My summer holidays this year began in Albania in the Balkans also known as Shqiperia, the Land of the Eagles. Albania was essentially the North Korea of the Balkans. It has been closed to the rest of the world, even to fellow communist countries like Russia and China, and tightly ruled by Stalinist leader Enver Hoxha since the end of the second World War in 1945. So tightly controlled that there was no freedom of speech, no freedom of movement, no religious faith nor practice allowed, and no owning of private property, not even a car. Back in those days, not only were foreigners unable to gain entry, few citizens were ever allowed to venture out. The doors to Albania didn’t open until the late 1980s after Hoxha’s death and the end of communism and even then in those early days, only about 10,000 tourists were granted access per year. Other than 45 years of strict communist rule, Albania has a very storied past continuously fighting foreign domination and being at one time a part of the Ancient Greek, the Roman, and the Ottoman Empires. Albania was first occupied by the ancient Illyrians in about 2000 BC until the 200 BC when they were conquered by the Romans. Roman rule ended when Albania came under Byzantine rule at the end of 400 BC. In the 15th century, they were conquered by the Ottoman Empire and came under Islamic rule until the late 19th century. Albania finally declared independence in 1912 but had half of its territory assigned to neighboring states by the great European powers of the time. With such a tumultuous past, it is no wonder that Albania emerged from World War II with the most brutal and isolationist form of communism where all aspects of its citizens’ lives were controlled. It has only been 28 years since Albania parted with communism and economic development has been rather slow. Most of the country still exists in a time warp that is the 1950s. The country has a lot to offer in terms of ancient Greek and Roman sites, fortress towns, mountain scenery, and beautiful beaches. I flew into the capital, Tirana, in the center of Albania surrounded by verdant mountains. I stayed at centrally located The Plaza Tirana which opened in 2016 and probably the nicest 5-star hotel in town.
The rooms at The Plaza Tirana are very spacious and modern with nice views of the city. Nothing much to complain except that there was a bit of a snafu with the key card to the door of the hotel room. When I was ready to go out for a walk, I noticed that the door didn’t lock on its own. So after several calls to reception and waiting, someone came to try to fix it and in the end had to remove and replace the entire door handle plus lock system. It was fixed and not a big deal. But then on the last day of my stay, I was replying an email and just stepped out of the elevator when the doors opened on the wrong floor. Without realizing it, I walked to what I thought was my room and used the key card which worked and entered someone else’s room. There was an elderly couple in the room getting dressed! Imagine my shock and surprise! The old man was wearing his shirt and boxer shorts with those suspender things that held his socks up and the old lady was in her robe. I stood there for a second, confused, and then bolted out the door to look at the room number. I was on the wrong floor and my key card worked! I reported this to the front desk and they didn’t seem all that alarmed. In any case, I started thinking what if everyone’s key card could open every room door?! Good thing I was leaving or else I would constantly be paranoid.
Like other former communist cities such as Berlin, there is a buzzing trendy vibe here in Tirana as they try to catch up with the rest of Europe while creating their own unique identity. Tirana was not what I had expected. Since they had only emerged from communism and isolationism a quarter of a century ago, I imagined a place filled with large dilapidated grey soviet blocks mixed with relics of Ottoman buildings. To my surprise, Tirana is filled with colorful buildings painted in red, blue, green, yellow, etc. With little money for building and restorations, former Mayor Edi Rama (now Prime Minister), who is a former artist, decided to brighten up the city by subsidizing paint and ordering buildings to be repainted in bright colors. These colorful buildings are everywhere and some of the more iconic ones can be found all along the Lana River on Bajram Curri Boulevard, and the smaller Rruga Njazi Demi, as well as at the corner of Boulevard Bajram Curri and Rruga Kont Leopold Bertold. One of the most famous of these painted buildings is the Rainbow building at Wilson Square near the Blloku area. Blloku, also known as the Block, was once an area reserved only for the communist elites and the general public could not enter. Now it has become the trendiest and most expensive neighborhood in Tirana. Albania’s communist leader Hoxha used to live in Blloku and his former residence still stands now amongst hip bars, cafes, restaurants, nightclubs, and cool street art.
Skanderbeg Square is the central plaza of Tirana, home to the National Historical Museum, the Opera, the City Hall, the Et’hem Bey Mosque, and the Orthodox Cathedral of Tirana as well as many government offices. About a few minutes away is the National Arts Gallery with the Japanese designed Cloud Pavillion in front. The Cloud has become a place to meet and chill and in the summer months it becomes an open air cinema in the evenings. It is interesting to see a metal structure look so light and floaty often with music coming out from within. Another obscure structure in the center of Tirana is the Pyramid built originally as a museum dedicated to the legacy of communist dictator Hoxha by his daughter. The structure opened in 1988, a few years after his death, as the Enver Hoxha Museum. But with the fall of communism, the building went from a convention center to a television station to a graffiti covered structure left to fall into ruin. It is a popular spot with both tourists and locals, to meet, to slide down its steep sides, and to take selfies.
Off Skanderbeg Square is BunkArt2 which is a museum built inside a bunker dedicated to the victims of Hoxha’s regime. Its sister site BunkArt, about 20 mins away from the center of town, is larger and more impressive. BunkArt is an abandoned 5-storey underground bunker converted into a museum about Albania’s communist history together with random art pieces. Here you can see Hoxha and his cabinet’s meeting rooms, living quarters, and even theatre complete with relics from that time in case of a nuclear attack. There are also haunting displays of people arrested and tortured. I find the bunker quite spooky with its maze of long corridors and countless small rooms. I tried to follow other groups so that I am not alone in this eery place. Speaking of bunkers, there are over 175,000 of these gray mushrooms scattered in the country from playgrounds to fields to mountains to beaches. They were all built under the “bunkerization” program of the paranoid communist leader Hoxha who was convinced that there would be an imminent invasion by NATO and neighboring countries simultaneously. These bunkers made of concrete and steel, mostly made to hold one to two people with a sniper windows, still scar the landscape even though the enemies never came and the communist regime is no longer.
The way Hoxha’s isolationist communist regime controlled every Albanians’ lives was through the surveillance network of the Sigurimi or the secret police. The Sigurimi had around 15,000 collaborators among them 1,000 agents and 11,000 informants all over Albania. Sigurimi agents were called ‘living microphones’ because they carried bugs with them all the time and picked up intelligence anywhere from grocery stores to post offices, hotels, and embassies. Under Hoxha’s dictatorship, over 18,000 people were imprisoned for political reasons with some 6,000 executed. The former Sigurimi Headquarters called the House of Leaves now houses the Museum of Secret Surveillance. It gives you a brief history of the totalitarian government and the strategies and surveillance equipment used by the Sigurimi. This together with BunkArt & BunkArt2 gives one a pretty complete picture of what was going on in Albania back in the Hoxha days.
I thoroughly enjoyed Tirana and am glad the curtain to its communist past has been lifted and the city is quickly becoming one of the hippest cities in Europe. To think only 28 years ago, people were not allowed to have personal property not even a car, there were no personal freedoms of any kind where both men and women had to keep their hair short, to now, even though the country is one of the poorest in Europe, the roads are well paved, the city seemed orderly and clean, and people seemed content sitting around relaxing in cafes. I couldn’t imagine this colorful place was once as isolated as North Korea. The only giveaways are the bunkers and a crumbling pyramid that now serve as dark reminders of how far they have come. Come and explore Tirana before it gets overrun with tourists!
From Tirana, I ventured south to one of the UNESCO towns, Berat, which I will talk about in my next post. Stay tuned!
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