Which U.S President has achieved idol status in Albania? If you guessed Abraham Lincoln, you’re way off. The answer is George Bush.
On our way to Kruja (pronounced Crew ya and it means “water source”) Castle last May, Ruth & I drove slowly through the town of Fusche Kruje, which has an impressive 9+ feet tall statue of Bush in its main square. Downtown shops still sell George and Laura souvenirs. When he became the first U. S. President to visit Albania in 2007, Bush won hearts when he promoted investment in Albania and said that he was with them in their efforts to win independence for Kosovo, home to many ethnic Albanians.
Kruja Castle is about 30 miles north of Albania’s capital, Tirana, and an especially popular tourist destination for Albanians. The town of Kruja below what used to be a real castle was far larger than I expected and in serious mountains, an extension of The Alps. A fortress has stood on a rocky outcropping above Kruja since about the 5th century, but the castle wasn’t completed until the 12th century. It didn’t become a national landmark until the 15th century when Skanderbeg was in residence.
As I’ve written before, Skanderbeg is Albania’s national hero. Son of an Albanian prince, he became a Turkish hostage early in life and converted to Islam. When the Turks were defeated in a 1443 battle, Skanderbeg left the Ottoman army and went home to Kruja, where he turned Albanians against them. He made his hometown the seat of government, so the Turks tried to take Kruja 4 times with Skanderbeg winning almost every battle and beating them back until 1478. By that year Skanderbeg had died and, even though the Turks took control of his country, they didn’t conquer Europe because he had successfully stalled their advance. Where his castle once stood is a hero-worshipping museum that opened in 1982. Lonely Planet calls it “something of a secular shrine”. Below what used to be a castle are some twisty medieval streets full of shops selling all kinds of Albanian crafts–folk costumes, filigree jewelry, embroidery, flags, antiques, etc. It’s a lively, crowded bazaar.
The most interesting attraction on the mountain now is an ethnographic museum that is actually a house. It was the Ottoman home of the well-off Toptani family until they moved to Tirana in 1820. Another family moved in, and it was a residence preserving 18th century frescoes and the Ottoman lifestyle until 1989. This wasn’t just a dwelling. It was a self-sufficent mini-town with an iron workshop, a one-room felt hat factory, an olive oil press, a Turkish bath and watermill, etc. All is well-preserved.
Traveling around Albania is a surreal experience. Where else in the world are you expected to pay tribute to George Bush, a hero named Skanderbeg, and Mother Teresa?