Whoever said that Tirana is a a small town, is unequivocally wrong. Tirana is quite medium sized. Two million souls live in this anarchic city. Most of them are internal immigrants from the all over Albania, but one can not rule out the occasional European or American company executive, nor the occasional Kosovar or Macedonian . The outskirts are poverty stricken, if one does not take into account the gated comunities. The case where the city erupts, though, looks like a faraway possibility. The three deaths outside the presidential palace, during demonstrations against what the opposition called an election fraud. From the looks of it what happened in Albania last spring (in the middle of the Arab spring, mind you), was not a free and fair election. It has a lot of the marks of what people in the west would call electoral fraud , and there is chit chat going around about the Americans having given a helping hand in the election of Berisha. Necvertherless Berisha and the current mayor of Tirana seem to be USA’s favourite alies in the region. Without the support of the Albanian government the operations in Kosovo could have been seriously hindered, if not deemed impossible. But Albania provided logistics and a “staging point” for the operation, let alone the help to the UCK.
Anyway there I was, in the middle of a quite moist day, walking along the Central Boulevards of Tirana. Some areas are really run down, but the truth is that downtown Tirana has bee greatly modernised, and looks like a big shopping area for rich Albanians. A lot of Flagship and high end stores are there. Embassies are situated left right and centre around this area, so are important buildings like the new Cathedral built by the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Albania, and some mosques. South Albania is dominantly Greek Orthodox, but middle-to-northern Albania is a Muslim country. That goes as far as religious people, because most Albanians are Atheists. Around Tirana one can also spot old men with bicycles. Bikes are very popular among the eldest generation, a generation that did not really get used to private cars. So, even now, in the midst of the busy streets of the capital, there is a lot of old men and women going about their day to day business on their ageing bikes. It is some sort of a picturesque scene from a generally dim urban Albania.
Colours in Tirana where much dimmer in the past. But Eddi Rama, during his tenure as mayor did two things. First he tore down the shanty town that was situated in the banks of the river and along the circular road that almost goes around the city centre. The whereabouts of the residents remain unknown, though I think they got stuffed around the messy suburbs, hidden because of anachic building and no urban planning. The second thing was to paint some of the buildings in various colours, and provide full exterior lighting 24/7to all the important buildings that are situated around the area of Skenderberg Square, which is the heart of the City. Then, a massive remodelling of the square started (with use of Austrian funds), which was concluded during the tenure of the current mayor. Though it did not vastly improve living standards, the tenure of Rama as mayor was deemed rather successful. But cosmetic changes do not change a lot. Five to ten kilometres away from the well paved city centre, sidewalks are missing, there are open sewage pumps, buildings that remain in ruins, and even dirt roads.
Anyway it was Monday so the National Laographic Museum of Tirana was closed. All I could do was sit down and watch the big mural on the side facing the square. This mural depicts all heroes that had taken part in the biggest wars rebellions and riots that had to do with the country, from the times of king Perrus up until the second world war. Men and women armed with all kinds of weaponry where depicted in the huge mural. Two other sights lie nearby, both on the Boulevard that starts from Skenderberg Square and ends, more or less, at the Kemalstafa Stadium. The emblematic Pyramid, a monument built to honour Emver Hoxha ( and a sign of all the “god” treatment that leaders of Stalinist states received and I am talking about Stalin, Mao Ze Dong and even Nicolae Chausescu), and the clock tower. Right across the Pyramid lies a series of ministries and, further on, the Polytechnik. And, if one takes one of the cross streets and moves to the right, (when facing the Kemalstafa end), he or she enters the biloku district, universally known as “the Block”. The history of the “Block”, is a lot like the history of modern Albania, in small scale. Like Albania, the “Block” was a secluded area during the times of Hoxha. No commoner would be able to enter this area, which was designed only for party and state officials. In a similar fashion Albania was closed to non-comrades.
Then communism fell in 1991, and by then the country’s borders where open for anyone willing to visit. The same happened to the “Block”. Suddenly anyone could see where the party leaders where living. But then again the block semi-closed in later years. It became full of restaurants and bars that where a little to expensive for the average Albanian. So, now ther block is a semi-secluded area where only those who have the money hang out. Nevertheless, I could sill pay a visit to the grounds of Emver Hoxha’s residence. It was in the middle of the “Block”. A luxurous safe haven for a “communist leader” who lived in luxury while his people had to live with far less. Just like in mother Russia and China. Oligarchs and princelings are not to be taken out of the picture too. While walking around the block I spotted six Bentleys, a couple of Jaguars, loads of Mercedes and BMW cars, even some American limousines.Some of them had Kosovo plates and strange looking men and women inside. Mobsters by the looks of it. And those guys had the "don't look at me strangely, and I will not hang you by the balls" look in their eyes. Criminals that most probably had killed people in their past. And all the while, there was people begging for food in the streets.
This is Albania in 2012. Loads of poor people, and a very few super rich men and women laughing in their face. Anger must be slowly boiling here. But not that much. There was an air of optimism in the air, even in the worst and most crime-ridden slum in Tirana. People had the feeling that there was still some room for more development. That I got from conversations made with people, and some conversations that caught my ear around the area. Perhaps it is because people felt they have “rocked bottom” and the only way now is up. Things could not get worse, only better. This feeling was shared by my stepfather when he came around to pick me up. We went for a drive around town, saw a few neighbourhoods, and then went back to the apartment. I had to pack, because on Tuesday I had to catch a plane back home.
I had seen this village befote. It was like Las Vegas, only in Southern Albania. It was pitch black and the place was lit up like a christmas tree. We where passing by once again heading for a café outsider Gjirokaster. Djodjas said that this village was famous for its crops. Its hashish crops. The village was governed by something like a local mob. Everybody there grows drugs, and everybody there owns firearms. Like a mix of Texas with rural Crete. Weed and guns. It turns out that the guys do not have to pay any electricity Bills, because the electrical company looks the other way, for fear of violent reprisals. Even the circulation of cash is scarce there. Djodjas told us a story of him meeting an aquaintance from there, who had just bought himself a new luxurious Jeep. He asked how much it cost the guy. The answer was “Eighty kilos”. Djodjas asked again, explaining that he wanted to learn the price in cash. The acquaintance remained unfased. The answer was the same once again. Eighty kilos. The weed that is cultivated in Albania goes to the Greek market. The Albanian mob also supplies the European markets with heroin, but this is not a homegrown product. It simply passes by Albania with the help of local mobsters and lands in Italy. Same thing goes with women, cigarettes and al kinds of contraband. The Albanian mob almost always operated as clandestine busboys for the Italian and Turkish mob.
Once we arrived, Djodjas greeted a suited man. This was the mayor of Gjirokaster. Djodjas is man with many acquaintances and many connections in the area. My stepfather joked that Djodjas should run for MP in the area. The café was situated on the side of a river, but in reality the setting looked like an artificial lake in-the-making. The place was clearly a restaurant for local heavy hitters, at least in the financial sense. And local celebrities can be seen there.
Our next stop was within the city. It was the castle of Gjirokaster. It served as a fortress. It also served as a prison, housing political prisoners. Many Albanian resistance members and dissidents who where fighting against the King. Now its serves as a lot of different things. The interior serves as a wartime museum and an area dedicated to the resistance against the Germans. A big variety of weapons is stored there, weapons that range from medieval swords and axes to a WWII Italian tank and Chinese AK-47’s.The walls are sprayed with harrowing accounts from the prisoners. One, a member of the Greek minority wrote “I am sick and cannot move myself because of the pain and the beatings. I feel that I am going to die soon.” He was executed in days before the Nazis left Albania. Actually it is the occupation and resistance against the Nazis that unified the Greek minority with the Albanians under the banner of the revolution. After the Germans left the country, the communists took control. And a miscalculated move by the MI6 solidified the power of their leader Emver Hoxha. Actually this was the work of KGB’s most successful mole in the Circus. Kim Philby. During late 1946 MI6 hatched a plan to land saboteurs into Southern Albania in order to overthrow Hoxha. Philby, who was a high ranking officer in the Circus, learned of it and informed the KGB, who in turn tipped off their Albanian colleagues. The Albanians, in turn, ambushed the saboteurs and killed them all.
The gardens and the moats of the castle serve as cafés and concert venues in the summer time. Mrs Djodjas, who loves almost everything Greek remembers Eleftheria Arvanitaki doing a memorable concert there. After this we climbed down into the old town for a small stroll and some coffee. The centre is picturesque, but also derelict. Most buildings need repairs, but still retains features of the architecture of the late 19th century and early 20th century in good condition.
Noon was approaching rapidly, and we had to get back to Tirana, before nightfall. And we had to make haste because about a hundred kilometres of really rough road lay between us and the highway that leads to Tirana. That is three to four hours of driving up and down the mountains. On top of all of that, for about twenty kilometres we had to move through .works in progress, semi incomplete bridges, hard gravel roads and the ensuing traffic. The road up until Premet was in a terrible condition. It took us more than an hour to reach the city. For at least thirty five minutes we had to negotiate ourselves through seven kilometres of bad terrain and incomplete bridges. We sighed when we reached the plains, and when we reached the highway, it did not look like the four lanes with the potholes and the grass strip in the middle, but like an Italian autostrada. We where on our way home. With only one break.
Throughout the whole drive, Sollace was calling us to get updates on our whereabouts. He was having fish with friends in a restaurant in Durres and had invited us there. We where trying to explain to him that we would not make it in time, so he settled for some coffee in a hotel just outside of Durres. An exclusive one. The clientele included the CEO of the Turkish Steel company (the one that owns the factory in Elbasan), whom we met on our way in, foreign dignitaries and heads of state from various areas in the world.
Sollace was waiting for us in the entrance. This bespectacled man is the son of Albanian immigrants in Greece. He studied medicine, started a career in Greece, and hen Ygeia made a move towards Albania, he was the “man”. He was there with his wife, a plumb and pretty woman in her forties. They have a sixteen year old son that drives the family’s other car on his nights out, with a five Euro note in his pocket in case he gets stopped by police (the legal driving age in Albania is 18), for the ensuing little bribe. Corruption and nepotism in Albania are still rife. Bribes are widespread and there is always talk of the government being very corrupt and taking sides in business matters, to favour businesses with which members are affiliated, through the ownership of shares or any other connection. And if one comes to realise that Berisha’s crowd are Washington’s favourites in the region, well, that says it all.
Nevertheless Solace himself does not seem to partake in all of this. If one does not take into account the nice house and the massive Audi, he is a man of simple pleasures. No drinking, little eating, some coffee, driving around and good company are his vices. Well, some of them are mine too. But these “vices” are harmless. Real corruption can be fatal. As usual the discussion turned to economics and politics. It seems that the situation is not that polarised in Albania nowadays. At least not as polarised as in the late nineties, the ears when the pyramid schemes collapsed and an armed riot drove Berisha out of power, and into seeking asylum. But with the construction bubble going on and crisis lurking around the corner, nobody can be too sure about the situation remaining the same.
We left the hotel in the early evening, in order to go back to base. On the next day I was to walk around town and my stepfather was to go to work.
It was Saturday morning. In the clear post-rain atmosphere, we could see the coast of Corfu, where I had gone camping a few Summers ago. Electricity was back on and everything seemed to be back to normal. We checked out and reached the car. Today we where two men on a misión. To reach Gjirokaster, go to a nearby village, visit a sawing industry and buy some things Essentials to my mother’s hobby. Her heirloom. The rendez-vous was at twelve in the noon, but owing to the condition of Albanian roads, especially in the region, we thought that it would be better to be early an early bird and wait, than be late.
Things where better, once we where on the road. We where driving along. surprisingly well kept country road For the first time in a whole week we did not see a single pothole in thirty kilometres. Things where going very smoothly. We reached downtown Gjirokaster half an hour ahead of Schedule. That was enough time to check out the Hotels and find ourselves some suitable lodging. In the hours to come Mr Djodjas, one of my stepfather’s friends was due to arrive in town. We looked into the first hotel we could lay our eyes upon, and almost singlehandedly decided that this place was suited for our stay and business in town. Later in the night we would find out that it was “fashionable enough” to hold wedding parties, and that, in fact, the view from its café covered almost the entirety of the city. The city itself is divided in two districts. The old district is the most picturesque and the most derelict at the same time. It is the way works happen in Albania all the way around, even if the city itself is “protected” as a heritage site by UNESCO. As it seems, even there money is scarce, and both the government and the organisation are looking for money and donations alike, in order to secure funding for refurbishing the city’s magnificent buildings, buildings that date themselves from the middle ages to the forties.
Meanwhile we where waiting in the parking lot outside the hotel. Our people where to arrive any minute. Despite its quite bad situation, the centre of the old town looked busy. It seems that except the two or three UNESCO restoration projects that remained active in town, people also had other kinds of business there, And, indeed, in the old town centre there still exists a variety of cafes, taverns and shops, even though the ones that attract the “fashionable” crowd have been built in the outskirts.
Finaly, a grey Skoda Yeti, carrying two characters, arrived and parked next to us. Two middle aged men appeared from within it. The youngest one was a burly dark haired man in his mid fourties. The eldest of the two was a greying man, of a similar posture, who was in his late fifties. From the ensuing conversation (mind you only the elder one spoke any foreign language, that being Greek), I understood that their families where bound by some sort of wedlock, and that the elder one was the father-in-law. They asked us to follow them. We left the old town, crossed the highway and went into a narrow rural road. Ten minutes later we where reaching the only Albanian speaking (by majority) village in the area. We went into a building that double as a sawing factory, on one side, and a heirloom artifact museum on the other one.. From what it seems, they where also dieing the raw material and selling it to customers. But this is a dying business, even in Albania, and few customers actually care about handmade clothing and bedlinen, especially if they can have it through industrial production and, much cheaper, synthetic raw material. So our order of about fourteen kilos of raw sawing material up front and another fourteen kilos to be sent by mail to Tirana, was a big one that they could not have seen from individual buyers in ages. So, after the deal was closed and done , we where invited to join the owner and co at eh local taverna, for a drinking session that included tsipouro and lamb. We left four hours later, with heads about to explode from the alcohol we had consumed and went back to the hotel. We had to have a bit of a sleep, because in the afternoon we had a new round of drinking and eating with our friend Djodjas and his wife.
Now Gjirokaster has a tradition of being the birthplace of important figures in Albanian literature and politics. Despite tha fact that his most notable stories have to do with Northern Albania and the traditions of the area, profilic writer Ismail Kandare was born in Gjirokaster. Two very important Albanian statesmen, former PM Fatos Nano and the former mayor of Tirana Edi Rama, both being leading figures of the Socialist party, come from nearby areas, Actually the former is being rumoured to be the new presidential candidate in the upcoming election, for the Socialist Party, despite the fact that the latter is the acting president of the party. Edi Rama has fallen in the eyes of the both the party’s elites and electorate, alter losing the municipality and making a lot of political mistakes that paved the way into Berisha’s rule in Albania, and leaving him alone with enough power in the legislature, where the SP had the potential to block decisions. .If one thinks about the soaring popularity of Rama during his tenure as mayor of Tirana, now the picture is very different. Even though Rama can still persuade some Albanians, he does not seem to have the ability to tople Berisha. Nano, on the other hand, has to face a lot of gossip that circles around his buxom and very smart younger wife. He is married to a very well known businesswoman, known for both her success in the Business sector, and her sex appeal.
Djodjas is also some sort of dominating figure himself too. In fact he is some sort of a local celebrity. He was a top doctor in the local hospital, providing medical help to ill people who live in a radious of eighty kilometres from Gjirokaster, at a time when Tirana was a four hour drive away and the borders with Greece where closed. Later when the borders opened, people from the area started to visit Ioanina Univercity Hospital, which lay an hour and a half away from town. Of course proximity was the reason, especially when an ill person required to travel for more than four hours through roads that where in a bad shape, or nao shape at all.. So, nowadays most people from Gjirokaster cross the borders and finish their medical affairs in Greece, and a very very few of them opt to travel to Tirana. Djodjas was swept away by the tide. He went to Greece in order to be re-trained, and then stayed for years as an anaesthesiologist in Athens. And now he is working on patients in Tirana. Anyway Djodjas is so well known in the region that he could run for Member of the Parliament. His fame is preposterous. While walking around town and visiting the nearby areas, he would be greeted by anyone in sight.
After having coffee in one of the town’s high end cafés , and then went to Prototsani to have some steaks. Prototsani is the most “fanatically greek” village in the area. Konstantinos Mitsotakis was the first Greek PM to visit the area back in the early nineties, when national tensions ran high in the area. It was a time of terror for both ends. Sali Berisha’s henchmen where constantly attacking figures of the Greek minority, while a Group sponsored by fascists within the Greek Foreign Ministry and the Greek Embassy, was trying to organise a separatist guerilla army, the actions of which could cause a war between the two countries. Mitsotakis toured Southern Albania in order to “calm things down”. As it turns out the speach he gave in the Squire, and furthermore his presence itself ,made quite an impression in the population. In fact it was such a positive impression that they named the central Squire alter him. It is a funny thing, especially if someone realises that people in the “motherland” hate his guts.
People in Northern Hyperus have an, almost, undemanding love for Greece. They feel that it is their “motherland”. Not in the literal sense , but because they relieve that they and their customs are originated from Greece.
We dined at a steakhouse in the southwest corner of the Squire, and went back to the hotel.
Come Friday morning and we where on the road again. This time we where on the coastal highway, on our way to Saranda. We where to spend the weekend moving along southern Albania. The aim was to see the “Greek” areas. So we passed by familiar landscape. Agricultural land as far as the eye could see. Then, at one point we reached the coastal city of Vlore. We ventured into the port, in order to find us something to eat. But, since the city is a port of entry from Italy, we did not manage to find anything that could suit us and any restaurant that was not a “tourist attraction” . So we stayed our southbound course. In the meantime the traffic was slowly becoming worse, and the roads where gradually deteriorating. After about an hour of trying to negotiate through local traffic, we finally left the city and continued moving on the coastal road to Saranda. We reached the beach where the old submarine base used to be. We stopped at a roadside fishing tavern to make our stomachs quiet down. Our instincts proved right once again and after a rich but cheap meal we where back on our way to Saranda. This time the landscape was changing. We where slowly going up the mountains. Traffic was scarce too. It was as if nobody was using this road. We would find out a little later. For the moment we where driving with the windows down, getting the mid-spring breeze on our faces. Suddenly the freeze turned into a chill, when almost midway into our mountain climb we ran into thick fog. We could see no further than 5 metres ahead of us. Instinctively the speed lowered significantly, and we where driving with the constant fear of falling of an open cliff or something like that.
As we where reaching the mountaintop, the fog was beginning to clear. Meanwhile the turns where multiplying rapidly, so where the potholes and the bumps on the road. But, once again, the Touareg prove to be a valuable and loyal companion. Despite its size, it was taking turns smoothly, and we usually did not “feel” the bumps or any other anomalies on the road. As we where descending to the sea again, the road grew wider. Its sides where also filled with nationalist slogans and UCK signs. We where into the “Greek” area, and Albanian nationalists from the north (the slogans where signed by “students from Tirana” or some similarly named organisation) definately wanted to make themselves seen in the area. This was the only sign of ethnic tension we encountered throughout the whole trip, in reality. When we reached the first villages, the majority of which was dominantly greek, the picture was different. Serene, with no provocations whatsoever. After another fourty kilometres (or so) we where reaching the outskirts of Saranda.
Now, everyone of you reading this blog, might have heard that Saranda is one of the most beautiful cities in Albania. This is partly misinformation. Saranda used to be o lovely town. Until the building boom destroyed it. Now it looks like Durres surrounded by hills. Few traditional pockets still survive, in the old town, but the reality is that most of the city was taken down to make way for apartment blocks and hotels. This looked like our idea, which was later confirmed by a local restauranteur . We lodged ourselves in a cheap third rate hotel and went for an afternoon nap. In the evening we converged on the balcony (which looked over the port and most of the city), had a bit of coffee and searched for a place to eat. Once again the Albanian connection worked, and this time we landed in an uber cozy restaurant, situated just over Dekko, Albania’s biggest and most exclusive summer club. The owner, as it turned out, had a long and illustrious career in the cuisine of some of Greece’s most exclusive and famous restaurants. And that was evident in the decoration of the restaurant and the luxurious plates too. It also looked like a place for a quite select clientele. A suit from the Austrian bank, one of the bigwigs as I learned from my stepfather, was expected to dine there the next day. We where dining there that evening. Our host said that Saranda used ton look like a beautiful village. But then, showing off newly gained cash from Greece, and trying to impress the tourists took over.
Soon we found out that we were the sole customers in the establishment, for the whole night. It looked as if they had had it opened just for us.
The answer as to why we where the sole customers came with the food, and the bill we had to pay. As it turned out, our insightful host had missed out on a couple of things. In fact he was swept away from the way greek fashion-omics work. That means mediocre food in a luxurious environment, complete with over-the-top prices. We where paying a totally “greek” check, which means thrice as expensive as Albanian prices. Truly, the concept of value for money had missed a guy. Or he was so carried away by serving the “elite”, that he forgot about common people. Anyway, with a bit of rage in our hearts we returned to the hotel, where I started to write, only to be stopped by a city-wide blackout, caused by a storm….