When I saw Albania on the Travel Talk tour itinerary, my interest was immediately piqued, because even on the surface, it’s a fascinating country.
After all, this is a country that, when I was born, no one knew anything about. Until 1991, it was even more closed off than North Korea is today (you couldn’t even do government-run tours) and it has remained much of a mystery to most people ever since.
I mean, how often do you see holidays promoted to Albania?
Some fun facts about Albania include:
- 175,000 bunkers were built around the country, able to house just 3 people in each, in case of an attack. Initially, 600,000 were proposed, so they only managed to build a third of that!
- people hang teddy bears from their houses and gates to allegedly ward off evil spirits. I didn’t have time to take photos of any of these as we went past, but I saw a few hanging on gates of country houses!
- the Albanian language is nothing like any other European language
- 80% of Albanians are Muslim, yet you wouldn’t realise that. Most aren’t practicing Muslims, and as such you actually see very few people adhering to the dress code, and many even drink alcohol. This is probably partly because religion was banned in 1967 and people had to practice in secret
Unfortunately, our tour provided very little time in the country to learn more, and on top of any observations we could sneak throughout the long journey between Montenegro and North Macedonia, we were given a measly two hours to explore the Albanian capital of Tirana.
An hour of this was taken up with a walking tour; a common theme of the tour as we had had one in every city, and ordinarily they were full of interesting facts and provided a quick insight into the place. This one, however, was seriously boring. Given the limited amount of time we had in the city, this was more than frustrating.
We were lavished with general facts about the buildings that we passed (I dubbed one of them “the Christmas wrapping paper building”), and nothing really about the people who lived there or the history of the country – it made you wonder just how much is hidden from the public even today.
On the upside, we did see most of the very centre of the city on the tour, so it may be that we wouldn’t have had time to see much if we’d had to find it on our own.
After our tour, everyone wanted lunch – but how could we possibly spend two hours in a city, and spend half of that on a lackluster tour and the other half eating what looked like western food that we could get anywhere else?
I had a couple of things on my list, and resigned myself to the fact I could only do one. I was going to check out the Bunk’Art museum and see if I could learn any more about the fascinating history of the country that the walking tour had failed to provide.
Because this was such a whistlestop part of the tour, I hadn’t had time to get cash out – and, naturally, the Bunk’Art museum only accepts cash. Thankfully, they also accept euros.
The Bunk’Art museum is really, really cool.
In case the name hadn’t given it away, it’s in an underground bunker – a huge underground bunker at that.
There is a lot of information about the border control from the 1940’s to the 1990’s, the prisons, the 24-hour surveillance of any foreigners who did visit (usually diplomats and those on very official business), the executions of Albanians who tried to escape, and the regime of Hoxha’s dictatorship – but there is very, very little on the day-to-day lives of Albanians for those 50-odd years, or why they were trying to escape it.
All of this made me wonder what secrets Albania still holds.
Interestingly, not much is said about the good things Hoxha did, either. It almost felt like Albanians are trying to forget him altogether. Several online resources talk about the literacy levels being raised to almost 100%, how epidemics were wiped out, the first railway was built, and the country became fully self-sufficient in complete isolation. However, Hoxha was also responsible for many deaths, forced labour camps and much oppression against the people that I am sure we will never know the full extent of.
“The purpose of the Border Forces was to prevent the escape of citizens abroad (offence for which was punishment with death) and to block any entry of illegal Albanians or foreigners from outside.”
An estimated 9,220 people between 1944 and 1990 escaped Albania – around 1,000 of these were killed by Border Forces. Directly after the war, the secret service killed around 200 “political opponents”, but this is according to official reports – the museum states that the actual number would have been much higher.
The whole thing felt a little like Pol Pot’s Khmer regime in Cambodia, if only on a much smaller scale. People were tortured (Hoxha even used private homes as torture centres), forced into labour camps and made to live in inhumane conditions. People who were accused of escaping or of rebelling against the government were often sentenced to over 20 years internment. It’s estimated that 34,000 political prisoners were kept in labour camps, though the number is officially around 25,000, and by 1990, there were over 100 camps.
I had to concede about half way around the museum that I was hungry (all the talk of torture, obviously). So I made the best of both worlds – I took photos of everything I didn’t have time to read so that I could read them later (as if you thought I would have committed all of this information to memory!) and we went to find something to eat.
Given that we only had about twenty minutes left, I ordered pizza to eat on the bus. Talk about glamorous travel, you guys.
And that was my experience of Tirana.
Even though it was a particularly long day of travel, I enjoyed the bus ride. The pockets of Albanian life that I saw felt like we’d been transported back in time. Old men driving horse and carts between villages, the famous bunkers on the hillsides. I noticed random things like the fact all the hotels have petrol stations.
I saw the weirdest array of buildings – one had four floors, three of which had no walls and were just rubble. The fourth – the TOP floor – looked like it was lived in, and had it have been a single floor building, it would have looked like a normal house. Another was a cafe, adorned with cute chairs and pretty plant pots around its entrance. Upstairs? A brick shell similar to those three floors in the house. Totally bizarre!
I had a lot of fun on the Balkans trip, but after being given the detailed itinerary at the start of the trip, this was the one day I just knew was going to be a bust. How can you possibly get a feel for a country by driving through it for six hours and stopping for two?
What’s worse was our guide was incredibly negative about Albania, and it put everyone in the mindset that the reason we were only spending two hours there is because it wasn’t worth spending any more time than that. That really pissed me off.
This was drummed into us even more when we started to arrive into Tirana and saw kids walking down the middle of the streets trying to sell pirated DVDs to people in their cars.
Shortly after this, we got to this roundabout…
Look at those buildings! What in the world?
And shortly after THAT, I spotted this sign which I just managed to catch a photo of…
I don’t know if I’m more confused by what it says, or that it’s in English?!
I’d read that Tirana is a weird city, and it absolutely is. Does that mean it should be written off? Absolutely not!
In fact, the second thing on my list (after the Bunk’Art museum) was climbing the extraordinarily bizarre pyramid. Our guide advised against this and said we wouldn’t want to spend even ten minutes in an Albanian hospital. Yet tons of people do it! (The pyramid, not end up in hospital.) Sure, you have to slide back down on your bum, but it’s not like there’s a vertical drop, and I’ve seen zero advisories against doing it online.
Anyway, I didn’t have time, so that was that.
This was my only negative experience with Travel Talk, to be honest. It’s also why I rarely book group tours. If you want a way to explore as much as possible with a group of great people (not guaranteed, of course) and have nothing to worry about for the transport and accommodation, then it’s a great way to see a region like this and tick off a bunch of countries. But if you want a slower-paced, better experience in those places, then I feel like that’s pretty easy to do independently in the Balkans (just the buses might be a bit slower and unreliable in Albania!).
Admittedly, I may never have come to Albania on my own, which is exactly why I did book the tour. But while it isn’t high on my list of places to return to, you know what? I’d like to one day, to give it justice, and to see how it’s dealing with its slowly increasing tourism.
And maybe, finally, climb the God damn pyramid.
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