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2013
Iceland, Finland, Estonia, Russia, Mongolia, China, Thailand, Cambodia and South Korea

2014
Germany, Poland, Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Israel, Jordan and Denmark

2015
Hawaii, Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, Nepal, India and England

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

9/27: Life Under a Brutal Dictator in Tirana, Albania

Our host at Ohrid’s Villa Rustica gave us a bottle of merlot wine made in his hometown as we left after having stayed for three days. What a lovely parting gift!

He then kindly drove us the 15 kms to the town of Struga so we could get the bus to Tirana, the capital of Albania. On the way, he talked about Albania’s former brutal dictator, Enver Hoxha, who was worse even than North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. People needed permission to travel from one village to another, he said. He also mentioned what a very tough time Albanians had emerging from the dictatorship and confronting democracy.
The bus was supposed to leave at 9:30 but it didn’t even arrive until an hour later. I didn’t mind the delay as the station had an electrical outlet and a table so I was happy as a clam as I was able to spend time on one of the posts This was the only station that has had a table so I was quite impressed.
Once the bus finally left, we settled in for our 5.5 hour ride to Tirana. We reached the Albanian border in only 20 minutes.

Scenes from the bus:
We saw a number of round concrete structures dotting the hillsides almost immediately after crossing the border but I didn't whip out my camera in time to take photos of them. We discovered later they were bunkers! More, much more on them, in my next post.



As we neared the center of Tirana, we saw a massive monument of the Albanian eagle that is on the country's flag.
Gas station!

I could have done without seeing the bright pink TMobile logo again. The company deserves an 'A' rating for their brand identification and marketing, I will give them that, but what an eyesore the symbol is in so many otherwise attractive places.
We were so amazed by the very modern and even luxury cars once we arrived in the capital. There wasn’t one clunker anywhere and here we were in Tirana, Albania of all places! The highways all the way along had been in great shape which was very welcome for our derrieres on a five hour plus bus ride! Some of the buildings were very vibrantly colored.
The bus dropped us off on the side of road in the center of Tirana and we walked from there over to the Trip ‘n Hostel which would be our home for the next three nights. We had reserved the only private room which was luckily right next to the shared bathroom. As old as we are, it’s a great bonus having a bathroom nearby in the middle of the night!
The co-owner of the hostel had suggested we go to the little hole in the wall restaurant a few doors away for dinner which was an interesting choice and had lots of atmosphere. It only cost 650 lek, about $5, for my ‘roast beef’ and potatoes, Steven’s moussaka, beer and my bottle of water. There was a massive amount of food. There was no way I could possibly eat all that food but I hoped I didn’t hurt the cook’s feelings too much when I left half of it. I was really hoping for mashed, baked or even boiled potatoes but of course, they were French fries again. What I would give right about now for something other than half cooked French fries!
For the first time I can remember, we took a nighttime free walking tour. It started at 6 at the National Historical Museum which we had walked by earlier on the way to the hostel. Gazi, the guide, said it would only last two hours which we were good for, unlike the 3.5 hour long tour we had taken in Skopje a few days previously. I think another one of those would have sent Steven over the edge for sure!

The National Opera: A huge construction project in the central square had just begun right by it and the Museum
For the first time I can remember, we took a nighttime free walking tour. It started at 6 at the National Historical Museum which we had walked by earlier on the way to the hostel. Gazi, the guide, said it would only last two hours which we were good for, unlike the 3.5 hour long tour we had taken in Skopje a few days previously. I think another one of those would have sent Steven over the edge for sure!

The mosaic is called ‘The Albanians’ and it started with the ancient Illyrians who inhabited Albania, the resistance against the Ottoman Empire, WWII followed by Communism. When the political system changed, the Communist star was removed from the mosaic's flag. 
Gazi joked that the museum does not advertise its hours of operation. It opens about ten and closes about 7 but there is a two hour lunch break at some point in the middle of the day when it is also closed. In other words, he said if we wanted to go, we just needed to take our chances and hoped it would be open! Certainly a novel way to run a national museum, we thought. 
Some background information about Albania: The population, Gazi said, of Albania is three million and one third of the people live in the capital but one third of all ethnic Albanians don't live in Albania at all. The latter fact was startling to me. 70% of the people are Muslim, 20%, Catholic and 10%, Orthodox.  Gazi was very proud of the fact that there is little religious discord in Albania. The main industries are mining, oil and, more recently, tourism

Because private cars were not allowed under the dictator, Albanians only began driving in the 1990s.  Gazi cautioned us therefore to be careful of drivers! We had already noticed that a huge number of seniors in particular rode bikes. That was the major means of transportation under the Communist regime.

He pointed out the massive statue of Gjergj Kastrioti but known simply as Skanderbeg that was erected in 1968 on the 500th anniversary of his death, on the square of the same name in front of the Opera and Museum. We had also seen statues of him recently in Pristina, Kosovo as well as Ohrid. Skanderbeg is an Albanian national hero who kept the country free from Ottoman rule. He came from a princely family whose family’s flag was black and white and had the large eagle on it. Albania adopted that family’s flag in 1912 as its own but changed the white to red to signify the blood lost by those fighting for freedom.
When I remarked on the very unusual shape of this building, Gazi said space is such a premium in the city that builders try to use as little as possible a footprint by constructing vertical buildings. The building was still unfinished as money ran out two years ago to complete it. 
I found this basket-weave style building that was wider at the top than its base interesting.
From the Museum we walked to the Clock Tower which was constructed in the 1820s at the same time as the adjacent Et'hem Mosque in the second picture below. Tirana was chosen as the capital in 1920 because the city is surrounded by mountains and was therefore easier to defend if attacked, Gazi told us.
The mosque is the only remaining mosque out of eight built in Tirana during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Steven decided he had had enough of climbing minarets and clock towers but I was still game so I went up without him. Only six people were allowed on the steps at one time for safety reasons. 
Some views from the Clock Tower including Steven's bald pate:
The adjacent mosque and minaret:

Skanderbeg Square and the National Historical Museum:
I asked Gazi about these rooftop gardens. He said they were on top of the mayor’s office building. Tirana’s mayor is hoping to turn as many rooftops as possible to green spaces, a practice being adopted in many cities in the US, I know.

As of 1967, Albania became the first country to ban all religions under its brutal dictator, Enver Hoxha, Gazi said. All religions were banned and all religious leaders and people caught attempting to follow any religion were persecuted and some were executed. All religious places were destroyed except for the Et’hem Mosque. It was only used for tourists and survived probably because of its proximity to the Clock Tower, Gazi said.

A woman from Kiev took this photo of me atop the Tower.
Government buildings:


On the main boulevard on the way to the National Gallery, Steven and I agreed that no one could claim not to have seen these traffic lights! We thought they were great and wished other cities had such visible lights as these to reduce traffic accidents. Gazi said they were new as of last year.

The massive piece of art outside the National Gallery was entitled ‘The Cloud Pavilion’ and was completed by a Japanese artist at the end of May. It was very unusual and rather intriguing. 
The National Gallery was built during the Communist era as evident from its Socialist style. According to my notes, it contained works by national and international artists unlike the one in Montenegro we had visited. The Gallery’s hours were again arbitrary!
It was while we were here at the Gallery that Gazi talked about Albania’s recent political history. After WWII, the country’s Communist leaders came from the Partisan movement who fought against the Nazis and Italians who both invaded Albania during the war. Enver Hoxha rose to power to be the President by eliminating all his rivals, Gazi said. Some left the country and others were killed. 

Albania isolated itself from the West but was closely tied with the USSR until 1968 when Josef Stalin died. Hoxha declared that Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, was not a good follower of Stalin so Albania isolated itself by also breaking away from the Soviet Union. 
Josip Broz Tito, the President of Yugoslavia, and Hoxha had agreed that Kosovo would be part of Albania. However, when Hoxha criticized Tito for not being a good Communist leader, relations between the two countries broke down. In 1970, Albania allied with China until 1978 when Mao Tse-tung died and his successsor was too moderate for Hoxha.
From 1978 until 1991, Albania was completely isolated from the rest of the world. Because Hoxha was so paranoid, everything had to be produced in the country or the country did without. Gazi said the people were told they were the happiest and strongest country on earth. Everyone had to work for the government as there was no private enterprise. All land belonged to the government until 1991. Food supplies were rationed: only 2 kilos, about 4.5 pounds, of meat were given to each family for an entire month for example. Each family only received 100 grams, about 4 ounces, of coffee and this was in a land of huge coffee drinkers. Alcohol was never limited as it was normally homemade. 

Spies were everywhere, Gazi said. Their goal was to get something from the government or simply for no reason other than to put others down. No travel was allowed outside the country. People trying to escape were shot or sent to prison and their family members faced repercussions too. Albania then was akin to or even worse than what life is like in North Korea today, he said. I have read that one in every 100 citizens was imprisoned while Hoxha was in power.
Young people in Albania today, Gazi stated, don’t believe the drastic restrictions their parents and grandparents had to contend with while Hoxha was in control. Gazi, aged 39, talked briefly about life growing up under Hoxha. It was only after 1991, he joked that Albanians first saw bananas and Coke! The only cars belonged to high government officials and there were only trains in certain parts of the country. Travel around the border areas was severely restricted because of concerns that people only wanted to go to those parts of the country to escape to neighboring countries.
Hoxha died in 1981 and a new leader took his place until 1991 when there were the first free elections. There was a very fragile democracy until 1997 with the greatest Ponzi scheme in place. The leader assured the people their money was safe, that there would be no issues but the economy collapsed and there were massive protests. A new government was elected in 1999. Albania is now a candidate for member status in the European Union. 
The biggest problem facing Albania today in Gazi’s estimation is the corruption in all aspects of daily life. There is much talk of justice reform but no political leader has been sent to prison in 25 years even though that’s all the media talk about daily, Gazi stated. Police won’t stop people for speeding if they are driving a Porsche, for example, because the driver must be a high government official. If you are accused of a crime, you pay off a judge and walk free even now. 

Gazi said Albania has come a long way since those dark days under Hoxha but still has a long way to go. I found it compelling that at no point did he express any concern about my obvious note taking throughout the tour, nor did he ask that I censure what I wrote in this post.
Unlike most pieces of art that always have the ‘Do Not Touch’ signs nearby, this was one we could indeed touch and climb on. It was neat following the arrows to climb up the structure.

From the Gallery, we walked past the remaining walls of the 200 year old fortress. Most of it was destroyed in the two world wars, Gazi said. There are now private homes behind the three meter thick walls.
George W. Bush St: Albanians hold ‘Dubya’ in high regard because the US helped Albania in the war in Kosovo. Albania became a NATO member in 1998.
Gazi described this building as the symbol of Parliament only as its work is done elsewhere. My travel information, however, refer to it as the Presidential Palace. Back in the late 1920s, President Ahmet Zog declared himself to be the king so Albania was a monarchy for eleven years until WWII started. Mussolini, the Fascist ruler of Italy, invaded Albania, Victor Emmanuel III became king and King Zog I fled to England. His hopes of returning after the war were lost afer the establishment of a communist republic under Hoxha in 1945.

The Palace was built by Zog's royal family in 1936 but it was not completed until 1941 when the King had already gone into exile. It was renamed the Palace of the Brigades in honor of the partisans who captured it in WWII.
Next door, a colossal mosque and multicultural center, funded by the Turkish government, was under construction. It will be the biggest in the Balkans when it is due to be completed next year but, as Gazi said, we’ll see! 

FYI: There is debate as to whether Albania is actually part of the Balkans but that was the geopolitical term that he used so I used it here. 
Tanners’ Bridge was erected in the 1800s at the same time as the mosque and Clock Tower. The bridge went across the Lana stream and was adjacent to the area of butchers and leather workers. The stream was rerouted in the 1930s and the bridge was neglected. It was restored in 1998 and is now only a footpath.
The not so ancient Pyramid was our next stop! Designed by Enver Hoxha's daughter and son-in-law and completed in 1988, this monstrously unattractive building was formerly the Enver Hoxha Museum, and more recently a convention center and nightclub. 

Some people on the tour decided to climb it after Gazi told them where the best spot was to do so. One girl decided to slide down it as if it were indeed as slippery as a slide and not made of granite. As a result, her bare heels were terribly torn up as she used her feet to brake her descent. I am sure she must still be feeling the effects of that momentary lapse of judgment. 
St. Paul's Cathedral, one of the biggest and newest Catholic churches in the country, had a statue of Mother Teresa out front. She is revered throughout the country as her parents were Albanian and she was born just over the border in Skopje, Macedonia. Tirana’s airport, Nene Tereza, is named after her. As a prominent religious figure, she was not allowed to enter the country even though her mother and sister lived here until they died. She only came to Albania in 1989 after government officials had visited the US. 

The church was begun in 1993 and completed in 2001. It was only while we were at the church that I discovered Mother Teresa had been named a saint two weeks ago Did I ever feel out of the loop especially since I had been learning and writing so much about her life in the last couple of weeks in these posts!
Gazi took us next to a corner of a park known as the Post Block Memorial. This mushroom-shaped bunker from the 1980s guarded the main entrance to the segregated residential block. Most of the bunkers on private lands have been destroyed for their scrap metal. Gazi said there had been tunnels built from the Parliament Buildings to the bunker so that the country’s leaders could evacuate if necessary. 
This 2.6 ton graffiti-covered slab fragment of the Berlin Wall was given to Albania by the city of Berlin.
There was another part of the Memorial but the photo didn't come out well. I will include it in the next post when we retraced much of our nightime walk the following day.

The adjacent Blloku or Block area, where Enver Hoxha once lived, had been the exclusive residential enclave for government leaders and their families during the Communist era. That location was selected because of its proximity to the city center and to a nearby national park which meant they had a better quality of life. It is now a bustling spot both day and night and the epicenter for Tirana’s beautiful people with expensive hotels, upscale shops and designer cafes and restaurants.

The apartment or condo tower right across the street was built without any prior permission or adherence to building codes. Permission was only given after the fact.
Most of the Orthodox churches in Albania, according to Gazi, were located near the border with Greece. The last stop on the tour was at The Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral that was officially opened in 2014. It was built on a plot of land returned to the Church as compensation for the old cathedral that was destroyed under the Communist regime.
To the side of the Cathedral was a chapel.
We thanked and said good bye to Gazi at this point instead of returning to the Museum as our hostel was close by. Gazi was extremely well informed about his city and country and I appreciated gaining an insight into how paranoid and isolated the Hoxha regime was. It had been an amazing tour and a great introduction to a country I had known embarrassingly little about. It was the perfect way to obtain a sense of what we wanted to further explore in Tirana on our own in the upcoming days.

Posted from Saranda, Albania on October 5th, 2016.

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