All about Albania
With the Pope planning a visit to the once cut-off country, Tim Adler samples its eccentricities first hand
Published: 18 June 2014
Updated: 17:00, 18 June 2014
Stride along the seafront at Durrës, a seaside town an hour from the capital Tirana, and as you look up at hot peach and lime green hotels and apartment blocks you could be in a jolly cross between Blackpool and Miami. But then everything in Albania is a clash between something, which is what makes the country so hard to define. “Even for us it’s hard sometimes,” one Albanian told me. After all, what did I know about Albania before coming here — other than that Pope Francis is gracing the nation with a visit in September?
A Communist country so isolated for nearly 50 years that it became the North Korea of Europe, Albania was pustulated with concrete defence bunkers for an invasion which never came. Not only did it turn its back on the West but it also fell out with neighbouring Yugoslavia, and even the Soviet Union, which it accused of not being Communist enough. At one point, the secret police kept a quarter of the population under surveillance.
My apprehension before boarding the flight for a weekend getaway to Tirana only increased when the bureau de change warned me not to use my credit card at an ATM or even a bank because the details would be stolen. The man on the plane next to me confided that he always carried his money in his sock.
Driving into Tirana, however, the crazily painted buildings — some of them psychedelic camouflage, others bold Mondrian squares — immediately cheered me up. Prime minister Edi Rama encouraged residents to repaint their drab Communist-era blocs when he was mayor, calling the campaign “Give Me the Colours”.
Tirana itself could be any Western city — except for the prices, which are half those at home — with all the noise and chaos that implies. Almost one-third of Albania’s population lives in the capital, which is reflected in the traffic jams. “There was no traffic before there were women drivers,” grunted my driver.
I was dropped off at the Kotoni Hotel, a boutique establishment which used to be the Foreign Ministry but reopened three years ago. It was built by the Kotoni family in the Thirties and they still run the business. My bedroom was a Fifties-style room with an agreeable whiff of Castro’s Havana, while the bathroom featured a pulsating walk-in shower with room enough for two.
Tirana is now a vibrantly young city. The average age of inhabitants is around 30 because of a baby boom during the last gasp of Communism in the early Eighties. Its isolation has allowed Albania to develop a delightfully topsy-turvy culture. Albanians shake their head when they mean yes; the Albanian alphabet has 36 letters; and it has the world’s only 3½G phone network.
What’s nice about Tirana is that the multinationals, the Starbucks and McDonalds, have not yet turned the city into everywhere else. Not that brands don’t exist in Tirana, just in ways which would give their company lawyer a heart attack: H&M, Armani and Disneey (note spelling) all apparently have stores in Tirana, just little shops selling tat.
The city centre is small and you can stroll around it in a morning, with its government buildings and the former Soviet embassy turned into the presidential palace. One starkly modern building that looks as if the Millennium Falcon has crash-landed next to the PM’s office was originally a museum dedicated to Enver Hoxha, the dictator who ruled for 41 years until his death in 1985. Known as the Pyramid, it opened and closed within three years. Locals are still unsure what to do with it.
Just down from the Pyramid is the National Gallery of Arts. Be warned, the bulk of the national collection is ghastly super-heroic Social Realist art from Communist times. Ignore the vaguely Tom of Finland paintings showing aviators standing around in leather chaps, and head straight for the work of Sofia Papadhimitri on the first floor. Working in Tirana in the Thirties, she is a world-class painter who makes Lucian Freud look amateurish. One piece in particular, that of an Albanian woman looking as pleased as punch, has the hallucinatory quality of a Vermeer. For the evening, Tirana’s coolest bars and clubs are in an area known as the Block, a cordoned-off grid of streets where the Politburo lived; nobody went in or out unless they were Party faithful. Radio is a bar which wouldn’t look out of place in Hoxton, decorated with Communist-era wirelesses and old washing machine drums used as lampshades.
Take a taxi out of the city centre to Sofra e Ariut, probably the finest traditional restaurant in the city, where the waiters don Albanian national costume. Albanian food is delicious, a cross between Turkish mezze and Greek, as you might expect. Hors d’oeuvres include an amazing flambéed cheese dish called Kackavall Fure, which is brought to your table and set alight. I was disconcerted to see a photo of Cherie Blair — the Blairs apparently advise Albania’s new prime minister.
Even more alarming was coming across a statue of George W Bush on the drive to Kruje, birthplace of national hero Skanderbeg. I had come to visit the lovely medieval bazaar and a traditional Ottoman house, which has been kept as it was during the 19th century. After an hour of inspecting Albanian farm tools, I could feel my enthusiasm wane as my guide enthused over 16th-century Albanian olive oil production.
Albanians love America just as they love gambling and, for some reason, shoes. They cheerfully admit to being corrupt and lazy, while being intensely serious about politics. Another contradiction. The entire country is delightfully eccentric, which makes it feel rather British in some ways. By the end of my weekend, all my apprehensions about Albania had been confounded.
In fact, the only stereotypical moment came on the way back to the airport when the car I was in juddered to a halt. Somebody had stolen all the petrol.
Regent Holidays has four nights in Tirana at the four-star Hotel Kotoni from £999pp B&B, including one dinner with wine, all private transfers, a city tour of Tirana and a one-day excursion to Kruje and Durrës with return flights with British Airways, regent-holidays.co.uk.