One day during one of my trips to the Balkans I found myself in the historical town of Ohrid on Lake Ohrid in western Macedonia. My idea was to go to Sveti Naum on the border to Albania, an ancient monastery where once a year thousands of Orthodox Christians gather, coming from all over the Balkans in their tour busses.

Mungo Park

“You have luck,” said the taxi driver. “It is Sveti Naum day. There will be a big festival with grilled lamb and much rakija.”

Sveti Naum is an old Eastern Orthodox monastery named after the medieval Saint Naum, the first Slavic monk, who founded the monastery in the year 905 and who is said to be buried in the church. Pilgrims have long come to Sveti Naum to seek cures for mental ailments.

However, it is all but certain that it is really Sveti Naum that is buried in the church. Local Muslims have long maintained that it is actually the legendary Sufi dervish Sari Saltuk – prefigurer, some say, of St Nicholas —  who is buried there, and that as the Turks lost their grip of power in Macedonia, the grave gradually became a place of Christian pilgrimage.

Today not a single trace exists which would posit the grave as that of Sari Saltuk, though as late as 1948 it is said that Muslim Albanians would cross the border to Macedonia to visit what they took to be the grave of the Muslim holy man.

It was about an hour’s drive from Ohrid along the lake to Sveti Naum. Upon arriving at the monastery I found the dirt parking lot filled with cars and tour busses from all over Macedonia. Music and the smell of grilled meat wafted from the monastery grounds on the lakeshore. Taking off with my rucksack I walked through a lush park inhabited by peacocks, down a dirt path lined with stalls selling grilled meat, Gypsy music cassettes and CDs, religious souvenirs, T-shirts and sundry ethno kitsch. On the grass and on the lake shore groups of Gypsies had set up tents and were grilling lamb on spits while children splashed in the water.  The place was all choked up with Macedonians and Gypsies who had come from all over. For whatever reasons, the festival of Sveti Naum appeared to be especially popular with Roma. It was wild, unbridled, loud and smoky, a kind of no-holds barred volksfest that could only be compared to a  Grateful Dead concert for the pious.

The monastery building itself crouches on a massive black rock overlooking the lake. Gypsy beggars lined the gateway leading to the church,  a low-built structure constructed out of sun-worn brick in the 10thcentury, into which flowed a steady stream of pilgrims lighting candles over the sarcophagus of St Naum. Mingling with the pilgrims, Gypsy touts flogged bottles of black market perfume and cigarettes.  The crass mixture of piety and commerce seemed to bother no one.

Indeed, under the Turks fairs were held here and Christian merchants and peasants from different parts of the country would meet, so these colorful festivals at Sveti Naum had a long tradition.

Entering the church, I descended into a small dungeon-like lair with narrow slit windows in the cupola letting in a paltry light on the gilded iconostasis. A low door lead from the darkness to a small darker space where there was the tomb of St Naum.

Outside again, and taking a seat on a brick wall overlooking the lake I observed the scene, watching as a procession of around forty people moved round the church led by a couple of Gypsy musicians beating a davul– a large Turkish  drum – and blowing a zurna – a kind of Turkish clarinet with stops instead of keys, which emits a whining, shrieking archaic sound, and is almost exclusively played by Gypsies in the Balkans. At the head of the procession a man carried a baby lamb, which would be slaughtered later that day in honor of St Naum, while a blue plumed peacock stood perched on the eaves of the church above the procession. Before I visited the Balkans I had thought that the vision of Serbian film director Emir Kusterica was a surreal flight of fancy, but it was scenes like these that made me believe that it was only a reflection of Balkan reality.

I spent a couple hours at Sveti Naum, mingling among the crowds, browsing through a selection of Gypsy music cassettes and eating hamburger studded with cubes of garlic washed down by Macedonian beer. From there I decided to walk across the border to Albania, leaving the monastery grounds the way I had come and walking down a lonely road which ran along the periphery of the monastery, from which could be heard the steady thump of the drums and the wailing Turkish zurna.

The Macedonian-Albanian border runs 200 yards from the monastery walls. Upon arriving at the border checkpoint I discovered that I still had a pocketful of Macedonian currency and sought out a shop where I could relieve myself of my money. Slipping through a half open gate I was surprised to find myself suddenly in a military compound surrounded by soldiers trooping around in Macedonian army uniforms performing various duties and more or less oblivious to my presence, until one soldier came up to me and, taking me for a Sveti Naum pilgrim gone astray, directed me back down a path to the monastery. Before I knew it I had left the military compound and was back among the Gypsies and musicians banging davuls and blowing zurnas. The clash between Gypsy carnival and army base was totally surreal, Balkan and dream-like and again made me think of Kusterica.

Having passed through the military compound once again I was now ready to cross into Albania. I paid ten euro for my visa, had my passport stamped by a desultory border guard and began walking down an empty road along the lakeshore studded with concrete pill-boxes and bunkers.

Clouds had begun to gather and it showed signs of rain. At a small hotel on the lake I stopped to have a drink under a Coca-Cola awning. I was the only guest at the hotel. The owner, a dark-skinned, hatchet-faced Orthodox-Christian Albano-Vlach named Georgi,  whose children that day had visited Sveti Naum, brought me my drink and persuaded me to stay the night at his hotel, which I did, spending the evening watching Albanian turbo-folk on the TV and listening to the rain lash down on the lake outside.

The next morning I was up early and had to rouse Georgi out of his drunken stupor to let me out of the empty hotel. The two of us sat down in the café and drank coffee and watched TV.

‘Rakija?” said Georgi as he produced a bottle of home-made slivovitz, pouring us numerous shots of the divine tasting and devastating liquor while we watched the TV.

We were  incommunicado at first and it was hard to come round without a common language, speaking what Turks call, “Tarzanca” – Tarzan language.  I had an Albanian (Gegh) dictionary (Georgi spoke Tosk) and struggled hard to follow what Georgi said and somehow we managed to carry on a semblance of a conversation in English, Serbian and the odd Albanian word.

I told Georgi in my spotty Serbian that I was headed for Korcë, a town south of Lake Ohrid, and would be going there by foot.

“Not a good idea,” said Georgi, fixing me with his bloodshot eyes. “Today is Albanian elections and there will be some crazy people on the roads with guns.”

Georgi advised me to take a fugon, a mini-bus, to my destination. I acknowledged Georgi’s advice and watched the TV.

On the TV there was a program on Albanian  history since the fall of Communism.

“King Zog,” said Georgi, drawing my attention to the footage of the Albanian king who had come back to Albania from his exile in Switzerland to reclaim the throne after the fall of communism.

Dobar čovek?” I asked in Serbian. A good man?

“No good man,” said Georgi. “Good for the Swiss. Good for the French. Good for the English. But no good for Albanians.”

Georgi took a swig of his rakija.

“Hitler!” he said.

Perhaps, I thought, he meant to say that Zog was like Hitler.

 “Partizan!” I said, raising my rakija glass, thinking I would appeal to his sympathies with this toast.

“No partizan!” said Georgi. “Shit partizan! Hitler! He was the best for us.”

Georgi explained in broken languages that under Hitler Albania had been liberated and had enjoyed three golden years. There was no other leader who had been better for Albania than Hitler.

“Hitler!” repeated Georgi,  raising hisrakijaglass, enjoining me to do the same.

Georgi had arranged for a friendly cab driver to take me to Pogradec on Lake Ohrid. From there I would take a fugon to Korcë. In Pogradec the cab driver brought me to a restaurant for breakfast where I had sheep’s head soup and a glass of red wine. Afterwards I boarded a bus for Korcë.

I had walked from Serbia into Kosovo, from Kosovo into Macedonia, from Macedonia into Albania. And I never had any problems. It is a feature of the Balkans, however, that wherever you go people are always warning you with foolish stories against this or that people, this or that village or whatever lies over the mountains, across the river, across town, further south from where you find yourself. The Slovenes talk derisively about “Čefurs” from Bosnia and Serbia. The Bosniaks tell you stories about Serb “Četniks”. The Serbs spit at the “Turks” (Bosniaks and Serb Muslims) and “Shiptars” (Albanians), who are cut-throats to a man, Albanians from Kosovo have little good to say about the fanatic Albanians in Macedonia, while in Macedonia the Albanians will tell you that the southern Albanians around Korcë are nothing but thieves and bandits and you are advised to steer clear of them. It is remarkable how many prejudices against this or that Albanian faction exist among the Albanians, while hearing the Serbs talk ominously about Albanians one has the impression of a homogenous and united people bent on forging a Greater Albania. They take no account of the ethnic and religious fault lines which run through the Albanian territories. Depending on which region they are from two Albanians a village away might as well belong to different races. Among Albanians it is remarkable how much ignorance there is regarding their own people.

I recalled an Albanian man I met in a café at the bus station in Tetova, Macedonia, a couple days before I entered Albania. As the mid-day muezzin called the faithful to prayer the man spoke German on account of having lived in Berlin, where he had spent a stint in Moabit prison, for what he didn’t offer to tell me. In addition to German, he spoke four other languages, having lived in Switzerland, Italy and France. Yet with regards to Albania he was totally ignorant.

I had told him, in the course of outlining my trip, that I wanted to walk over the border from Macedonia to the town of Korcë in Albania.

Korcë was not in Albania, the man told me.

“And where is it?” I asked him.

“It is in Italy,” he said.

I pointed out the town of Korcë on my map.

“Look here,” I said. “You see Korcë? Albania.”

“That is not Albania. That is Italy.”

He had no idea that a body of water known as the Adriatic separated Albania from Italy. He had been all over Europe, spoke five languages, but with regards to his own neighborhood he knew jack.

At any rate, upon leaving Pogradec I arrived in the sunbaked south Albanian town of Korcë smack in the bazaar quarter. Mangy curs loped around beat busses. Three Albanians haggled over a hog-tied lamb which bleated frantically. The Albanians in this corner of Albania were markedly different from the Albanians further to the north in Kosovo and Macedonia. While the Albanians in the north are Ghegs, they are Tosks in the south, swarthier, stockier than their northern cousins. Their religion is Orthodox rather than Muslim. They are sunnier, more spontaneous, less fierce of aspect and their towns are less prosperous, dirtier and more chaotic.

Bearing in mind what Georgi had said about men brandishing guns being election day I walked around Korcë looking for trouble. No gunfire sounded in the distance. Instead I found only a town in shambles and the Korcë bazaar quarter  a sight to behold. Under crumbling three story buildings lining narrow cobbled streets a couple of local men herded goats with switch-sticks, shouting shrilly at their flocks. The streets were crowded with stalls selling an indescribable jumble  of wares under blue awnings. Rip-off brand names, mismatched shoes, faux-leather handbags, all dumped pell-mell in messy piles which market women were sorting through like scavengers rummaging through a rubbish heap.

I paused a few moments to drink in the full squalor of the scene until it struck me that everyone was carrying their purchases in plastic Lidl bags. Lidl is a German supermarket chain and, to the best of my knowledge, not a single Lidl store exists in Albania. Obviously someone was making a small business with these plastic supermarket bags procured in Germany. Later, upon returning to Berlin I found myself in a Lidl store one day.

“Can you believe it?” the cashier was saying. “For some reason which is beyond me someone is stealing all our plastic bags.”

It would not have surprised me in the least to have learned that these shopping bags had ended up in Korcë.

By Mungo Park