Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Albania – Tirana and Albania’s tyrannical past

July 27-28

Hello everyone!

Ever since 1920, the capital and most important city in Albania has been Tirana. During its near-century of being an integral part of Albania, Tirana has experienced many booms and busts. Time to explore.

Nowadays many cities offer free walking tours so you can learn a little bit more about the buildings you see and hear some insight into life in the city which the internet often misses. The Tirana edition was very good, detailing many aspects of the city’s recent past and highlighting random yet interesting places of note.

The better tour guides are even able to joke and mock certain aspects of their country. To give an example, our leader took time to describe Albania’s fascinating flag which shows a two-headed eagle. He said it symbolises the country because one person argues one thing and someone else will always argue against it, causing them to turn their heads away in disgust.

The symbol of Albania: the two-headed eagle
Our tour leader in action

So what’s in Tirana? Well, George W Bush Street, for starters. He came here in 2007 to champion their ultimately successful campaign to join NATO. He later went to a village and chatted to locals and we were told that the village actually erected a statue of Bush. As our guide said, some Americans are more popular in Albania than in their own country…

The statue of George W. Bush in Kruja, Albania

American Presidents from a different era are also glorified, such as Woodrow Wilson, in Tirana

The other famous person glorified in Tirana who isn’t from Albania is Mother Teresa, known as Nënë Tereza here. If you’ve read my previous posts you’ll know that Macedonia proudly proclaims Ma Teresa as theirs, yet Albania do the same based on the fact that her heritage is from northern Albania or Kosovo (no one is sure). The airport and main hospital for Tirana bear her name and the main Catholic Church has a statue of her outside and a lovely mosaic inside. The latter is made out of sea shells.

Macedonian, Albanian, Indian: a positive global influence
The mosaic inside the church is made of sea shells

What interested me most about the Mother Teresa section of our walk was our guide saying that, until 1991, no one in Albania knew who she was or what she did. This was because of the country’s self-inflicted period of isolation under their dictator, Enver Hoxha. I mentioned in my last blog that he’s now not a revered, popular man. This was hammered home during my time in Tirana, the fact that you can still buy books written by him notwithstanding.

The book title translates as, "20 years new socialist Albania."

The people of Albania seem keen to forget these years, knowing now that they weren’t well off and were suffering badly in spite of the propaganda rammed into their ears (not many people had TVs as you had to apply to the government for a licence). In spite of this, some communist relics remain, such as the mosaic of Albanian history visible above the main square and Hoxha’s house.

The mosaic, with communist imagery to the fore

The Hoxha house in Tirana

One other visible memory of the Hoxha era – and difficult to miss in spite of their purpose, as there are apparently over 700,000 of them in the country – are the bunkers. You could call it a defensive tactic, you’re more likely to call it paranoia, but military pillboxes are dotted around Albania. I’ve seen them in the mountains and in the city. To test their strength, a man stood inside one and they fired a tank shell at it. He came out alive, though he was understandably deaf after the experiment.

Bunker in central Tirana

A well-hidden bunker on Mt Dajti

There’s also a building which was designed by Hoxha’s daughter which meant to serve as a communist monument: the pyramid. Alas, the authoritarian regime soon lost their grip and democratic, if corrupt, elections were held in 1992. Now the pyramid is in a state of disrepair as no one knows what to do with it.

The rather run-down pyramid

Bad times didn’t stop after the fall of communism, a fact enshrined by the bell across from the pyramid. The bell is made from bullet shells collected after the anarchy of 1997, when supposedly 70% of Albanians lost their money from dodgy pyramid schemes.

The bell made of bullet shells

Of course, a walking tour sticks to the main attractions or areas of importance. What I find just as interesting is walking down side streets or into less-known districts to see what local life is really like. As you can imagine, very different from the main square.

This woman is scraping a cardboard box along the street to collect leaves

Anyone need a sofa?

In spite of this, Tirana – indeed, Albania thus far – doesn’t seem to be that different from places I’ve been before. It’s a melting pot that stirs memories from a variety of places. The fruit of the markets reminds me of Uganda; the selling of appliances on the street evokes images of India; the burek paints pictures of other eastern European places I’ve visited thus far. People don’t speak much English but it’s probably not much worse than in the surrounding countries. Some things are exclusive, such as the language, but it doesn’t strike me as being particularly unique or backwards due to its period in the naughty corner in the 1980s.

I was able to ponder and discuss these things on a hike up a mountain overlooking Tirana. The location is part of the justification for moving the capital here 95 years ago. Getting near the top was an Albanian ordeal in itself. Finding the cable car took a while as locals, trying to be helpful, kept pointing us in different directions. One seemed to suggest that we walk through a tunnel; what we experienced was the sort of tension one would get from being the star of a real-life horror movie.

One of the creepier caves I'll visit on this trip. I hope...

Haven't even bothered to translate this one - the barbed wire is a bit of a giveaway

After locating and taking the longest cable car in the Balkans (15 minutes), we set about hiking up to the top of Mt Dajti. Not being a key tourist attraction, the route up is loosely marked. After quite a few wrong turnings, we got very close to the top…to be told that we were on private territory owned by the police or government and that we couldn’t go further. Turns out they use the peak as a communications base.

Mt Dajti from the cable car
'The Peak'

Not to worry, however, as we found a gem of a spot: a rock jutting out of the mountain.

I’ve found Tirana to be a cheap, friendly and cheerful place. The focal point of the country has clearly been the victim of much upheaval throughout the 20th century and is trying to find its niche in the modern world. Its best asset, along with the mountain, is the mixture of its architecture: medieval, communist and modern live side-by-side, creating a strange and alluring city to explore.

Love you all


Monday, 27 July 2015

Albania – Run to the hills

July 25-26

Hello everyone!

It’s now time to head north in order to get back to Prague. This involves travelling through a variety of young nations which used to be part of Yugoslavia. Many of these countries will be similar in terms of language, food and culture. One, however, doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest. That place happens to be my first stop: Albania.

Indeed, Albania is known for not fitting in. It is one of the very few European languages not to be derived from the Latin or Slavic families. It also famously went through a period of isolation throughout the Cold War, somehow managing to shun the Yugoslavs, Americans, Russians and Chinese at various points until it was left with no one else to turn to.

View of Gjirokaster's 'New Town' from the top of the Old Town hill

The quality of transport in Albania: mostly better than this, thank goodness...

They were led into isolation by a dictator called Enver Hoxha, a man who seems to be from the Stalin school of political repression. Interestingly enough, he was born in the hillside town of Gjirokaster: where I am now.

Enver Hoxha: universally unpopular in Albania since his death in 1985

His house, larger than most, is still visible on the street. The fact that it is advertised as an ‘Ethnographic Museum’ rather than ‘Hoxha’s House’ may give you some insight into how he is viewed nowadays, particularly by the younger generation. The plaza you see below used to have a large statue of Hoxha, with him looking over the town and being omnipresent. It’s not there now: read into that what you will.

The House of Hoxha's birth

What was once the lookout point of Hoxha's imposing statue has now been converted into a bar

I learnt this, and much more, on a walking tour of the town conducted by two high school students: Edita and Elisa. They also showed me some of Gjirokaster’s hidden secrets, such as the ‘Crazy Street’, so called because of the strange noises that drunk men’s shoes would make on the wet and wobbly cobbles.

'Crazy Street'

This is a wall. The silver part is the remains of pop-out cutlery. Make do with what you can...

The town is steep in many senses. The old town is situated at the top of a particularly sheer slope; I had great fun lugging my backpack up it whilst avoiding the incoming storm.

The last 5% of the road I had to lug my backpack up

 It is also steeped in history. The old town is itself a UNESCO Heritage Site. The most obvious link to its past, however, is the castle which, from the new town at the bottom, seems to reach the clouds.

View from Gjirokaster's castle

The castle is one of the largest in the Balkans and possibly one of the oldest, with evidence of a 7th Century BC Iron Age settlement. It was an important defensive location for the Ottoman Empire during their centuries of rule in the Middle Ages.

The little-cared-for interior of the castle

The contrast of beauty and brute force

Eventually the castle was used as a garrison and, during Hoxha’s early rule, a prison for communist protestors. Part of the prison now houses machine guns captured from the Italians and Germans during World War 2. It also contains an Italian Fiat tank, one of only 283 produced.

A German rocket launcher from WW2

Look at me, I'm driving a tank!

One of the stranger additions to the castle is an American spy plane which lost its bearings and had to land in Tirana. Why it’s ended up here, I have no idea.

The American spy plane

What aren’t steep are the prices. £1 is roughly 200 Albanian lek. I’m sure you can imagine my joy at paying 350 lek for my dinner and beer below. The food is a Gjirokaster speciality called Qifqi (pronounced tyif-tee – remember I said that the language was like no other?), which are essentially fried rice balls. You could make the argument that quality, both in terms of food and drink, costs money. Not my most satisfying meal.

How to have a lovely evening for less than £2

Being perched high in the hills, overlooking precarious-looking slabs which are fashioned together to makes roofs, Gjirokaster is a spectacular sight and possesses some extraordinary views. It’s been a rather sedate introduction to life in Albania but one which I’ve enjoyed.

Love you all