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.
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:
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.
Durres itself is a busy seaside resort. Here’s the view from our hotel. (We couldn’t find any open campsites on Albania).
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.
At first glance we thought this place was a historic site too, a Roman temple perhaps?
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…
and got to the lagoon…
It was just us two..
..and this old boy making something we couldn’t work out…
..and this buffalo cow – at least we think it might be one. Apparently the lagoons are known for them.
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…
….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?
And in the countryside, there were some traditional houses still to be seen……
…but mostly new builds like this dotted everywhere.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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….
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.
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.
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.
We wanted to know more about Albania’s communist history and so headed to BunkArt2 – part museum and part art installation.
It is located in an ex-nuclear bunker, intended to shelter Hoxha and his ministers but never used…
It was hugely interesting and informative but eerie and depressing at the same time. We were glad to get out.
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..
..the continual surveillance over the population by the feared Sigurimi secret police….
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)
The only Western films Albanians saw were those starring Norman Wisdom (seriously!) and in art the only style permitted was Socialist Realist.
like these square jawed heroes depicted in paintings in Tirana’s art gallery
But this Socialist Realist painting of Hoxha resulted in a prison sentence for the artist. Why?
…because he made the mistake of painting it so the artist was sitting down while the great leader was standing.
To learn more, we booked some time with Gjergji of Albanian Trip.
He showed us memorabilia collected from the communist era
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….
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.
Nine stories was a big deal because under the communist regime, all blocks of flats were the same – five storeys and no higher.
And inside, everyone had exactly the same furniture. Here we are in a reconstruction of a typical Communist flat sitting room in BunkArt1 …
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…
…and more modern architecture. Getting closer to it seemed like a good photo opportunity..
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).
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?
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..
You didn’t need to know any Albanian to make out the words ‘Rama’, ’cannabis’ and ‘crimininal’
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.