Remnants of a Paranoid Totalitarian

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August 25th 2013
Published: August 27th 2013
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Hello my fellow travellers!

After a great day with Mihajlo in Veles and another good exploration of Skopje yesterday I got on the bus to Tirana. Let's just say that the bus was less than exciting, burning hot with no air conditioning but with an assortment of drunks instead, yes drunks, not drinks. Even so I eventually managed to fall asleep and in doing so ended up in Durres instead of in Tirana. Tirana doesn't actually have a bus station, the bus just stopped at a parking lot with no lights around and that's why I never noticed it.

I only noticed because we were two hours past the time when I was supposed to be in Tirana and when I asked another passenger he told me that we had already passed it, he was kind enough to inform the bus driver though who gave me my ticket back and let me of in Durres and told me to get on the next bus back, I fortunately only had to wait a few minutes for it to arrive.

The benefit of this was two fold though, for one I arrived at 8 am instead of at 4 am which felt like a bit of a safer time to arrive to be honest. Secondly I got to a see a beautiful sunrise over the distant mountains.

On the bus I managed to get in touch with Cleon who offered to host me for the following night. We decided to meet at 2 pm in the centre of Tirana which meant I would have a few hours at my disposal before we were to meet up.

As I arrived in Tirana I decided to relax a bit in a bar and charge up my batteries until I felt ready to take a small tour of the city. I began with a visit to the 18th century Et'hem Bey Mosque, it was closed for many years while Albania was under communist rule but it was reopened again in 1991 as the communist regime began to fall. The reopening of the mosque was done without permission by the authorities but some 10.000 people marched to the mosque, carrying flags and demanding their religious freedom! The police didn't interfere and the event was an important milestone in overthrowing the Communist dictatorship and restoring freedom to the people of Albania!

Standing right next to the mosque, as a part of the same complex is the Clock Tower of Tirana, built in 1811 by the Ottomans, it was actually restored in 2010 with the help of the American people. Both the tower and mosque are very beautiful and certainly worth visiting. It is okay to enter the mosque and they even give daily tours, just not during prayer services, and you should certainly visit it, everyone was really nice and welcoming inside and it has really splendid decorations that is worth taking a closer look at.

Next to the mosque is the Skanderbeg Square with a statue of George Castriot, commonly known as Skanderbeg, standing upon it. The name feels kind of misleading as it's a grassy plain rather than a square. Castriot, or Skanderbeg is one of the most famous Albanian national heroes who began his life as a hostage/ward with the Ottoman Empire to guarantee the loyalty of his noble family. He remained in the service of the Ottomans until the Battle of Nis in 1443 where he deserted them and took up service with the Republic of Venice who controlled the northern part of modern day Albania. He stayed with the Venetians until 1447 when he took service with the Kingdom of Naples whom he stayed with until his death in 1468.

He led an independent army of some 10.000 soldiers whom for 25 years won battle after battle against larger and more well equipped Ottoman forces which earned him a legendary status and the respect and admiration from friend and foe alike.

Facing Skanderbeg is the Museum of National History which is a really nice museum that houses several interesting artefacts and is really worth a visit if you are interested in the history of the region. It stretches all the way back to cave paintings, through the Roman era to the time of the battles against the Ottomans under Skanderbeg whose sword and helmet are on display here (unfortunately only copies are available for viewing for the general populace). It also covers the more modern history of the time under the occupation of the Nazi forces as well as suffering under the communist regime. They also have a stone in the museum from Hiroshima where the atomic bomb hit and they have placed a pledge of peace upon it which is such a beautiful things.

Since I still had time left before I was supposed to meet up with Cleon I took a brief walk around the city and soon came upon the really interesting and modern looking Orthodox Church of Evangelism. It's really cool and certainly worth taking an extra walk to visit!

I also took a peek at the Memorial of the 100th Anniversary of the Independence of Albania, it's a nice monument located in a park near the National Arts Gallery and the National Experimental Theatre (it's pretty cool that they actually have a National Experimental Theatre). I walked around and took a look at the pieces of the old castle walls that still remain and I checked out the very picturesque Tanner's Bridge.

I also took a peek at the Albanian Parliament and paid homage to the nearby Monument to Communist Terror, standing in front of the former state building, as well as the mosaic commemorating the 100th anniversary of when the Albanian national flag was raised in Tirana in 1912. I also took a look at another interesting and modern looking church, the Catholic Cathedral of Saint Paul, but I didn't go in at first but I returned and visited later together with Cleon.

At the agree time I met up with Cleon and first we returned to his home, a beautiful apartment that he rents together with two others. He gave me a bite to eat and a cold beer which felt really good after walking around all day, While we ate and drank beer we talked a lot about everything, we had really deep and meaningful conversations, he is the type of person that you instantly feel trust for and that feels like you've been friends all of your life. He is originally from the Americas but he came here during the war to help in whatever way he could and afterwards he remained and now he is a volunteer English teacher.

Once we felt rested he took me on a tour of the city, revisiting some of the places that I already visited earlier but since he is very knowledgeable he gave a lot of historical context to the areas that we passed which really elevated the experience for me.

As I had already noticed, from the strange monuments to Communist terror to the derelict buildings once housing the totalitarian regime, Albania used to be a part of the Communist regimes that held it's totalitarian grasp on much of Eastern Europe. One man truly symbolises this totalitarian regime, Enver Hoxha, the First Secretary of the Party of Labour of Albania. He was in reality the dictator of Albania from 1944 up until his death in 1985 and his legacy is clearly visible to this day all over Albania.

All over both the city centre and the country as a whole stands thousands upon thousands of bunkers, some 173.000 in total! These are the result of Enver Hoxha's ever increasing paranoia, the purpose of them was to turn the very population of Albania into a weapon, allowing every man woman and child to be given a gun and take up a fortified position to fight against a possible invasion. The cost of constructing all of these bunkers is still very visible as it drained funds from housing, roads and all facets of infrastructure, a cost that Albania is still trying to recover from to this very day.

Nowadays these bunkers are used for a variety of things, such as art galleries, exhibitions, museums and so on, but the vast majority of them are simply left abandoned. One of them have been turned into a Memorial to Communist isolation and has been named Checkpoint. The actual bunker is named Bunker TR III 1976 and it once guarded the entrance to the segregated residential block where Enver Hoxha and other senior Communist officials used to live. In addition to the bunker there is also a piece of the Berlin Wall there as well as concrete supports from the infamous Spac labour camp where political prisoners, who opposed Communism, suffered between 1969 to 1990.

Together with Cleon I visited this memorial as well as the perhaps most striking monument to Enver Hoxha, the infamous Pyramid of Tirana! It was originally built by Enver Hoxha's daughter Panvera Hoxha and opened in 1988 under the name Enver Hoxha Museum. However, as the Communist regime fell in 1991, the pyramid was vandalised and looted as it represented the excess of the totalitarian regime that terrorised the Albanian people for so long. It used to be clad in beautiful white marble but it has all been ripped away, exposing it's hard concrete skeleton.

Over the years the Pyramid of Tirana have seen many different uses, it's been an exhibition hall, a conference centre, a TV broadcasting station and during the Kosovo War it even served as a NATO base.

After Cleon had shown me these remnants of the paranoid totalitarian he decided to show me the modern and open side of Albania instead and so we went to the Sky Bar where we shared a few beers, this is an experience that is a must while you're here as the bar is slowly spinning around so the view, which is great, constantly changes! It was highly memorable and a really enjoyed the time we spent there, continuing our great conversations, I really enjoy Cleon's company and I'm really lucky I got to stay with him!

We decided to take a stroll into the Grand Park of Tirana, which has it's own artificial lake, where we could rub elbows with the locals. It was very enjoyable with not a tourist in sight. While we were walking around there Cleon bought me a traditional Albanian desert which was so delicious. I wish I remember the name of it so I could tell you to go get it!

After that we went to a local bar and grill and had a few more beers while we kept up our great discussions. Here though we actually had a surprise encounter with the two Germans that I met on the train going from Belgrade to Skopje. We were supposed to have been in the same couchette until I got kicked out since I was a Euro short. I was sort of surprised that none of them offered to help out with that. I decided to let bygones be bygones though so I invited them over to share some drinks and some food and then we offered to show them around as well even though it was getting dark.

We gave them about half the tour before Cleon showed them how to see the rest. He told me, once we separated from the Germans, that he thought they were nice guys but to closed which I agreed with. I also told him what happened on the train and he was a baffled as I was as to why none of them offered to help out in the couchette.

With that we decided to retire for the night and go to bed. Tomorrow I will continue to Shkodra and from there I will catch a bus to Ulcinj in Montenegro and perhaps from there on to Podgorica.

Until tomorrow I wish you all peace and happy travels!

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