Saved: April 15th 2013May 24th 2009
Not on everyone's list of places to see in the world, Albania had always been a country that appealed to me. With my pal Michael, we flew into Tirana on a warm and sunny evening in May. One of Europe's poorest nations (a legacy left over from ex-ruler Enver Hoxha, or Supreme Comrade as he liked to call himself), Albania embraced communism in the 1940s.
At first Hoxha made friends with the Soviets, but later decided he preferred the Chinese version of communism, especially when they sent him billions of dollars worth of aid. Clerical workers were sent to the fields and religion was banned. Growing ever paranoid that the Soviets would invade his country, Hoxha ordered the construction of three quarters of a million igloo-shaped concrete bunkers to protect the borders, most of which survive to this day. Predictably, relations with China eventually soured and Hoxha found his country in total isolation, growing ever poorer. Hoxha died in 1985, but the communists clung to power until 1992 when they were finally ousted.
The airport was modern and efficient and we were soon in a taxi, passing fields tended by people with hoes; their children helping along by shoveling
hay. In contrast, billboards advertised the latest mobile phone companies, and building work was going on at a frantic pace. Tirana, it seemed, was a city on the up and up.
As we reached the city centre cars clogged up the streets. When they eventually moved the drivers seemed to take delight in ignoring all traffic signals. Roundabouts were a free for all and the two-lane highway soon turned into the Wacky Races with cars driving four abreast, beeping and swerving like they were in a Death Race. Mercedes seemed the vehicle of choice, but judging by the state of most of them, they had seen better days.
Before Enver Hoxha came to to power, Albania was ruled by the comically-sounding King Zog (real name: Ahmed Bey Zogu). Zogu seized power in 1928 and promptly declared himself King Zog I. He cemented his throne by inventing his very own salute and surviving the first of 55 assassination attempts, the most memorable of which occurred in Vienna in 1931.
He'd just been to the opera and was getting into his car when someone took a shot at him. Unlike most rulers, Zog sprung into immediate action. "Take that,
cad!" he possibly shouted as he whipped his pistol out. "I'll have your guts for garters!" He then fired off a round which sent his assailant scarpering. Because of this, Zog made history, becoming the only modern head of state to have ever exchanged gunfire with a potential assassin.
Despite his heroics, Zog's eventual downfall happened when his so called friends, the Italians, invaded and he was forced to flee to England. He arrived with gold plundered from the Albanian treasury, and with it, he rented a floor of London's Ritz Hotel. After a brief foray into America (where he attempted to smuggle in his entire entourage) he settled in the French Riviera, living a life of luxury until his death aged 65. Perhaps as a memorial to the man's colourful past, the Albanian authorities eventually named a street after the exiled monarch, appropriately called Boulevard Zog I. Our hotel was located just off it.
The evening streets were full of people sauntering by, or sat in one of the many outdoor bars and cafes. Michael and I walked to Skanderberg Square, the focal point of the city, marvelling at the tastefully lit buildings that lined the whole
area. Crossing a road was a perilous affair though, made worse by the lack of crossings. We took refuge on a pedestrianised island housing a large statue of Albanian hero, Skanderberg, for whom the square was named. Back in the 15th century, he'd made his name by successfully repelling an Ottoman invasion.
“I like Tirana” I announced. Maybe it was because night had fallen, masking the grime and more unsavoury elements of the city, or maybe it was the minarets offering their calls to prayer. Or maybe it was the relaxed atmosphere the city seemed to bask in, or perhaps it was the attractive girls who seemed to be everywhere, most favouring short skirts or hot pants. In reality, it was probably a mixture of all these things and when we sat in a bar and ordered some beers, I Ioved the city even more. A couple of bottles of Tirana Beer had only cost 300 Lev (£2) and they even came with a complimentary bowl of crisps.
The next morning was hot and sunny and after a five-course breakfast courtesy of the Hotel Nobel (the final course was a plate of sliced banana) we were off to
see the sights. First port of call was a small outdoor market which according to the guide book was a must see sight.
“It's rubbish,” Michael said as we strolled past stalls specializing in fruit and vegetables. Further along, stalls sold fish, which in the heat were beginning to smell. Something caught my eye in a window just next to the market. It was a line of cooked sheep heads, slowly spinning on a kebab, looking both gruesome and mesmerising at the same time.
To get back to the main square we had to pass through a small park littered with benches. Each bench contained three or four old men most of whom were wearing trilby's. The men were obviously enjoying hanging out together, one man patting his friend on the back after a hearty guffaw. These men, no doubt, would easily be able to recall a time when things were not so easy in Tirana.
One edge of Skanderberg Square was dominated by National History Museum, a building photographed often because of the huge mosaic on its front. It depicted proud Albanians marching through history, but sadly for us, the museum was closed, as it was
The old Clock Tower
We managed to climb up it!
every Monday, and so we crossed the square until we reached the 18th century Et'hem Bey Mosque. We headed next door to the clock tower, which for 100 lek, could be climbed
The ascent of the ninety spiraling steps wasn't that bad and were soon at the top. A small viewing platform offered a panorama across Skanderberg Square and beyond. From the other side, the colourful buildings of downtown Tirana were on view, as were the majestic mountains in the background.
Back at ground level we traipsed off towards the stone built Tanner Bridge. Dating from the 19th century, it was tucked in between a road and some small shops. Once used as a crossing for livestock, the bridge had recently been restored. We ambled across its small arch until we reached another small set of market stalls.
“There's meant to be some sort of ancient fortress around here somewhere,” I said, after reading the guide book. Micheal needed no further information before he was off, seeking out this wonder of ancient times. “Up here!” he commanded as we negotiated some sort of small budding site. A digger lay vacant but just past it was something quite
special. It was a set of old soviet monuments, the largest of which were of Lenin and Stalin, apparently moved from other more prominent places. The disused statues seemed rather pathetic tucked in behind a nondescript building, with Lenin in particular looking in a sorry state of repair.
The ancient ruins, when we eventually found them, were not up to much. A few sections of old wall were all that remained. In fact, a cafe had been built around them, and had we not known the ruins of a 6th century Byzantine settlement were there, we wouldn't walked right past without even noticing their presence.
Hokha's pyramid, a structure so grotesque that it was actually endearing, was on the southern side of a small River Lana. Once the proposed burial place of the old dictator (emulating an Egyptian Pharaoh no doubt) the concrete structure eventually became the Cultural Centre of Tirana. “It's dilapidated!” I said to Michael as we climbed some cracked steps to reach the entrance. It was evidently undergoing some sort of major repair work because the interior was a bare shell filled with cement mixers and a beady-eyed security guard who soon sent us packing.
An old Albanian war hero
We walked onwards to Mother Teresa Square, a dull part of the city dominated by the university at one end. The Grand Park was just behind it, a large wooded area with plenty of trails leading off in all directions. The park was full of naked men. Well not actually naked, but as near as damn it. The men were simply using the park for a spot of sunbathing.
“Where the hell are we?” I asked Michael. We'd been wandering along dirt paths filled with tiny lizards, but it appeared we had lost our way. My feet were hurting and I needed a drink.
“We're heading north,” he answered, sneezing heavily because of the hay fever that had suddenly gripped him. We emerged from a the woods to find a cavalcade of vehicles going past, flashing sirens and black cars seemed the order of the day. They headed downhill and after some deliberation we went downhill too. Eventually we came to a guard post. It quickly dawned upon us that we had literally stumbled upon the the Palace of the Brigades, the one-time residence of King Zog, and now the official residence of the current president. It
had possibly been the great man himself who had whizzed past just moments earlier. We couldn't see the palace from where we were, and besides, it was closed off to the public, and so with the guards watching us closely, I consulted our map.
I asked one of them where the lake was. I knew there was a large, artificial lake in the park somewhere. He looked us both up and down and then regarded the map. After some consultation with his colleague, he pointed back up the hill. “Go up there and turn right. Not left! I repeat NOT LEFT!” We thanked him and headed up the hill.
At the apex of the hill we came to a fork in the road. I turned to Michael who was busy sneezing and rubbing his eyes. “Did he say go left or go right?” Micheal wasn't sure and so we headed left. The path bisected a woodland area which seemed to be empty of naked men. We continued along it until we came to a sign which simply read: Military Zone. We both looked at each other and then decided on our next move. A second later we scarpered
the hell away, Michael wheezing as we crunched through the undergrowth like a couple of elephants.
We eventually found ourselves at some sort of war memorial. There was a small section dedicated to German and Allied soldiers who had fought each other during the Second World War. One grave was for a Major in the British army who'd died aged 31. The graves were well kept and fresh flowers had been placed there only recently.
The lake was large but not welcoming. Steam rollers, men laying concrete and the obligatorily man leaning on a spade, gave the place the look of a building site. Still, out across the water it looked quite tranquil, and further along a few bathers were taking advantage of the good weather, splashing around at the water's edge.
“I've noticed something about the women in Tirana,” I said to Michael as we sat enjoying a beer in a city centre bar. “The young ones are all gorgeous and slim but then something happens.” I was referring to a trait I'd noticed elsewhere in Eastern Europe. When these beautiful girls reached a certain age, a high proportion of them did two things. One, they
cut their hair quite short and dyed it a hideous dark-red colour, and two, they altered their physique so that they morphed into the shape a Romanian shot putter would be proud of.
“A massive over generalization,” Michael said, quite rightly. “I've seen lots of slim older woman with normal hair.” As he said this, a large lady with ruby hair wandered past, carrying a couple of bags of turnips.
The 18th floor Skyclub Bar was superb, though expensive compared to other places in Tirana. Regardless, we ended up spending two hours watching the sunset and the lights coming on. From our vantage point we could see across the whole of the city, and with a cool breeze flowing, it was perhaps the best place to sit in Tirana at that particular moment.
In a a cafe down below, we met Amelia, a forty-something, chain-smoking Austrian lady who had driven to Albania a couple of days previously. She told us that she'd been to Tirana as a student twenty years previously and couldn't believe the difference. “I know the Vice-Prime Minister of Albania,” she told us as she lit yet another cigarette. “I knew him when he
was a student in Vienna and helped him find somewhere to stay. And now he has repaid the favour to me. I met him yesterday. But only for short while because he is so busy.”
The next morning, Elton, a young Albanian man, picked us up from the hotel. Back in the UK, I'd emailed him about driving us from Tirana into Macedonia. As we walked to his car, he told us that his girlfriend was coming along too. “It is such a long drive to Skopje and back, that she thought it better to keep me company.”
His girlfriend was called Kiki, a very pretty dark haired woman who could speak English but preferred to keep let Elton do most of the talking. As we set off, Elton, who bore an uncanny resemblance to a young Graham Norton, told us that the previous week he'd been a guide for a couple of journalists. “They were from the Lonely Planet magazine and were doing a feature on Albania. Their article will be published in a few months, I think.”
Unlike a lot of his fellow countrymen, Elton was a safe driver. “Most accidents in Albania are caused
The Grand Park
Full of near-naked men
by stupidity,” he told us. “People overtake when they shouldn't. But the Italians and the Greeks taught us how to drive, and they are not the best teachers!”
As the outskirts of Tirana faded, we began a gradual climb into the mountains. The scenery was breathtaking and the hairpin bends exciting. I asked Elton if we would see any of Hoxha's famous bunkers and he laughed. “Everyone wants to see the bunkers. And yes you will see lots. Maybe one day I will open a bunker hotel!”
I asked him if the bunkers were for sale. “No, but the land that they sit on is for sale. You buy the land and the bunker comes free.”
The four of us stopped for a quick drink in Elbasan and we found out that Elton and Kiki had been a couple for almost two and a half years. I jokingly asked if any wedding plans were on the cards. Both looked coy and Elton told me that he would wait until he thought Kiki deserved him, which earned him a nudge to the ribs.
Kiki addressed us. “In Albania, a bride will not buy her wedding dress like
A refreshing brew!
in many other countries. She will rent it. So this means there is big business in Tirana for wedding dress shops.”
Elton nodded. “You'll see wedding dress shops everywhere. The owners will buy an expensive wedding dress for maybe two thousand Euros, and then rent it out. After a couple of months he will make his money back. And there is a saying here in Albania: once a person has made his fortune, he will buy a Mercedes and then a bar!”
A few hours later we approached the Macedonian border. Elton stopped the car and pointed out a bunker. We got out and had a wander around the concrete bastion. It wasn't actually that big, but it definitely looked sturdy. There were others about too, most smaller, all facing a direction where they could protect Albania from invaders who would never arrive.
Elton asked us if either of us had been to the Greek island of Corfu. We hadn't and so Elton told us a story. “Corfu is only seven kilometres by sea from Albania. In the 1980s, Albanian people swam across to find freedom but many of them died in the process.” Elton told us
This one was for German soldiers
one famous story involving a trio of people, two sisters and one brother, who attempted the crossing together. Before embarking, the three bought water melons which they hollowed out. These items would be useful in two ways, firstly as a buoyancy aid, and secondly, the hollow interior would provide each sibling with air as they approached the coastline. In this way, the armed guards would hopefully not spot them. “They set off and managed to swim across the channel but unfortunately only two of them survived. The brother died in the crossing but the sisters escaped.”
Soon we arrived at the border, and after formalities were complete, the four of us drove into the Republic of Macedonia. As we pulled away from the border post, I was full of anticipation, phase two of the trip was about to begin. Strengths:
-Not many tourists
-Lots of bars everywhere!
-All the sights can be reached on foot, just about.
-Scantily-clad young women
-Very safe Weaknesses:
-Fumes from the traffic
-Crossing a road is a dangerous affair
-Museums closed on a Monday
There are more photos below