Ask people what they know about Albania and most will have to confess they know very little about this country. Maybe some of you will remember that the kidnappers from the movie Taken are Albanians. (Thank you Liam Nieson for the fear of being abducted into an Albanian sex trade slave). 😛 Haha! I can only think of two Albanians that my friends may have heard of and they are Mother Teresa and Enver Hoxha.
Albania is a small, mountainous country on the Balkan peninsula in southeastern Europe. It shares borders with Greece, Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro. Enver Hoxha ruled this country from 1944 to 1985. A keen admirer of Joseph Stalin, Hoxha kept the Soviet ruler’s legacy alive by eradication of the opposition, forced-labor camps and secret police. From September 1952, anyone over the age of 11 found to have been conspiring against the state received the death penalty. Over the decades, Albania also became increasingly socially and culturally isolated. It was the North Korea of Europe. Citizens were prohibited from traveling abroad unless on official business — a policy that remained in place until 1990.
After 47 years of communist rule, the country is now under a Parliamentary Democracy type of government. Although Albania’s economy continues to grow, the country remains one of the poorest countries in Europe, hampered by a large informal economy, huge public debt, and an inadequate energy and transportation infrastructure. Majority of the people living in Albania are Muslims (a legacy of its centuries of Ottoman rule) but there are also large minorities of Christian and Catholics. The good thing about this country is marriages between people of different religious backgrounds are very common.
There are some few things you have to understand about Tirana, the capital city of Albania. It’s such a difficult place to describe actually. It’s a real clash of cultures. You can see a mosque standing in the city, then a new modern building on the other side. It’s a very new city and it has undergone major renovation since the fall of communism and the end of civil war. Because it gained its independence very recently, it seems to still be in the process of forming a distinctive identity. Instead it’s distinctively different.
Before going to the city alone, Odites warned me to be careful wandering the streets. Also, the words of the other travelers had me a tiny bit nervous, but I wasn’t about to turn around. “I’ll be okay, I run fast” I replied. I took a cab from the hotel, the taxi driver was so friendly and chatty although he spoke very little English . He kept on asking so many questions and I did the same too. We actually had a very nice political conversation. He told me about the great night life in Tirana and the clubs whereabouts. He even went out of his way to make sure I found the restaurant that he recommended for a local Albanian cuisine.
The center of the city is fairly small, the main street and the park are well landscaped and there are flower pots hanging from lamp posts. Construction was going on everywhere, with piles of building materials left by the side of many roads. One street back the footpaths are broken concrete and there is graffiti everywhere. Many of the former communist looking buildings have been painted with pastel colors, making some streets and buildings looking like an assortment of easter eggs.
As I continued my stroll the distinctive Pyramid building was the next I passed. The building in the shape of a pyramid was designed by Hoxha’s daughter. The hotel taxi driver told me that this horrendous pyramid was the by product of the marriage of communism and nepotism. It was first a museum, then a conference center and then a disco bar. Today it is a defunct, eyesore with graffiti and broken glass. Perhaps Albanians have left it standing in such a prominent place so as to remind themselves of what they do not want to go back to.
There are still a few reminders around town from Tirana’s communist past. The most bizarre are the bunkers that you can see almost everywhere. Hoxha spent most of the country’s money constructing over 700,000 concrete pillbox bunkers, one for every four Albanians (at significant cost to the country at a time when the people barely had enough food to eat) built to help defend the country should it come under attack. Most of them were built in the period from 1950 to 1985. They were extremely hard to destroy or move, so the only thing locals could do was to ignore them.
A surprising number of locals spoke good English, but that was usually younger people, say 35 and under. They usually asked me “How do you like my country?, “Where are you from? or Have you visited this place already?. It seemed they were all very proud. I must admit Albanians are some of the friendliest people I have ever met and they are pretty gorgeous too! No question or request seemed too hard and everyone went out of their way to help me. It was so nice to be in a country where the people are genuinely happy you are there. Say thank you in Albanian (faleminderit) and you’ll knock them off their feet and receive a huge smile in return. It is unfortunate that people’s perceptions of Albania will stop many more from traveling here and discovering what a fascinating country it is and how friendly, welcoming and generous its people are.
Eventually I ended up walking to the Grand Park, a forested park at the edge of the downtown, where office workers and families strolled. I never felt unsafe walking alone. In fact, it was a relaxing day for me wandering around while eating a grilled sweet corn. At the end the of the day, I treated myself with a delicious local dish recommended by my cab driver.
When people don’t have any personal experience of a country, they rely on what they’ve heard or read. The people of Albania have been given the freedom to start expressing themselves, both political and economic. As the young grow up and out from the shadow of communism, this sense of freedom has finally seemed to manifest itself in their country.
When I left Tirana the next morning, the only thing I regretted was that I didn’t have the time to explore more. This lovely city with its ongoing infrastructure projects, colorful mix of communist buildings, and serious cafe culture was one of the most unique places I had ever visited. I wish to visit Albania again someday to get a closer look of what this beautiful country has still to offer.