Week 23 – Albania (week 2)

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Deliveroo Albanian style – lamb for lunch I think

In our second and final week in Albania we had without doubt the most challenging drive on the worst road we’ve experienced yet in our five or so months travelling.

But it was also the week we drove through some of the most spectacular scenery we’ve seen on our trip so far.

Our first stop was at this desolate place….

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It’s just outside the town of Elbasan which is known for its home grown tobacco and which is sold in enormous quantities…

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The area of steel mills just outside of town is a now vast wasteland.

Back in the days when the communist dictator Hoxha was cosying up to China after falling out with the Russians, it was called the ‘Steel for the Party’ and the 150 hectare site employed up to 12,000 people.

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But now the communist regime which propped this place up has gone and so are all the factories which have been left derelict.

Driving around this mini town past the skeletons of steel works, it looked like just one or two the units were still operating.

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So that was a gloomy  but weirdly interesting detour before we headed on to another communist regime favourite:

Lake Ohrid:

We had booked into one of the few hotels still standing there after a Government cull of the illegal builds which had sprung up in the immediate aftermath of the 1991 collapse of communism. Some  22 hotels were forcibly demolished to try to restore some planning order to the lakeside area.

We knew we were getting close when we saw the eel sellers by the roadside…

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Looking at these snaps which I took as we trundled by in the van,  it sort of looks like we’ve pulled these lads in to a photographic studio and set them up against a canvas backdrop.

But no, with this deep still lake framed by snow capped mountains Lake Ohrid really is this picturesque.

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Korce:

And on we travelled to Korce with its impressive Orthodox cathedral…

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…and home of this square-jawed hero of the revolution.

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It’s another triumph of the Socialist Realist style of art. Here he is all chiselled features and eyes narrowed with determination to achieve the dictatorship of the proletariat. ‘Just mind the hair comrades.’

A controversial development in the town is the old Ottoman bazaar which is being done up with EU funding. But apparently some 200 or so local traders with stalls that filled the entire bazaar up to recently were cleared out as the city seeks to gentrify it.

There are only a few units filled so far including one called ‘The Beatles’, decorated with many photos of the boys, and this metal working shop which we thought would have some wonderfully, authentic local craft work….

 

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Well maybe some but not all. We were a bit crestfallen when we looked more closely at the miniature metal bucket we bought for the van and found a barcode. Imported from some factory in China maybe? Still, it’s a sale. We were the tourists and that was the tat we were prepared to pay for.

And this co-operative cafe in the bazaar was also up and running and served good coffee …

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and we met Gloria who works there. 

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She told us they would be serving traditional Albanian food that evening as there was going to be a public concert in the bazaar. We learned later the festivities were to mark the 1st. of March as the start of Lent for the Orthodox church and a week later for Muslims. (The religious tolerance in Albania where 70% of the population and 20% is impressive from what we’ve seen.)

We came back to the Ottoman Bazaar that evening with Korce locals Miri and his wife Elma…(introduced to us by Dorina who we met in Tirana).

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..who joined us for dinner which was a hearty and very flavoursome lamb stew and a corn bread side dish.

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Then it was time for the party in the square which attracted a good crowd for the traditional Albanian singing and dancing .

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Korce likes a party we heard and (memo to selves), we decided we would come back one day  for the Korce annual beer festival. Stuart is now a fan of Korce  Black – a new star in his Beer Gallery.

The Korce party  had also attracted a group of Greek motorhomers as we found next day when we travelled into the countryside to the village of Voskopoja.

We hadn’t seen any other motorhomers in Albania, then five come all at once..

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Voscopoja

This small village registers on the tourist map because it used to be a key commercial trading centre in the Ottoman Empire. It is also famous for its orthodox churches – though only a few still left standing. There is no UNESCO protection for conservation of the sites here and chatting to Rafail here…

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..it sounds like it is a struggle to ensure what’s left will be preserved.

He lives in the village and works as a private guide. He approached us as we parked up which was lucky because without him we wouldn’t have been able to see inside one of the only orthodox churches from the Ottoman period still intact.

It was all locked up and the priest was away, but Rafail was able to track down the priest’s wife who unlocked the church  for us so he could show us around.

We weren’t allowed take any photos inside but at least the frescoes were in better shape than these grafitti-covered ones outside.

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Graffiti on the frescoes outside the church

And Rafail also introduced us to Lola …

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..who was extremely hospitable and was very proud of her hotel. We weren’t staying in the village but she was very keen to show me around all the rooms.

Here’s the cozy lounge area……

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Cheers Lola! One glass of raki is all it costs for some free publicity in this blog…

The worst road journey ever….I mean ever:

Some of the roads in Albania have been pretty bad but the one we had to take to get to Farmasotira, an agri-business offering tourist accommodation in the south of Albania, was unbelievably bad. The heavy rain made conditions even harder.

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The road was made up of a series of steep, narrow hairpin bends, made worse because of the potholes and mud slides.

And the photo above shows a section where the tarmac had disappeared..

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..it had slipped 10 feet down the slope.

We were  mighty mighty relieved to finally get to the idyllic setting of Farmasotira just as it was getting dark.

In the morning sunshine we could see the place properly. It’s a unique tourism set up in Albania, we gathered from Nida, who has been building it up brick by brick over the last 18 years with her farmer husband.

So in addition to their business as farmers of cattle..

..and fish…this is their trout farm

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…they offer accommodation in these cosy wooden chalet-style bungalows..

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Here’s Nida.

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We didn’t meet her husband but we tasted (and bought) some of the excellent Merlot he makes. And they offer really good home cooked food in the farmhouse restaurant. Our dinner the night when we arrived was lamb slowly roasted served with tzatsiki and salad and was most welcome after the awful journey there.

It was a great location and imagine it would be a great spot in the summer to go hiking in the nearby hills or maybe just sit in the sunshine and just look at them.

The countryside nearby is spectacular too. We reckon the route that took us from Farmasotira in the east cross country and up to Tepelene pass the snowcapped Gramos mountains which ran like a high wall alongside us for long stretches of the way was some of the most amazing vistas we have seen on this trip so far.

 

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And on to the tourist magnet of Berat:

We’d been saying how some of the towns we passed through in Albania had the feel of Morocco to them what with the markets and the continuous hustle and bustle of people.

The roads certainly reminded us of Morocco as we were sharing them not only with cars (mostly Mercedes seemingly without indicators) but with carts and donkeys.

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And like Morocco we regularly passed by roadside sellers offering dates, bread, olives and olive oil.

But unlike Morocco where we managed to pick up a speeding fine the police here always wave us through with their green lollipop stick. Is there is a blanket pass for tourists? It seemed so because the police are absolutely everywhere, continually pulling people over to check documents.

The comparison with Morocco continued at the tourist magnet and Unesco Heritage town of Berat.

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The town is famous for its white Ottoman era houses.

We walked up the steep hill to Berat castle and within minutes had attracted an unofficial ‘guide’ Vasil….

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..who ambled alongside us helpfully pointing out in a mix of English, Albanian and Italian the main sights and, his particular fixation, exactly where we should stand to take the best photos. And he was as dogged as any wedding photographer in making us to pose amidst all the antiquities while he – having grabbed Stuart’s camera – shinned up masts..

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…and clambered along high walls..

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to get photos like this…

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Believe me if we could have wrestled the camera back off him to stop him climbing up where there was a sheer drop the other side, we would have done it. But Vasil was a man with a mission which if I understood him correctly was to earn enough to emigrate to Greece.

 

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Before leaving Berat we had a wander through the Saturday morning flea market…

 

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We know for sure this little lamb is heading for the oven because Stuart asked in the international language of mime i.e. questioning look whilst moving hand across throat in razor cutting action and got a happy grin and nod in response.

Our lunch was more instant.. cheese and figs from the market stall…

 

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..and back in the town byrek from the bakery. That’s  pastry filled with cheese or spinach..

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..which is a handy snack to eat on the go.

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We left Berat after a stint watching an intensely competitive dominoes match between the local old boys.

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We were off to visit the Roman city of Appollonia which was in the UK newspapers recently with reports of a successful raid by Albanian police on smugglers trying to export over 200 artefacts from the site.

We passed more of Hoxha’s bunkers on the way. We’d passed plenty on the roads already…and some like this one near Lake Ohrid have been jazzed up.

 

 

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But they are so heavy and most are too expensive to move so they are likely to just stay there, reminding Albanians of a terrible period in their history when Hoxha isolated the country from the world.

We went in for a closer look..

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You get the idea of the kind of character Hoxha was from a story in the website Atlas Obscura. Apparently the prototype for the bunkers  was built in the 1950s and the chief engineer assured Hoxha that it could withstand a full assault from a tank. Hoxha decided to test it with the engineer inside.

Vlore – the city with a place in history:

Vlore has a  big place in Albania’s history as it was where a group of partisans declared independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912.

That explains this statue we saw on the way into town.

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But at the Muzeu Kombetar which is the actual house where the declaration was made, I was probably more interested in hearing from Albiona (named because her Dad is crazy about English football) about the town’s more recent history.

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Albiona

 

Albiona was a teenager when Albania descended into anarchy in mid-1990’s after the collapse of corrupt and fraudulent pyramid schemes which saw huge numbers of people lose their entire life savings.

She recalls that even her own family had to have a kalishnakov rifle at home to protect themselves from intruders. To be fair, kalishakovs were going very cheap at the time as all of Hoxha’s arms magazines had been plundered after the fall of Communism. And she talked to me too of the tragedy that hit her family in 1997 when her cousin, his wife and their one-year old son drowned with the ‘Otranto’ ship carrying Albanians trying to escape to Italy was hit by accident by an Italian naval vessel.

And life now? Law and order has been restored but Albiona echoes many of the people we have spoken to during our visit here that life is very hard and many are still looking for a way out of the country to make a future for themselves.

And our last stop in our travels round Albania took us the other tourist magnet, aside from Berat, that of Gjirokaster. Here’s the view from the castle which was worth going to see though I have to admit by this stage, I was starting to feel castled-out and ready for a change.

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After two weeks we are now looking forward to getting back to the van properly. We couldn’t find any open campsites in Albania and didn’t feel confident about wild camping.

So apart from Farmasotira we’ve stayed in hotels the whole time. Most have been really excellent and a very high standard as well as being very reasonably priced. Actually all have been good quality apart from the one we stayed at in Tepelena which was shitet.

Eh no, that’s not a typo – as Dave commented on last week’s blog – shitet that means ‘for sale.’

Here’s the one we stayed in:

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Inside was everything you’d expect from a communist regime hotel complete with institutional corridor..

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..lumpy mattress and dodgy plumbing.

Today we head for the Greek border and hopefully to find some open campsites.

We’ve loved our time in Albania and especially enjoyed meeting people like Ani, Dorina, Miri and Elma. Now it’s time for country number 7.

PS So Mount Etna has recently erupted after Stuart and Callum went skiing on her. Coincidence? Hmm.

Week 22 – Albania (week 1)

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We’ve had one week in Albania so far and maybe it’s the effect of Lola’s plum raki but I’m feeling a bit misty-eyed at just how warm and welcoming the people here have been to us.

We have met so many thoughtful, kind, educated, well informed, hard working people, all trying to build a future for themselves and their families. But it seems that widespread corruption and political game playing by many of the same faces in power under the Communist regime means that life in Albania is still hugely difficult for all but the very rich…..and we’ve already seen quite a few of those gliding by in blacked out top of the range cars.

 

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Seeing the shiny AMG 6.3 litre twin turbo Mercedes parked up beside us while we had a coffee in Durres, it was hard not to wonder if the two young men in shades and leather jackets were players in the biggest news story in Albania right now – the massive production of cannabis. Apparently, some of the plantations dotted all over the country can be seen on Google earth yet somehow still manage to escape detection by the police or the politicians…..unless the TV cameras are around of course.

Our week here started with:

Van Trouble:

Within minutes of disembarking from the ship at Durres, one of the pipes to the van radiator started leaking.  We managed to get to the hotel we’d booked on the seafront before the temperature gauge went off the scale.

Stuart headed off into town to find a mechanic and did what you learn at your mother’s knee when in trouble in a strange place – ask a policeman. Luckily the officer just happened to be in mid-conversation with Renato, a local mechanic who fixed the leak and then insisted on buying us coffee –  our first taste of Albanian hospitality.

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Durres itself is a busy seaside resort. Here’s the view from our hotel. (We couldn’t find any open campsites on Albania).

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The town is creaking with history – much to the inconvenience of developers who want to build shiny skyscrapers on top of newly discovered Byzantine walls.

This site is at the centre of controversy as building works have been halted just now while the conservationists do their best to preserve the ruins.

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At first glance we thought this place was a historic site too, a Roman temple perhaps?

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Eh no. It’s a primary and high school and was built just three years ago. Most of the staff are recruited from the US so all teaching is in English. But only the privileged few can afford to send their children here.

Durres was also a good base for a day trip to the Karavastja Lagoons –  a popular destination for British birdwatchers apparently.

We headed across the hard sand beach…

 

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and got to the lagoon…

 

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It was just us two..

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..and this old boy making something we couldn’t work out…

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..and this buffalo cow – at least we think it might be one. Apparently the lagoons are known for them.

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But the dalmatian pelicans were too far away to see, even with Stuart’s new zoom lens…

Still it was worth going to the lagoons as we saw some of rural Albania on the drive there and back. We went through the small town of Divijaka…

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….which was pretty colourful…

Albania’s current PM Edi Rama when Mayor of Tirana orchestrated a programme to repaint the old grey communist era blocks of flats in bright colours. (He gives a good TED talk about this). Maybe this was part of the same programme?

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And in the countryside, there were some traditional houses still to be seen……

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…but mostly new builds like this dotted everywhere.

 

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And in our first venture into the countryside, we saw some serious litter. Piles and piles of rubbish on the grass verges, plastic bags caught on the hedgerows.

Lunch at the lagoon was this dish of fresh fish.

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Back in Durres, we had another great experience of Albanian hospitality.

We met Ani  for coffee and a chat, taking time to meet us despite the fact she was having to dash off afterwards to sit an exam for the university course she is taking in public relations.

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We were put in touch with Ani by our Kosovan friend Danny who is based in London. He’s been the networking king for this trip, setting us up with people to meet and suggesting places we should see. (Thanks Danny – we owe you a pint!)

Before leaving Durres we had to visit  the pink villa once owned by the best named king ever – King Zog.

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The palace was ransacked during riots in 1997 but it was still worth a trip up to see the views over the city.

The steep hill down was pretty hairy.

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Tirana time:

Tirana has changed incredibly since the fall of communism in 1991.

Under Enver Hoxha, the paranoid and psychotic dictator, who kept Albania in political and cultural isolation for 41 years, only the elite could live in the capital and only communist party officials had cars. Now it’s population has increased 5 times to over 1 million plus….

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Here’s a youthful looking Uncle Enver as he liked to be called.

If driving in Morocco was a challenge, well at least there were donkeys and carts in the mix to slow things down. Here, it’s like wacky races. Luckily Stuart is rising to the challenge.

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We have also been enjoying the surprised expressions on the faces of pedestrians when we pull up at the zebra crossing to let them cross. In Tirana the technique for crossing the street, pedestrian crossing or not, is to take a deep breath and go for it trusting that the driver values his bumper more than you. We learned how by watching Dorina, a lawyer who not only works in the city, but is brave enough to cycle around it.

Dorina is another contact of Danny’s (and btw is Ani’s sister-in-law) and she took us to a French cafe in the Block area, once forbidden to anyone but Communist party officials and now the trendiest buzziest part of the city.

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And by coincidence, while we hadn’t managed to see inside King Zog’s villa in Durres, we got the next best thing.

Three years ago Dorina got married in Durres and she and her new husband managed to blag past the security guard to have some wedding photos taken inside the villa.

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Communist history:

We wanted to know more about Albania’s communist history and so headed to BunkArt2 – part museum and part art installation.

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It is located in an ex-nuclear bunker, intended to shelter Hoxha and his ministers but never used…

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It was hugely interesting and informative but eerie and depressing at the same time. We were glad to get out.

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We headed straight to a bar in the Block for a drink and to be among shiny happy people.

Loud music was playing and a good song came on. We asked the waitress what it was called so we could download it later. ‘Hang on I will shazam it’ and off she went with her mobile to identify the tune for us.  The contrast with what we had just seen in BunkArt 2 about life for Albanians under Hoxha was staggering. Firstly we were sitting drinking in an area of the city once reserved only for the Communist elite. It was not even marked on the city map so not only were ordinary Albanians forbidden to enter the Block, they didn’t know where it was.

Second, the waitress had a mobile like practically everyone in Albania now. Under the Hoxha communist regime up to the 1990s only senior party officials were even allowed had a land line. If you were caught trying to pick up radio signals from across the border in Italy or Yugoslavia, you faced prison for sure but your extended family would also be punished with prison or labour camp.

And then there was the music being played in the bar – it was a catchy euro pop number. For the music geeks – that’s you Steve! – the song was ‘Ecoutez, Repetez by Touch & Go. Under Hoxha’s regime, any musician whose songs revealed any traces of Western pop influence went to prison.

Then there were the horrors of how Hoxha kept Albania isolated from the world, like:

– the border guards – supported by trained dogs – who operated a shoot to kill policy to stop any Albanians trying to escape to freedom..

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Art installation commemorating the many thousands killed trying to cross the barbed wire fence which marked Albania’s borders

..the continual surveillance over the population by the feared Sigurimi secret police….

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aided by a network of volunteer spies. It was said one in every three was a spy

—bunkerisation – Hoxha’s crazed paranoia about possible invasion by the US or USSR which led to the proposed construction of 700,000 bunkers throughout the country where individual families and military had to go in case of an invasion by unnamed enemies…(less than 200,000 were actually built)

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The only Western films Albanians saw were those starring Norman Wisdom (seriously!) and in art the only style permitted was Socialist Realist.

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like these square jawed heroes depicted in paintings in Tirana’s art gallery

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But this Socialist Realist painting of Hoxha resulted in a prison sentence for the artist. Why?

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…because he made the mistake of painting it so the artist was sitting down while the great leader was standing.
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To learn more, we booked some time with Gjergji of Albanian Trip.

He showed us memorabilia collected from the communist era

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It was fascinating to hear his own experiences of life under communism. He remembers as a young school boy being brought to pay respects after Hoxha’s death in 1985. Like these school girls,   it was eminently sensible to look as distraught as possible at the passing of Uncle Enver….

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He also remembers the excitement when the first nine storey building was constructed  in Tirana after the fall of communism…

It was the first to have a lift so he and his school friends travelled across town to try it out.

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Nine stories was a big deal because under  the communist regime, all blocks of flats were the same – five storeys and no higher.

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And inside, everyone had exactly the same furniture. Here we are in a reconstruction of a typical Communist flat sitting room in BunkArt1 …

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So the Tirana we enjoyed this week was vastly different to the bleak city of less than 30 years ago. We found it to be a buzzing, lively place, with great bars, cafes and restaurants.

We saw some of the blocks which been repainted in bright colours…

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…and more modern architecture. Getting closer to it seemed like a good photo opportunity..

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Though it did look a bit odd to the lady with her shopping coming up behind me. Was I ok, she wanted to know, as she saw me pinned to the glass. I had to lead her round the glass box and introduce her to the photographer to reassure her I wasn’t unhinged.

Now with more money sloshing about (though it seems not yet reaching the vast majority of ordinary workers), the main plaza Skanderbeg Square is undergoing massive reconstruction. Here’s Stuart trying to persuade the security guard to let him have a closer look and find out where the trees being planted there come from (you can the man out of forestry but etc etc).

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But it was near this empty street that we thought we were seeing the clearest sign of the seismic change in Albania post-communism. See — see this empty street where this couple were taking the opportunity to get some really unique photos for their wedding album?

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It is currently cordoned off to cars because the opposition party have erected a protest tent right…

..here’s the opposition leader Lulzim Basha in full flow..

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You didn’t need to know any Albanian to make out the words ‘Rama’, ’cannabis’ and ‘crimininal’

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Wow we thought – just 30 years ago, you would be sent to prison for 10 years for complaining about the quality of a tomato. And here we are seeing a public protest right next to the prime minister’s office!

Well that was us being naive. It turns out  Basha’s  tent is all part of the continuing political game between the democrats and the socialists. Expect more of the same as the general elections in June get closer.

We have a second week here in Albania before we must leave for Greece and we plan to visit much of the more rural areas across this fascinating country.