to express our sincere thanks for their help.

Both Angela and Mirj also showed us around town a little. Mirj introduced us to Tirana's café society by taking us to lunch in the bar (café) at which he works. Angela went above and beyond the call of duty by showing us around Tirana all afternoon, patiently answering our questions and pointing out some of the highlights of the city. Swela also helped us by teaching Anthony some Albanian words and then quizzing him about them for the rest of the morning. Soon, Anthony could point to various parts of the anatomy and correctly give its Albanian name. Another three years and he would be fluent.

Place of the Day: National Museum of Albania

With our new friend Oerd (see the Rider Notes) acting as our translator/guide, we set off to visit the National Museum of Albania. Before we even entered, however, we stopped to admire the museum's position on Skanderberg Square click to view a photograph and then to inspect the huge mosaic on the front façade of the Museum. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph It depicts, in shorthand form, the subject of the museum itself - a record of Albania and Albanians throughout the ages, although in some ways it is anachronistic to talk about an Albanian nation before the current century. An actual Albanian state did not exist until 1912. Yet, Albanians are proud of their unique identity and traditions. Unlike most of the countries in the Balkans, Albania's population is relatively homogenous; 90% are ethnic Albanians who trace their ethnicity and their language back to the ancient Illyrians.

Still, like most countries in the Balkans, Albania has had a troubled past. Indeed, in some ways, the museum is a chronicle of Albanian resistance to foreign domination. Certainly the museum emphasizes how much outside interference Albanians have endured, and how often (and with what force) they have resisted it.

The National Museum is organized in a roughly chronological order with exhibits tracing Albanian history from the Stone Age to the events of 1991-2. However, the actual Albanian unique identity begins with the ancient and great Illyrians who displaced the Stone Age inhabitants sometime in the 2nd millenium BC (a really long time ago). At its height, Illyria stretched from the Danube River in the north to modern-day southern Albania. The Illyrians, though powerful in their own right, got along fairly well with their Greek neighbors and the Greek colonies at Apollonia, Butrint and Epidamnos (Durrës). In the 3rd century BC, however, the Illyrians attracted the attention of the emerging power of the region: the Romans. Unwilling to tolerate any rival so near the Italian mainland, by 167 BC, the Romans had established control over Illyria through a series of costly wars.

Because of its location on one of the major east-west trade routes (the via Egnatia), Illyria prospered under Roman rule, with some Illyrians even rising to prominence within the empire. We have already encountered two illustrious Illyrians: the Emperor Diocletian, who has made his way into our dispatches as the inspiration for the misnamed Pompey's Pillar in Alexandria, and as the Emperor responsible for executing good Saint Nicholas; and Justinian, the Byzantine Emperor whose ambitious building projects transformed Constantinople into a glorious imperial city. Yet, throughout Roman rule, the Illyrians never relinquished their own language and traditions. Only with the arrival of the barbarian invasions that followed the demise of the Roman Empire did the Illyrian language, culture, and political cohesion seriously erode. By the 14th century, the descendents of the ancient Illyrians had survived only in the area that now comprises Albania and Kosova. The only political evidence of a separate Albanian identity came in the form of a few isolated and small feudal principalities.

In the 15th century, however, the descendents of the Illyrians once again asserted themselves. The museum devotes a great deal of space to chronicling these events. United under the leadership of their great national hero, Skanderbeg (see Tech Fact of the Day), the Albanians managed to hold off the Ottoman armies for over 25 years. Only after Skanderbeg's death, when the feudal warlords again began to fight amongst themselves did the Ottoman Empire manage to subdue the Albanians.

Facing Turkish rule, many Albanians fled the country. Most of those who remained eventually converted to Islam to avoid the penalties levied against non-Muslims. Regardless, the next four centuries could hardly be deemed quiet as the Albanians staged periodic revolts against the waning power of the Ottoman Empire. The museum highlights these revolts, particularly those in the 19th century when a strong Albanian nationalist movement developed.

Like many of the other national aspirations finding voice in the 19th century, Albanian nationalism received much of its impetus from outside of the country. Albanians living abroad - in Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, and even as far away as America - formed "national clubs" which collected money and arms in hopes of staging a revolt that would bring an Albanian state into existence. Many of the exhibits reflected this, showing Albanian nationalists flags and primer books from Sofia, Belgrade and Thessaloniki. Only with the help of these Albanians abroad, along with military pressure brought by Albania's neighbors, Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria, did the Albanians finally manage to overthrow Ottoman control. But it would be a mistake to think of these men as hardened rebel fighters. An integral part of this national movement was the effort to show that Albania was a legitimate nation, that it had its own language, literature, and history. Hence many of the most prominent nationalists were journalists and poets rather than warriors.

The next sections of the museum showed scenes from Albania's difficult early years of nationhood. Although Albania had won its independence, the fragile new state was a pawn in a wider political arena. The major European powers - acting in their own interests and not that of Albania - not only handed over the today-famous Kosova district to the Serbians, but also appointed a German nobleman as king of Albania. The reign of this German did not last long, but neither did Albanian sovereignty. The First World War, waged in part over Balkan entanglements, made Albania a battlefield. Greek, Serbian, French, Italian and Austro-Hungarian troops occupied the country at one time or another during the conflict and afterwards. Finally, in 1920, Albanian forces forced the last remaining Italian troops from the country, and the capital was moved from Durrës to Tirana in an effort to make it less vulnerable to foreign attack.

The National Museum also devotes a section to Fan Noli's short-lived attempt at establishing a democratic republic in 1924. Noli, a Harvard-educated Greek Orthodox bishop tried to set Albania on a liberal course, but his government lasted only six months before being overturned by the Italian-backed landed aristocrat, Ahmet Zogu. Within a couple of years, Zogu had transformed Albania from a republic into a monarchy and crowned himself King Zog. Zog's reign, which brought stability at the price of repression and corruption, collapsed in 1939 when he could offer no resistance to the Mussolini's invading fascist troops. When Nazis joined the Italians in 1941, it was up to partisans - mostly communists - to uphold the Albanian tradition of resistance to foreign occupation. Their efforts tied up considerable Nazi resources until the Germans evacuated Albania in 1944.

The next section of the museum, depicting Albania under Communist rule, has been conspicuously walled off and its place taken by an entirely new exhibit dedicated to the victims of Enver Hoxha's regime (see the Rider Notes for more about Hoxha). The walls are lined with the names of Hoxha's victims click to view a photograph click to view a photograph and pictures of the conditions in the prisons. Televisions in all corners of the room play footage of the last days of Albania's communist regime, including scenes of the felling of the enormous statue of Hoxha that once stood across from the National Museum in Skanderbeg Square. (There is now a Ferris wheel where the statue once stood click to view a photograph - times have certainly changed.) We thought that these images provided the perfect ending to our museum tour. They symbolized not only the toppling of the communist regime, but also the ushering in of a new era for the Albanian nation. Its exhibits have yet to be completed.

Tech Fact of the Day: Skanderbeg

The story of Skanderbeg's life is one of the more unusual and interesting ones we have heard. Albanian's most renowned national hero (they named Tirana's central square after him), Skanderbeg's real name was Gjergj (George) Kastrioti. And, though famous for his defiance of the Ottoman Turks, Skanderbeg received his education, training, and even his name from the Turks.

The son of an Albanian feudal prince whose father gave him up as a hostage to the encroaching Ottoman Turks, young George received his education and military training in Edirne, near (the as yet unconquered) Constantinople. George converted to Islam and succeeded so well at his studies that he received the nickname Iskender (after Alexander the Great). Impressed with "Iskender," Sultan Murat II appointed him a governor (bey), thus transforming his name into "Iskenderbey" or as the Albanians say, "Skanderbeg."

Despite his apparent incorporation into the Ottoman system, Skanderbeg felt little loyalty to the Turks. At the first good opportunity, after a Turkish defeat in 1443, Skanderbeg converted back to Christianity and convinced the Albanian feudal lords to form the League of Lezha to resist the Ottomans. For his exploits - delaying the Turkish occupation of that part of the Balkans for 25 years - Pope Calixtus III proclaimed him "Captain General of the Holy See." This recognition indicated that some in Western Europe considered him an important bulwark against the Turkish expansion into Europe.

Group Dispatch, April 1
picture of Padraic

Our first task on our first full day in Albania was to visit the Albanian Education Development Project (AEDP) and the Open Internet Center, both under the auspices of the Albanian Open Society Fund. Last summer, the AEDP had sponsored a friendship bicycle tour of Italy, Albania and Greece (andrEa had participated in the Albanian portion as BikeAbout's representative). At that time AEDP and BikeAbout had discussed putting together a program of cycling and school visits when BikeAbout reached Albania. However, the difficulty of communicating from the road, not to mention the problem of getting hold of someone by phone in Albania, meant that our program in Albania had never been finalized. Unable to contact AEDP from Greece, we thought we'd try our luck in person.

We made the right decision. Once we arrived at the building that houses both projects, things began to happen very quickly. We soon met Ilir Zenku click to view a photograph (shown here with his special friend Arta), who runs the Open Internet Center - one of the only Internet points in Albania, and the only one that offers free access to Albanians. BikeAbout had been in contact with Ilir for over two years and we were happy to finally meet him in person. He soon got us connected to the Internet and made arrangements for that evening's chat 'n' debate. So, while Anthony and Padraic took care of BikeAbout's online needs, and Corinne looked up some of the people whom andrEa had met the previous summer while taking part in AEDP's Friendship Tour, Ethan popped upstairs for a chat with Olton (Toni) Hysenbegas, the Director of Extra-Curricular projects for AEDP. Within minutes, Tony, Ethan and Mirj came downstairs and whisked us away to a school for a quick visit.

At Ismail Qemali High School, very near AEDP, we not only had an opportunity to present our project to our first Albanian audience, but we also got to witness one of AEDP's programs in action. We sat in on one of the first ever meetings of the High School's student government. While this might sound mundane to Americans who are used to the idea of a student senate and a student body president, in Albania it represents an innovation.

Democracy is a relatively recent phenomenon in Albania. Prior to 1991, Albanians had not enjoyed free or fair elections since the 1920s. Nor had they had the opportunity to see other democracies in action, given the complete isolation in which the Communist leaders had kept the country. Instead, during the 40-year-long reign of communist strongman Enver Hoxha, the Communist Party controlled nearly every aspect of society. Such total control of the state by one party precluded democracy, even at the lowest levels - even at schools. Given these circumstances, AEDP hopes to familiarize the younger generation with democracy by having them participate in it directly. The students will learn both the benefits and heavy responsibilities of democracy by practicing it themselves.

Under the project, AEDP has helped set up special student government programs in 35 high schools throughout Albania. In these schools, each class (the equivalent in the United States would be a "home-room" class) elects a representative to the school's parliament. These representatives then elect officials (secretary, treasurer, president, etc.). Some of these officials then participate in a nation-wide Parliament, which among other things will devise a constitution for all Albanian student governments.

The student parliament is given a certain budget and certain rights and responsibilities. It must establish committees to discuss proposals concerning activities, financial and legal matters. In some schools the student parliament even has a voice in how the school is run and can actual veto a Principal's decision! Each of the student representatives puts a considerable amount of time into the project, between meetings of its own parliament and the committees on which they are required to serve. They are also directly responsible to their classmates - all representatives are subject to a recall vote by their class. Judging from the intensity with which the representatives debated the issues at hand, they seem to be taking the project very seriously. We wish them, and the Student Government Project, the best of luck.

In the middle of the raging parliamentary debate, Ethan and Corinne slipped out and upstairs with Mirj to make a speedy presentation to one of the classes. It was speedy, and we had little more than a few minutes during which we were regaled with the names of famous international Albanians, like Mother Theresa, and the movie star Belushi brothers (Jon and James). We were also given an important heartfelt message by one of the teachers - and echoed by nods and vocal affirmations from the students - that we promised to deliver to students in America.

Ms. Liliana "Lily" Themo asked that we share the following in her own words: "We are a little nation with little money, but we have a great and rich heart. We love peace, liberty, life, people, and each other. We have a small country, yes, but we have more than enough friends with which to fill it."

On the way back from the school we stopped in at the bar at which Mirj works. There we met Angela, another university student and student government coordinator at AEDP. She kindly agreed to take us for a tour of Tirana. So we went from the bustle and chaos of Skanderbeg Square (she pointed out the oldest building in the city, namely the town's original mosque flanked by the old clock tower click to view a photograph, past the weirdly modern former Enver Hoxha museum (now a major cultural center) click to view a photograph and the villas formerly inhabited by the Communist rulers of the country, to the serene setting of Kombëtar Park click to view a photograph. Its charming lake and the farmlands just beyond click to view a photograph, made the city seem far away.

When we returned to AEDP, we were introduced to Burhan Berisha, the President of the Albanian Cycling Union, who, after hearing of our arrival from Toni, had immediately come forward to aid our project. By the time he arrived at AEDP, he had already organized a bike ride to Durrës for the next day, and arranged accommodations for the BikeAbouters for as long as they stayed in Tirana. He also suggested an itinerary for a ride northward towards the border with Montenegro. At last our program was beginning to take shape.

Also at AEDP waiting for us were three Albanian riders from last summer's Friendship Ride. They took Anthony, Corinne and Padraic around the corner to a little café where we sat in the fading sun and exchanged information about our respective bicycle tours, and about the current situation in Albania. click to view a photograph In the course of the conversation, we discovered that most young Albanians are anxious about their own and their country's uncertain future. Given the continuing economic problems - the shortage of jobs and the poor wages offered at the available jobs (even for the most skilled workers) - many in the younger generation hope to leave the country, to study or work abroad. Some believe further that once having left, it would be foolish to return. They see little hope for the development of a competent, trustworthy government necessary to provide the stability that would allow an improvement in the economic situation.

With these concerns in mind we returned to AEDP for the weekly chat 'n' debate. Fortunately, Oerd, one of the Friendship riders, was able to stay and take part in the chat with us. His contributions, along with those of Ilir, helped make the chat both lively and interesting. The only problem was that in the course of the day, we hadn't found time to get anything to eat. We simply assumed that we could pick something up on the way back to the motel after the chat. Unfortunately, when we finally emerged from the Open Internet Center at nearly 10:30 p.m., practically everything had already shut down. Worse still, the streets were dark and deserted. It is an eerie feeling to walk out fairly early in the night in a big bustling city to find no one on the streets.

We had to wander past our motel and all the way to Skanderbeg Square before we found anything open. At a little food stall, we ordered one of everything we saw, and even then it was rather slim pickings. When the food finally came we took it back to our rooms for a very late dinner. We then went right to sleep. Tomorrow was already shaping up to be another busy day.

Go to Previous Rider Notes PageGo to Next Rider Notes Page

Questions? Ask Padraic Go To Padraic's Page!

Return to Fast Facts

BikeAbout Itinerary & Journal Discussion Groups About Albania eDscape Projects BikeAbout Scrapbook
Discussions About

About BikeAbout Mediterranean Journey BikeAbout Partners Resource Library

Open Internet CenterInternet access and Web hosting while in Albania has been provided by Open Internet Center.

Daedalus Design Group Computer Curriculum Corporation Compaq

Copyright 2000 BikeAbout. All rights reserved.