“Why Albania?” “Why not?”
“What have they done to us?” “What have they done for us?”
“See, they keep to themselves. Shifty. Untrustable.”
No, not a weird conversation about where to holiday but a scene from Wag The Dog, where Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman are deciding who America should go to war with. Thankfully it never happened, but if it had you can bet Albania would have been ready. Dotted along its coastline are thousands of concrete bunkers to protect it from invasion - the paranoid legacy of communist dictator Enver Hoxha.
It had been 20 years since communism had died and I was in Albania to see how much the country had changed. To the outside world Albania is still a mystery; a former Socialist People’s Republic “somewhere near Greece where everyone is poor and backward and ride donkeys and the women have moustaches” (they don’t). Sure, it’s not the most advanced country in the world but that’s what makes it so unique. Where else would you see grass being cut on the main square with a scythe? Or a foreign street named after George W Bush?
My quest to discover today’s Albania began in its capital, Tirana. In the 1990s the former mayor - himself an artist - came up with the idea of painting the ubiquitous apartment blocks different colours, to brighten up residents’ lives. As a result the city’s a lot more attractive these days, but it’s never going to win a beauty pageant. No matter, what Tirana lacks in looks it makes up for in character. From the never-ending cacophony of horns as three-wheeled trucks fight with motorbikes navigating Skanderbeg Square, to elderly men warily drinking tea to pass the time of day, the capital of Albania is truly a mish-mash of east meets west with a victor yet to be decided.
As the capital, all roads lead to Tirana and you certainly know when you’re on them. “Pot-holed” is an understatement but bouncing up and down in the back of a furgon taxi adds to the sense of adventure. In typical Balkan fashion these shared taxis have no set schedule (nor departure point for that matter); as soon as they’re full, they’re off. I managed to catch an early morning one and only had to wait 15 minutes before the chugging Mercedes starting making its way to my next destination, Berat. After two hours of Albanian viba-train I was relieved to finally arrive.
“Somewhere near Greece where everyone is poor and backward and ride donkeys and the women have moustaches”
Berat is a charming 2400 year old Ottoman town with houses built one on top of another, earning itself the moniker ‘Town of a Thousand Windows’. I was excitedly met by my host and taken to his ‘welcome room’ for a shot of rakija (a fermented alcoholic drink that’s probably illegal elsewhere). The room itself was magic: traditional curved brick walls, pigeons cooing on the sill, strings of onions hanging from rafters, and the waft of slowly cooking lamb. Another rakija was poured. “Are you going to the Xhiro tonight?” he asked. “It’s Monday so it should be good.” He pointed down to the town.
The Xhiro (pronounced ‘giro’), as it turns out, is one of the most curious rituals I have come across. At a time when we might be watching primetime TV the inhabitants of Berat are walking back and forth down a closed off boulevard, dressed to the nines like its 1987. Furtive glances are exchanged as Europop seeps from the cafes. This is dating, Albania-style. In a country where pre-marriage relations are frowned upon and the Western version of ‘going out’ is non-existent, the nightly Xhiro is the one opportunity to size up potential partners. Like someone? Your relatives can talk to their relatives. We joined in – the walking, not the dating – and amongst the fried sweetcorn hawkers and popped collars you could sense the locals enjoying themselves.
Berat was also where I saw another sign that times have changed. Mount Shpirag, behind the entrance to the township, once had the name “Enver” (after the former dictator) spelt out in huge letters on the mountainside. Today they’ve been rearranged to spell “N.E.V.E.R” – a very large, defiant statement not to repeat the past.
Of course not all of the past was bad. My guide, a Tirana native who had spent much of his life in construction openly opined, “Under communism, we always had a job. No matter how small. Now look around you.” He waved his arm across the square. Men of working age were sitting around doing not much. It was 2:30pm on a weekday. He did admit though that since ‘freedom’ he now had enough money to send his daughter to Germany to study which he would never have been able to do “in the old days”.
The final stop on my journey was Shkodra, a town bordering Montenegro. With a castle above and lake below it prides itself as being a little more Balkan-esque than the rest of Albania. Certainly, it has its fair share of al fresco restaurants, tourist-oriented ‘lodges’ and fresh food stalls; Shkodra was a cosmopolitan surprise.
One of my favourite moments happened just as I was leaving town and looking to spend the last of my LEK on some meaningful souvenirs. An old woman at the bus stop dangled some woollen socks in my face in the hope that this foreigner would buy them - despite me sweltering in the 35 degree heat. I followed her back to her knitting, and after much hand gesticulation I gave her cash, she gave me some socks, and topped it off with an Albanian ‘smile’.
As the bus pulled out I gave her a wee nod, and thought about all the changes she’d seen. After 20 years, capitalism had replaced communism and pester-power had replaced paranoia. The Albania of old was no longer there and yet, as the country was finding itself – with infrastructure and systems still to come – I felt lucky to have seen the Albania of today, knowing that it’s special quality would change again 20 years from now.