Sunday, March 24, 2013

Going Over The Mountain

The Bear Went Over the Mountain is a classic children's song that documents a little bear's trek to get over a big mountain.  In many ways this story could be an analogy for life here in Albania; many times even the simplest of tasks is just that much more difficult than it needs to be but accomplishing the said task represents a great achievement.  This past weekend we physically went up and over a mountain and this short but arduous journey exemplifies both how easy and how difficult life can be here.

The turret that we had previously seen from afar
Wanting to explore and take advantage of the rare sunshine, we headed north of Tirana on a quest to find Preze Castle.  The turret is easily seen from the airport and Glenn had thought he had seen a road sign pointing the way to a castle but we weren't one hundred percent sure what we would find.  Approaching the village of Preze from the south, we were surprised to see a well marked, fully paved road winding its way to the top of the mountain. Not only were there guardrails along the road, but other infrastructure included appropriately placed street lights, lane markings, and a paver and brick sidewalk that, for the most part, met western standards.  This type of continuous infrastructure really isn't found in much of Albania yet money had obviously been invested in this village.

An outer wall of the castle
The castle grounds themselves were restored and well maintained.  A wide green space filled the center of what at one time had been the inner most part of the castle. Because this is Albania, one restaurant and two separate cafes were integrated into the castle walls. One even bragged of having free Wi-Fi and allowing wedding pictures to be taken there for a price.  Although it was before noon, many of the tables were filled with young Albanian men and one or two families sipping coffee and raki and enjoying the rare spring sunshine.  The views from the entire compound were amazing.  While  you could easily look south towards Tirana and west towards the airport, because it was so clear you could also see the Adriatic Sea to the east, the mountain village of Kruja to the west beyond the airport, and to the very north, the snow capped peaks of Montenegro.  In between were rolling hills filled with olive groves, small housing enclaves, and patches of green cultivated fields.  The views were truly beautiful and ones that we had only previously seen on our air approaches to the airport. It was hard to believe that we were so close the the sprawl of Tirana.

Now this is an old olive tree
But then came the stark contrast.  Rather than retrace our steps down the mountain, we continued north on a narrow dirt road that was more of a gravel and dirt path.  This route was well travelled-- we had a head on encounter with an old yellow furgon and pulled over at one point to let an even older Mercedes sedan pass us-- yet if felt a world away from the well maintained route we had taken up to the summit.  As we passed elderly pheasant farmers hoeing their fields it felt as though we were going back in time.  With sheer drop offs to both the left and right and the road disappearing over the hood of our SUV, the only assurance we had that the road was truly passable was the fact that the Mercedes had gone on ahead.  Continuing on our way we passed through ancient olive groves and cemeteries that dated back centuries.  It was both enchanting and amazing and reminded me that the best parts of Albania are outside of her cities.

Pheasants working their fields
Soon, we bounced our last bounce on the dirt road and found ourselves turning onto Albania's well paved, main north-south route through the country.  We were once again caught up in heavy weaving traffic, too many road side car wash / cafe combinations to count, and yes, farm animals grazing in the median.  That is the Albania I know so well.  As we battled the traffic home, I once again contemplated the contrasts between the urban and rural ways of life in Albania.  Although geographically close, culturally the experience couldn't be more different.  Cresting the top of the mountain had proved this to us.  And this is one of the things I love the most about this country; both ways of life seem to co-exist in a relatively harmonious way mere kilometers apart.  Where else can the same be said?

The long and winding road
An old grave

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