From Uvil Zajmi
Memorie.al / Designed in the middle of a small forest with plain relief, surrounded by greenery, it used to be the villa of Count Ciano, Italian Foreign Minister and, at the same time, son-in-law of the Duchess, Benito Mussolini. It was he who designed and built it in 1939. With the idea of a hunting hotel, it is a complex located only 2 km. away from the city, in the area known by the historical name, Lezha Island, although it is not an island! With the former structure, it is the same one-story building, that hall, the rooms with the numbers on them, that narrow corridor, that parquet, everything made of perennial boards, characteristic of that hotel, as well as the extraordinary nature that surrounds it.
Nearby, the husband and wife, Marie and Martin Luca, live, who were eyewitnesses to what they saw and experienced up close and which they keep in their memory down to the last detail. In some cases they prefer confidentiality, although they do not hesitate to tell how they served Enver Hoxha, how the hotel worked, favorite customers, from Ismail Kadareja to Nexhmije Pagarusha, famous actors and the surprise visit of Jozef Strauss, the former prime minister of Bavaria.
“We served as sportsmen, bartenders, waiters; we managed the hotel together with my husband, until he was dissolved, after 1997, almost 30 years without moving. It was the most beautiful period of our life. Connected, happy, we also raised our children here”, begins her story, Maria, a very smart and reserved woman.
Ms. Marie, when did you first start working here?
I started here around 1960, when we were not even 17-18 years old. The island of Lezha that of Shengjin, were villages in better economic condition. They had meat, fish, hunting, livestock, and fertile land. They say that, a long time ago, there was a small island that was washed by the sea, small rivers, that’s why it got this name. While the “Hunting” hotel was built and served mainly for hunters.
Do you remember the hotel from those years?
Of course. A one-story building, there were 20 rooms, two of which were used as waiting rooms. The hotel and restaurant also operated in those years, but with intermittent periods, it depended on who came, government officials or the Directorate of Reception of Tirana. They stayed for a day or two. There were no cooks or regular staff. After 1965, a better organization began.
What was inherited from Count Chiano’s hotel?
The way to the hotel was made by Count Ciano. Then the room with the hearth, the bust, the couple, various items of his, have been there for a long time. Then they were kidnapped and who knows where they ended up. In the same way, the beautiful lampshades of great value were taken by the Central House of the Army in Tirana, because at that time it was in administration. Later, the hotel was included as a government residence, alongside the Palace of Brigades and the one in Durrës.
Did you work here, husband and wife?
We got engaged when we were 14 years old and we have been engaged for 4 years, we haven’t seen each other even with pictures. I was in Velipoja, while Martini was in Tepelena, because he had an officer brother there. In 1962, we got married, started working in a hotel, and had two children. We have many friends, former clients, among them Fatos Lubonjen, who spent years here in Lezhë.
We are 75 years old; together with the memories we have “inherited” a single painting with a view of the hotel. We have spent a lifetime here, day and night. We stayed there more than at home. We served everyone. It was the only hotel in those years, whether or not Lezha had a small hotel. When they went to Shkodër for services or returned to Tirana, since we lived nearby, they often called us after midnight, we waited for them, they made them something to eat and sleep.
Tell us a little about the job, who have been your superiors and colleagues over the years?
From H. Lami, B. Hoxha, A. Meksi, Naim Reçi, Viktor Luca, Jak Simoni, among them a woman, Sofjana Resuli. I know that Victor is in America, but I have no information about the others, whether they are alive or not. As for the personnel who served, among them I remember Aleksandër Pjetrushi, Česk Meksi, A. Lika, P. Toni, Shefqet Arifi, K. Hoxha, A. Vrahja, M. Alcani, there were many. The restaurant has had a chef, Hysen Selmani, who has served for over 20 years. He was exceptional, very clean, kind, and rare in Albania.
How did the hotel work?
The hotel had 20 rooms and a large hall built by Enver Hoxha. The main one was the old one, made by the Italians. There were apartments 1, 2, 3, 4, among which 1 and 2 were kept only for the members of the Political Bureau and the Central Committee and were never used and no one entered them, even I kept their keys. They had double and single beds with white sheets. Then came apartment 3 and 4, with four different rooms
Did Enver Hoxha also come here?
As we have heard, that building was frequented during the War, mainly by Italians, but more during the communist regime, as a favorite area and place for Enver Hoxha. Until the 70s, Enver Hoxha came normally, then occasionally, since he also had Durrës, Vlora and Pogradec.
It is said that he wrote books there, is it true Marie, have you seen this?
I can’t say exactly the books or anything else, but he made congress reports here. I remember one day when I woke up in the morning and when I was bringing her Turkish coffee, she addressed me: “Marie, I had a good sleep”. He sat in the waiting room and wrote…!
Any concerns with the food?
It happened to me when the earthquake hit in 1979, he was going to Shkodër, with other members of the Political Bureau, and they informed us that he would stop at our place. We prepared lunch for him, when in an instant the doctor and his companion, Sulo Gradeci, came to me and said: “Marie, when he has finished the upper part of the fish, you have to take the plate away from him and don’t let him, give him back on the other side.
Do not even give him a drink, but only water because he is on a diet. I was standing behind him shaking. Excuse me, can I have it, I said and reached out, pulling the plate away. He saw me, didn’t say anything and turned to the others: “Don’t say that Enver Hoxha does whatever he wants. Do you see this bride? I would happily eat this fresh sea bass, but she took it away from me”!
Was he aiming for Enver Hoxha and Mehmet Shehu to come together?
In special cases. I don’t forget when they came during the earthquake. The attendant comes first and says: Marie, take care of Mehmet, put him in this room so that he doesn’t sleep with anyone else, he doesn’t want anyone else, while he doesn’t sleep. He was talking about Enver. Years later, Ramiz Alia also came there, when he organized meetings with distinguished employees of the city of Lezha, or the surrounding area.
How much was a night?
A night’s stay in a hotel room cost 30 ALL. Of course, the governors did not pay. Being a branch of Hotel Dajti, financial and administrative relations, including expenses, supplies, were carried out through it and the Reception Department. Especially for the entrances and exits of high officials.
And the artists were they clients of the island?
Everyone liked the hotel, the greenery, the tranquility, the service, especially the artists. From Mentor Xhemali, to Avni Mula, who would bring the fish, then bring them to the hotel and we would cook for them. Nexhmije Pagarusha came with cars from the Delegations Park, some beautiful “Volvos”. Likewise, the State Song and Dance Ensemble have arrived. Here, they sang the rhapsody Dede Nue Lazri, author of the song “Enver Hoxha sharpened the sword” (which is from a village near here), Drane Gega, etc.
What about couples of lovers, did they come?
It was not even thought that couples or lovers would sleep there, since he had a different status and not everyone could settle in the hotel. For lunch and dinner, of course. Mehmet Shehu’s children, Skenderi and Bashkimi, were regular visitors; they came with friends, acquaintances…! Likewise all embassies without exception, or ambassadors who organized New Year’s Eve parties here.
Was there an orchestra to entertain the hosts?
It was the Xhemalja family from Lezha. Rakipi, Keti and Miri, very good musicians. Every night, especially for holidays, in the summer, they performed music of the time, only in the central hall, and then from 1975, a dance floor was built and there was dancing. That period was not affordable; up to 500 people came to us. Ramazani, Beqari, Qemali, were some of the singers from Lezhne who sang there. There were families who came even on foot due to the lack of traffic, because there were only two or three taxis in Lezha in those years. There were not many weddings. I remember only one, when Llesh Rroku, the heart doctor, (Mehemet Shehu’s doctor) got married, where 120 people participated.
What is the history of Chiano window, have you heard about it?
Count Ciano had deliberately made a window in one of the rooms at the back of the hotel, so that he could shoot ducks from there. Even the governors without exception, members of the Political Bureau, all of them when they came, liked to try it. They also went to the villas, one in Kune and the other in Vain, after hunting, resting, sleeping and when they left for Tirana, they came here to drink a coffee. Velipoja also had boar hunting. Usually, before they came to us, they would let us know to take measures and be ready.
I heard movies are also shot here…?
When shooting the movie “Debatik”, the actors slept here for three months. They went to Shkrel, Dedaj, Velipoja, then returned to the hotel. I also remember the film “The Second Subdivision”, or after the 90s, the film “Death of the Horse”, which were shot here. Rajmonda Bulku, Timo Flloko, Bujar Lako, Ndrek Luca, Sandër Prosi and others have been here. Then writers, journalists, from Dritëro Agolli, Vath Korreshi, Niko Nikolla, etc., came here with great pleasure, because we were served very well.
What about the famous writer Ismail Kadare, did he come here?
I remember that, in 1987, when some researchers of the Academy of Sciences were in the hotel. On one of those days, we were informed that Kadareja will come with his wife, Helena. He came with his own car (a white Fiat), which had just been given to him by the state, with a driver. He went down, lit a cigarette, and started walking around the bar, full of greenery. Nikolin Baba, (photographer) an old friend of ours, an employee of the Academy of Sciences, ran to get the camera, but did not make it. That evening, Kadareja settled in Count Ciano’s room, while Nikolini, every time he came to the hotel, years later, always said to me: “Marie, what an opportunity we missed that day, because I didn’t take a picture of Kadareja walking.”? He was held hostage by this thing.
And athletes, did they come here?
Yes, yes, it is also frequented for team gatherings, mainly the national football team. Loro Boriçi, Din Zhega, Astrit Hafizi, etc. have come here. We kept and treated them very well. They are supposed to stay for another month. Even the football club “Besëlidhja” of Lezha came and gathered for several days here, when the team had important matches.
If I’m not mistaken, your hotel also served as quarantine in case of an epidemic, is that true?
It was a big problem when the cholera disease spread in the world. Foreigners who came to Albania with services as soon as they got off the plane were unloaded directly at our hotel. There were cases where they stayed for a month, treating them with the head staff, a nurse who gave those injections, a cook who served them with food, since no one was allowed inside. Together with Dr. Apollon Gjebrean, who translated, (he spoke several languages), we remained isolated for a long time. The Egyptian ambassador was also brought to the hotel. And since you asked me about the quarantine, during the cholera, from Rinas, we brought here three Italian referees, we kept them isolated. Aurelio was the name of one of them. After the 90s, our son, being in Italy, accidentally met this person: “I was in Albania during the cholera epidemic and they sent us to a hotel called ‘La casa di caccia’. I stayed there for several days, without seeing anyone,” the Italian had told him.
Maria, your coffee fame has gone too far…!
Yes (laughs). When the heads of the Party Committees, the Executive Committee, etc., came to me, and there were many of them, I took the orders, asking them how they wanted a coffee with a little or a coffee with a lot of sugar, as is done in such cases. Someone asked me: Marie, how do you remember all the orders? ‘I remember only the main leaders, while I do the same for the others,’ I replied, as it was impossible to remember all the preferences.
Was the hotel damaged during the 1997 riots?
It was a difficult situation. The family members and relatives of the owners stood up and came to the defense of the building, even though the miscreants looted everything, including the currency shop, artistic items inside the hotel, etc. There were even attempts to burn it. Think, if it did happen, what a tragedy it would be. A hotel with a 70-year-old board and the historical value it has, how could it be destroyed, but they couldn’t. Memorie.al