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Saturday, October 8, 2016

9/29: Tirana: 8 Buses, $7 to Kruje & Martyrs' Cemetery

Yesterday was like an immersion history class on Albanian history. Today, we had a fun day planned visiting the pretty town of Kruje located about an hour northeast of Tirana as the crow flies or if we had had a car. However, we didn’t and relied on public transportation to get there which just added to the adventure.

The hostel provided a free, hearty breakfast served on pretty placemats to prepare us for the long day ahead: a choice of omelets cooked to order, bread, jam, a very strong local cheese and endless cups of tea or coffee. It was served on the beautiful, tree-covered back patio that was like an oasis in the center of bustling Tirana. 

There were at least three American and Irish guys who received free beds in the dorm and free breakfast in exchange for a few hours each day waiting tables at breakfast and serving in the hostel bar at night. One, Nina, was from Park Hill in Denver and had graduated from CSU with a degree in finance in May and decided to explore Croatia and Albania before joining the real 9-5 work world back home. He and the others had each already spent several weeks in Tirana and were planning to spend several more. What a perfect way to take a break from traveling, meet a revolving door of new people and not have to spend a lot of money to do so.

Street scenes on the way to the bus station:

After walking back to near the National Historical Museum, we got a local bus for only 32 cents each to near the North Bus Station. We didn’t know where it was but some local men kindly pointed us in the right direction. (As I write this on 10/7 ready to leave Albania for Greece, we found Albanians very friendly and eager to offer to help us a number of times when we have looked befuddled trying to find our way even when there was no common language.)
With moments to spare, we were able to just get to the station in time for the 10 am departure to Fushe Kruje, the town halfway to Kruje itself. However, the furgon or small van didn’t leave until 10:15; we think it was a case of the driver wanting to wait until it was full. The bus station was certainly not like the local Greyhound station. It was more a matter of going through the parking lot and looking at all the buses or, in our case, the van, with the destination sign listed in the window.
On the way from Tirana, we began chatting with an Albanian tour guide who was meeting clients in Kruje. He told us how much Albanians were fond of President George W. Bush who, had visited the small town of Fushe Kruje on June 10th, 2007. Rather than staying on a prescribed tour, Bush walked into a café there and began chatting with the locals. The owner was so honored to have had him visit that he changed the name of the café and forever made sure one chair was never sat on again. 
The guide then pointed out a statue of #43 in the square but I wasn’t able to get much of a shot from the bus. It was gratifying that Americans were still well regarded in some places around the world, even if it were here in Albania!
On our way to Kruje, our third bus of the day, I sat in the only available seat which happened to be just inches from the windshield. I was closer than the driver was even. That was truly a front row seat.

Photos en route to Kruje which was nestled high in the mountains:

Kruje, our destination for the day, was nestled very close to the top of the mountain below.
Once we arrived in Kruje about 11:20, the very helpful Albanian tour guide we met on the bus suggested a number of things we might want to do while in the small town.
Since the bus's last stop was right by the old town's pedestrian street at the top of a very steep hill, we didn't have to walk far before reaching the bazaar, one of the town's main sights.
These men were just preparing for a folk show, our bus companion told us, before we went our separate ways. Too bad we couldn't have watched the show as that would have been fun.
A lovely view of the valley:
Kruje is famous for its carpets, traditional felt hats, shoes and other crafts. I couldn't wait to do some shopping and support the economy!

When we had met the Minnesota couple and their Albanian tour guide as we climbed up to the Fortress in Prizren, Kosovo, they had told us to check out this man's shop when we came to Kruje as he is so well known for making the traditional Albanian men's hats.
Views of the bazaar: 

The selection of handmade rugs and other items was fabulous but so were the prices in most cases. I think they figured they could charge so much more because it was such a tourist destination.

In my last post about the National Historical Museum, I had told (or was it 'warned'?!) you that we would be seeing more of the Albanian national hero, Skanderbeg, in this post! After the bazaar, we walked up the Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg Museum devoted to him alone. It and all museums throughout the country were free because September 29th was National Heritage Day. The Museum was built in Kruje in 1982 because it was the center of Albanian resistance against the Ottomans in the 15th century.
In the Medieval Ages, Kruje was the capital of the Kingdom of Albania but, in the early 15th century, it was conquered by the Ottoman Empire. Kruje was then recaptured in 1443 by Skanderbeg, leader of the League of Lezhë, who successfully defended it against three Ottoman sieges until his death in 1468.
The Museum's fabulous entrance way showed a sculpture group with Skanderbeg in the middle of a group of people. According to the information provided, the warriors are not named but their garments and headdresses indicated the participation of all regions in the war. Female figures showed their involement in the battles.

Mural of an Albanian city in the Middle Ages: The main characteristic of medieval cities was the placement of cities within castle grounds as the castle provided both shelter and resistance against enemy forces.
This gargantuan mural painting was called 'Endurance' and depicted Skanderbeg's battles throughout a 25 year period against the Ottoman armies and sultans who surrounded Kruje. The painting took over 11 months to complete and was only finished days before the museum opened in 1982. Talk about pressure!
A replica of Skanderbeg's helmet and sword; the originals are in a museum in Vienna.
Another fabulous painting, this one was titled 'Skanderbeg's Death.' On the left were images in the last moments of the 'Hero's' life in the form of giving orders in the presence of his family and warriors; on the right is an image of Kruje castle.
Paintings from Albanian National Renaissance Period on the 500th anniversary of Skanderbeg's death: 1498-1968.

Another large room contained terracotta tiles of songs and verses by different authors dedicated to Skanderbeg. I found them very appealing.

Arberesh is an old Albanian term for Albanians. I found it fascinating to learn that there are more than 50 communities of Arberesh origin and culture spread across seven regions of southern Italy.

Documents show that Skanderbeg was not only a miltary strategist but also a politician and diplomat. He had diplomatic relations with several major European cities. The Governor of the Kingdom of Hungary and the King of Aragon and Naples were strong allies of Skanderbeg's in the anti-Ottoman war.
I was amazed to find out that over 3,800 books have been written about Skanderbeg in many countries and languages.
Many monuments are dedicated to his memory in Albania naturally enough. But others have been erected in Geneva, Brussells, Rome, Gdansk, Skopje, Pristina and southern Italy where there are Arbersh communities. This display showed photos of many monuments of Skanderbeg - one was even in Michigan of all places!
Views from the Museum Terrace:

When we were in Kosovo, I wrote about the surprising number of Albanian flags there and wondered if we would see as many once here in Albania. There have indeed been huge numbers of them here too. The Museum had been quite a surprise as the building itself was first class and the exhibits were impressive. On top of that, the English language information about each of the exhibits was pretty well spot on throughout.
We walked next to the Kruje Ethnograpic Museum that was in the same grounds as the Museum. It was located in a traditional house built in the middle of the 18th century.

In the entranceway were traditional farming tools.

Ceramics workshop:
A very primitive fridge!
The shepherds' room was up the stairs in the photo.

The distillery where raki (an anise-flavored alocholic drink loved by people throughout the Balkans) and wine were made.
The wood barrel was used to ferment grapes.
I really enjoyed watching a video that showed how the men's white felt hats, called geleshe, were made by hand using just salt, water, soap and sheep's wool. I actually took about 10 or so photos showing the process as I was so intrigued but I thought better of posting them figuring you probably wouldn't find the process as neat as I!

Making olive oil using the olive crusher

The bride's room included a dowry chest, cradle, etc.

The family room:
Entrance to the hamman or steam bath:
The hamman itself:
200 year old garments under a 300 year old olive wood ceiling:
The charming guide who was so proud of the museum and wanted to show and explain it all to us as best she could in her limited English - she stood in the shortened doorway after bowing before she went through to show respect.
Kitchen implements: Butter churn, pasta maker, etc.
Baklava or burek trays: Burek is a pastry and a Balkan staple. It comes with a variety of fillings and is eaten for breakfast or as a snack.

The men's room:
Walking back to town after seeing the two museums, we saw this woman who had a large display of her beautiful crocheted items on a stone wall and at far more reasonable prices than elsewhere. I think she was quite happy we had stopped by but, of course, I was too!

Another lovely bride - this one was in the middle of the narrow pedestrian bazaar we had walked up earlier.
These were the types of hats I had watched being made on the video!

We sat down outside to grab a bite at Kruje's Fast Food Hoxha. I ordered a chicken doner which was comprised of shaved pieces of warmed, cooked chicken, french fries,  a cold sauce all inside a warmed pita. Steven ordered a hamburger which also contained fries in his pita bun. Safe to say my doner was better than his burger as he asked why he had chosen to order a burger from this place! Neither of us have gotten used yet to having fries covered with a cold mayonnaisey type sauce inside a warm sandwich - I wonder why!
We got another furgon back down to Feshe Kruje around 2:30; there I had plenty of time to take photos of Bush 43 waving to the people in the center square before we hopped on a bus back to Tirana.

Andrew: I thought of a comment that you made last year when you wanted photos of people when I took this woman's photo on one of the many bus rides!
Once we finally got back to the center of Tirana around 4, and then walked for 20 minutes to another bus stop, we took our seventh bus of the day to the south of town to Martyrs' Cemetery. Some 900 partisans who died in WWII are buried there. The only issue was that the cemetery bus stop was on the opposite side of a major boulevard. To cross over, we had to climb over a two foot high median and run like crazy to avoid oncoming traffic on both sides!
At the top of the stairs and the hill was a huge Mother of Albania statue.
The views over the city and surrounding mountains were excellent.
According to something I read, the statue figuratively represents the country as a mother guarding over the eternal slumber of those who gave their lives for her. The sight of her was immense and beautiful but strangely androgynous.

Albania must have close ties to Kuwait as this was the third time we had seen that country's flag in Tirana in 24 hours.
A view of Mt. Dahti in the background; we had been close to there yesterday when we visited Bunk'art.

The cemetery had been the resting place of former dictator Enver Hoxha, who was subsequently disinterred and given a humbler grave in another public cemetery. The dictator's former resting place was occupied instead with the remains of Azem Hajdari, the student leader behind the fight against the regime in the late 1980s who was assassinated in Tirana in 1998. 
The monument was dedicated to the Victms of Communist Terrorism.
Strange as it may sound, we had difficulty finding the actual martyrs' cemetery as those gravestones were well beyond where the statue and monument had been at the top of the hill. Once we did find them, it was just heartbreaking seeing row upon row of headstones of young men. Steven and I looked at a lot of their tombstones and so many of them were younger than our own youngest child is now.

Someone long ago had taken the time to write the almost disappearing names from the monument underneath on a newer sign. However, that sign too was in disrepair. 
In a land where there is such obvious wealth for some people with more Mercedes Benzes and other high end cars than you can possibly believe, it was sad that some of that money could not have been better spent honoring those who died in service to their country.

We had been almost alone at the Cemetery except for this group of men playing dominoes, a familiar sight throughout Tirana.
The median we had had to climb over after getting off at the bus stop on the other side of the busy thoroughfare - I was glad were fleet of foot!
What a day it had been, taking 8, including long distance, buses so we could visit the charming mountain town of Kruje and the Martyrs' Cemetery and all for only $7! At those prices, Tirana will become even more popular on the tourist circuit.

Posted from Corfu, Greece on October 9th, 2016.

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