In 1979, when I back-packed around Europe, Albania was strictly off-limits. Its Communist regime, considered the most radical of all governments, closed its borders, imprisoned its citizens and deterred any foreign contaminants, including tourists. Those few who were permitted to enter underwent rigid border controls to ensure no improper looking visitors might corrupt the locals. Men were required to have short hair, no facial hair and no sideburns. Women could not dress in mini-skirts or maxi-dresses; even the hijab and abaya were banned in this country where half the population was Muslim. For those foreigners who failed to pass muster, there were barbershops and clothing stores at the border from which a suitable haircut could be had and appropriate dress could be bought.
I encountered no such scrutiny. As my bus from Kotor, Montenegro approached the border, the conductor (all Balkan buses have both a driver and conductor) gathered everyone’s passport and, once at the border, he hopped off and went inside a booth. We sat inside the bus for about 20 minutes, he returned and the bus resumed its journey, with the conductor handing the stack of passports to the first passenger, who took hers and handed the stack back to the next person. That was it; welcome to Albania, without so much as a glance or scowl in my direction from the once most feared border guards in Europe.
Tirana, First Impressions:
As soon as we neared the capital city, Tirana, traffic became increasingly worse, until only turtles proceeded slower on the overcrowded main road. This was not surprising. Tirana’s road system was built when the city had less than 200,000 people and none were expected, or allowed, to own cars, save for the chauffeurs of a few party officials. Today, Tirana has close to 1 million inhabitants, many of whom drive cars which would not have passed a safety test in Canada.
The bus drew into a large parking lot which doubled as the international bus terminal. As was becoming the norm, the instant I stepped off the bus, I was singled out as a foreigner by a dozen taxi drivers, all eager to take me wherever I wanted to go. This happened in every bus station in the Balkans and never ceased to amaze me. I understand in Africa or South America or India where my clothes and skin colour make me stand out, but why in the Balkans before I open my mouth to reveal my lack of local language skills or retrieve my obvious non-Balkan suitcase (Samsonite, which are for sale in the Balkans, but are too expensive for the average person) am I so easily marked as a tourist?
Perhaps it is a necessary survival skill learned by taxi drivers in lieu of learning how to drive, since none of the taxi drivers I used exhibited any knowledge of the latter. I learned later that one of the consequences of the populace not being allowed to own cars until the fall of communism in 1991 was that no one knew how to drive. It took the new government a few years to institute a system of licensing drivers and, to this day, I doubt that driving lessons or passing a driving test are prerequisites to obtaining a license. The drivers were uniformly aggressive, ignored lanes, lights, pedestrians and anything else that hindered their single minded goal of getting to their destination as fast as possible. Three Canadian girls from northern Ontario whom I later met were driving through the country and confirmed the hazardous nature of being on the roads all over Albania.
In this poorest country in Europe, I chose to stay (yes, I am slightly embarrassed) in the Hilton. By way of explanation, it was only a year old and must have been struggling with occupancy as it was offering rooms for $50 a night. At that price, I upgraded and took a king room with a balcony at roughly the same cost a hostel bed goes for in Amsterdam or Paris. Clean, modern, with English speaking staff, it was hosting a conference of Israelis, who also seemed to be the only other guests there. A pleasant 30 minute walk down a river path took me to the city centre
History of Albania:
It was a relief, after 5 weeks in the Balkans, to not be in a country that was part of the former Yugoslavia, with all the conflicts created in its breakup, but the history of Albania is even more frightening.
Three to four thousand years ago, two tribes, the Hellenes and the Illyrians made their way to the region, The Hellenes settled in Greece; the Illyrians in the Balkans. A busy area in antiquity, Albania was visited, not always peacefully, by Greeks, Romans and the Byzantines, all of whom left their mark. The southern area was generally associated with the East and Byzantine empires while the north was more influenced by the Holy Roman Empire. In the 7th century, Slavs from the Russian steppes invaded and settled the area, reducing the influence of Rome, while in the south, the Sicilian Normans battled the Byzantine empire. Whether the Albanians are descendants from the Illyrians or Slavic is open to debate; what is certain is that the Albanian language, Shqip, is one of the oldest languages still in use and unlike any other.
Albania was predominantly Orthodox Christian after the Slavs settled in the region. Albania first emerged as a distinct entity in the 10th century, but remained part of Byzantium until captured, at various times and in different areas, in the ensuing centuries by Bulgarians, Venetians and the Serbian Kingdom. When the Ottomans subdued Serbia in the 15th century, they also became the overlord of Albania, converting many native Albanians to Islam and settling other Muslims in the region. The greatest Albanian warrior, Skanderbeg, rebelled against the Ottomans beginning in 1443, enjoying numerous victories and earning Albania de facto independence. Upon his death, the Ottomans reasserted their authority over Albania.
The 19th century was marked by frequent Albanian rebellions against their Ottoman authorities, with independence finally achieved in 1912 following the Balkan Wars. WW1 saw the population’s support split along religious grounds, with the Muslims supporting the Axis powers and Ottomans and the Christians rallying to the Allies’ cause. Italy overran most of the territory with Serbia also occupying part of it. Despite secret deals and backroom shenanigans by the victors about how to divide Albania, it managed to emerge after WW1 as a single, independent entity although internal politics were chaotic.
In 1939, fascist Italy invaded and occupied Albania. When Italy surrendered to the Allies in 1943, Germany took over. Tirana was liberated by its partisans in 1944, led by the communists and its leader, Enver Hoxha. A side note, Albania was the only continental European country in which the Jewish population increased during WW2 as the Albanians refused to participate in the deportation of Jews. Many Jews made their way to the country as a place of refuge, but there are very few left today.
The Communist Period: 1944 to 1991
Hoxha quickly set himself up as dictator, executing political enemies, stifling the media and rounding up intellectuals. Estimates for the number of people killed vary between 5,000 and 25,000. In 1945, elections were held with all the candidates nominated from the Democratic Front (Communist) party. Guess who won?
Hoxha hugely admired Joseph Stalin. His short-lived alliance with Tito in neighboring Yugoslavia fell apart in 1948 when Hoxha accused Tito of being too liberal. Relations with the USSR broke off in 1961, following Stalin’s death and Khrushchev’s ascendancy, for “not being enough like Stalin.” Hoxha, needing foreign aid, wooed China, which wanted a foothold in Europe and Albania was the best it could do. However, Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 infuriated Hoxha, who again broke off relations with China, lost all sources of foreign funds and plunged his country into a terrible economic crisis.
Hoxha decreed that Albania would be entirely self-sufficient, importing very little, but exporting natural resources and electricity. Rationing, everything from food to cars to electricity, was pervasive. No one was allowed to own private property; farms were collectivized, full employment was guaranteed. People were hungry, clothing was mundane, productivity sank and things we take for granted, like banks, credit cards, insurance, were unknown to the populace.
Differences were not allowed. Ethnic Greeks suffered discrimination and could not be educated in Greek. When ethnic Albanians fled Kosovo to Albania, they were returned for fear they would pollute the country with western ideas. Religion was banned; Hoxha proudly proclaiming Albania to be the first atheist country. Mosques and churches were demolished; some priests burned or otherwise executed. Even today, the country remains fairly non-observant. Although 50% of the population is Muslim, 90% of those are non-practicing.
One of my guides told me the story of the symbols of the fall of communism. The first companies into Albania were Coca Cola and Mercedes Benz. The red Coca Cola logo became synonymous with capitalism. Mercedes was quick in because the Communist rulers all had Mercedes cars and, even today, a large number of vehicles are Mercedes, albeit 20-30 years old. But the biggest emblem of freedom from Hoxha is the banana. As the climate of Albania does not support banana trees, none were grown in, or imported to, Albania, until after 1991. An entire generation grew up not knowing what a banana looked like or how one tasted. Today, the supermarkets and fruit stalls all sell bananas in a nod to the country’s freedom.
Albanians were not allowed to travel. The border force’s mandate was to ensure Albanian citizens stayed in Albania. At Bunker Art2, a museum dedicated to showcasing the state agencies employed during the Hoxha regime, the weapons, uniforms, listening devices and other paraphernalia used by the elite Border Force are on display. My recollection is about 9,000 people tried to escape the country in the 40 years of Hoxha; of those 1,000 were killed in the process. Brutal labour camps were set up for the prisoners and for the families, the wives and children, of those who tried to escape, a huge deterrent. The Museum of Secret Surveillance, housed in the former Sigurmi headquarters, showcases the technology and methods used by the Sigurimi, the brutal interior police modelled after East Germany’s Stasi.
About those bunkers… In addition to his other faults, Hoxha took paranoia to an extreme. Convinced that a Russian invasion was imminent, he embarked upon a scheme of building concrete bunkers, 170,000 in total, between 1967 and 1986, estimated to cost 2% of the country’s GDP. Varying in size from tiny 2 person cells to nuclear fallout shelters with over 100 rooms, their grey, mushroom shaped entrances dotted the landscape. When one of Hoxha’s generals suggested they might not be too effective, he was executed. Today most of the bunkers have been removed, to where no one is sure, but a few remain around Tirana as reminders and as entrances to museums, tearooms and mushroom farms.
Following Hoxha’s death in 1985, Ramiz Alia took over. He realized the winds were changing. He initiated trade with with Italy and Greece and allowed people to travel abroad. Elections in 1991 kept the communists in power, but non-communists were also in the cabinet. In the 1992 election, the Democratic Party won, ending communist rule in Albania. Today, it is a member of NATO and is seeking admission to the EU.
Tirana Walking Tour:
Eriv (pronounced like Eric without the “c”) guided me and 15 others through the sites of central Tirana, in addition to providing much of the history and the stories here. Meeting in the central square, Eriv pointed out the National History Museum with its communist inspired mural depicting Albanians throughout the centuries, from Illyrians to the 3 communists marching victoriously in the centre. Painted in 1981, the only change to the mural has been the deletion of a star on the flag.
Eriv walked us to the Arts Museum to see a a collection of statues. Stalin is there twice, Lenin once and the white bust with the missing nose is Hoxha. Although they previously stood in the main square, they were toppled by crowds in 199O and 1991 and put out to pasture behind the Museum.
A statue of Mother Teresa graces the podium outside the Cathedral of St. Paul. Although Catholica make up only about 10% of the population, Mother Teresa is admired by all, as the only Albanian Nobel prize winner and as a representative of Albanian tolerance and kindness.
We walked to another quirky monument to communism, the Pyramid. Originally built as a mausoleum for Hoxha’s remains by his daughter, it never served that purpose. Today, it remains derelict, graffiti laden, its windows broken, behind wire while the country figures out what to do with it.
During the communist period, senior government officials lived in Blloku, a community gated to keep the population out. Today, the walls are gone and coffee shops, bars and night clubs welcome all. Hoxha’s house still stands, Closed to the public, it is now subjected to a delicious irony. Across the street from the residence of the world’s strictest communist is that symbol of capitalism, Colonel Saunders, grinning from a KFC into the windows of Haxha’s home. In case you are curious, Albania doesn’t have a MacDonalds, but one is scheduled to open later this year.
Albania has far more to offer than a communist past. Across the countryside rests ancient ruins from dozens of civilizations, many in excellent shape. Apollonia has extensive and well preserved Roman ruins; Durres has one of the largest existing amphitheatres. Albania’s Adriatic coast is as beautiful as can be, but has suffered recently from overbuilding of cheap beachside hotels catering to Poles, Germans and Russians.
I visited the city of Berat, a UNSECO world heritage site often called the city of 1,000 windows. One of the very few downsides of visiting a less touristed country is many tours offered only proceed if minimum numbers are met, so despite TripAdvisor and GetYourGuide promoting dozens of day trips to Berat, none were going when I was there or only if a horrific single only price was paid. I chose instead to try the local bus system, which cost the equivalent of $5 for a one-way, two hour bus ride to Berat.
High atop the hill is Berat castle. Mostly constructed in Byzantine and Ottoman times, but some of its walls date to the Roman period. Inside, little remains of the palaces, but like Diocletian’s Palace in Split, locals have constructed houses inside the walls and lived there since the 13th century. Also inside are 20 churches, again most from the 13th century.
Albania was one of those countries I always wanted to visit and it didn’t disappoint. Tirana is fascinating, not for its beauty or architecture, but for its role as the epicenter of Albanian communism which I would describe as quirky and radical but for the reality that the Hoxha regime was brutal, crushing all opposition and inhibiting individuality. I didn’t spend long enough in Albania to enjoy its plentiful archeological wonders, but that is a good reason to return.
Next: Kosovo and Bill Clinton