My wife and I had anticipated visiting the city of Burrel for several years. However, that day came and went in March, though not as we would have wanted it! Her grandmother’s passing away (which helped raise her for several years during childhood) turned our trip there into a family obligation.
Though the timing was out of our control, the event meant that our trip to Burrel, and then to her grandmothers village, would have to be a quick and emotional one. For me, the important thing was to help support my wife as she was very fond of her grandmother, an old lady who I learned was much loved by many other people as well.
The road trip from Tirana to Burrel
The beautiful city of Burrel is only about 36 kilometers (according to locals) on an aerial line from Tirana, however the road that leads you there is about 90 kilometers and the travel time by car is about two hours. The trip is a short one and the road is generally good all the way with beautiful scenery that can be enjoyed at its best during spring. The first 50 kilometers are on the major northern highway, thus smooth and relatively quick, but then you have to leave the national highway and go into the main winding road through the mountains and beautiful scenery, which can easily take you an extra hour to destination.
Burrel and its surroundings are probably best known as the birthplace of the Albanian self-proclaimed King Zog I. He was born and raised just a few kilometers from the city of Burrel and from there he made his journey to the heart of Albania (Tirana) where he came to establish his government and then later proclaim himself King of the Albanians.
“Burrel used to be a miners’ town during Communist Albania, but the mines are currently closed now, with the exception of a ferrochrome plant is still working near Burrel. During the Kosovo conflict there was a refugee camp near Burrel for 2000 people. The city used to be the site of one of the most terrible prisons of the communist regime, where both ordinary criminals and political prisoners such as Bashkim Shehu and Fatos Lubonja or the Catholic priest Dom Simon Jubani were held. Another famous inmate was Pjetër Arbnori, later to become a member of the free Albanian Parliament.” (source Wikipedia)
The city of Burrel
The city is mostly empty, due to major migration of its about 15,500 inhabitants. To my surprise, when we arrived there during midday, there were a lot of people (majority men) in the main square just standing around in groups chatting and doing nothing. Yes, I repeat, chatting and doing nothing and taking it easy as if time did not exist! But then it donned on me, as that explains why coffee places in Tirana are full of people, drinking coffee and doing nothing for most of the day. I’ve come to realize that especially in suburban areas and remote cities of Albania people are still used to the days under communism where the government provided you with a job and sufficient income. Then the rest of the time you were free! But, now there is also the obvious fact that there is a major lack of employments due to the destruction of all major industries which supported and provided employment for a large number of people in these districts.
Another apparent fact was the considerable number of empty buildings and houses. Since early 90’ the population had either migrated abroad or toward major cities like Tirana and Durres. Even those that remained were faced with high unemployment and even farming was largely abandoned as people went to search for better employment options.
The future for the city and its people seemed dim. Unless private enterprises could invest and expand the people were left with little other options. Even the national major roadway that was supposed to was supposed to come closer to the town would not be directly in its path, indicating that even the government did not see much interest in creating greater access for these people.
Trip to the remote village of Urëzallë
The village was called “Urëzallë”, which seems a common joining of the words “urë” – bridge and “zallë” – gravell, thus a possible translation would be gravel-bridge.
We were told that the distance from the city of Burrel to the village was about 16 kilometers. The road there was half paved and the other half unpaved which made for a very dangerous and scary drive. Most people would travel by “furgon” early in the morning but we arrived late so were forced to seek a taxi. To our luck or lack of .. the drive was a crazy one. Most “furgon” drivers needed about 1 hour to drive from the city center to this remote village. Our driver made it in half that time. I realized that rally drivers in Albania were real and my wife and I were driving with one of the wilder ones.
The funeral up in the mountain
This was my first time ever to witness a traditional funeral event in a remote village in Albania. Though I was familiar with most of the traditional aspects of this type of event, nevertheless
- the number of people,
- the actual organization and
- way that it was done
was of real curiosity to me.
When we arrived at the village, there were already a lot of people waiting in the field outside of the house. As per patriarchal custom the men were all gathered into one location and the women in another. The women were standing in a big circle around the deceased weeping and lamenting in their unique traditional chants, which to me have always seemed spooky to say the least. But this was a real funeral and the feelings of people were very much real. Though the women tended to express it much more than did the men.
Without realizing it at first the whole venue was located on top of a plateau near the top of one the hills overlooking the beautiful and very spacious valley. I was so tempted to take a bunch of pictures and try to moralize every moment on camera but using a photographic camera would have been insulting to the people and at least embarrassing to me and those who knew me.
The trip back was rather slow and tiresome after an, otherwise, emotional day!