Albania’s National Museum faces up to Communist past

A new wing of Albania’s National Museum in Tirana opened yesterday that’s dedicated to the abuses of its former Communist government.

Under the harsh rule of Enver Hoxha, shown here in a photo courtesy Forrásjelölés Hasonló, some 100,000 Albanians were executed or sent to prison or forced labor camps, this in a country of only three million people. Torture and intimidation were rife and a network of informers made everyone paranoid.

For a disturbing look at the surreal daily life in this regime, read The Country Where No One Ever Dies by Albanian author Ornela Vorpsi. The last days of Communist rule are seen through the eyes of an adolescent girl whose main dream is simply to be left alone.

That was the dream of a lot of Albanians. The new wing to the museum displays photographs and artifacts documenting the torture and extermination of dissidents. People lived in fear of disappearing into a jail or camp. Hopefully this exhibition will go a small way towards helping Albania come to terms with its past and heal some open wounds.

Visible evidence of the old regime is everywhere in Albania. While Tirana is undergoing a beautification program and the countless statues of Hoxha have been pulled down, thousands of bunkers still litter the country’s beaches, fields, and neighborhoods. The paranoid regime put up an estimated 700,000 of the ugly things despite needing roads and adequate housing for its citizens. One set of them can be seen in the photo below courtesy the Concrete Mushrooms Project.

Walking the streets of Tirana

Everyone has their own intimate reasons for traveling, be they discovering new places or simply leaving behind old ones. For me however, it’s about finding yourself somewhere that you previously couldn’t have imagined. The clichéd word for this type of travel is “off-the-beaten path,” though the experiences it yields are anything but cliché.

Several years ago, I landed in Athens intent on traveling overland through the Balkans en route to Vienna. While this was never a major tourist route to begin with, I did manage to visit some of the better-known sites: the hilltop monasteries in Meteora, the Dalmatian Coast in Croatia and the up-and-coming Montenegrin Riviera. Along the way, I took a slight detour into a country that I knew next to nothing about: Albania.

What little information I could remember from history class was the following bizarre account. During the Cold War, the Communist leader of Albania was a deranged paranoid by the name of Enver Hoxha. Fearing annihilation from above by Western powers, he charged his military engineers with the task of building almost one million concrete bunkers across the whole of Albania.

The Iron Curtain has long since fallen, but I confess that my image of Albania hadn’t changed with the times. As such, you can imagine my surprise upon arriving in the whimsically-colorful capital city of Tirana. Take a look at the gallery below, and then continue reading to learn how this once grey and gloomy city earned its multi-hued stripes.

%Gallery-124160% Prior to the Cold War, Tirana was a beautiful city. First established as an Ottoman outpost in the 17th century, Tirana quickly prospered as a major commercial center along the caravan trading routes. It was soon outfitted with all the architectural symbols of the ruling Turks, including mosques, hamams (bathhouses) and bazaars.

Following independence in 1912, the somewhat comically named King Zog I (yes, that’s his real name!) launched a massive building campaign to Europeanize the city. Noted Italian architects descended on Tirana, and gifted the city center with neoclassical buildings and grand boulevards. Of course, construction efforts were de-prioritized following subsequent invasions by Italian Fascists and German Nazis.

After World War II, Albania became a communist state and sided with the USSR. Tirana was thus transformed into a socialist-styled industrial powerhouse. Elegance gave way to practicality as historic buildings were ripped down and replaced with concrete block-style apartments, and any available green spaces were filled-in to accommodate behemoth factories. Tirana became the cold and dreary city one often associates with so-called brutalist architecture.

Since 2000 however, Mayor Edi Rama has launched a number of admirable campaigns to beautify Tirana. Some of his efforts are fairly standard urban renewal practices, such as knocking down abandoned buildings, cleaning up public parks, planting trees alongside river banks and renovating the few remaining culturally significant buildings.

But what separates Mayor Rama from your average fighter of urban blight is his love of color – yellow, orange, blue, green and violet to be specific. And in this case, the palette is the bleak concrete facade that typifies most of Tirana. Viewing his city as a work of art in progress, Mayor Rama has set aside subsidies for people and communities to spruce up their streetscapes. Indeed, a fresh coast of paint can often do wonders.

Walking the streets of Tirana is really the best way to capture his lofty vision. Some apartment buildings opt for geometric patterns of intersecting shapes in bold coloration. Others embrace softer undulating pastel lines that are reminiscent of waves crashing in a fantasy ocean. And then there are those with blunt racing stripes that draw attention away from glaring architectural flaws.

Soviet-era stylings still do predominate, and the frivolous nature of the project has drawn its fair share of justified critics. But as a living, breathing social experiment, Tirana truly is one of a kind.

We’ll be the first to confess that Tirana is not an easy place to visit. Your first hurdle is simply getting here as Albania isn’t exactly the crossroads of the world. But there are direct flights to Tirana from most major European capitals including London. There is no train station, so you can forget about the Eurorail pass, though international buses run to neighboring Balkan countries as well as to Greece and Turkey.

English is a rarity, so it’s recommended that you book a hotel in advance rather than stumble around in search of accommodation. Habitable rooms tends to gravitate towards the mid-range and top end, though rates here are much less than in other European capitals.

Eating out is very cheap, and you’ll find all manners of filling treats including byrek, a filo-dough style pastry with meat, cheese and/or spinach. More familiar doner kebabs and Italian pastas and pizzas are also popular. Local beer is excellent, though keep in mind that the local “Stela” is not the same as the Belgian “Stella Artois.”

In terms of sites, there are a few decent museums and performance spaces scattered around the city. The National History Museum is recommended if you want to get a better sense of the strange twists and turns that led to the creation of modern Tirana. Petrela Castle on the outskirts of the city is an impressive Byzantine structure lying at the top of a rocky outcrop. For something far less stately, check out Hoxha’s International Center of Culture, which resembles a giant pyramid of cement!

Need more inspiration? Check out the gallery images below.


[All photos and gallery images are the author’s own original work unless otherwise specified.]

Letter from Albania: Tirana’s impressive recovery

The first time I met Besnik Lame, he sat down at my table where I was having a drink and made a few rather awkward confessions.

“You see, I have some overweight,” he said. “And so, I sweat a lot. It is a problem.”

At that moment, two ribbons of water trundled down the side of his baby face.

“Also, see this?” He ran a hand over some stubble. “I shaved today, so it makes it worse. I hate shaving!”

None of this was an impertinence, or necessarily strange, since I had commented that Lame looked to be working hard, tending to the handful of tables that crowded the first floor of his small restaurant on a Tirana side street. Lame worked hard every day, often keeping his restaurant, not very creatively named the Grill House, open till 2 a.m. and then showing back up at 7 a.m. to start another day.

Lame liked to sit down and talk to his customers. A few more times this evening he approached. “Please, may I sit with you?” He was proud of his place, the meat dishes (which were wonderful), the homemade wine, the homemade raki that went down like hot acid.

“In my restaurant, we have a saying. You drink all you can. If you cannot pay for it all tonight, you come tomorrow.”

I could get behind such a policy.

Whenever a bottle or a glass sat on the table empty, he’d come over and say, “So, what do we do about this, my friends?”

I liked the Grill House, and Lame’s company, so much that I made it my home base during my time in Tirana, and the convivial nature of the place put me in a good mood and no doubt affected how I responded to Albania’s busy capital.

I arrived in Tirana expecting to hate it — the city’s nightmarish traffic makes a harsh first impression — and while I did not leave loving it, I found myself liking the place for its energy and for its people.

At a chic nightclub one night, a student named Fatma said, “Tirana is all young people now. That’s why it’s fun.”

Fatma might have been overstating things a little — I saw plenty of older Albanians who braved honking Mercedes as they took their xhiro, or evening stroll — but she was right to allude to Tirana’s apparent vibrancy, something that rendered the capital of today almost unrecognizable from the Tirana of even 10 years ago.

Most of that had to do with Edi Rama, the city’s populist (and popular) mayor.

A national basketball star and an avid painter, Rama was credited with transforming Tirana after he entered office in 2000. It helped that he had a youthful, masculine air to him — pictures abound of him riding motorcycles and walking on beaches nude — which seemed to help connect with a younger generation eager to see its city become more European rather than the backwater with a traffic problem it had been.

Rama cleaned up the city’s streets, closing down the numerous ad hoc kiosks and vendors that had sprouted up on pretty much any available patch of public space in the city, illegally selling, well, whatever they could.

Free of these squatters, the city’s parks and squares opened up.

Rama launched initiatives to rid streets of trash, installing bins and larger containers. He attacked broken sidewalks and pitted boulevards (though why he hadn’t been able to do anything about the chaotic mess that was Skanderbeg Square, I don’t know) and implemented so many road-widening projects that the city today still hadn’t finished all them.

But it was perhaps what Rama did with the city’s drab communist-era buildings that put him on the map as one of the world’s most successful mayors. He had many of them painted in Caribbean colors: violets, crimson, aquamarine, spearmint, so that a stroll down a Tirana street could make one feel, for a minute, like he was in Turks and Caicos.

What the guidebooks didn’t mention as they pointed out Tirana’s colorfulness was that residents had no say in what color their building was painted. One day they simply woke up to see that they were now proud tenants of a pink apartment block. Imagine somebody just coming and painting your home whatever color they wanted.

“They won’t be painted again,” Attin Fortuzi, a TV journalist and teacher, told me when I pointed out that the color was fading on many buildings. “There is not a big push to paint more. Most people were not in favor of it in the first place.”

The painting program was meant to be a one time fix, essentially a cover up.

But that was what I liked most about Rama. In his brazen style of politicking, he talked straight to the people and he understood that the best way to win back people’s trust in their government officials — and trust in the government had never been a strong suit among Albanians — was not to make Washington promises, but to actually do something people could see. Roadwork, clean-ups, painting. Rama made no bones about his populism, and he proved to be right. Albanians appeared happy to live in a city where things were happening.

“Albania is like a station where everybody is waiting for a train or a boat … or a beautiful man or lady to take them away because they’ve lost confidence in the government and any possibility of a better life,” Rama told the Christian Science Monitor a few years ago. “We don’t have the resources to solve all our problems, but at least we can change the colors of the buildings, to show them that something is happening,” he says.

That gave Tirana an optimism that seemed to be missing elsewhere in Albania. Not that life was easy in Tirana. It’s just that the locals believed that the city was working hard for them, and that conceit imbued them with a determination to work equally hard, not to solve all the country’s problems but to just make better lives for themselves.

“Life is good in Tirana,” Besnik Lame told me one night.

Lame embodied this Tirana attitude, I thought. He had had a peripatetic life. He’d started a few businesses, then became a flight attendant working in Malaysia and then, improbably, as a human resource executive for Halliburton in Kosovo during the late 1990s.

Today he had the Grill House, and another family shop somewhere else in the city, and I got the feeling that he had a few more enterprises going, though I felt equally sure they were all on the level.

Yes, the days were long. But he had a second house at the sea.

One night he sat down and told me that business was hurting a bit. The value of Albania’s currency, the lek, was going down. People were spending less. It used to be he could count on government workers from a few nearby ministries to come in every day for lunch, plowing through plates of meat and carafes of wine.

Now they only come an afternoon or two.

But he just shrugged it off and, seeing I had finished the last of my carafe, smiled, picked it up and sai
d, “Now, what are we going to do about this?”

Letters from Albania