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Albania and Albanians through British Eyes, Part 2

In March 2022, students studying Albanian at UCL’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES) presented an evening of portraits of some of the British writers, travellers and scholars who visited Albania in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In this edition of the Gazette, we reprint four more of those profiles: Ages Ethel Conway, Jan and Cora Gordon, Stuart E Mann and Bernard Newman.

Agnes Ethel Conway is one of the less well-known travellers to the Balkans. Born in 1885, she studied Ancient History at Newnham College. In 1913, she joined the British School in Athens to work as an archaeologist. In March the following year, in what turned out to be a window between the end of the Balkan Wars and the beginning of the First World War, Conway and her friend Evelyn Radford set out on a Balkan tour.

Conway published an account of her journey in 1917. ‘A Ride through the Balkans, on Classic Ground with a Camera’ remains one of the most vivid records of the chaotic aftermath of the Balkan Wars in northern Greece and Albania.

After visiting Athens, Salonika and the Peloponnese, the two women headed north to Ioannina, where ‘New Greece’ was being grafted onto the ‘Old’. Ioannina was one of the last cities to be incorporated into the Greek state in March 1913. The newly conquered territories still had substantial Albanian and Slav populations.

They took a ferry from Patras to Preveza which was still an Albanian Muslim town: ‘Once more we found ourselves among mosques and minarets. The picturesque town was freshly whitewashed, and glittered brilliantly in the sunshine’. From Preveza, they hitched a ride in one of the military vehicles ferrying soldiers between the port and Ioannina. As they approached the town, they began to see the effects of the fighting: ‘On each side of the road at intervals stood roofless stone villages burnt out during the war’.

But in Ioannina itself, Conway sensed that ‘the joy of conquest seemed still to linger in the air… We walked the streets almost shouting for joy, we knew not why. The streets were crammed with Greek soldiers and civilians in every variety of costume, besides Albanians in sheepskin cloaks dyed black, and Turks’. Ioannina, she noted, was ‘still in military occupation, and swarmed with soldiers in their costume of khaki shirt, a modified form of fustanella’. As she and Radford walked around, they noted that the walls of the old city had been ‘badly battered’ and the ramparts ‘shattered’. Nonetheless, Turkish and Albanian citizens were still going about their business, but ‘it was not the worry of Turks but the joy of Greeks that was uppermost here’.

From Ioannina, Conway had planned to cross into Albania and then go to Sarandë to catch the ferry to Corfu. But when they tried to hire a horse-drawn carriage, the drivers either refused or demanded ‘a double price’. The reason for their reluctance was the continuing instability in southern Albania. After taking Ioannina, the Greek army had continued north and had crossed the border into what by then was, notionally at least, an independent Albania and had occupied a swathe of territory south of a line between Himarë on the coast and Prespa to the north-east.

But the two women were not easily dissuaded. After vigorous bargaining, Evelyn Radford managed to persuade a driver to take them to Sarandë. The road to the border was lined with tents where refugees from southern Albania were now living. The road itself was choked with ‘carriages full of people and household goods coming towards the town, and (we) were overtaken by Red Cross motors and doctors going out to the frontier’.

At Delvinaki, they halted to rest the horses. The town had been transformed into a vast military camp. The Greek army had been forced to withdraw from southern Albania, and it seemed to Conway that most it was in Delvinaki, ‘idly kicking their heels’. As well as the soldiers, ethnic Greeks (and some ethnic Albanians) continued to pour out of southern Albania. During the afternoon, Conway watched as more and more refugees arrived: ‘in one place there must have been fifteen hundred people, and the settlement already had the air of a permanent village. There were plenty of cattle and sheep and goats; a stream flowed through the middle, and improvised shops stood by the wayside’.

That night, Conway and Radford stayed in a han about two miles from the border. They ate supper at a bare wooden table and then retired to a cupboard ‘with just room for two people to lie side by side on the floor. Luckily there was a window, and with our sleeping-bags we were quite comfortable’.

Conway had anticipated trouble at the border, but the guard was more interested in any news the women had about Ioannina and whether there was still fighting there. ‘After a look at our passports, an official with a dramatic gesture said: “You are free”’. Conway makes no mention of any official presence on the Albanian side of the border.

The women set off for Sarandë in high spirits. By mid-day they were in Delvinë, being feted by Greek ‘volunteers’ who still controlled the village. Sarandë was also under Greek control. From Corfu, they steamed up the coast to Durrës in the ‘Baron Bruck’, ‘a palace of a boat belonging to the Austrian Lloyd’. It was too dangerous to disembark at Durrës, so they continued to Kotor, travelled inland to Cetinje and then took a boat to Virpazar on Lake Shkodër:

‘On landing, the pandemonium was more Oriental and more deafening than anything we had hitherto heard. Caiques thirty feet long, with a row of chairs down the middle, were waiting for us to step into, and the quay was crammed with ragged-looking Albanians, all shouting at once’.

It was a very roundabout route to get to northern Albania. But it was worth it. Conway was overwhelmed by Shkodran street life: ‘The costumes were unbelievable. The rich Catholic Albanian women wear trousers with from sixteen to forty yards of material round each leg, with two pairs more inside; what with their high-heeled kid boots, the way they have to waddle, in order to get over the ground, is most extraordinary. The men are excessively tall and thin, with keen, peering faces, armed always with rifle, revolver and knife’.

Shkodër had been recently occupied by Montenegro and was being administered by an international force under an English governor, Colonel Phillips. One afternoon, Colonel Phillips took Conway and Radford to see Shkodër’s castle, ‘a superb Venetian stronghold crowning the hill above the Bazaar’. The view from the ramparts left an indelible impression:

‘It has the finest entrance arch, six bays deep, I ever saw, and on the summit, beside the Albanian flag, flew those of England, Austria, Italy, France and Germany. The Colonel said that seven thousand Mallissors thronged on to the top when the Albanian flag was first hoisted, and shouted as with one voice. The view from there is sublime. On one side the hill drops perpendicularly to the wide river Drin that sweeps around it in a bend. Beyond are the heights of Tarabosh, from which the Montenegrins attacked Scutari. The green land sloping to the lake, studded with minarets and red-roofed houses, with the mountains in the distance, made an unforgettable picture’.

Conway concludes:

‘Never had we so much wished for anything as the opportunity to turn into journalists and remain there for a few months. As it was, we felt our presence in the troubled state of affairs to be somewhat of a burden to the authorities, and tactfully took our departure the next morning.’

John Watkins

Jan and Cora Gordon were a husband and wife team. Jan wrote and did watercolours, Cora sketched. It was a very successful format. The Gordons produced a number ‘Vagabond’ books, all beautifully illustrated, describing their travels in Spain, Sweden, Finland, Languedoc and the Balkans.

‘Two Vagabonds in Albania’ is an account of a journey that first went south to Pogradec, Permët and Gjirokastër. The Gordons then went north to Berat, Shkodër and Theth, sketching and painting as they went. One of the book’s delights are Cora’s sketches, often made while she was sitting in a café or on a street corner.

The Gordons particularly liked Përmet. It was, they thought, ‘a town that seems to have been poured down a steep, gradually-widening gulley - it spreads broader and broader as it comes towards the river, until, at the water’s edge, a full stop has been put to it by a huge round boulder sixty feet in diameter, which lies at the edge of the green, curving river’. Anyone who has been to Permët will recognise that description.

The Gordons based themselves in Përmet’s girls’ school which shared a courtyard with ‘Kisha e Shën Premtes’, the Church of Saint Friday. The church was famous because it was where an Albanian Orthodox priest had tried to hold services in Albanian rather than Greek. The church had been built ‘half-underground to avoid the observation of the Turk’. But it was the brilliantly coloured cloister that enthralled Jan:

‘On the lower side of the cloister was painted in such an amazing harlequinade of blue, crimson, yellow and green squares that we stared open-mouthed. Parts of old paintings had been carefully preserved, but all the rest had been patchworked in this dazzling fashion, and at the moment we came upon it, two old women, with saucers full of tint, were engaged in freshening up the colours, for the saint’s feast day which was but a short time hence.’

One of the reasons why the Gordons lingered in Përmet was to meet Vasil Novan. Vasil’s life story encapsulated the political confusion of early twentieth century Albania. Vasil had originally been a supporter of Wilhelm of Wied. When Wilhelm was forced into exile in September 1914, Vasil went to Greece and then to America. After the war, he was hired by the American Red Cross to help with famine relief in Albania. Vasil’s revolutionary credentials got him a job with ‘that most unorthodox of orthodox bishops’, Fan Noli in his short-lived administration. When Zog returned to power at the beginning of 1925, Vasil had to keep his head down.

Vasil took Jan and Cora to his family’s village, Kosova, in the hills above Përmet, to meet his family. Jan writes: ‘The village clustered on the slope of a buttress overhanging a deep canyon. Out of a mass of low and terraced foliage, the houses stood one above the other irregularly - queer houses with deep verandas, or large, solid stone mansions with roofs of heavy grey slate. In the centre of the hamlet, a bastion built out from the hillside supported a large church with cloisters around it’.

Vasil’s family lived in one of those mansions with a ‘noble arched doorway’ and a ‘large upstairs reception room lit by ten windows set with divans all around, bright hand-woven rugs, coloured wedding chests and carved wood ceiling’.

After two days in Kosova, Jan and Cora returned to Përmet and then travelled on to Gjirokastër via Këlcyrë and Tepelenë. They heard later that ‘three days after we had traversed this very road a well-known brigand stopped a passenger lorry, collected twenty thousand crowns from the travellers, invited them to lunch with him at the roadside upon their own provisions, and finally disarmed and turned back a car full of police which by chance interrupted the luncheon-party’.

John Watkins

Stuart E. Mann travelled to Albania in 1929, aged 24. He got a job teaching English at the Tirana Vocational Training School run by Harry Fultz, and stayed for two years. In 1947, he became reader in Czech and Albanian at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES) where he worked until his retirement in 1972. Towards the end of his tenure, he gave a talk about his experience of living in Tirana. The talk was entitled ‘Albania Then and Now’. The excerpts below have all been taken from that talk.

‘Across the Adriatic I went by packet steamer from Brindisi to Durrës. From Durrës, you had to hire a car, and this was done by haggling with the driver in a public square. Children, as well as grown-ups, knew all about cars and aeroplanes; none had ever seen a train unless they had been abroad. You couldn't travel by train because there weren't any. Tirana, the new capital, was new only in name. Converted from a village, it had no drains, no water supply, no gas and no public transport. Tirana was typical of most Albanian villages, with dirt tracks for roads, and mud-brick houses for dwellings’.

‘The streets of Tirana were of dust or mud, according to the time of year. The newspapers used to say you could grow rice in them. You were made aware of the streets every time an Italian car rushed past. Only the Italians, mostly engineers, had cars. The Albanians rode on donkeys. I well remember the day when Albania first imported bicycles, the first ever seen in the country. There was a rush to buy these strange machines, and their new owners, trying them out for the first time, wobbled and fell, or ran into each other, amid the laughter of passers-by’.

‘Telephoning was a joke. One single wire linked Tirana with the port of Durrës and the outside world. Another went to Shkodra in the north. Two others went south. Telegraph poles were expensive and would have to be imported, so the Albanians stripped live trees every few hundred yards and stuck a knob on top. In spring the telegraph poles sprouted leaves and interfered with communication. The central telephone exchange was housed in a disused cowshed with a well outside, which stood in the middle of a cobblestone farmyard. It was operated from an old-time switchboard with a winding handle at the side and was guarded by one old man in a fez, who had almost nothing to do, since Albanians rarely telephoned. When they, or I, did so, we asked for people by name. There were no numbers’.

In his talk, Mann explained that 70% of the population were Moslems, while others belonged to the Catholic or Orthodox Church. But despite their religious differences,

‘All Albanian children went to the same school and learned to sing the same national anthem, a song in praise of Zog, who had made himself King of the Albanians just a year before I arrived’.

‘Electricity came to Albania in 1926. The American Junior Red Cross had built the Tirana Vocational Training School for boys, which had opened in 1921. Heating was done by a charcoal brazier standing in the middle of the room, but it was decided that oil lamps were not suitable for the new school. A Petters engine was imported from Yeovil in Somerset. Several barrels of heavy oil were rolled into the basement and the miracle took shape. There was light’.

First pupils at the Tirana Vocational Training School, Tirana, Albania.

(American National Red Cross photograph collection held in the Library of Congress)

‘At length, the miracle of electricity came to Zog's ears. Bored with his palace, where he sat smoking and drinking endless coffee, he came over to the school to look at the boys’ exercise books, and to try to judge their progress in English, a language he did not know. It was dusk; the flickering lights came on. Result: we had to put in a power line from the school to the palace. The school lights flickered more than ever. Next year an Austrian firm put up a power plant for the town, and our worries were over. When the town lights came on for the first time, everybody swarmed out to see them’.

Towards the end of his talk, Mann returned to the topic of the Albanian language, observing that:

‘Up to the fifteenth century, Albania was a Christian country, with a language and literature of its own, and its books were written in Latin characters. Then the Turks broke into the country, ravaged its churches and schools and left it a desolate and blighted backwater for nearly 450 years. The language continued to be spoken, but books were forgotten, and only one survives, a litany written in 1555 by one John Buzuku. In 1878, Albania tried to break away from Turkey, but in vain. The writing and publishing of books became an underground movement and every writer chose a spelling of his own. Schools were opened and closed again for fear of sedition.

At last, in 1908, Albanian writers summoned a congress at Bitola to settle the question for an alphabet. Of twenty alphabets, three were considered. After a lot of argument, one delegate stood up, held up a typewriter and said, "Get all your Albanian characters onto this typewriter and the language will live. Bring in a lot of new characters and the language will die, because nobody will be able to print it." His simplified alphabet won the day’.

Joan Pearce

‘Albanian Back-Door’ is a description of a journey made by bike through Yugoslavia and Albania in the summer of 1935. The book was published a year later. Its author, Bernard Newman, was a prolific writer and traveller. Like the Corans and their ‘Vagabond’ series, Newman found a reliable and lucrative format in books about journeys made on his bike which he called George.

Newman began his tour in Slovenia, went south through Sarajevo and Skopje and entered Albania from Macedonia at Sveti Naum. This border crossing is the ‘back door’ of the book’s title. Unsurprisingly given his chosen means of transport, Newman was more than a little obsessed with the state of Albania’s roads:

‘Within an hour of leaving Sveti Naum, I was already redrafting my itinerary. The road was definitely not good.’ Newman struggled on to Pogradec and then up the western side of Lake Ohrid. He writes:

‘The road to the north was utterly appalling. The Italians had recently remade it, someone told me. Maybe the repairs might have been of some use for military purposes, but the effect on civilian traffic was damning, for the road was simply covered with eight inches of metal, no attempt at rolling having been made… The very idea of cycling was a farce. Sometimes I was able to pedal for a few hundred yards, but for the greater part I merely pushed, picking for choice a bit of rough grass on the roadside rather than the impossible stones.’

It wasn’t just the road surface that caused him grief. As he climbed higher, he ran into another challenge - tortoises.

‘I saw them literally by the hundreds - little fellows, middle-size fellows and big fellows. They wandered across the road without fear - and indeed there was little to distinguish the road from the neighbouring rocks, and the traffic of a complete day could scarcely have been disturbing. …

Twice too I saw wolves. One of them trotted casually across the road, not a hundred yards in front of me, carrying something in his mouth. When I shouted, he dropped his burden and made off. I hurried up to the spot and found a dead cat of the domestic variety.’

At last, the road began to improve, and Newman was able to ride George ‘slowly and carefully’ to Elbasan. He took a room at the ‘Hotel Adriatic’ and after, as he puts it, ‘negotiating George through the doorway of the hotel’, he set off to explore.

Elbasan is easily one of the most interesting towns in Albania or the Balkans… It is a town of some size, with a bazaar that is reputed to contain a thousand shops…The centre portion of the town, including the bazaar, was once completely enclosed by strong walls, of which considerable fragments with picturesque gateways still survive.’

After Elbasan, Newman pedalled north to Tirana - ‘the road, he wrote, ‘was new, the best in all Albania, they said’. He estimated that the journey of about forty miles over the Krabbe Pass would take him around four hours. But when darkness fell, he was still fifteen miles from Tirana: ‘Bitterly I cursed my judgement, for riding in the dark in Albania is no joke. My lamp refused to function, bulb and spare hopelessly smashed by the bumping of the road. Every hundred yards I crashed into a stone or rock; twice I broke spokes, and had to correct a buckled wheel. I worked rapidly, encouraged by distant howling of wolves!’

Newman found Tirana ‘a strange mixture of ancient and modern’. The central square was ‘unfinished and unpaved’ - ‘from it, another boulevard terminates in a little hill on whose summit King Zog plans one day to build a new palace’. Newman was pleased that the king had ‘wisely left its ancient quarter untouched’.

After Tirana, Newman cycled north, eventually having to jettison George because there were no roads to ride on. In Theth, he made a prophesy: ‘Albania is a land so magnificently scenic, housing so fascinating a people, that if Zog can maintain his ten years of peace, then Albania will almost rival Switzerland as the Playground of Europe’.

But it wasn’t to be. Four years later, in April 1939, Italy invaded Albania, Zog departed, and a new chapter in what Newman calls Albania’s ‘turbulent history’ began.

John Watkins


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