24 to 25 July 2018
The drive to Tiranë saw us travel on some of Albania’s most main of main roads. Dual carriageways were a delight but occasionally would peter out to slow single lanes through big towns. Getting closer to Tiranë we even found a road that was almost a motorway but it meant that there was a lot more traffic and that traffic was a lot more erratic. Roundabouts were particularly difficult. It was far from clear who should give way to whom. Some drivers drove at the roundabout at top speed, some very slowly indeed. Driving in Albania was never going to be stress free and Stefan was a little weary of it by the time we arrived in Albania’s capital.
To escape the chaos of the roads and the heat of the day, we started our visit to Tiranë underground. In an innocent looking suburb to the north of the city, hidden under and behind several concrete apartment blocks and a wooded area there is another example of Enver Hoxha’s strategy for responding to foreign attack. Building begun on his enormous bunker in September 1972, making it as old (or perhaps as young!) as me. Entering through thick concrete doors and a decontamination chamber, it was intended as a place of refuge from chemical and other attacks on the country with all the apparatus of communications to enable the continuing government of the country. In many ways it was not very different at all from the Secret Nuclear Bucker we had visited a few years ago in Essex.
Hoxha had his own lino lined and carpeted mini apartment down there.
Original maps still hung on the walls in the operations rooms including one of the UK.
Deep down over five floors of concrete rooms told the story of Communist rule in Albania from the Congress at Permet and the post WWII elections, in which women voted for the first time.
Perhaps one of the strangest exhibits was the mustard gas simulator. As immersive experiences go it was a little unnecessary. But the bunker was never tested. Albania and Tiranë were never attacked during Hoxha’s time.
We stayed in what remains Albania’s largest hotel, the Tirana International Hotel with a wonderful position in the heart of the city right on Skanderberg Square, next to the opera house with views of the Italian style buildings of the 1920s and 30s and the Mosque of Et’hem Bey, currently being restored. Another sculpture of Odhise Paskali celebrates national hero Skanderberg, revered for having united the warring clans of Albania against the Ottomans in the 15th century.
Next door to our hotel was the National History Museum. We waltzed right on passed the ancients and failed to learn anything about the Illyrians. We stopped only briefly to understand that King Zog I declared himself king after independence in the 1920s and bore more than a passing resemblance to Peter Sellers. We hoped to understand more about Mother Teresa and her connection to Albania but the exhibition about her was all in Albanian.
We were again more interested in understanding the country’s recent history and headed to the rooms celebrating the People’s Heros, the men and women who fought against the Italian and German occupations and whose stories have become folklore.
Much as in Greece, young people in particular were fired up by both nationalists (those supporting King Zog) and the communists against their occupiers. The Communists came out on top. Glass cases full of personal belongings told the story of the Partisans who joined the fight. The gun and magazine bag of Persefoni Kokedhima sat in stark contrast to her unfinished embroidery.
And then the horror of the reality of life under the Communist regime, unimaginable to those fearless Partisans, was laid bare in the simple clothing and belongings of its victims: Selim Kelmendi’s hat, coat and letters sent back to his wife by the authorities after he died in prison in 1987; Arben Voglit’s vest, keys and cigarettes found on him after his murder in 1992. Thinking about what we were doing in the late 1980s and early 1990s really brought home to us just what was happening in Albania at the same time.
This outwardly lovely, leafy house was built by King Zog as a maternity hospital but under the Communists its obstetrics clinic was turned to far darker, hidden purposes.
Through beautifully designed displays in the House of Leaves we were introduced to the Sigurimi, Albania’s secret police, responsible for dealing with enemies of the state both internal and external.
The machinery of surveillance was so recent we recognised the models of tape recorders, handycams and dictaphones.
Painful to watch films of survivors of the regime spoke of the fear of speaking out or wondering if your neighbour was an informer and of the horror of being tortured or sent to a prison camp.
A little light relief at the end was a room filled with lovely Communist era furniture. Stefan sat down to read some propaganda.
Not far from the House of Leaves, standing derelict, is what was once the white marble clad pyramid housing a museum to Hoxha. The structure was designed by his daughter, Pranvera, an architect (no nepotism then under the Communists!) but now lies in decay. Outside is a peace sculpture incorporating a bell forged from spent cartridges collected by school children in the mountains.
We spent an hour all alone (except for the staff) in the National Art Gallery. Here we found enormous canvases of Socialist Realist paintings of industrious, fulfilled workers
smug, happy families and rapturous parades for Hoxha. Just the kind of images he wanted to portray to his nation. No one was really allowed to paint anything different and the reality was definitely something else.
A special exhibition downstairs displayed the post Communist paintings of Edi Hila that evoked the confusion and hardship of the period immediately after the fall of the regime and from which the country is still really only just emerging.
Hidden in a locked room and round the back of the museum we found forgotten, dusty and broken sculptures of Lenin and Stalin, removed from their once pride of place.
Ouside the museum Tiranë’s public art was evocative, moving, bright and quirky. It was in every park and on every street corner.
In Tiranë we found lots of lovely cafes and even centres of capitalism that would have Hoxha turning in his nearby grave.
And not far from his grave in a lovely, leafy park we also found the graves of 46 British and Australian soldiers who died in Albania during World War II. The British were actively involved in supporting Albania against the Italians and Germans but later fell out when in 1946 two British destroyers hit mines laid by Albania in the Corfu strait.
We loved Tiranë. It feels like no other city we’ve been to before and taught us so much about Albania. It is alive not just with history but with its people. Everyone just hangs out happily in its parks.
We’d go as far as to say it is up there with our favourite cities and would thoroughly recommend it for a long weekend city break. It is so easy to get around and, despite what Albanians outside the city say, it has a wonderful air of peace and calm. But go quick, before everyone else discovers it.
We could happily have spent another day, even two, there wandering around its leafy streets and parks but we had a date with an altogether more ancient city…