Blood and hospitality

There are two aspects of life in Albania that totally stand out for me. First, the jaw-dropping landscapes and second, the overwhelming here-have-the-shirt-off-my-back-and-my-last-malteser hospitality.

This generous, and at times overwhelming, hospitality is deeply ingrained. It’s why Albanian housewives keep their homes so immaculately spic and span and always have food in the cupboard. Should a weary traveller turn up on the doorstep, they will have everything they need.

This hospitable culture is due somewhat to the kanun, Albania’s traditional laws which evolved over hundreds of years as a way of maintaining a form of law and order, particularly in the isolated communities in the mountainous north of Albania.

There are four pillars of the kanun: honour, hospitality, right conduct and kin loyalty, and it covers all areas of life including family, property, work and punishments for crimes.

Its authority was strong right through the period of Ottoman rule but weakened during the strict Communist regime. After the fall of Communism, the kanun made a bit of a comeback – but with some rules losing popularity. For example, it is no longer usual to give a groom a bullet on the occasion of his marriage – to be used on the wife if there is any infidelity on her part!

However, one disturbing cultural practice still in existence (albeit on a small scale) is the practice of blood feuds. The kanun sets out rules regarding avenging the murder of a blood relative which gives the aggrieved family the right to avenge the death. This can result in blood feuds lasting decades.

There are rules to follow in the conflict. Only the men of the family are supposedly targeted – excluding priests. (Unfortunately with the revival of the kanun, some rules were bastardised and it isn’t unheard of for boys younger than 15 to become victims of the blood feud.) And the family home cannot be violated. This means that any male blood relative of the offender will go into a self-imposed house arrest immediately following the killing. This can last for years while peace between the two families is negotiated or the death is avenged when someone else is killed. Then the coin flips and the men of the other family will go into hiding. It can all result in many deaths and families being ‘locked in’ for years – their sons unable to go to school and the women of the family struggling to earn enough money to support everyone.

(Another effect of this practice is that all the men in a family can be wiped out. When this happens, it has been known for a woman in the family to take on the role of a man. These ‘sworn virgins’ wear men’s clothing and carry out the man’s role in the family. This is a very rare practice nowadays and there are very few ‘sworn virgins’ left in Albania.)

It is estimated that there are still more than 1000 families in Albania currently ‘locked in’ due to blood feuds. NGOs and charities work hard to negotiate forgiveness between the parties but the process is delicate and often fails.

If you are interested in finding out more about this practice, iTunes has a great contemporary Albanian film ‘Forgiveness of Blood’ available for download (with English subtitles). Or this little documentary gives a great overview of the issue.

More of Albania’s north

After our visit to Albania’s alps in July we left feeling like we hadn’t quite completed our northern Albania to-do list. This, and discovering a fantastic campsite on the shores of Lake Shkodra, persuaded us to return for a week in August.

Lake Shkodra Resort is up there with the best campsites I’ve ever stayed at. Their ‘glamping hotel’ of comfortably furnished teepees makes it very easy to indulge my love of sleeping under canvas while still enjoying a big comfy bed that doesn’t deflate overnight! The site  has a fab ‘beach’ and handy restaurant which made it very easy to roll from the tent to the sun lounger to food/beer and back again… bliss.

camping

One of the key remaining items on our to-do list was Lake Komani. The lake is one of three formed on the Drin River by a series of huge dams built in the 1970s to serve hydro-electric power stations. Lake Komani gets all the attention because it weaves between enormous peaks, narrowing to the point where you start to wonder if there’s anywhere for the boat to go. It’s considered one of the world’s great boat rides and provides some truly majestic photo opportunities!

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The three-hour trip starts at Komani and runs to the next dam at Fierza. The lake serves as a key transport route for the families that farm the land on the surrounding hills. It must take incredibly fierce souls to live there. When the boat pulled over to drop off and pick up people we could only search the hills to try to find their houses hidden high up through the trees. There are no vehicle accessible roads – only tracks for horses and donkeys. In the winter homes are frequently cut off from the outside world and without the summer tourist boats running, locals brave freezing alpine winds and catch small runabouts to the nearest shops and roads.

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After a stop for lunch at Fierza our boat took a detour, heading up a narrow branch of the lake to the Shala River. The water became a glorious turquoise colour and crystal clear. We stopped at a gorgeous bay for traditional Albanian pancakes and an ice-cold swim before returning to the wharf at Komani.

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The only blotch on an otherwise perfect Albanian experience was the shameful amount of litter that floated on the still waters of the lake. There were times when the boat had to plough through a sheet of plastic bottles, shoes, polystyrene and other rubbish. It’s not the first time I’ve seen Albania’s spectacular nature ruined by locals dumping rubbish. It’s frustrating that some people seem to have so little regard for the natural beauty of this country.