Komani Lake – The most impressive ferry trip in Europe?

Ferry arriving at Koman Dam

Ferry arriving at Koman Dam

I’ve done the Amazon, the Yukon and the Zambesi but you have to go a long way to beat the beauty and splendour of the Lake Komani ferry journey from the hydro-electric dam at Koman to the port of Fierza, on the way to the town of Bajram Curri – and it lasts for less than three hours.

The easiest way to make this trip is to start from Skhodër (practical details are below). You have to get up early but it’s not as bad as starting from Tirana. If you stay in the centre of Skhodër you needn’t worry about oversleeping as the call to prayer at 05.20 from the Al-Zamil Central Mosque is loud enough to wake the dead – although I’ve never seen that many people in the streets when I’ve eventually emerged.

The first part of the journey is to the town of Van i Dejës and once you leave there you are immediately in the countryside offering a taste of what’s to come. The valley here is much wider than on the lake itself but this journey provides an introduction to the vegetation and the aspect of the mountains as you steadily climb up to about 400m at the Koman dam. After going through a long tunnel you arrive at a small and simple landing stage.

The lake was formed when the hydro-electric power station at Koman, on the Drini River, was completed in 1986 and a regular ferry service was a cheaper and more environmental form of transport instituted as soon as the project was completed.

You’re not about to embark on one of the expensive luxury river cruises that are becoming more of an industry in many parts of the world. Here you share the space with the people making their way from their homes to the rest of Albania, taking their goats to slaughter, machines to be repaired, or replenishing their stocks of Coca Cola. The boat, which once plied its trade along the rivers of Italy, has seen better days but manages to provide the people who live along the length of the lake with a daily service towards the Albanian towns of Skhodër or Tirana in the west and south, or the town of Bajram Curri (for links to Kosova) in the north.

Passengers on the Lake Komani Ferry

Passengers on the Lake Komani Ferry

For a time there were no other ferries running than the second hand Italian foor passenger ferry but the increase in tourism and probably a desire of car drivers not to have to get to the other parts of Albania without having to go into Kosovo has meant that, at least in the high season, there are two car ferry options.

As should be no surprise the locals just take the beauty of the surroundings for granted. After all they can just look out of the windows of their homes to appreciate the magnificence of the mountains, some of which soar to a height of 1700m. But this is a relatively narrow man-made lake and the route of the original river can still be seen as the boat twists and turns, heading for seeming impenetrable rock faces as it makes its slow and unhurried progress, just chugging along from one makeshift landing stage to another.

Skhoder to Bajram Curri via the Lake Komani Ferry

Skhoder to Bajram Curri via the Lake Komani Ferry

I’ve made this journey three times now but always in the autumn, fortunately when it has been clear and sunny but when it has been bitterly cold in the shade. With a wind that cuts through you like a knife you have to use the vessel as a wind break if you intend to be outside for long. In these conditions the couple of glasses of home-made raki in the café at the dam become a wise investment – the body is numbed before the cold can get to you. In such circumstances the intrepid traveller will have the outside to themselves, apart from those times when the smokers find they can’t hold out any longer.

The boat is dwarfed by the sheer walls that close in on many stretches of the trip but when the waters open out you have the opportunity to see the high peaks of one of the many mountain ranges which constitute Albania. The vegetation is starting to prepare for the cold of winter when you go through in November but as different plants close down for the summer they do so at various times and you witness the transformation through the colour spectrum from almost red, to amber and brown. I’ll have to try to make this journey in the spring when the land is awakening and preparing for the long, hot summer.

The walls of the cliff faces are also an education in the evolution of the very mountains, showing the different layers of sediment set down millions of years ago and then twisted and bent so that they are almost going back on themselves.

Hills alongside Lake Komani

Hills alongside Lake Komani

At times there’s enough flat ground close to the lake and you’ll pass a small, seemingly isolated farmhouse, with outbuildings. However, as in all such places in the world, hidden from view is a whole network of paths and mule tracks that allow communication between the mountain community. The ferry is merely the more obvious and public link between these communities. Many other, sometimes quite large settlement can be seen much higher up the side of the hills, making for a particularly difficult trek back home from the lake, hence the use of mules.

Farmstead beside Lake Komani

Farmstead beside Lake Komani

When the boat approaches the shore often it’s not until you hit the land that you’re aware a path is there at all, but when people leave the ferry it’s not long before it’s impossible to spot them as they make their way to their homes.

As with all these forms of transport you’ll often encounter the unexpected. On one trip a rowing boat rushed across the lake to where the ferry had pulled in. I thought to drop off a passenger but the next thing I knew the small, metal boat was being towed behind us, making for interesting maneuverings at future stops. How the small boat wasn’t hit and tipped over was beyond me.

Bird life is sparse in the autumn, many migrating further south for the warmth, but the country is home to many species and as there’s not that much traffic on the lake (only one return journey a day with a boat of any size) you are almost on top of the wildlife before they know you are there.

All along the route, even in the most remote parts of the journey, you’ll notice the power lines straddling the lake as they provide power to the isolated villages and settlements along its length. The people were not ignored when the project was planned in the late 70s, as is the case in so many parts of the world where major construction projects change forever their lives but they don’t get any benefit themselves.

By the time the boat reaches the end of the journey at Fierza there’s not normally that many people left on the boat, after all you’ve just travelled on the local (floating) bus.

Practicalities

Furgons (normally two) leave Skhodër every morning between 06.00 and 06.30 from the bottom end of Bulevardi Skëndërbeu, on the right hand side as you leave the town centre, just before Rruga Antikomunist Hungarez (that leads to the railway station) and before the road narrows. If you stay in one of the hotels (DON’T take the advice of the friendly yet strangely dangerous woman in the Tourist Information Office who gives the impression she knows everything but always gets a vital piece of information wrong.) The journey takes a little under 2 hours and costs 400 leke. It might stop for a short while in Van i Dejës but always aims to get to Koman in time for the ferry.

On arriving at the ferry terminal, right beside the dam, there’s a café for tea and raki.

Just wait for the ferry. It normally arrives just before 09.00 but everyone else there is in the same boat, or will be eventually, so there’s no need to panic. There’s only one boat a day, each way. Some guide books will tell about car ferries. There are two of them and you will see them when you arrive at Fierza but they don’t run any more.

The cost of the journey from Koman to Fierza, one way, is 500 leke and this will be collected en route.

The journey takes just under 3 hours.

On arrival at Fierza get off the boat on the left hand side bank. Here there will be some sort of transport to take you the short journey to Bajram Curri. DON’T hang around or dilly dally or you’ll find yourself stranded, at least for a while. The furgon/taxi to Bajram Curri takes about 15-20 minutes and costs 200 leke.

One place to stay in Bajram Curri is the Emar Hotel. This is the other side of the football pitch and children’s playground that’s to the left of the roundabout which doubles as the town’s bus station.

If you want to take the ferry from Bajram Curri to Koman you need to catch a furgon that leaves the roundabout at the top end of town (beside the looted museum and the large statue of Barjam Curri himself) at 05.30 in order to be at Fierza for 06.00.

If you want to return to Tirana from Bajram Curri by road there are furgons that leave from that roundabout during the morning each day, going via Kosova.

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The dordolec, the ‘evil eye’ and superstition in Albania

Kukull to ward off the 'evil eye'

Kukull to ward off the ‘evil eye’

You think that when someone buys a soft toy or a blow up Tele Tubbie it’s destined for a baby or a young child. In Albania it could well be for another purpose. This is all part of the ‘tradition’ of the dordolec, the ‘evil eye’ and superstition in Albania.

No one who travels around Albania, especially in the part of the country south of Tirana but to a lesser extent all over the country, can avoid noticing scarecrows in places you don’t normally see them, e.g., on the top floor of an unfinished building. Or soft toys hanging from balconies, fences, fruit trees and vines.

This is all related to the ancient superstition of the ‘evil eye’ and the attempt by the superstitious to retain what they have. And the instrument that is used to provide protection is the dordolec, whose meaning in Albanian covers scarecrow, doll, or guy (as in Guy Fawkes). Traditionally this would have been a figure, in the shape of a human, made out of old clothes stuffed with straw, and many of these can be seen in your travels.

Dordolec in Delvine

Dordolec in Delvine

But there has been a reduction in what is necessary and anything that looks, sometimes only vaguely, like a human figure will suffice. This minimalist approach even goes down to just a shirt, arms outstretched and tied to a fence. However, new consumerism has been recruited into the 21st century version of this old superstition and you will often see soft toys (teddy bears, Smurfs, monkeys, etc.,) as well as blow up plastic toys of animals, Tele Tubbies or even Spiderman – one of the most surprising to me (on my first visit and before knowing what they symbolised) was a life-size version of Spiderman attached to the outside of an unfinished building. In Albanian kukull is the word for a store-bought soft toy and might be one of the words you hear if you ask the locals.

Kukull Smurf in Polican

Kukull Smurf in Polican

It’s on buildings, either in the process of construction or perhaps not occupied as they are up for sale, that you are most likely to see the dordolec. But not exclusively. When travelling by road this is the impression you get but once you walk around Albanian towns and villages you begin to understand that they’re more ubiquitous. A small soft toy might be hanging from a grape-vine or from a fruit tree, a citrus or perhaps an olive, or just near the entrance to a family home.

The idea of the dordolec is not to frighten away people as the scarecrow ‘frightens’ birds, it’s more complex than that. The idea is the passer-by ‘fixates’ on the dordolec and in that way doesn’t covet the property on which it’s attached, it’s there to prevent envy which might lead to someone taking action to acquire that particular piece of wealth. It’s there to help reinforce one of the strictures of the Ten Commandments, the one about coveting your neighbour’s house, wife, servants or ox.

However, there is no direct correlation between this superstition and religious beliefs. In Albania such beliefs can be found in all religious communities, Muslim, Orthodox or Catholic – in fact I encountered less examples of the dordolec in the north, in the area around Skhodër, where the Catholic Church is particularly strong. And knowing the intolerance of the Catholics I’m sure that they would have come down on such superstitions with an iron fist in Albania’s feudal past and would be very wary if signs of it were to return with the end of socialism and the openly atheistic state authority.

There are a couple of theories as to why this tradition has again become prevalent. One is the stratification that has developed since the early 1990s between the rich and the poor means that people have a greater fear of losing what they have. This was not an issue under Socialism when land was the property of all the people but this all changed when land was privatised. And now that the population is caught up in the mire of consumerism they might have more to ‘lose’. This is a bit like the way homes in Britain are increasingly becoming like fortresses whilst at the beginning of the 20th century many houses didn’t even have locks, merely a latchkey. In the UK people install expensive locks and security systems, in Albania a soft toy suffices, so I suppose they are using a cheaper option.

Another theory is that this ‘tradition’ has been imported from Greece, where many Albanians have been forced to go to in order to find work after the wholesale destruction of industry in their own country in the last 20 years or so. Greece is not a country I personally know very well so can’t compare the situation between the two countries. This theory has some credence when you consider that the scarecrows and toys are more in evidence in the southern part of the country, especially around the town of Saranda.

Ram's Horns and Garlic, Saranda

Ram’s Horns and Garlic, Saranda

Whatever the exact reason for such an upsurge it seems to fit into a society that is looking for something to protect itself from the hostile world outside. In the same way that there has been an explosion in the construction of religious buildings (although I never experienced hoards of people going into those buildings in the way I would have expected if there was a true religious revival – I seemed to be entering more churches that the general population) perhaps the dordolec is a belt and braces approach to (divine or pagan) protection.

The positioning of such effigies on property goes along with other manifestations of superstition. Travelling around the country you’ll see a number of people, surprising to me especially older men, who walk around with worry beads in their hand. As well as that garlic, animal skulls/horns and horseshoes will adorn working businesses, especially shops or restaurants. Bunches of garlic sit on the dashboard of cars and other vehicles and once I even noticed a dordolec with a string hanging from it which had both a horseshoe and a rope of garlic, so they were definitely bringing out the big guns at that place.

Religion in Albania

If you are interested in how beliefs in Albania currently manifest themselves you might like to click on these links for some other observations and comments:

Sacred Heart Church in Tirana

Panagia Monastery Church in Dhermi

Anti-Communist Paintings in Skhodër

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Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Tirana

Tirana Catholic Church - The Last Supper

Tirana Catholic Church – The Last Supper

Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Tirana displays new and interesting wall murals to replace the frescoes of the past.

Part of Albania’s ‘Cultural Revolution’ in the late 1960s took the form of a concerted attack upon organised religion, whether it be Islam, Orthodox or Catholic Christian. Apart from declaring Albania to be the world’s first atheist state both the infrastructure and the personnel of the different religions underwent radical changes.

Many of the previous religious buildings were converted to general use becoming cinemas, gymnasiums or places that could be utilised by the population as a whole. A significant number of the priesthood were subject to arrest and imprisonment for conspiring against the Socialist state and even though these accusations were denied at the time, both within and without the country, the manner in which some of these individuals have been rehabilitated and lionised by the present reactionary government proves the justified claims of the People’s Republic of Albania.

Since the decision of the Albanian people in the 1990s to destroy everything that had been constructed since the defeat of Fascism in 1944 after they had; finished being robbed by con men with their ‘get rich quick’ pyramid schemes; stopped killing each other for no apparent reason; emigrated from their country in their millions; they turned their attention (for some inexplicable reason) to what appeared to be the most pressing need of the time, i.e., the building or restoration of hundreds of religious buildings.

Any visitor who travels even a short distance in Albania cannot avoid noticing the number of new churches and mosques in virtually every village, town and city. The total destruction of the economy during the madness of the 1990s meant that the resources to pay for this could not have come from within the country itself, even less from the so-called ‘faithful’ who barely had enough to feed themselves.

The resources for all this building programme came from the oil rich feudal monarchies of the middle east (for the mosques), the gangsters of the erstwhile Soviet Union (for the Orthodox churches) and that centuries old bastion of reaction in Rome (for the Catholic churches).

Much of this money has been put into ‘prestige’ projects. The Catholic Cathedral of St Paul and the very recently opened Orthodox Resurrection of Christ Cathedral (Katedralja Ngjallja e Krishti), both in Tirana, are cases in point. Not a lot of this wealth has filtered down to maintain some of the, older, much smaller and more modest, historically important buildings that were placed on a list of structures that were part of the country’s heritage. Even at the height of the atheist campaign more and more of these buildings were being identified and protected yet the present day religious state is ignoring these as they have a very low profile, for example, the two ancient Orthodox churches in Old Himara or the Panagia Monastery Church, Dhermi in the south of the country.

The mosques follow very much a formula in their construction, both inside and out, and the decoration avoids any depiction of people or animals. The Orthodox churches are also formulaic, but in different way, with the icons of the saints that dominate the interior. It is in the Catholic churches, which are in the minority, that you encounter interesting, post-Communist paintings that tell (at least for me) a much more interesting story, a story which cannot be separated from the socialist period.

I’ve already written about the paintings in the Franciscan Church in Skhoder, in the north of the country, here I want to write about a Catholic church in Tirana.

This is the Sacred Heart church (Kisha Zemra e Krishtit), run by the Jesuits, in Rruga Kavajës, less than a kilometre from Skënderbeg Square in the centre of the city. This is the road that you would go along if you were to take the public bus to Kombinat, where you find the city’s main cemetery and the present location of Enver Hoxha’s grave (he’s not been allowed a lot of peace since his death).

Previous frescoes were removed when the church was converted to a cinema in the late 1960s and new ones were completed in 1999. I don’t know (yet) the name of the painter but the images, although based upon the traditional, have elements that are both interesting and slightly strange, if not to say unique in Christian iconography. They are the paintings on either side of the altar.

On the left is a depiction of The Last Supper. This follows the ‘standard’ representations of this mythical event. Christ sits at the middle of the table and is the centre of attention. In front of him is a wine goblet and a chunk of bread – the origin of the Eucharist. The closest one to him, on his right, will be Peter. He has the typical short, curly (greying) hair and is the angry one – you can see he has his right fist tightly clenched. Fast asleep (has he drunk too much of the wine or is this a misreading of the event in the Gospels?) is John. The youngest, because he doesn’t have a beard, will be Philip or Thomas. The others could also possibly be recognised due to the tradition that has grown up over this image.

However, there are a couple of differences in this painting. Whilst all the others are concentrating on Christ one is looking into the distance, seemingly over our heads. Why? I don’t know and can’t even guess. We see the faces of 12 but there is one with his back to us – that is Judas. Traditionally he is depicted in a number of ways at the table. He is nearly always separate in some way, often looking away as if ashamed of what he has already done and is about to do. I’ve even see pictures where he has already left the table to carry out his dastardly deed of betrayal. Here he has his back to us.

Tirana Catholic Church - Judas

Tirana Catholic Church – Judas

That’s not uncommon and might come from the Byzantine tradition of not having an ‘evil’ person looking out of a painting as they could, possibly, corrupt the viewer. This would very much feed into the local Albanian idea of the ‘evil eye’ that I write about in the post about the ‘dordolec’ and superstition in general in present day Albania. What is also interesting about this Judas is that whilst the others are dressed in fine, brightly coloured robes, he wears what looks like an animal fur, something rough, yet again separating him from the rest of the Saints. And, of course, he doesn’t have a halo.

All the faces also appear as if they are of real people. Many Last Supper images are idealised yet in this painting you could very likely meet these people in a present day Albanian bar or cafe, a realism that is rare, Caravaggio being the model for this type of representation. And notice the noses, they are long and straight, just like Albanians today, especially in the north of the country – that becomes relevant a bit later

Tirana Catholic Church - Mary at the Crucifixion

Tirana Catholic Church – Mary at the Crucifixion

To the left of this painting there’s an image of the Crucifixion. This is very strange. Crouching at the base of the cross is Mary Magdalene. She is very often depicted with long flowing hair (often a redhead) and is also dressed in red. This encompasses the legend that she was a prostitute and the colour encourages thoughts of the ‘scarlet woman’ and it is also argued that this shows her love for Christ. But I’ve never seen a Mary wearing such a diaphanous cloak that she appears almost naked. Yes for nymphs of the forest – but not normally in a church. After all she’s supposed to be a ‘reformed’ prostitute.

Tirana Catholic Church - Mary Magdalene - detail

Tirana Catholic Church – Mary Magdalene – detail

On the other side of the altar is a painting of The Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel appeared before Mary to tell her she was to bare the son of God. This again follows the normal, traditional format, but not completely. Mary has been reading a book (how such a poor woman would have got the resources to possess such a valuable commodity 2,000 years ago and one produced on a printing press that wasn’t invented for another 1,450 or so years is never explained); Gabriel carries a lily – this represents both Mary’s virginity as well as the idea that this all happened in the Spring – yet I’m not sure if the lily is a native plant of Palestine; and flying above is the Holy Spirit, represented by a dove, this one with a surprisingly bright red beak and feet.

Tirana Catholic Church - The Annunciation

Tirana Catholic Church – The Annunciation

But this painting is different from the norm in one particular way – the Archangel Gabriel here is obviously a very young woman, almost a contemporary of Mary. Often Gabriel can appear androgynous, especially in Renaissance paintings, but here her long flowing hair and facial features are unmistakeably female. For me that’s definitely a first.

And as in The Last Supper these are real people, you could imagine passing such women in the street, there’s no separateness, nothing special about them that identifies them as different from mere mortals. Mary definitely looks surprised, as anyone would be if they were told they were to be having a child without having known any sexual relationship, let alone it being the son of God.

Again look at the noses. These are typical Albanian noses. Whereas, especially in the north, many Albanians have a classic Roman nose, long and straight, also reasonably common is the small, turned up nose that you see in this mural.

For a religious painting I find it quite charming.

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