Written by Miroslav Náplava
Countries of the world
At the outbreak of World War II the former legionary (Czech soldiers who in World War I had deserted from the Austro Hungarian army and formed a Czech cohort to fight against Germany. In 1918 more than 70 000 Czechoslovak soldiers rose up against the Red Army while trying to reach Vladivostok and return to their newly founded homeland Czechoslovakia) immediately, worked with the National Defence and during the Nová Paka anti-communist revolution acted as the district military commander. In 1949 the entire family was arrested by the communists on the grounds of anti-state activities. A monster trial in 1950 sentenced Otakar to twenty two years of hard labour, the state prosecutor demanded the death penalty for his son Vratislav but following the execution of Milada Horáková this was commuted because of his age to the same sentence his father had been given. Vratislav served twelve years of his term, Otakar was released in 1958 for health reasons after serving eight years. He was refused membership of the artists´ union which meant that he was not allowed to sell any paintings. It was not till 1965, thanks to support from his colleagues, that Číla was able to hold his first exhibition since his release from prison. His last painting, which he began in 1971, remained unfinished and was entitled portentously Journey into the Unknown. “After his arrest the family house was confiscated by the State. The secret police carted off eighty paintings which have never been returned to us. They left the house unlocked so people came in and stole everything. But I do have something for you,” said Madame Blanka as she got up and opened her writing desk and took out a voluminous file. “Vráťa bought the house back from the State at the end of the sixties. Later, when we were renovating it, some workers found a suitcase with some documents up in the attic amongst all the junk. This is all that has survived, including this envelope with some photographs, from his travels through Albania. No other negatives or photos exist. These are from 1938, some of them show Otakar with his wife, a paediatrician. They made the trip to King Zoga´s wedding together. Apart from the family no one has seen these photos up till now.” That´s what I would call a dramatic finale. Carefully, I went through the pile of 6 x 9 cm photos. Each composition revealed the trained eye of an artist. A genuine treasure trove, even if it was no longer possible to ascertain where the pictures had been taken. “I am happy that you are interested in my father. You know what, take the photos with you, maybe you can use them,” she said, handing me the envelope. “Show them to some people and then bring them back to me.” I was very happy to promise her I would. Thank you, Ms Čílová!
Albania´s greatest treasures lie in its wonderful mountains and wild nature. You can go swimming off deserted beaches and visit places untouched by tourists. For motorbike and off-road fans Albania presents a paradise where the sky is the limit. I wouldn´t hesitate to say that this is the wildest and most beautiful part of Europe.
In the past, a key member of any explorer´s expedition was the painter or illustrator who would document newly discovered landscapes, people, fauna and flora. Gradually they were replaced by photographers and cameramen. Of course, I was curious to find out if any Czech artist had plied his art in Albania. I searched in vain until one day I discovered a mention in a biography of the academic painter Otakar Číla. “In 1926 Otakar Číla was sent by the Chancellor of the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, Professor Max Švabinský, to Albania to study national figures for the decoration of the local parliament. He also painted a portrait of the future Albanian king Zoga 1. Číla spent several months in the region and painted several additional landscapes for the regent. He also designed the highest Albanian distinction – the Order of Albania, which was later bestowed upon the Italian king Emanuel as well as Mussolini. Číla visited Albania three times during the years 1926-1938.” After some lengthy research I managed to contact Ms. Blanka Čílová. “I was the wife of his son Vratislav, who died ten years ago. He would have told you much more,” she said, greeting me in her small villa in Nová Paka. “My father-in-law was a fantastic story-teller, I used to call him Daddy. I would sit beside him and spend hours listening. He was a great talent. He really became quite close to King Zoga, which is why he was also invited to the king´s wedding,” the lady said without waiting to be asked. You could hardly guess she was in her eighties. I wanted to know if she had any paintings at home from Albania. “Unfortunately I only have these pictures from Korea from his travels, she said, pointing to three water colours in the room, “but we have some of his works documented on photographs.” We sat down in what used to be his painter´s studio and which has today been adapted into a sort of living room and started to go through a family photo album. Madame Blanka told me what had happened to the Číla family. Some of what she said was spine-chilling. This tale would fill a novel as well as a feature length documentary. What really interested me most however was Otakar.
A Beauty with a Bad Reputation
Six years ago Petr Horký and Miroslav Náplava asked their friends to fill out a questionnaire: what does the name Albania conjure up for you? The replies were virtually identical: civil war, a nation full of wild characters, missing Czech students, the Kosovo-Albanian mafia, blood vendettas, Enver Hodža - the tyrant from Tirana, bunkers, Mercedes-Benzes, rubbish dumps, electricity black-outs. In short, a small country with a bad, very bad reputation. Albania´s greatest treasures lie in its wonderful mountains, its wild nature where apart from a few exceptions there are no signposted walkways or bans on camping and lighting campfires. You can go swimming off deserted beaches and visit places untouched by tourists. For motorbike and off-road fans Albania presents a paradise where the sky is the limit. It is the wildest and in our opinion the most beautiful part of Europe. Which explains why over the past six years we have conducted eight expeditions to Albania. We spent almost half a year gathering on the spot information and six years researching archives at home. And there was no end to the surprises. Mirek for instance was “adopted” by a family in the mountains of North Albania. If someone were to ask me which place in Albania has stuck most in my mind I wouldn´t hesitate for a moment: a sixty kilometre valley between the villages of Hoti and Vermoshi in Northern Albania. First you take the winding road from Lake Skadar to the upper plateau which is enclosed on two sides by mountain slopes. Turning around you can take a last look at the lake´s reflection. Before you lies a straight stretch of about ten kilometres. At its end you drive through a gateway carved out of solid rock and find yourself in a saddle with a fascinating view down into the gorge. Like standing in the middle of the fork of the letter “Y”. From here the road drops abruptly down to the valley, only to level out and follow the right bank of the river. At the bottom there is a small resting place with two pipes emerging from the rock face, creating a cascade of crystal clear water. On hot days probably everyone stops here to fill up their flasks or just to wash off the sweat and dust from the road. Those heading downhill are pouring with sweat while the others are refreshing themselves, getting ready for their breakneck journey to the top.
The stretch to Tamare village leads through some pleasant vegetation but suddenly, as if someone had waved a magic wand, life simply vanishes. Nothing but rock; in summer a raging hot, suffocating furnace, in winter a gorge whipped by an icy wind. Were it not for wild rivulets full of trout, dancing in between the boulders, this could pass for the kingdom of the dead. The narrow gorge with its vertical walls is no place for people with claustrophobia. It is only when you reach the village of Selce that the scenery comes alive with eau de vie. As you follow the road carved into the rocks you rise up gradually into an “alpine” landscape, with small houses scattered across grassy slopes, with fields and herds of cattle, a forest and above all a view of the peaks marking the mountainous border Prokletije, known also as the Albanian Alps. From here mountain tourists trek down into the Thethi and Valbony valleys. By car this would mean a bumpy detour of tens of kilometres. At the village of Lepusha our altimeter registers the highest point on this trip – 1400m above sea level. From here you commence a slow descent down a forest road to an intersection where you can turn off to the right towards the Gusinje border crossing into Montenegro or take the direct route to Vermoshi, the most northerly village in Albania, to a long-forgotten community which lies far beyond the end of the world. „Black Frost. Those who forgot their long johns can start lamenting,” I warned my friends as I pulled out my gloves to stop my fingers from freezing to the tripod. During the eighteen months since my last visit a black granite monument had sprung up beside the church. In the course of history, the bearers of the red star and ideological slogans have been replaced by lists of names of the victims of the struggle for democracy, carved into the stone. Road menders have covered the ancient dusty road with truckloads of stone. Steamrollers levelling the surface have ruined most of the fenced-off gardens and pastures. What a shame, since every family had created its own original signature, its typical pattern and technique of weaving all sorts of branches, twigs, wooden pales and barbed wire into a fence. In time these will all be replaced by standardised chicken mesh and the original woven “lacework” will survive only in the archives of photographers and filmmakers. “Here is the first tourist camp, note the restaurant terraces built in the crown of a tree,” I said, pointing out this architectonic oddity. But by then we had turned off into a small alley between some fences. A granddad in a jeans jacket poked his head out of a wooden shack harbouring a kazan or still. Judging by the smoke he was in the process of stoking up the fire under the fermenting brew. Not seeing any uniforms, which would have meant that they were coming to confiscate his tax-free liquor, he went to pacify his raving dog.
I shouted a greeting across his gate: “Mire dita, Dheshi!” “Čeko! Miki! Hello!” He only recognised me after I had removed my colourful South American hat and revealed my wild, dishevelled mop of hair. You won´t find too many long-haired Albanians around here. Bolder children with bulging eyes would sometimes tug at my shoulder-length locks of hair. I was a genuine circus attraction, along with the mermaid and double-headed dwarf. In the 1980´s they wouldn´t have let me cross the border into Albania because of the length of my hair. They symbolised decadence and a deviation from the norm of a working man´s decent exterior. Just then from back of the house Dhesha´s forty-nine year old son Tonin rushed out greeting me and my group like a parliamentary delegation. “No problem, oukej, no problem,” he kept repeating his favourite English line, inherited from his younger brother who lives with his family in New York. Tonin immediately dashed off to give him a call. I had got to know the Rezaj family during my first trip. Together with cameraman Pavel Otevřel we had set out to film village life. As we were returning to the car I waved across to Dhesha who was standing on the roadside and indicating that we enter his house, a wonderful two-storied stone building which looked at least a hundred years old. It was precisely his house we had been admiring. On the ground floor were sties for the animals while the family lived on the first floor which in turn was covered by a saddleback roof made of shingles. Centrepiece in the gable was a cross, a proud symbol of the family´s allegiance to the Catholic faith which since time immemorial has been the confession of these mountain people. First we entered the section of the house inhabited by the head of the family, widower Desha. This was a large room, a good 50 square metres in size, sparklingly tidy, even if the walls and ceiling could have done with a touch of paint. We sat down on a sofa while Desha vanished for a moment only to return after changing into his best white Sunday shirt. His three granddaughters Silvana, Lira and Drandafile set about making coffee and serving refreshments. Grandson Kristjan was allowed to sit down with the menfolk. Gender studies have still not penetrated into this corner of the woods and will certainly not be on the agenda for some time to come. I was struck by a blown-up photo of an old patriarch on the wall. A pair of blunderbusses protruding from his belt and a mighty moustache added dignity to his appearance. Dhesha was quick to oblige: “This is Gjok Mark Ujka, this is Nik Turku and this was our greatest hero, Prek Calë Hasani, our local Robin Hood. He fought against Enver Hoxha.” Upon uttering this name Dhesha expectorated and let off a curse. “Hoxha killed him. I got over twenty years hard labour in a communist concentration camp, it was near Lushnë, nearly one third of my life. One half of our house was taken up by their police station. They really had me under tabs. Now Tonin lives there with his family.” An invitation to the other flat followed. “Don´t bother to take off your shoes,” he said. However, when we persevered with our good manners and did take off our shoes we noticed their smiles of contentment. Carpets everywhere, and everything was spic and span. Two hours of “traditional hospitality” followed, meaning stuffing yourself with salty cheese, cream with garlic, pieces of prosciutto which the man of the house stripped from a leg of ham with the help of a knife and an axe, pickled peppers, olives, coffee and raki. This time I had come with a rucksack full of presents: T shirts and caps for the men, some sweets for the girls and an entire hunter´s salami which Tonin tried to sneak into his own fridge. “Drop that salami!” Dhesha shouted angrily at his long-fingered son, adding a few expressions in Albanian to emphasise his point. “Don´t worry, next time I’ll bring you a hunter´s salami, too,” I promised a disappointed Tonin. Tonin filled up our glasses with his “No problem, OK raki” and sat down next to me. “Listen, rather bring a bike for Kristjan, he would love to have one,” he said in a thoughtful, fatherly tone.
When I handed over my summer photographs to Silvana and Drandafile they squealed with girlish glee – computer grading had transformed the girls into potential Albanian models. Eighteen-year-old Růženka (the Czech equivalent of her name) blushed and Silvana, who is two years older, rushed off to phone her fiancé, a customs officer at the Hani and Hotit border crossing, to tell him she had a photo for him. “He´s a decent guy with a good job,” said Dheshi and Tonin with a hint of praise. I had brought a three-tiered porcelain platter for cakes for Ms Drana, Tonin´s wife. She thanked me shyly and carried off the box into the next-door room without revealing the slightest curiosity. “Either the bulb is weakening or something is happening outside,” I said, looking out at the leaden sky. We had to start out immediately because if it snowed we would be cut off and have to stay there till the spring. Hurriedly, we got up to go. I didn´t even notice that Dhesh had vanished until I saw him standing in the doorway with a bottle of raki and a plastic bag full of pears. “That´s for all of you, so that you remember us well. And this is for you. How many times have you visited me? Six times, or seven? Just so that you know you will always be welcome in my house, that this is your second home, like a son to me,” he said, looking me deep in the eyes and thrusting a brand new white shirt into my hands. He really got me there, my eyes filled with tears and instead of a parting speech I embraced him. Wizened by life and the sun, this man had just presented me with the symbol of Albania. A white shirt and a jacket are the ubiquitous ceremonious pieces of apparel for the local men. “A safe journey, and come again,” the Rezajov family called out to us in farewell. “Here´s to your good health and that we may all meet again next time,” we replied. At that moment a thought flashed through my head: what sort of jacket would I buy back home to go with the shirt? As the feelings of euphoria subsided, the first snowflakes began to descend upon us and the temperature began to dangerously approach zero. We had to get down below one thousand metres as quickly as possible. There the snow would still probably melt away. We set off on our race against time. At two places electric wires were sagging beneath a load of frost. It took gloves and a wooden pole for us to lift them above the four metre high profile of our vehicle. We heaved a sigh of relief as soon as we had got clear of the snow. Not a moment too soon, twilight turned into darkness. “I wouldn´t mind just calling it a day here on the edge of the road,” I suggested. “Who knows if we would find a better spot in this terrain in the dark. If we drive a little over to that fence on the right there´s room enough for even a tank to pass us. I’ll have a look just to make sure there´s no mammoth trap in the vicinity.” I jumped out of the cabin and started shaking with cold the moment I saw two Albanian teenagers who had sidled up to Manka (our expeditionary vehicle´s nickname), shivering with curiosity in their threadbare sweaters and jean jackets. The cold was intensified by the blustering wind.
“Like a woman´s pride, the cold and inclement November evening settled upon the valley,” I said, pulling my cap down tight over my ears. “Which one has jilted you this time?” “That´s a quote from the classics: Jakub Arbes, the Czech Dan Brown of the 19th century, only his inclement weather was settling down on Prague. I’ve got his mystery novel with me, if you´re interested.” During the next hour the wind increased in strength and began rattling the cabin with the strength of Giant Koloděj. The other two were sitting at the table, strumming away at their guitars while I stretched out with my sleeping bag under my head, reading. Sometime just after nine we realised that the ladder to our door was missing. Watch it, something´s up! We jumped out of the van quickly and realised in a flash what had happened. Some local brigands had tried to steal our motorbikes attached to the top of Manka. The straps had been cut, the safety console screwed out and they had even managed to lower the petrol canister. Thankfully, they had not managed to run off with it. The cap on one of the truck´s diesel tanks had been unscrewed and they had been getting ready to siphon off our fuel. We took out our strong searchlight and combed the nearby terrain. Not a soul in sight. Incredibly skilful, these fellows. I hadn´t heard a thing, they must have been tip-toeing around us like mice. How on earth had they planned to take down the motorbikes? These would have collapsed on their heads and caused some serious damage. I couldn´t fathom this. It was obvious that the thief had not come solo and it was quite possible that they would come back before morning to finish their job. Just to be sure, we decided to drive on a couple of kilometres and ford a wild river onto a small island. This way, we managed to transform Manka into a fortress surrounded by a moat. Before dropping off to sleep I flicked through all sorts of experiences we had had in the past all over the world where someone had tried to rob us or where they had actually succeeded in doing so. Why should Albania be any different? Travelling brings certain dangers with it. Which, by the way, can be confirmed by many tourists who have visited the Czech Republic or your country.
A Discovery A unique photo from Albania taken in 1938