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Published: December 17th 2018
We headed to our normal table for breakfast. We were the only guests, apart from another guy who bizarrely sat and ate with his backpack on. He was either very wary of being parted from his possessions or it was surgically attached to his back. The coffee man did his duty and we asked him to translate an article on our intended football match for the day. It transpired that the fading light of the game yesterday had prompted an earlier kick off in the absence of floodlights at KF Kamza. Despite the rather confusing internet article in an online sports newspaper entitled the "match with the forgotten organisation", we also ascertained that the game was to be played at the stadium in Kamza. We set off to see the sights of central Tirana. A few spots of rain fell, which were not in the forecast. They soon cleared to leave a bright blue sky and rising temperatures.
We were in the district of Blloku, which was previously the preferred residential zone for the Communist party faithful. We had walked past the former home of Hoxha the previous day en route to find the hotel. A smart looking
villa on a residential street, there are plans apparently to turn it into a museum. For now, it is just a nice house with a security guard ensuring that the locals don't decide to rearrange it. There was little activity on the streets at just after 8 am on a Sunday morning. A few businesses were opening up. The bored doorman of the 24 hour casino gambling dens patrolled the pavement outside their venues. I snapped a few of the buildings as we passed. Communist architecture is usually colourless. In Tirana, the locals have set about brightening up the place with huge rainbows and the like splashed on the exteriors of apartment blocks. It is very effective and presumably cost efficient. A number of Hoxha's bunkers have received the same treatment. My spell checker came up with" bonkers" in the last sentence and when you see these bunkers, it certainly seems to be an appropriate description of the former dictator. What exactly did he think these lumps of concrete would achieve? They are literally everywhere. We stumbled across another 3 in a park on the approach to what is now Bulevardi Deshmoret et Kombit. This road was the central boulevard
linking the city centre. A lot of the newsreel archive material in the museums looks like was shot here. The Italian fascists and then the Communist party faithful in their best gear would line the streets, waving flags and paying homage.
We walked down to Mother Theresa Square. Government buildings flank the 4 sides. One was now occupied by the Museum of Archaeological Affairs. The building at the very end was the University of Tirana. We would become more acquainted with the students later in the morning. The big central park in Tirana lay beyond, the start of which was a tribute from the people of Israel. The Square and the boulevard were pretty much devoid of traffic. A motorcycle traffic policeman waited patiently, as he amused himself pulling over random cars. A serious construction site was on the go to the side of the Square. The area used to be the National Stadium, which is now being transformed from a huge bowl into a more modern venue for today. The desire to complete the project even had them working on a Sunday morning before 9 am. It was clear that this was one football ground we
were not going to wander into and I doubt that there was much to see anyway. We headed up the road. It was mainly government buildings. All the government buildings we saw were decorated with a huge ribbon - a present to the people? They would light up at night in a brilliant display of neon. It seemed strange in a Muslim country that Christmas decorations and trees were more in evidence than back home. The very expensive looking Hotel Rogner displayed a huge two headed Albanian eagle on its roof. Along with the Christmas theme, the national symbol was much in evidence - from flags to fridge magnets.
A lot of folk are drawn to Egypt to see the Pyramids. They have one here in Tirana too. A slightly more modern creation by Hoxha, it was originally intended to be a museum for himself. It now lies abandoned and derelict. The last use was apparently by the United Nations, who used it as a base in the Balkan conflicts of the early 1990s. Today, it seemed that even the homeless had found better places to sleep. There were some smashed lower panels in the entrance section
and a few abandoned mattresses. In the summer, kids climb to the top and slide down. After the morning rain, the surface looked decidedly slippy. We opted against mountaineering – we would do our mountain mission later in the trip - and wandered over to the Peace Bell. The nearby Park Rinia is home to the Independence Monument. The I Love Tirana sign flanks the edge of the park. It too had a Christmas ribbon. Tirana has copied other cities in having rows of bikes that you can hire to speed round with designated areas to leave them elsewhere. The traffic is mental, so whether that is a sound idea is open to debate. The 2 wheeled rentals also looked like they had seen their best days. A number of stalls were setting up on the pedestrian area towards the remains of Tirana Castle. The thoroughfare led to a new and shiny shopping centre in the shadow of the Plaza Hotel, which is possibly the most expensive place to lay your head in town. The blue sky photos were duly taken in Skanderbeg Square. The huge statue of him looks like it has been there a long time, but actually
House of Leaves
Secret Police Museum
dates from 1968. Skanderbeg is the Albanian national hero, who halted the progress of the Turks and the Ottoman Empire from further expansion into central Europe. His real name was George Castriot, which doesn’t seem to be a proper name for a superhero of a nation. He died in 1468. We went in search of the so called House of Leaves. A fairly unimposing building just off the central Square was the home of the Albanian Secret Police. As with most states behind the Iron Curtain, serious energy was devoted to keeping tabs on the local population to ensure they were towing the line. The building museum was 700 LEK entry and details the rise in the security apparatus from the early days post the defeat of fascism. There are rooms to highlight the victims of Communist repression and their use of “concentration” or internment camps. The exhibits feature rows of the listening devices, cameras and other spy equipment used to keep an eye or an ear on both the locals and any foreigners visiting the country. The majority of foreigners were probably diplomats and their families and particular attention seemed to have been paid to the activities of some
of the Yugoslavian delegation. Newsreel footage showed the security service trailing the wife of a Yugoslav diplomat across Tirana, as she peddled a few “black market” items that seemed to comprise of a few clothes and a fridge! There was a display on the ingenious methods they used to plant bugs, a display on how to spy on apartments through tiny holes drilled in the walls of neighbouring residences and the rooms devoted to the processing of photographs to collate all their “evidence”. If the regime had continued, it would have been interesting to see how they ramped up the processes in the digital age.
A huge commotion was taking place outside, which transpired to be a student demonstration. Hundreds of people were walking the wrong way up the road, placards in hand and whistles blaring. Traffic was brought to a standstill. After our Sunday morning tour of the centre, we decided it was time to check out how to find a bus to Kamza for our afternoon football. We walked up to the left of Skanderbeg Square. There was always a collection of shifty looking guys on this section, usually armed with an array of mobile
phone products. Whilst Tirana seemed full of teenage girls with a smart phone tucked into their back pocket like elsewhere in the world, there was clearly some that got mislaid. They were all here on open sale with no apparent attempt to hide the wares or the intended dubious guarantee that would come with the product. We cut on to what I believed was the route of the bus to find no traffic in either direction. Blue flashing lights in the distance suggested the road was closed. Bodies blocked the road. It was our student friends. I photographed one of the protesters, who was holding a placard aloft to suggest that Governments should be scared of their people as opposed to the other way round. She explained that the protest was about living conditions and the level of tuition fees. The story would unfold throughout our visit and the protests continued. There seemed to be some sort of olive branch thrown out by the Government later in the week, that they would enter into dialogue if the disruption ceased. We weaved through the protesters and copious members of Albanian TV covering the story and carried on walking, in the hope
that we would find buses running further along after some form of diversion. A helpful local pointed us in the direction of the Kamza bus, which had Kamez on the running board. We paid our 40 LEK and I opened the invaluable Maps.me app on the tablet to check our progress on the journey. It was probably about 5 miles and we alighted in what was probably more how we imagined Tirana would be. A local town hall come Police headquarters was only partially complete. The domino schools were hard at work in the paved area by it’s perimeter. A traffic island had a statue of a horse and a girl in the middle. A couple of stray dogs slept peacefully at the base of the statue, oblivious of the chaos going on around them on the road. Tiny shops were selling every conceivable fake brand. These were not the genuine articles worn by our fellow “guests” in the KF Tirana Directors Box. The Man in the Middle was not tempted to add to his own collection, but relayed some choices of product back to the UK. The remaining retail business was being conducted from small stalls by the side
of the road. We settled in a bar on the edge of the traffic island and enjoyed our bottles of Tirana beer. The sun was shining. The temperature display on the pharmacy opposite indicated it was 17 degrees centigrade. The football ground was just behind the Police Headquarters, so it was a mere 2 minute walk. We had already been on the far side of the ground and there was no indication that the stand would be opened. A security guard confirmed a kick off time of 2pm, but we knew better. We approached from the near side. There was no obvious Police representation around, but a nut seller is always a good sign of an intended football match in the Balkans. The pie and Bovril hasn’t made it to these parts, but a good percentage of a Balkan football match crowd cannot resist chewing on sunflower seeds to assist their enjoyment of the proceedings. The evidence of seed casings can be seen scattered on the floor of the seats and terraces at the end. It seemed our new kick off time information was correct and a 1330 start was happening. The Stadiumi Kamez at FK Kamza was a somewhat
basic affair. There were no apparent turnstiles or ticket office. We were directed to a “seller”, who seemed keen that we relieved him of 2 of his 500 LEK tickets for the main stand seating rather than the 100 LEK terrace positions. We accepted our tickets without further question and Mr Octopus slid back an entrance gate. The view of the mountains from the stand was a great sight. It reminded me of Hajduk Split – the view, not the stadium. It was a beautiful afternoon. A few local youths watched through the closed gates on the far side and others balance precariously on the roof of adjacent high rise apartment blocks. The local team were rock bottom of the Albania Superiore League, but made a spirited fist of the early play. The star man was Japanese import, Fukui – I will leave you to decide on a pronunciation of the surname. A gift for all opposition fans, who wish to hurl abuse! He scored with a header, prompting the loudest cheer of the half. Nobody fell off an apartment block in their excitement. The second loudest noise came from the mosque next door and the call to prayer.A few
latecomers rolled in after the goal, having failed to check their revised kick off time. It was backs to the wall thereafter, but they hung on for the victory. We caught the bus back to the centre of Tirana – look for the name “Qender” on the running board. In order to show there were no hard feelings, we went for a sausage meal in the “Toothgate” restaurant.
As you will know from previous blogs, a lake and a mountain are an easy sell to the Man in the Middle. He is still smarting from our failure to get up Mount Vitosha in Sofia. The Dajti Ekspres - the longest cable car in the Balkans was bound to capture his imagination. The cable car was closed on Tuesdays, so it was fingers crossed that the weather was clear today. Fortune was on our side, so we set off early. The cable car base was just 2 stops past Bunk Art 1 and a swift 10 minute walk uphill. The return trip was 800 LEK – keep the second portion of your ticket or it could be a long walk back down. The route is seriously steep, so
Man & Animal in harmony. Why the long face?
probably not recommended for those who don’t like heights. The pod also stopped for an age half way up, which was slightly unsettling but apparently “normal”. I haven’t been on anything of this scale since I took a cable car up Mont Blanc from Chamonix in France when I was a teenager. The Man in the Middle reminisced about Table Mountain in Cape Town and I reminded myself that I made the Other Half walk up that one in the interests of economy. The 5 kilometre route was built by an Austrian company, Doppelmyer, in 2005 and took about 15-20 minutes to the top. It was a shame that the glass on the pods had been covered in graffiti. We alighted at the mountain base, which comprises of a hotel, a revolving bar and a separate restaurant perched on the edge of the cliff. As part of the entertainment offering, if you are into a game of altitude mini-golf you are in for a treat. The ultimate hole in Albanian mini-golf was the bunker – not one with sand, but a small recreation of one of Hoxha’s creations. Views of Tirana unfolded beneath us. The clouds came and went, partially
obscuring the ground below. We walked up towards a derelict building above the complex. A stray dog in residence of some significant size paced up and down on a raised platform and made threatening growls to deter further approach. His mate came to add weight to message. We retreated and went off to examine yet more of the bunkers lurking in the woods on the hillside. A couple of local entrepreneurs were setting up for the day in the field above the hotel. Air rifle shooting, horse riding and some dune buggys were on offer. A group of teens who arrived queued up for a ride on the 2 available mounts. The Man in the Middle posed with a long faced friend and shared his picture with the wider world. The jury was still out on whether John Wayne ever got on the horse. What goes on tour, stays on tour. The revolving bar opened at 11 am, so we ventured in for a coffee. The full revolution probably took over an hour to complete, so we fitted in a beer too as part of our relaxing morning. We descended back to the valley below.
took a 3 hour bus ride from Sarajevo to Mostar to see a historic bridge, so it seemed to make a lot of sense to look at the Tirana version. We paced the Lana River – well straightened canal channel - running through the centre. There was no sign of the bridge. We cut back past the new Mosque – still under construction. The Tanners’ Bridge was stranded out of water just down from Mosque. The former 18th
century livestock bridge is now just a pedestrian short cut and was a little bit underwhelming. It was time to go underground again. Bunk Art 2 is owned by the same folk who have the mammoth Hoxha complex in the hills. It is little brother to big brother, but costs the same 500 LEK to enter. It is essentially a museum about the police force of Albania, wedged underneath the Government offices just off Skanderbeg Square. Good, but if you only go to one I would suggest taking the bus to the out of town experience. This bunker was never used for the intended purpose of running the country. It has seen action 3 times – once was when there was chaos
View of Tirana in the valley below
in the streets above with protesters rioting against the Communist regime before the downfall. It also saw use when the United Nations bombed Belgrade and there was a suggestion that the Serbs might take retaliation on Tirana. We had another session on the 80 pence refreshments and went for a pizza. Albania Superiore Liga KF Kamza 1 Luftetari Gjirokaster 0 Date:
Sunday 9th December 2018 @ 1330 Hours Venue:
Stadiumi Kamez, Kamza, Tirana, Albania Attendance
: 700 Scorers
: 1-0 Fukui (KF Kamza) 33 Mins KF Kamzaa
: Avdyli, Begiri (Replaced by Turtilli 75 Mins), Frasheri, Tegja (Replaced by Mehmeti 58 Mins), Idrizaj, Fukui, Arrabel, Malaj, BOnanni, Martinena (Replaced by Rolovic 79 Mins), Plaku , Doka, Karabeci, Daja, Hasini, Imani, Grca , Sentamu, Halili
: Ruci, Janicic, Jackson, Hoxha, Rapa, Demo (Replaced by Radovic 63 MIns), Milosavljev (Replaced by Dunga 83 Mins), Ymeraj (Replaced by Rapo 59 Mins), RRoca, Aleeksi, Shkurtaj
Tot: 2.764s; Tpl: 0.134s; cc: 10; qc: 31; dbt: 0.0348s; 2; m:saturn w:www (18.104.22.168); sld: 2;
; mem: 1.4mb