[Travel Diary] A week in Albania

As the minivan rattled its way towards Albania, winding through the last valleys of eastern Montenegro, I realised I knew nothing of the country I was about to enter. Dazed by an unsuccessful attempt at hitch-hiking which would have ended with sunstroke had I not given up mid-afternoon, I could think up anything else than Taken and its Albanians traffickers, stereotyped to the extreme in the service of vengeance.

A five-day stay in Shköder and Tirana only was by no means sufficient to fill this gap in my understanding of the Balkans. Still, I met many friendly Albanians, all keen to provide a nuanced picture of their long-ignored country. I hope that these 6 Polaroids, annotated based on what I was told by my hosts and guides, can provide intriguing snapshots – however anecdotal they may be – and arouse interest in the history and current evolutions of a country that is trying to emerge from decades of isolation, oppression and economic under-development at the hands of a hard-line Stalinist regime, its people striving to overcome prejudice in the process.

All pictures taken with a vintage Polaroid 600 Cool Cam on black and white 600 film well past its due date, scanned using an Epson Stylus SX235W, but not edited. This is the third part of a series on my Balkan Travels. See part I and part II.

The city of Shköder is one of the most ancient in the Balkans. The ruined castle overlooking the city and nearby lake is a key historical site, as it successively served as a stronghold for the Illyrians (one tribe of which, the Albani, gave their name to Albania), the Romans, Venetians, and was the site of important battles against the Ottomans and Montenegrins.

After visiting the abandoned hotel complex of Kupari in Croatia, my eye for the decrepit, graffitied places that line the coasts of the Balkans was sharpened. As I cycled around Shköder lake I spotted a lakeside building in the distance, so I approached it, a skeleton structure devoid of windows and outer walls. Sitting on the upper balcony was Marko, nephew of the rich but now imprisoned owner, hence the unfinished state of what would have become a luxurious property. He welcomed me warmly in this space, which he used as an escape into quiet contemplation. We spoke at length of the dire lack of work in the town, despite the recent uptick in tourism, of the loneliness of unemployment, of his habits of fishing and smoking to while away the time. He told me how he dreamt to put together enough money to fly to Italy, or France, to start a new life.

On the right is Rozava Castle. As elsewhere in the Balkans, national identity is defined as adherence to national symbols. This includes the flag, using the two-headed eagle coat of arms set on a deep red field – pictured flying here over the castle – the language, the national hero Skanderbeg, and, according to my guide in Tirana, the driving of German-made cars and a passion for football. To its people, the country is known as Shqipëria, rather than Albania, and those who identify as ethnic Albanians call themselves Shqiptarë. Many take these terms to signify “Land of the Eagles” and “Children of the Eagles”. 

Pictured left is the impressive mosaic dominating Tirana’s main square. Completed in 1980 at the hands of five artists, it represents the struggles of a territory claimed and dominated by external forces. In the centre, a revolutionary couple marches victorious, bearing a rifle and the Albanian flag. The figures to the left represent almost 2000 years of continued defiance against oppression in a territory constantly buffeted by imperial ambitions – Roman, Byzantine, Bulgarian, Serbian and Ottoman, to name but the main conquerors. Those on the right depict the working class in arms against the Italian Fascists and the Nazis. Matching this spirit of unity is the main square itself, named after the national hero Skanderberg. Recently restored, it is now paved with coloured stones from across the whole country and beyond, symbolising the variety of origins of Tirana residents, as the capital has attracted a great deal of internal migration, now housing a third of the national population, while the Albanian diaspora has spread all over the world.

The concrete pyramid on the right was erected as a monument to Albania’s dictator Enver Hoxha following his death in 1985. Contained within was a museum, which every Albanian was obliged to visit at least once yearly until the fall of the regime, in 1991. Since then, it has served multiple uses: as a conference centre, military base for NATO forces during the Kosovo war (1999), TV broadcasting centre, and night club (“one of the better ones”, said the guide). The Democratic Party at one point decided to tear it down in favour of a new Parliament building, but lacked the funds and fell from power, so it now lies abandoned. Public opinion is divided regarding the structure’s future. While some wish to preserve it as a site of historical importance, many see in it only an unwelcome reminder of the communist regime’s violence.

The communist era was a time of intense paranoia. Fearing invasions from western and soviet block forces alike, Hoxha closed all borders and initiated a sustained campaign of “bunkerisation”, inspired by a visit to North Korea. Hundreds of thousands of bunkers of all sizes were dug between the 1960s and mid-1980s, from 2-person “mushrooms” to division headquarters with several kilometres of tunnels. The entrance pictured on the left is to one of the latter, Tirana’s principal bunker where Hoxha himself would retreat in the event of nuclear or chemical attack. Now converted into a museum named Bunk’art 1, the underground galleries house photographs and historical documents tracing the history of the regime from its origins in WWII resistance to the Italian and Nazi occupations through to its eventual demise in the early 90s. Albania was never attacked.

A 5-star hotel and the tallest sky-scraper of the capital, the building pictured on the right stands 85 metres tall. Since the collapse of communism, Albania has aspired to present itself as a modern country, an effort which seems to have included the construction of tall buildings. Perhaps more ambitious and challenging are the country’s efforts to meet criteria for acceptance into the European Union since it was accepted as a candidate in 2014. Much remains to be done, the European Commission having assessed the country as “moderately prepared” to implement European law in the majority of policy areas under review, and pointed to others, such as science and research, agricultural and rural development, fisheries, freedom of movement for workers and consumer and health protection as being only in their early stages of implementation.