This past winter was a very wet one for me and my fellow Brits as the rain seemed to lash down unabated for weeks on end. Whilst the downpours have quietened somewhat in the UK other parts of Europe have been suffering at the hands of the rain gods. In mid-May parts of the Balkans were subjected to the worst flooding in centuries. Serbia and Croatia were the worst affected but the rains have been lingering for a while in this part of the world. I was in Tirana, the capital of Albania, at the beginning of May, and even back then the rain was heavy and consistent enough for me to throw away another pair of footwear due to over-saturation on the data collection trail!
So, besides being wet, how did I find my first visit to one of Europe’s least known countries? Well, having prepped up about its history since World War II and having been to most other former Eastern Bloc countries, it was pretty much as I expected – a small Eastern European country still trying to shake off legacies from its communist past.
After 1960 Albania and Yugoslavia were the only two non-USSR aligned nations in the Eastern Bloc, and during the Cold War Albania became an out-and-out communist dictatorship. This has left a rather drear legacy and has seen the country fall well behind other nations who were part of the Eastern Bloc. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s the likes of Estonia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic made swift strides towards EU membership and embraced the new opportunities which came their way. Albania was the last country to see its communist regime outside of the USSR topple and, having applied for EU membership in 2009, has only just been awarded candidate status. They join Iceland, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey and will hope that eventual full EU membership doesn’t take the 13 years it took for Croatia.
During the Cold War years Albania isolated itself from the West and its government isolated itself from its people. There is an area near the centre of Tirana called Blloku which was closed off to the ‘people’ and was an exclusive residential area for the political elite. After the communist era ended the villas and former homes of these elite were soon converted into modern flats and apartments. Development continued apace and the area is now the thriving heart of the Tirana entertainment scene. The 18 or so blocks of Blloku (literally ‘the Block’) seem to be wall-to-wall, cafes, bars, restaurants, boutiques and apartments – there’s even a store selling official Apple products. It’s also one of the most sought after areas where expats like to live – especially the young and single ones!
There are still signs of the past, even in the regenerated Blloku area. Perhaps the strangest, and most commonplace, sight from this period is the myriad of bunkers. These quirky concrete domes are dotted around the city and are remnants from communist rule when 700,000 were built at great cost to the already financially crippled country. They were never used for their military purpose and today are seen as a bleak reminder of the Cold War years, although some have been transformed into tourist spots, animal shelters, cafes and even homes.
Something else to look out for on the streets of Tirana besides the bunkers are the ubiquitous drainage and manhole voids on the pavements and in the gutters. Drains, you may think, are no big deal for a European city – but in Albania they seem to like drains without grills on top of them. I mention this as it wasn’t just one or two that I came across but pretty much every street I wandered down. After digging around on the internet it seems the reason is not a lax health and safety approach from the city administrators but the unfortunate result of ‘organised’ crime! Apparently there is a fortune to be made in the scrap metal market in Albania and so under the cover of night the crooks do their dirty work and remove the metalwork. The result is a rather hazardous pedestrian landscape, especially at night in the dim, unlit corners of the city.
I’d like to end on a more positive note about Albania – and it involves a British comedian, actor and singer who died four years ago at the age of 95. During the 41-year communist era of dictator Enver Hoxha, the Brit Norman Wisdom (or Sir Norman Wisdom) was one of the only Western actors whose films were allowed to be shown in the country. Hoxha appreciated Wisdom’s characters’ struggles against capitalism. As such he became a cult figure and when I mentioned his name a couple of times to taxi drivers it was greeted both times with a smile and a thumbs up. I usually find that football, or sport generally, is the easiest way to get a smile from a local when there is a language barrier, but I never thought it would be Sir Norman Wisdom!