I’ve been traveling around the Balkans for over a month now, and even in this off-season of travel, would now consider myself part of the “Balkan backpacker circle”. Everybody travels a similar route so it’s fun to have familiar faces in each city, and helpful to exchange travel notes.
Anyway, as I’ve made my way south I have heard so many good things about Albania that, despite my brother trying to convince me I’d be kidnapped by gun smugglers with movies like War Dogs, I was actually quite excited to get here.
Unlike all prior Balkan countries I have visited, Albania was never part of any Yugoslavian territory nor are the people Slavic (they descended from Illyrians). So they look different and their language is different. Quick history lesson recap:
- Prior Yugoslavia countries: Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia (Kosovo and Vojvodina were autonomous provinces within Serbia), and Belgrade as the capital city.
- Slavs can be classified in three groups:
- East Slavs: Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians
- West Slavs: Poles, Czechs, and Slovaks
- South Slavs: Serbs, Bulgarians, Croats, Bosnians, Slovenes, Macedonians, and Montenegrins (recall “Yugoslavia” literally translates to Land of South Slavs)
As Albania is almost entirely surrounded by Slavic/Yugoslavian countries, it was constantly ruled over, by Romans, Turks, Austrians, Italians, Serbs, Greeks, and more. With its vast coastline, the big powers never wanted Albania to be part of Yugoslavia as the Slavic country would become too powerful. The Serbs were in a constant battle for coastline, so Albania was always a target.
So, the borders and rulers of various regions of Albania were constantly being determined by the world’s major players (Britain, Italy, Austria, Russia), who understood nothing of the culture, beliefs, or demographics of Albania, or the relationships they had with their neighbors, making it a country of constant unrest.
It’s no wonder that Albania was the last country in the Balkans to gain independence, and when you learn about their history it’s rather remarkable they became an independent country at all. Albanian history is crazy and confusing, and before my trip I couldn’t have told you anything about it, probably not even it’s exact location in the Balkans. While I have still only scratched the surface, I found the period after WWI to be the most interesting, so here’s my best attempt at a cliff notes summary from WWI to present:
- Albania first gained independence on November 28, 1912. But before borders were really finalized, WWI broke out and the surrounding Balkan states used the opportunity to try to occupy as much Albanian territory as possible.
- Between world wars the country was heavily occupied and influenced by British and Italians right up until the outbreak of WWII, when Italy (Albania’s supposed “friend”) invaded in 1939, declaring it a fascist state. Italy was eventually forced out and then Nazi Germany occupied from 1943-1944.
- After the war a man named Enver Hoxha ascended the ranks and eventually rose to head of state where he ruled as a communist dictator for 40 years until his death in 1985.
- Hoxha deeply admired Joseph Stalin’s communism and adopted a similar communist dictatorship. When Stalin died in 1953 Albania had 14 days of national mourning, more than they even had in the Soviet Union.
- Hoxha felt Tito’s communist Yugoslavia was far too liberal and eventually cut ties with them. After Stalin’s death, Hoxha didn’t approve of the direction Russia went and cut ties with them as well. Albania then found an ally in China, but when China decided to open up its economy to the world Albania cut ties with them too, leaving it completely isolated.
- During this period of isolation, roughly from the 1960’s to the 1980’s, the practice of religion was punishable by death, you could not enter or exit the country, there was no foreign television or radio so no connection to the outside world, and the people were living in constant fear of the secret police and in extreme poverty.
- Hoxha died in 1985 and unlike the violent transition Yugoslavia underwent from communism to democracy, Albania held open elections in 1991 (it’s first since 1923), voter turnout was 98%, the Socialist Party of Albania won, a new constitution was proclaimed, and more or less, that was that.
So what’s Albania like today? It sort of feels like it’s still figuring itself out, which makes sense, it’s only roughly 30 years old (like me, and I’m still figuring myself out…)
- In 1997, 70% of the population lost their savings in a pyramid scheme which escalated into a civil war in which 2,000 people were killed.
- Religion, once a major segregation among Albanian regions, is no longer heavily practiced and Albanians are proud of the religious harmony they have.
- They do not have the same harmony with politics, with five different parties represented in parliament and many more that are not.
- Tirana hasn’t figured out what to do with Enver Hoxha’s stuff. A memorial was built for him after his death, the odd-looking abandoned pyramid in the middle of the city, and his house sits in the middle of a popular bar/cafe district, locked up and abandoned. The tour guide I spoke with thinks that perhaps another generation needs to pass before they will be able to face decisions like this.
- While they don’t know what to do with Hoxha’s stuff, there are some historical museums and a great free walking tour. Bunk’Art is very popular, situated inside a massive bunker on the outskirts of the city, it has thousands of artifacts and documents from the last century. The newest museum, opened just this year, is called House of Leaves, located in the old headquarters of the secret police during Communism (called the Sigurimi). It was saddening to see how far the party went to maintain control and silence anyone even suspected of being opposed.
- The economy is not great but growing steadily. There is 17% unemployment, but the young generation is sticking around as they see plenty of opportunity at home.
- People drive like maniacs, but hey, they’ve only been able to own cars for a little over 20 years. And they take a lot of pride in their cars, Land Rover and Mercedes being very popular in Tirana.
- Fun fact: Mother Theresa is ethnically Albanian (but born in Skopje, Macedonia, so both countries claim her).
- Tirana has a beautiful Christmas market in a brand new main square (completed in April 2017), what will eventually be the largest pedestrian square in the Balkans. It’s so interesting to see the Christmas market overlaying the other national attractions in the main square that so define Albania.
- Germany gifted a piece of the Berlin Wall to Albania after the fall of Communism.
- The current Albanian prime minister, Edi Rama, recently made waves at a meeting with top European leaders from the EU and the Balkans, by showing up wearing a nice suit, red tie, and Adidas red striped sneakers to match. When asked about it his answer was along the lines of “because I can”.
- Albania is proud to be partnered with the USA. George W. Bush came to Tirana for 6 hours in June 2007 and the city decided to name a street after him.
- In 2016 the first “western” restaurant chain infiltrated Albania via KFC. From what I’ve heard everyone really likes it.
- There is artwork all over the city and it’s bright, fun, and seems to always represent things that would have been entirely forbidden during isolationism (South Park characters, rainbows, Heisenberg from Breaking Bad, etc.).
Something else I have really enjoyed while traveling around the Balkans has been the back and forth between church bells and the call to prayer (Zagreb: bells, Serbia: bells, Bosnia: call to prayer & bells, Montenegro: so many bells, Albania: call to prayer & bells). But what I enjoyed even more in Albania was the call to prayer coming from the oldest mosque in the city, Et’hem Bey Mosque, mixed with the Christmas music from the festival beside it. Two things that were punishable by death just thirty years before now joined together in song.
Tonight I’ll forgoe the 13 hour bus ride to board a 1.5 hour flight for the first time since September to go to Athens! I’m excited for warmer weather (60’s!!!), an extra hour of sunlight (entering UTC+2!) and delicious Greek food!