Europe, Travel diary

A walk through Albania’s history

I had heard from others that the walking tour in Tirana was a must. At 6pm, it was still 35 degrees. I was hoping for an amazing experience, to justify how hot it was. I was not disappointed.

Our walking tour began under the giant Albanian flag, in the main square. There, our guide Gaxi introduced himself. And his dog ‘friend’, who he explained would follow us around the whole time. Normally the dog doesn’t find the group until a bit later. He acts as a guard dog, barking and chasing off other dogs and people who come close. Over the course of the walking tour, the pack of guard dogs grow. Very odd.

Gaxi is a 40 year old Albanian who lived through communist times, and said no question was too hard to answer. He wanted to give us an honest insight into Albanian history.

He explained that the square is raised, as the people should be at the heart of everything. It was only finished in June, and cost €13 million. He kept exclaiming, “where are all the euros? I can’t see that many euros”. He kind of had a point. Surrounded by communist era buildings, the square will be used for social public events, to create more of a community vibe.

The Tirana hotel, as we learnt in Bunkart 2, was used to host any foreign diplomats or visitors. It was fully set up with hidden microphones and bugs for spying on everything that was going on.

We stopped outside the mosque. It’s an lucky occurrence that this is still standing. In communist times, religion was banned, and many religious buildings were destroyed. I went in after, and it’s a beautiful building inside.

We passed the entrance to Bunkart 2, which was only built two years ago. It is a museum in an old bunker, focusing on the people affected by the war and then by communism. Some locals were mad a new bunker dome had been built in the centre of the city, and protested. By setting it on fire. They don’t do things by halves. If you pay attention, you’ll see the front is damaged, and there’s a huge hole covered in Perspex.

Bunkart 2 in Tirana, Albania

Gaxi explained that at school, they were taught that Albania was the strongest, most prosperous country in the world. They would be taught that if they were invaded by Russia and the USA at the same time, they would win. There were 150,000 bunkers built around the country. They had planned to build 250,000 of them. At the site of one of the bunkers, a piece of the Berlin Wall stands, as a reminder.

A piece of the Berlin Wall in Tirana, Albania

I had always thought Albania was part of Yugoslavia. I didn’t realise that they thought Yugoslavia wasn’t communist enough. They teamed up with China, and Gaxi was explaining that he’s talked to people who lived in Mao’s China. They said during school they would chant, ‘long live Mao, long live Hoxha’. In Albania they did the same. They used to watch Chinese movies, and the Chinese loved Albania’s ‘European classics’.

When Mao died in 1980, even they were no longer communist enough for Albania. They closed their borders, shooting anyone who tried to escape. If you did manage to escape, they killed your family. I couldn’t get my head around how a country managed to convince its people to keep each other inside. Every other place I’ve been, it’s been race or religion that has meant people can distance themselves, shooting or enslaving their own. But it was awful to see that they could do this to their own people. Not by choice I’m sure.

Someone asked Gaxi why it’s rumoured that Albanians weren’t allowed to swim. He said that they were, just not near where some borders were. If you lived in Sarande, near the Greek border, you had to have a permit to live there. And if your family wanted to visit, it all had to be signed off.

Gaxi explained to us that blood feuds still exist in Albania. His grandma’s family was tied up in one with another family. Someone tried to shoot someone else in his family, but shot his grandma instead. It wasn’t allowed to shoot women or children, so they went to the town leaders to be advised on how to settle it. In the end, they had to give his family two cows. And then it all kicked off again. Communism put a stop to the blood feuds. But once it fell, some families said “hey, do you remember how your grandad killed mine?” And off they have started again. Obviously the law stops them happening now, but the tension between some families is still there.

Before 1991, there were only 900 cars in Albania. Someone asked where there are so many Mercedes all over the country. They were the only cars that could run on old communist diesel, and that coped on the non-existent roads. They have now become a status symbol. The new, shiny ones that is!

The man who followed on from Hoxha when he died in 1989 was more liberal. In 1991, he won parliament again, but it wasn’t a fair vote. In 1992, the Democratic Party won in a free election.

Mother Teresa left Albania before communism began. This would have been a good thing, as religion was no longer allowed. She went to India, to ‘help the world’s poorest’. When she returned to Albania in 1989, she wanted to build a home for the poor people. But was told there were none, since everyone was equal. Turns out the whole country could have done with her help.

In 1992, Gaxi described how strange it was going from a very restricted world, to an extremely liberal one. Everyone went a bit nuts. The government was getting people to invest in pyramid schemes, and in 1997 the country went bankrupt. Every family armed themselves, and he said his family had two AK-47s as protection.

Lots of the buildings all over the country are half finished. Some will have the scaffolding, but nothing in between. This wealth and the crashes around it would explain this. He also said some people will build what they can while they have the money. So every few years will add on a bit more.

Now, Albania has a 15% unemployment rate. Compared to some of the ex-Yugoslav countries, they are doing pretty well. They hope to be part of the EU in the next seven years, and hope that this will help with the corruption that does still happen.

We stopped outside Hoxha’s house, in the area of Tirana that used to be walled off, for diplomats. It still stands empty, the government unsure what to do with it.

A walk through Albania's history - Hoxha's house, standing empty since 1992 in Tirana, Albania

The history of Albania is a long one, and extremely colourful. It was amazing to be able to enter a country that in my lifetime, had locked borders. If you’re in Tirana, I would highly recommend Gaxi’s walking tour. He is so happy to answer anything and everything, and wants everyone to have a better understanding of where his country has been, and what they are aiming towards.

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