Albania’s Less Charming Side

Abandoned Hotel, Dhermi, originally uploaded by jhoolko.

While most of the photos I have of Albania are of pretty beaches, weird bugs, and delicious food, there were other slightly less pleasant things about the country that we noticed during our visit.

Albania isn’t rich. There is a lot of nice coastline that developers are quickly taking advantage of and Tirana is suspiciously full of lots of very nice cars, but the moment you step out of the airport it is evident that you’re not in France or Spain or even Croatia anymore. Things are dirty, wires are hanging everywhere, nobody wears helmets on their motorcycles….it’s different than anywhere else I’ve been in Europe. Not even McDonald’s has penetrated into this weird, wonderful little country yet, and the total lack of any familiar stores, restaurants, or markets gives it an even more decidedly foreign feel.

A lot of this comes from the fact that the country was basically in a Communist-dictatorship choke hold until the death of its paranoid leader Enver Hoxha in 1985. That’s the guy that put up the 700,000 concrete bunkers that dot the countryside, just in case of any attacks from the U.S. or England or any of our other buddies during the post-war era when communist Albania was closely allied with the Soviet Union. Until 1990, Albanians couldn’t leave the country or drive cars, and pretty much no one was allowed to come in, so they were almost completely cut off from the rest of the world and even within their own country weren’t very mobile. The fact that no one in the entire country was driving before the 90s (and many started way later than that) is extremely evident in the severe lack of infrastructure in the transportation department and absolutely freaking crazy cliff-hanging, winding, twisting, unpaved, donkey and goat-filled roads that more than once caused me to say a little prayer on our way down the coast. Great views, though.

Anyways, Albania’s history is a mess. There was a history section in the Bradt guidebook I bought in Madrid (which I guess I recommend, though I was not totally thrilled by it) and it took me like 50 attempts to get through it because it was basically 25 pages of…”this guy ruled for like 5 years, then he got killed and other people came in, then this group took over, then they were sacked by these guys blah blah blah….” The people never get a break. They even had a king at one point named ZOG. He was shot in  Parliament in 1923, supposedly survived at least 55 assassination attempts, even shooting back at one gunman with a pistol he always carried (making him the only modern head of state to engage in uh, battle? with an assassin), went into forced exile in 1924, lived in the Ritz in London for a while, hung out in Egypt, bought a house in New York, and finally died in France in 1961. He was evidently a pretty good leader, eliminating things like serfdom and animal cruelty and getting Albania going as a nation in a way that hadn’t really been seen before, but I feel like his time as kind/president/prime minister (oh yes, he was all three), really provides a snapshot of the kind of turmoil that poor Albania has found itself in more than once during the last couple centuries.

Anyways, more recently than Zog (who despite the decidedly ancient sounding moniker was actually a pretty recent leader), Albania was recovering from its repressive dictator Hoxha. In 1992 they elected in their first non-Communist government, but it turned out to not be such a smooth transition. A big crisis hit in 1997 when the country’s economy, which was basically built on Ponzi schemes, failed, taking out the savings of about 2/3 of Albanians. The people went crazy. They rioted for months throughout the country, staged forceful takeovers of pretty much all of the big cities in Albania that we visited and overthrew the military. They hijacked navy boats and tried to escape to Italy, they grabbed an estimated 650,000 weapons from the government, and they basically burned the mother down. I think I probably would have been angry, too.

Seriously everything at that point was state owned or at least closely associated with the government in the public’s eye  since they were so freshly out of Communism, so they burned a lot of stuff, including hotels which were mainly simple family affairs built by the communists that catered either to workers or party members. And I swear some of those charred buildings are still hanging around Albania’s resort-ier areas, like the one in the picture, in Dhermi. It’s hard to say because there are a million other reasons that so many shells of buildings could have been left about, especially considering that it’s been 13 years since the riots, but every time I passed one of those super socialist realism style buildings with all its windows missing and black burn marks all over it (and there are a lot of them), I couldn’t help but think that it was some abandoned relic from this country’s serious bummer of a history. Now it could be something entirely different, like the post-apocalyptic, post-war, post-earthquake-looking town of Ksamili, but that is for another post.

Anyways, the riots ended after about 8 months in August of 1997 when the UN sent in an international protection force led by the Italians. But honestly Albania still has its problems. The perilous roads and the city of Ksamili I will get into later, but they even have blood feuds. Like, Romeo and Juliet, “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die” type blood feuds. In 2008 the New York Times reported that 10,000 people had been victim to the feuds since 1991, when the ban on them went out with the communists. Evidently it’s more common in the very isolated north, which is probably why so many people told us to stay the hell away from there unless we had an experienced Albanian guide. They are the kind of social problems that I can not even begin to fathom, but also the things that made Albania so incredibly interesting. Despite them all I already want to go back, and when I do I am totally getting a guide and going north.

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