Posted by: Alex MacGregor | April 24, 2010

Albania’s Colorful Capital

Midday was turning into mid-afternoon in Sveti Naum, and it was time to head to theAlbanian border post. After having to take the long way around a Yugoslavian-era military base that makes a great shortcut as long as the gaurds are in a good mood (they weren’t), we were stamped out of Macedonia and crossed the (curiously snake-filled) no-man’s-land by foot to the Albania border post. After a cab ride into the town of Podgorec, we were put onto a furgon–minibus–headed for the capital, Tirana.

We stopped in this valley because the minibus apparently needed to be washed.

On the way, our minibus driver also stops to fill up a container of water that comes down from highland springs. Some people brought dozens of large containers to fill!

We had to change minibuses in Elbasan–a transfer our driver happily worked out for us. Albania has a very strange habit of bending over backwards for tourists, expecting absolutely nothing in return. If you’re getting off a minibus, the driver won’t stop at hailing a cab for you–it’s even possible that he, the taxi driver, and even uninvolved bystanders will get into a discussion of where you are going, how much it should cost, and the best route to get there! After some really wild mountain scenery on the Elbasan – Tirana road, we arrived in the capital at dusk.

Like some of the other capitals in the Balkans, Tirana grew up during an era of communism. While that normally makes for a pretty drab place, Tirana is a major exception. After the fall of communism, Tirana’s mayor started painting buildings all sorts of colors–like tropical blues, pinks, reds, and oranges. The result is a city that sometimes looks more like Latin America than Eastern Europe.

Albania has a long, strange history. It was despised and invaded by its neighbors until the start of the 20th century. Its only reliable ally was the Ottoman Turks, which always had a fondness for Albania because it converted to Islam under its rule, unlike surrounding nations that maintained their Orthodox Christianity.

Albania has been ruled by just about everyone at some point–Greece, Serbia, Turkey, Italy, the list goes on–and has been invaded by a handful of others at some point. Nonetheless, it managed to be a completely independent state by the end of WWII, at a time when most of its neighbors were uniting to form Yugoslavia, and many minor Eastern European states were satellites to the USSR. Albania’s dictator following WWII, Enver Hoxha, established a hard-line, independent communist regime.

After he deemed Yugoslavia not communist enough, he befriended the USSR, which built the Palace of Culture in Tirana. We enjoyed a cappuccino there.

But after Stalin died and the USSR relented on some of its more extreme measures, Hoxha decided China was the true communist utopia, and, following in Mao Zedong’s footsteps, attempted to eradicate religion from Albania.

This mosque is one of the only ones that survived the period–due to its age, it was made a landmark.

The dome is incredible.

Hoxha eventually determined that China, too, was not communist enough, and set the country into a decades-long period of isolation. When communism finally fell in the 1990s, cars were rare, and Albania had basically no transport links with the outside world–a problem that still managed to affect us on this trip!

Although the government destroyed almost all things religious, it did erect some structures that now serve as monuments to central planning. When George W Bush visited Albania, it was in front of this strange pyramid that he spoke.

On the other side of the Tana River from the center of town lies a district called the Blloku. Leading a communist country is tough work, so the top comrades needed a special neighborhood to kick back in without disturbance from the common man. Nowadays, the neighborhood is wide open, and the trendiest part of the city.

Stepping into this neighborhood is like stepping into Paris, with tree-lined streets and fancy cafes and boutiques all over the place.

Hoxha’s house still stands in the Blloku

The place is so trendy that there’s even a French restaurant, complete with Macarons!


  1. Hi Alex and Caroline,
    This is so interesting. After every travelogue I think, okay, I wanna go there. But then, along comes another post!
    Your travels must be coming to a close soon, no?

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