Albania – Europe’s former recluse

They say that Einstein said that the sign of an idiot was doing the same thing twice (actually I think the word was repeatedly) and expecting a different outcome. This is the thesis of the Idiot Traveller. I am a world expert, while travelling, in repeating mistakes.

I command that you stop misquoting me…

I am also happy to go on accrediting the saying (in reality it was “Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results“) to Einstein, although there is no evidence he ever said it.

So having done little travelling in the last year it was important to follow the the creed of the Idiot Traveller. You start with booking your car, for pick up on arrival in Tirana, on the wrong day. Cost: an extra €30. You compound this by booking it for return two days after you leave, cost €60 (wasted). How does one do this? Buggered if I know.

Then based on these mistakes you book your car in Podgorica a day late and at the airport. Which isn’t useful when you are arriving by bus. Cost €20 (taxi fare) and €30 (extra days rental).

Then of course there is the small issue of leaving bits of my DNA everywhere. No, not in that sense. Two pairs of sunglasses, adaptor, hat, keys (requiring me to be rescued via a new set of keys sent by taxi). The list goes on. You’d think that after 55 years of travelling (yes I was first stuck unaccompanied on a plane at 8) that you’d learn to check twice before moving.

Arrival

So, our first job was to persuade the rental company to find a car a day early. This might have been easier if I hadn’t decided to try and entertain the rental car person with my witty repartee about drivers in Turkey and Georgia; asking him if Albanian drivers drove like Turks or Georgians (the thesis being that Turks are good drivers and Georgians are simply people in cars with a death wish).

That’s right. Jokes don’t work well in second languages. He looks at me strangely and replies “No they drive like Albanians. Here we are Albanians”

Panda 2 (right): cheaper to run and prettier

On finding we have a Fiat Panda and him asking if a Panda is ok for us. I tell him it’s fine. Cheap to run. Just find a patch of bamboo. That joke doesn’t work either. At which point Kaylee tells me I’m an idiot (traveller) and the car guy thinks so too.

Solitary confinement creates trauma..

Albania, was until 1991 Europe’s equivalent of North Korea. An entirely closed and paranoid society. Its long time leader, Enver Hoxha (pronounced Hodgeha) believed Albania was the only true communist society on earth and refused to even associate with Russia or China after they fell out.

Enver Hoxha – no longer able to poke his nose into other people’s business

No one was allowed to leave Albania and few people, if any, entered. The society was a police state with everyone subject to strict controls and surveillance. Any breach of the rules and everyone in your family paid the price.

If Albania were a person (Al Bania) he would be a very disturbed individual and this, perhaps, explains Albania’s many idiosyncrasies.

The House of Leaves

Albania’s trauma is well documented in a great little museum called the “House of Leaves” located in central Tirana just across from the orthodox cathedral.

Albania was, for fifty years, the archetypal police state. Every aspect of public and private life was controlled via the state security apparatus.

Tens of thousands of Albanians were recruited as state spies to eavesdrop and spy on their fellow citizens. Virtually no one was allowed to enter or leave the country. The society was completely closed. Everything was rationed. In 1991 there were a mere 3000 cars in the entire country (heaven!!)

The House of Leaves Museum tells the story of the ubiquitous state security apparatus. The walls list the thousands executed, imprisoned or persecuted by the state under the leadership of Enver Hoxha (pronounced Hodgeha).

Mercedes for everyone

One of the first things one notices about Albania are the German cars, especially the Mercedes. For a poorish European country it has a remarkable number of expensive cars. That, in itself would not be an issue except that there is a German car gene that emerges in Albanians driving German cars…it’s a sort of arsehole gene which convinces them that they can drive as they want regardless of road rules, safety or manners.

If you drive a Mercedes you may overtake where you want, when you want. You may drive at whatever speed you feel like but, most importantly, it is compulsory to treat every other car driver as a second class citizen, cutting them off , cutting in, abusing them and generally. No level of psychopathy is too extreme for Mercedes owners.

This specific problem (call it the Mercedes syndrome) is compounded by an odd Albanian trait which essentially persuades all Albanians that it permissible to simply stop wherever they want, for whatever reason. Need to grab a coffee. No worries! Simply stop in the middle of the road, blocking all traffic, and nick in for take away. Feel like a park? Don’t worry about finding a parking place. Just stop. Need to pick your nose? Look at your phone? Think about the meaning of life? Just stop where you are. No worries.

Mercedes, yes, religion and communism, No!!

One of the side effects of 50 years of totalitarian communism (a sort of oxymoron) apart from a love of symbols of outrageous consumerism (eg Mercedes, BMWs and Audis) is that all the most obvious remaining signs of the era have been systematically erased, except perhaps in Albanians commitment to secularism (it is the least religious society on earth some say).

The giant statues of Stalin, Lenin and Enver Hoxha now hang out discreetly behind the museum, hidden from the everyday of Albanians, waiting, one day perhaps, to be restored as a part of history rather than as the open wound of the recent past, as they might currently be seen. We visited Stalin, Lenin and Hoxha, where they were hanging out, as part of the city walking tour (highly recommended) which also included Enver Hoxha’s house – also closed for now as part of the same concept of keeping the recent past hidden.

Ironically, directly across from Hoxha’s erstwhile house is a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet (apparently Albania’s first fast food outlet – as yet Albania has no McDonalds) the sign of which reflects nicely in Hoxha’s living room window – a symbol, so our guide tells us of the victory of capitalism.

The remnants of the recent past are everywhere. In the park on the corner are one of the 270 bunkers built all over Tirana/Albania from which the valiant Albanians would repel the perfidious Americans, Russians, Chinese etc. And in the middle of the park a piece of the Berlin wall sent to commemorate the fall of communism. It sits next to a replica of the entrance to the chrome mines where political prisoners were sent to mine and die.

The abandonment of the past is not restricted to images but to buildings also. On our tour we pass the Pyramid, constructed after Hoxha’s death and intended to be a massive memorial to his memory. Today, after several uses over the years, including as a Telecom building it lies empty.

The “Pyramid” now lies empty.

Despite the irreligious attitudes of Albanians, the wasteful symbols of formal religion abound. A new and, as yet, unfinished mosque donated by Turkey (a miniature version of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul) – costing billions because the Turks need to waste their spare billions on something – and a cathedral incorporated in 2014 and incorporating an impressive ceiling with the largest mosaic in the Balkans.

Speed limits and speed humps (aka sleeping policemen to the Poms)

In theory there are speed limits in Albania but everyone ignores them. There is a good reason for this as Albanian speed limits are totally idiosyncratic. You can be speeding down a freeway at 80-100 kph and next minute there is a 30k speed limit. The reason? An intersection. Never mind that only one tractor and a passing camel have emerged from that intersection since Christ was a boy. And it’s like that at every intersection. So everyone just ignores them.

Similarly most stretches of superhighway have 30, 40 or 50 k limits for no apparent reason other than either (a) a peculiar Albanian sense of perverse humour (let’s really give drivers the shits) or (b) let’s collect lots of traffic fines by imposing weird and ridiculous speed limits.

If this were not enough, Albanians have an obsessive love for speed humps. Everywhere. And often. And in the weirdest places.

That is bad enough in itself but for whatever reason the accepted speed to traverse a speed hump is apparently 0.1 kph. So everyone slows to a virtual stop even though most of the humps could be comfortably crossed at 50 kph. The reason for this excessive caution is not clear but maybe goes back to when there were only 3000 cars in the country and a car cost you the equivalent of 10 years wages.

Having said this, most of the speed humps are entirely unnecessary since traffic in Tirana makes traffic in Istanbul or Sydney look like a paragon of fast flowing traffic. The city is one large traffic jam – but nevertheless it has many redeeming features from a plethora of tree lined pedestrian streets, good markets, to great night life, good food (especially the boreks) and lots of friendly, helpful people.

Meeting the Deputy Minister for Justice

You know how it is? You rock up in your AirBnB in Divjake after going out for dinner and go to tell your host (who speaks no English) that you will be leaving very early in the morning so will not need breakfast. Not to worry. she indicates that her daughter, Fjoralda, speaks good English. So we sit on the lounge chatting about life, death, Albania etc…Eventually I ask Fjoralda about her work and life and it turns out that Fjoralda Caka is the Albania Deputy Minister for Justice. You never know who you will meet on the lounge in Divjake.

A pleasant evening with the Deputy Minister for Justice, Fjoralda Caka and her Mother

A day at the beach and in the mountains

This was the archetypal Australian at the beach experience. Arriving in Divjake – which unlike many of the ugly beachside towns find throughout the Mediterranean (see eg most of Spain, most of the Albanian and Montenegrin coastal architecture) – has made a real effort with its buildings and streetscapes.

It’s a hot day and we head for the beach – which turns out to be a wasteland of eroded dune systems – systematically vandalised by thousands of cars – dirty looking water in a lagoon etc. We dutifully pay our beach entry fee anyway and head out on the long ricketty boardwalk which had been built over the lagoon out to the ocean proper…

The boardwalk ends at a bar on the beach which, at least serves good gin and tonic and plays some good blues…while we contemplate the miles of cars and umbrellas on the beach and long for a proper Australian beach.

If you can criticise Albanian beaches (or at least the ones we saw because we heard Himare and other places are much better) – you can’t criticise the mountains which are spectacular and a welcome escape from the heat and crowds of the coast. if you are a walker or mountain lover – Albania’s alps are beautiful and rugged.

Skanderbeg and Krujë

Then there is the famous Skanderbeg. Now you may never have heard of Skanderbeg but every Albanian has. There is a statue on every second street corner in Albania. There are Skanderbeg streets, Skanderbeg parks and a giant Skanderbeg museum to be found in Krujë just outside Tirana.

But there is more. Not content with populating the country with more Skanderbeg statues than there are Albanian citizens, they are busy erecting Skanderbeg statues in every other country in the world. No Skanderbeg in your country? Don’t worry one is coming soon.

Skanderbeg mania and idolatry not withstanding, Krujë is well worth a visit. The old citadel incorporates not just the aforementioned museum, but the ethnographic museum, a great old church now converted to a mosque and incorporating some nice frescoes, among other things such as great views, the Skanderbeg olive tree….

See the full set of images on Flickr below click links):

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