Making friends with Albania again

John Westbrooke sees a country return to the world

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Eastern Europe has undergone a lot of changes in the generation since the Berlin Wall came down, but few have altered as dramatically as Albania. For one thing, it now has cars.

Under Enver Hoxha, the strongman from 1944 until his death in 1985, private transport was banned. There were some taxis, a few limos for the elite, lots of buses and bikes, and horses and carts; but the streets were mostly empty.

Now, though… As communism crumbled in the 1990s, everyone decided they needed foreign cars. Italian ones proved not all that useful (many roads outside towns were still unpaved), but German ones brought in by Albanians who’d been living abroad did the trick. So top of their shopping lists today are Mercedes, with BMWs and Audis close behind. Just like London, in fact.

It’s hard to overstate just how isolated Albania used to be. It’s not just the language that looks like nothing else – in case you’re wondering, the “makinë për shitje” signs mean “car for sale” and “dhoma me qera” is “room for rent”.

The whole country was friendless. Hoxha was self-defeatingly hardline. He soon lost patience with Yugoslavia, which remained non-aligned. He stuck with the Soviet Union till Stalin’s death let in less ruthless successors. Last to go was China, which got too friendly with Washington; boycotting it removed the country’s only foreign subsidy. Signs at the border read “Even if we have to go without bread, we Albanians do not violate our principles.” Principles without bread makes a hard road to travel.

As for Britain, it was Enemy #2, just behind the USA, after it confiscated Albanian gold reserves as compensation for a mined ship.

It’s all history now. Thousands of pill-boxes, built to combat the invasions that never came, still line the highways like huge concrete mushrooms, but gone are the huge posters and the street-corner loudspeakers urging the proletariat on. A vast underground bunker for the ruling class in Tirana is now “Bunk Art”, a museum of the post-war era. Hoxha’s own quarters are comfortable, in a 1950s living room way, but not lavish; a tyrant he may have been but he wasn’t corrupt. But he and his wife (she’s still alive) never had to retreat there.

Outside, you could be anywhere. There are shopping malls and restaurants, traffic jams, kids in distressed jeans, and fairly widely spoken English. The weather is much like Greece next door, sultry in summer but you can get snow and storms on high ground.

But Tirana’s hardly 400 years old, and was insignificant for 300 of them. Much of the pleasure in Albania is visiting its small, pretty towns. Gjirokastra, for example, looks as if it was created recently for a Beautiful High Street contest; its steep lanes are lined with whitewashed boutiques and cafés and paved with patterned bricks.

But it’s overlooked by an 800-year-old castle, a proper citadel on a ridge, built to defend locals in the turbulent Middle Ages, and one of its big attractions is an ethnographic museum, inside the house where Hoxha was born. You can even see the tyrant’s cradle.

For a more substantial Albanian hero, try Kruja, north of Tirana. Go up to its castle through another picturesque bazaar, still as much for locals as for tourists, and you’ll find out all about Skanderbeg (1405-68), the warrior who kept the forces of the Ottoman empire at bay even while they were capturing Constantinople itself. His real name was George Kastriotis; but he was called Iskender Bey, a version of Alexander the Great, a measure of the esteem in which he’s still held. Despite the Hoxha family’s best efforts to promote his memory, the late dictator wasn’t in the same league.

As it happens, the Albanian currency, the lek, gets its name from the same source, the second syllable of Alexander.

Down near Greece we stayed by the smart new Riviera-style harbour of Saranda, with its sculpture-lined prom and yachts sparkling in the bay. (If you spot the excellent Mare Nostrum restaurant, rush in.) But Albanians don’t seem wholly impressed, remembering that two decades ago it was a fishing village among pine forests; it’s grown on the back of tourists arriving from Corfu, which is barely five miles offshore.

Fifty years ago, Corfu was a magnet for those trying to escape the regime. Our guide recalled a cousin who went with friends for an officially sanctioned beach party with, among other things, bags of local watermelons to eat. At dusk they started swimming, their heads disguised as bobbing melons. They got away, to Greece and then the USA; but their families paid the price, relocated far from home.

It’s surprising just how much history Albania has. Butrint in the deep south, for instance, is a Unesco World Heritage site, a collection of ruins round a harbour that dates back to the the 6th century BC. Past occupants included Greeks, Romans and Venetians too, and useful panels, in English, explain what you’re seeing.

It’s set among eucalyptus avenues and olive groves (where some reported hearing a nightingale), but the vegetation is the mark of areas that haven’t been excavated yet: there isn’t much money and some of what’s been done to date is funded by Sainsburys. The grandest building is a Christian basilica, whose walls are still standing. Some floor mosaics are said to be worth seeing, but they were only just being uncovered after being protected by sand from the winter weather.

Butrint isn’t jammed like the streets of Pompeii, but it’s busy. Pretty Apollonia, stranded long ago when its river changed course, hasn’t so many remains or so many visitors, but it’s beautifully set. The ruins of Byllis, on a huge hilltop site, were almost deserted.

Even Durres, Albania’s second city, doesn’t get the visitors. It has a long, shallow, sandy beach and a Roman amphitheatre, said to be the biggest in the Balkans. Some of the stone seating is just about usable, and there’s a chapel with a few good mosaics. But the central area is still covered in uneven grass awaiting investigation.

There’s an amphitheatre in Pula, northern Croatia, much the same size and in far better shape, more like Rome’s Colosseum. The Albanians grumble that Croatia is in the EU and gets funding for this sort of thing, and wish they were in the EU too; but the Union has enough on its hands already. (Besides, this isn’t really fair: the Croatians kept up their amphitheatre even when they were Yugoslavs.)

So far, Albania hasn’t got back on the tourist trail the way Croatia has. But it’s sunny, full of splendid scenery, and remarkably cheap; its infrastructure is improving, and Britain is no longer on the hit list. Go there now, before your neighbours do.