If size matters, the Skanderbeg Square in Tirana is definitely in the winner’s circle, or more accurately – oval. The large central section is the length of two footballs fields. It is lorded over by an equestrian statue of Skanderbeg, who fought for freedom from Ottoman rule. This Albanian national hero replaced the huge statue of former dictator Enver Hoxha that was pulled down by an angry mob in 1991.
From our 14th floor room at the Tirana International Hotel, we watch the chaos of unmitigated traffic zoom around the square – crazed lane changing and near-misses, especially as cars squeeze into the flow from side-streets. Cars even speed between pedestrians crossing on a walk-signal! Although harrowing to us, locals take it in their stride, not even flinching when their coat fabric is brushed by a vehicle.
Out from the square a grand boulevard stretches about two kilometers filled with Ottoman, Italian and Communist relics – the dull grey of the latter have been perked up with licks of paint. Cranes dot the sky-scape from new construction.
Our Tirana Photo Gallery
Seeing the sites of Tirana entails being enveloped in the country’s 47 years of communism – 40 of those years under the brutal dictatorship of fore-mentioned Hoxha. How his regime got its hold is demystified in a prelude of events.
-Uprisings against the Ottoman rule in the late 19th century culminated in Albania proclaiming independence in 1912. This achievement was greatly compromised when Kosovo, which made up 1/3 of Albania, was ceded to Serbia a year later.
-During WWI the country was occupied in succession by several European armies.
-The road to freedom did not get any smoother for Albanians. In 1924 Ahmed Bey Zogu declared himself King Zog I, with Mussolini as collaborator, which backfired when his Italian ally invaded in 1939.
-In 1941 the Albanian Communist Party led by Enver Hoxha was founded, which lead the resistance against the Italians and later the Nazis. Alas, the freedom and equality Albanians hoped for was not to be, as a few years later Hoxha buddied up to the USSR under Stalin, implementing Stalinist methods to destroy anyone who threatened his regime.
After 1960 Hoxha switched his allegiance to the People’s Republic of China – a dark time for Albanians subjected to the Chinese Revolutionary doctrines of collectivism of agriculture, banning of organized religion, young workers transferred to remote areas to slave for the regime… which ended with Mao Zedong’s death in 1976. Hoxha, considered one of the world’s most ruthless tyrants, died in 1985, but it was not until the elections of 1992 that 47 years of communist rule ended.
Hoxha feared losing power, both from invasion and from revolt by his own people. He decided to build bunkers that could resist a full tank assault as a show of strength….and build he did – concrete domes of various sizes, mostly in sets of three – all throughout the country –500,000 of them (some say as many as 700,000) built mainly from 1976 to 1989. Mindboggling!
In reality they were of little defensive value, and what is worse, this scheme drained the country’s resources for road-building, infrastructure, housing and such other good things. Under Hoxha’s regime Albanian citizens were cut off from communication with the outside world; good for his propaganda of the bunkers being necessary to thwart attacks that would destroy their communist “paradise”; even sounding air-raid sirens periodically to justify his bunkerism.
One, now painted like an orange, is at entrance of Blloku (The Block), once exclusive to the communist leaders. The streets in this district are now filled with trendy shops, restaurants and cafes where we find many good lunches and cappuccinos.
We gaze at the checkpoint near the bunker, the point at which commoners were forbidden access to Blloku. Behind this is a structure made from supports from the mine of the notorious Spac Labour Camp, where many suffered between 1968 and 1990. (The National History Museum’s “Pavilion of Communist Terror” shows Albania’s prison and labour camp system that swallowed thousands of men and women without judicial proceedings.)
Around the country, some of these concrete bunkers have been broken down for the recycling of the great amount of steel in them. Many have been repurposed or reused – becoming useful according to where they were built and their size – storage, barns, cafes, homes, bridges, foundations; the top of one even turned over for a family’s swimming pool.
We have a desire to see more of how these bunkers fared in the Hoxha-aftermath, and as if a genie appeared to grant our wish, we meet Robert Hackman – who spent the past 13 years finding and photographing them and whose temporary exhibition is in the National History Museum.
Here are two images of Robert Hackman’s Albania Bunkers! (copyright Robert Hackman)
More Hoxha-aftermath – upon Hoxha’s death his daughter and son-in-law decided “daddy” needed a building dedicated to him. By 1988 the pyramid was completed, the monstrosity being the Enver Hoxha Museum. With the end of communism its museum use was also terminated, and for a time it was turned into a convention centre and a nightclub called “The Mummy” (of course).
It has since fallen into disrepair. Avoiding the missing chunks in the concrete stairs we climb to its base, and watch youth climb to the top and then race down the crumbling pyramid like a mammoth piece of playground equipment.
What?! I turn to see big kid Rick scaling the side! Now those who are following us through other countries know that Rick’s major complaint is me never missing a hill or stairway to climb…and think he is mocking me when he turns and says, “Are you coming?”
Okay, back to Hoxha’s hill. It also serves as a giant graffiti tablet – some of the more prominent messages being ““The world is not for sale.” and “Love Freedom”.
A Peace Bell memorial made by school children hangs out front of the pyramid; the bell’s metal is from thousands of bullet casings. If Hoxha saw his memorial today he would turn over in his grave, speaking of which… Hoxha was originally buried in the Martyrs’ Cemetery, but in 1992 his remains were dug up and unceremoniously reburied in Kombinati Cemetery in west Tirana.
The National Art Gallery has an appealing interior of white marble flooring and staircases. Most interesting are the permanent exhibits of Soviet-realism paintings – the great size and subject matter and boldness of colour was dictated. Strong looking men and women at labour in factories, farming, mining and all manner of industry with faces portraying “I’m so happy to be here!” smiles. We linger over the 1971 painting by Edison Gjergo, “Epic of the morning’s stars” that was criticized as being too pessimistic; the artist was arrested.
Out back of the Gallery are left-overs statues from commie times, including Lenin and Stalin, which were covered in plastic for years, but except for one piece are now unwrapped, “as they may be restored for their historical significance,” the receptionist at the gallery desk says. As I look upon an arm-less Lenin and the despot Stalin, the rarity of these statues strikes me – few exist in the world.
After the years of banned houses of worship, new ultra-modern cathedrals are once again part of the cityscapes. The Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral is a beauty. The visually stunning interior is one not to be rushed through with its air of tranquility.
But not all places of worship were destroyed during the atheism campaign. The Et’hem Bey Mosque, built between 1789 and 1823, was spared because it was considered a cultural monument. Behind is the Clock Tower first erected in 1822, with its height added to and the installation of a German-made clock in the 20th century.
Our longer stay in Tirana gives us more time to mix with the locals, such as the sunny Sunday we make out way to Artificial Lake (yes, this is the formal name of this manmade lake), to find a deluge of folks enjoying the day, strolling the paths or picnicking in the overgrown grass. A lady roasting corn can barely keep up with the demand, squealing children swirl on well-worn rides, the parks open-air gym looks like a recent addition and the equipment is getting a work-out…
and what is this?…a bunch of old cronies are perched around a board game. “Dominoes!” they call out, when we stop to watch. One old codger points to a make-shift game – a target is nailed to a tree and a pellet gun rests on an old table, ready for anyone who will pay a few “Leke” to try their luck. We decline, but two young ladies test their skill…or not – too much giggling to hit the bull’s eye. Tables outside a showy café on the ground level of a hot-pink apartment block beckons for a welcomed cappuccino fix.
Eats unbelievably low priced – and delicious!
So many great lunch and coffee shops! We are in our glory and concur it would be wise to double our cappuccino breaks per day to dutifully try out more or them – the cost 120Leke ($1.25). All the following pricing are converted from Leke to CDN – a specialty crepe – $1.50, a tasty sandwich –$1.60, a take-out pizza – $2.50.
Some regular grocery store purchases: beer – 79 cents, 2-Litre water – 50 cents, a jar of peanut butter 895Leke ($9) ??…. wait a minute! Although in shock, we go ahead with our big splurge for our jar of Skippy, but being the first time we laid eyes on peanut butter after four months of travel – we just had to have it!
For our taste of traditional cuisine we head to the Era Restaurant with its mom’s kitchen ambiance. In fact the menu reads, “like mother makes”, so I order up the roasted chicken and potatoes and oven-baked Korca meatballs, with buns and Tirana beer to round out our delicious fare – the tangy spicy sauce in the meatball dish complimenting the rich chicken goodness – all for $15.62CDN.
And….my Finance Minister Rick is at it again – his tally (for accommodation, travel (by car), food, entertainment) comes to $177CDN a day.
Our time in Tirana was relaxing, fascinating and fun. The resilience of the citizens of Tirana is apparent; in their country’s newfound freedom and prosperity, there is a keenness to experience the limitless ways to accomplish a good life for their families. We leave with warm feelings from the sincere hospitality with every encounter – making our stay extra special.
We next fly to Athens!