One of the frustrations in scouting the route taken by Brigadier ‘Trotksy’ Davies’ SPILLWAY mission of winter 1943/44 is that no one in Albania seems to have any familiarity with the area it took place in. Bizarre really, as it’s so close to Tirana. There’s no tourist infrastructure, no paved roads (until last year, when tarmac reached Shengjergj, a half-hour or more west of Biza, where Davies parachuted in) and no helpful websites. I had hoped to walk a fair stretch of the route in May, but the bizarre monsoon conditions put paid to that. But it’s August now and I’m back in Albania, so last week I hired a 4×4 and went in search of two key villages, Okshtun and Kostenje.
Normally on a trip like this I’d have my partner-in-crime, Elton Caushi of Albaniantrip with me, but his wife Vilma has just given birth to a bouncing baby girl (Nina, congratulations to them both). Instead I roped in a recently graduated tourism student, Edwin Brovina, to translate.
We headed to Librazhd, a six-donkey town about 25km east of Elbasan, and then struck out north. Due to a good dollop of EU cash, the road was brand-new and perfect for about 20km, then ended. We drove on dirt for about three hours, till a couple of helpful chaps told us we had passed the Okshtun turn. We doubled back, found the turn (unsigned, of course) and bumped our way down it. The track came to an end and we walked into Okshtun. Only it turned out to be a village called Lejçan instead.
We got a good welcome though, first from a tiny little old lady festooned with gold jewellery, who spoke a language Edwin couldn’t identify, let alone speak. At the next house we met the Limoni family, who sat us down, gave us coffee and the inevitable raki, and explained the little old lady spoke Macedonian (the border’s a bit fluid here). They also gave us the temporary use of their son, Erjon, to guide us to Okshtun, which they assured us was in the next valley.
Frustration No.2 of organising the ‘Endurance Vile Trail’ is that there aren’t any professional-quality photos available to ‘sell’ the area to prospective trekkers. There still aren’t – I just took snaps on my mobile (you can see a gallery here). But take it from me, this is a lovely area. Okshtun is about a half-hour from the main (gravel) road, down a seriously underused dirt track. A few old stone houses clinging to the slopes of a fertile, green valley. It used to be home to over 100 families, apparently, but now there are just seven or so.
We parked up when the track ended and were greeted by a bemused young man wearing just a pair of underpants (it is August, after all). Not unnaturally, he was curious as to why we had come. Edwin explained I was a tourist interested in Enver Hoxha and General Davies. Erblin (for that was his name) did a double take then jokingly punched the air – apparently I was the first tourist to visit Okshtun. Erblin was soon joined by his father, Refek, who sat us down and proved himself the consummate host, taking us down to the river for a welcome swim.
Refek, though, didn’t know anything about the war. Disappointing, as elsewhere in these parts there’s a strong corporate memory. Davies came here twice, in fact, the first time on Christmas Eve 1943, for one night, then returned for an extended stay from 27 December to 2 January 1944. He and his team were in a bad way by then – his second-in-command, Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, was already suffering from the frostbite that was to contribute to his death a few weeks later.
The diary Nicholls kept, against orders, notes that they enjoyed a delicious dish of chicken with nut sauce on Christmas Eve. Refek had 60 chickens though no nut sauce, and was keen for us to stay for a BBQ (and raki), but we had to cry off as we didn’t fancy negotiating the roads at night. A shame – Refek struck us as a man who’d know how to do a mean BBQ.
As you’ll see from the photos, the houses in Okshtun are pretty ropey, so a home-stay is off the agenda here. It’s a perfect place to camp, however, particularly with Refek toiling away over hot charcoal and Erblen pouring the raki.
I’m not allowed under pain of death to quote from Nicholls’ diary without permission, due to the Imperial War Museum’s team of crack lawyers, but Enver Hoxha wrote of Okshtun in his deeply untrustworthy Anglo-American Threat to Albania (available as a free PDF here). Hoxha’s chronology is a bit dodgy as he has the bedraggled group arriving in Okshtun for the second time on Christmas Eve, when in fact that was the day of the first arrival, but you’ll get the general idea…
Night had fallen by the time we reached the base where we were to stay and our hosts had come out in the snow in the darkness to welcome us. They embraced us and took us inside. We took off our dripping coats and handed our rifles to the head of the house, who hung them on the wall, one beside the other. The small ante-room was warm. A great sense of satisfaction stole over us. The General watched with pleasure and curiosity how we embraced the people of the house, how we handed over our rifles, took off our boots and shoes at the entrance to the room, and he did his best to follow suit.
Our host opened the door of the big room with the fire-place and invited us in.
‘Please, come in, my home is yours.’
‘You go first,’ I said, giving the General the honour. We entered the room. It was truly a miracle, not only for the British General, but also for us, who were the sons of this land and this people. After such a wearying journey through the forest, sometimes on and sometimes off the track, through snow and blizzard, we entered a room of a peasant’s home which made the Englishman exclaim: ‘What a miracle! Can I be dreaming?’
Our host asked me where the General was from and what language he spoke. I introduced the General to him.
At the head of the room there was a big fire-place, with a blazing fire which spread warmth and light from end to end. Two or three kerosene lamps had been lit and at the one end of the room, snow-white sheep-skin rugs had been laid out, with pillows in clean pillow-slips to rest on. In the middle of the room was a big Dibra carpet, while corncobs in regular rows like soldiers were hanging from the rafters over- head. Neither beams nor roof could be seen, only the corncobs glowing like gold in the light of the fire.
‘This is marvellous! This is paradise!’ murmured the General. ‘Even in dreams I could not have imagined such a Christmas night.’
‘You see what the homes and hearts of the ordinary Albanians are like, General,’ I said. ‘They truly are paradise without Mammon or God, as in your Milton’s Paradise Lost. Perhaps you remember Lord Byron’s beautiful verses full of feeling. In his Childe Harold he pointed out the fine virtues of the Albanian and wrote:
The Suliotes stretched the welcome hand,
And piled the hearth, and wrung their garments damp,
And filled the bowl, and trimmed the cheerful lamp,
And spread their fare; though homely all they had.
Such conduct bears Philanthropy’s rare stamp.’
‘Yes, Mr. Hoxha,’ said the General, ‘what Byron wrote about you Albanians I am seeing in reality and in difficult times which the world is going through.’
‘General,’ I said, ‘this hospitable atmosphere which our host has created reminds me of what I have read about the life of Byron. It was in such an atmosphere that the great English poet who had gone to Greece to fight for the freedom of the Greek people lay on his death bed. When the Albanians and their valiant leaders — Marko Boçari, Kolokotroni and others, were fighting all around Missolonghi, those who were serving the poet on his death bed were Albanians — the Suliotes.’
‘In find your words very moving, Mr. Hoxha,’ the British General replied.
‘Byron has written about this generosity and hospitality of our people, too. Somewhere he relates how, while he was travelling in Albania and night overtook him in a village, he was obliged to seek shelter in a house where he was welcomed with all the good things they had. Before he left the next day, Byron brought out his money to pay. His host said indignantly: ‘No, the Albanian does not want money but friends.’ And Byron remained a true friend of the Albanians.
Our host loaded the table with food, as is the custom of the people of Dibra. The General rose to his knees, put his hand on his heart to express thanks whenever his host offered him cigarettes, or clinked glasses with him. Our weariness disappeared immediately. The General opened his eyes in astonishment and asked me: ‘I cannot understand where we are here, in the city or in the countryside?’
‘We’re in a village, the inhabitants of which have fought for freedom since ancient times. They are poor, but when friends and comrades come they do everything possible to avoid being disgraced. This is how our whole people preserve the traditions of our ancestors, General,’ I told him.
‘What an astonishing culture you have! What politeness!’ exclaimed the General.
Nicholls’ version is, ahem, slightly different.
Kostenje, Refek told us, couldn’t be reached by car so I’ll be walking there soon. Instead, the next day we visited Orenje, which I’ll post about next time…