Tirana, Albania: Part 1

On a plane from Houston to İstanbul, I found myself seated next to an Albanian man who was going to visit his family. He asked me where I was going, and I told him – Albania. He was skeptical – “What? No…let me see.” I showed him my airline ticket with Tirana, Albania printed as my final destination.

He lit up and became ecstatic, wondering why on Earth I would choose to go to Albania when he himself had moved away and not looked back. I didn’t really have an answer – this trip was planned on a whim less than two months prior. Nevertheless, the coming week would see Albania land high on my list of favorite countries.

My seat-mate on the plane had reason to question my choice, though, because Albania is by no means the most popular vacation destination in the world or even in Europe. In fact, it is only in the last two decades or so that travel to Albania is even a possibility.

Europe’s North Korea

From the Second World War until the 1990s, Albania was a Communist state. The champion of Albanian Communism was a man named Enver Hoxha (pronounced “Ho-juh”), who controlled the country for over forty years. Hoxha had his own brand of radical Communism, which led to a falling-out with most other major Communist countries of the time – Yugoslavia, the USSR, and even China. The result was a country that existed in almost total isolation from the rest of the world, controlled by a paranoid dictator who didn’t get along with any other world leaders.

Yet even as he shut off his country from the outside world, the leader of Europe’s poorest country failed to recognize the humanitarian problems that his people were facing. Enver Hoxha completely outlawed religion and declared Albania to be the first officially atheist country in the world. In fact, even Mother Teresa, an ethnic Albanian Catholic missionary to the poor in India, was refused entry into the country when she attempted to return to visit her dying mother.

At the same time, Hoxha’s paranoia led him to the conviction that an attack was imminent and that Albania must “be prepared to win the war”. His solution: he ordered the construction of 700,000 concrete pillbox bunkers (one for every three Albanians) so that the people could hide until it was safe to come out. This was a defense that turned out to be completely unnecessary, as no one had any interest in attacking Albania. Many of the bunkers still remain to this day because they are such a hassle to remove. Instead of destroying them, people have found many artistic or practical ways to repurpose them.

Bunk’Art – An Underground Timeline of Albanian History

One of the largest bunkers can be found in a hillside on the outskirts of Tirana. The bunker contains several levels of long corridors lined with rooms intended for housing important members of the government and the military if the country were to be attacked. An amphitheater-like chamber at the end of one corridor was large enough to fit the entire government assembly so that it could function from underground.

The bunker was never used for this purpose, though, and has instead been converted into a creative history museum. As you move through the museum, each sequential room reflects one chronological chapter in twentieth-century Albanian history with plenty of memorabilia and news clippings to take you on a journey through the reclusive world of Albanian Communism, which is eerily reminiscent of North Korea. At the time I visited, many rooms were still left empty, leaving plenty of room for expansion as Albanian history continues to evolve.

A Room in Bunk'Art, Tirana, Albania
This room in the Bunk’Art museum is furnished with the standard-issue household furniture of Albania’s Communist era. This same furniture can still be found in households across the country.

A New Era

Since the fall of the Communist regime in 1991, Albania has struggled with corruption and other Communist hold-overs. But in general, the country has slowly made progress toward establishing a more democratic government. One clear sign that the paradigm has changed can be found right next door to the former home of Enver Hoxha in Tirana: a KFC!

Upon Hoxha’s death in 1985, his daughter had designed a museum for him in the form of a large concrete pyramid in the center of Tirana. But it didn’t take long before Albanians realized that they really didn’t want a museum for the leader who had suppressed them for so long. So instead, the pyramid was used as an event center, then briefly as a nightclub, and now sits abandoned for children to climb up and slide down.

Pyramid of Tirana, Tirana, Albania
Enver Hoxha’s memorial pyramid – a quirky eyesore that is apparently pretty fun to slide down!

Nevertheless, many older people feel nostalgic towards the Communist days. Despite the lack of opportunity in that time, people appreciated benefits such as free education. The capitalist system makes it more difficult for citizens of a poor country like Albania to afford a quality education.

People also reminisce about about the cleanliness of the country under Hoxha’s regime. The municipal governments today struggle to find adequate resources to provide basic services like garbage collection, meaning that many areas are sadly very littered. The counter to this nostalgia, though, is that it’s hard to litter when you don’t have much to throw away in the first place!

Abandoned Communist Statues in Tirana, Albania
The Communist-era statues in Tirana have been removed from their places of honor and relegated to an empty lot behind an overgrown building.

Albania’s gloomy history certainly doesn’t make it sound like a very attractive travel destination. The lack of opportunity in the years after Hoxha’s death are what led my seat-mate on the plane to leave his homeland in the first place – certainly his adopted home of Houston offers a higher standard of living. But don’t let this deter you! Albania is a beautiful country, and Tirana is actually a wonderful city to visit. In the next post, I’ll explain why!

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