Tirana Travel Blog

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After having climed up through Greece's industrial valleys and having edged ourselves up to the beautiful northern high plateau and further upwards through Macedonias pine covered mountains, past its many churches and clear lakes we finally reached the Albanian border. It is a natural as well as a political border and as we climbed over Macedonias last rounded peak Albania unravelled itself dramatically beneath us. Instead of gentle green valleys here there were cliffs and gorges, deep gray valleys and black rocky peaks. And there were bunkers. The cultivation of fear is a powerful political tool and Enver Hoxha, a communist leader that forced Albania into complete isolation for 50 years, insisted every household had a bunker. Today Albania itself is a testemony to it's dark history. From a cafè where we stopped to wait out yet another shower, I saw no less than 14 bunkers sticking out of the field. Like the mushrooms back home after the autumn rains.

The people too seem to carry their history on their shoulders. Like the Armenians they are a serious people, mainly dressing in dark colours as if in collective mourning for their country. But they are friendly; Often they only greet if we greet first but then the kindness and smiles returned never failed to change my whole solemn impression of these people.

Otherwise the country gave us the feel of having been propelled straight back to south east Asia. The air on the road smels of diesel fumes, traffic lights were a thing of the past and instead of orderly public busses, battered mini busses would leave whenever they were positively over crovded, tearing along the bumpy roads. And suddenly we saw them: Over the rivers hung fishing contraptions I have only seen along the big muddy south east Asian rivers. Big square nets attached to wodden cranes that can hoist them up and down. Only here a lonely coke can and mangled bits of plastic are tangled up in the nets.

Always the rubbish... Albania has got villages that can only be reached by tracks. From a ridge we crossed I could see the wilderness of the mountains stretch out to the left. This range is steep and chaotic all the way to Kosovo. Only one yellow main road leads through them and I envied two germans we'd meet in Greece who had ridden that road. It had been beautiful; I imagined the traditional villages without the half finished new buildings that here stood almost all around us, small fields without the rubbish threatening to drown the crops. Without the tonnes of mercedes cars that apparently are the result of shaddy activities...Luckily as Albania is, even this main road, the main artery through the country eventually became a small meandering mountain road. Traffic was treatcherous but we found a more natural Albania up there. One where people lived of the land, no new big houses were built, no newly accumulated wealth had to be shown of.

In honesty, even if we had had the time to detour in Albania I wouldn't have had the energy. We'd done our big detours -for now- and our main priority was to get to Croatia on time to rest with our family. So we pushed on over our beautifull ridge and absorbed as much of the Albanian mountain scapes as we could.

 As we began descending more and more headstones appeared along the road. Pictures of the dead engraved into granite or marble, photographs of smiling people staring onto the road and flowers and candles to keep their memories alive. This was again one of the roads that was so violent to my mind that we had to stop every time i felt the fear crawling to close to my sanity. Cola and chocolate is the best remedy for this ... luckily cheap in Albania.

Eventually, loaded high on suggar we rolled into Tirana. Michael Palin said about it :"You can't polish a turd" but already on the outskirts it became clear that he had never had this view of the city. It's setting between steep mountains is amazing and as we rolled into the expected grey communist getthos we found they had been painted in quirky colours by an artist. We found Asian chaos mixed with european weather and mannerisms. Between the buildings the improvised economy was flourishing like in Tiblisi and we stacked up on winter clothes. Daren saw the history museum whilst I wandered streets that at times reminded me of the colorful bocca area of Buenos aires. The city is full of communist architecture and statement buildings, boulevards lined with street cafè's and cake and ice cream shops, a business area with the plushest bars in the shade of tree lined back streets. We meet up in the museum of art where the Albanians have decided to exibit the communist propaganda art. "Men with big jaws moving stuff about" as Michael Palin puts it. There were paintings of machines, men that conquered nature, factories, red stars, indeed a fair share of big jaws and happy workers. It was fascinating especially as downstairs there was an exhibition about how your countries history wipes out your identity, like a stamp across your face...

Yet another casualty of the communist idea having been turned and twisted into a cruel dictatorship and a country trying to come to terms with their strange history...Most ex-communist countries cover up or tip toe around their failiure to achieve the goal: Russia use 'positive history' to educate their children, China simply arrests or kills people who are to outspoken and Albania, being no exception, fails to mention much of Hoxhas reign in their history museum. But at least we were allowed an insight into the propaganda machine.

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photo by: EmEm