Sun, sea & Soviet architecture in the unrecognised Republic of Abkhazia.
In April 2016, I spent two extremely wet days in Tirana, Albania. It’s a city unlike any I have seen before – a modern Mediterranean capital that didn’t even begin to make sense, until I started piecing together the relics of the former regime. Because beneath the noise, the youth and colour of modern Tirana, lie the buried remains of another place altogether: a planned totalitarian city, the forgotten capital of Communist Albania.
The Road to Tirana
A maelstrom of jagged metal lay before us, a thousand engines throbbing as car horns screamed at one another through dense clouds of exhaust smoke. The traffic didn’t form into lanes but rather it moved as a horde; dented vehicles coming at each other from all angles, each attempting to shove its way in front of the next. A heavy rain fell across the highway, so that the moving metal parts of this infernal puzzle glistened almost organic beneath these grey skies. Up ahead, in the centre of the main road into Tirana, a vast Albanian flag ripped and crackled in the storm: a double-headed eagle on a field of crimson.
Nothing quite prepared me for the chaos of Albanian traffic. Looking at that road, it was hard to imagine how anyone was getting out of here before sundown. I pictured our bus – fresh over the border from Montenegro – still stuck here in the morning. But gradually the rush-hour knot teased itself out, each car pushing, scraping and honking its way to freedom.
After three weeks backpacking around the countries that once made up Yugoslavia, Albania, at first glance, looked like more of the same. The border crossing from Montenegro was smooth and scenic: a quick glance over passports at a checkpoint framed between the rugged rock walls of a majestic ravine. The view was so distracting that I hardly noticed the border formalities and then we were in, the bus weaving its way along the side of a river gorge on roads that appeared far too narrow, too precarious, to support this kind of traffic.
The first town we drove through, Shkodër, was as Balkan as it gets. Cars double parked on every pavement, and men stood in the road amongst a chaos of traffic smoking cigarettes and talking. On one corner, a vendor was selling live chickens from a stack of wire crates piled up in the dirt. The outside seating of coffee shops spilled into the thoroughfare from all directions while an assortment of market stalls – selling everything from tyres and chains to mattresses and livestock – lined the road.
But there were some major differences too, and even from the windows of the bus I spotted three things that made it abundantly clear how we weren’t in former Yugoslavia anymore.
First, the language. On roads signs and adverts, the logical, phonetic symbols of the South Slavic languages were switched for (what looked to me, like) a jumble of long indecipherable characters, studded with umlauts and with Qs in places that made no sense at all.
The second thing was the litter. Not that the other Balkan countries don’t have a serious waste disposal problem – they do – but compared to Albania, they’re practically pristine.
Between the towns, fields lay scattered with the drifting ghosts of old plastic bags; with messy mountains of bottles and cartons and tins. On the riverbanks, bleached-white refuse hung from trees like wallpaper, marking the high tide level. From the bus I watched a goatherd drive his animals along the bank, and the goats all stopped to nibble at the low-hanging grey-white foliage of plastic and nappies.
The third big difference, of course, was all the bunkers.
Abandoned Bunkers of Albania
Albania has a lot of bunkers. A ridiculous number. They pop up like mushrooms out of farmland, mountain plains and all along the coast; they rise in bumps and domes from the grass of city parks.
Under the leadership of (the increasingly paranoid) Enver Hoxha, Communist Albania built more than 173,000 bunkers – an average of 5.7 per square kilometre. The idea was that if the country were ever invaded, the population itself could be weaponised… everybody taking a rifle and retreating to their nearest reinforced firing position.
Albania didn’t have many political allies towards the later end of its communist period. It was less progressive than its neighbours; when the rest of the Eastern Bloc began tentatively opening its doors to Western imports and tourists, Hoxha’s Communist Albania clung to dogmatic values of totalitarianism that had changed very little since Stalin was still in office. Even within the socialist world it was viewed as a pariah state, and these many thousands of bunkers were constructed to ensure that it stayed that way.
The bunkers of Communist Albania were never used for their intended purpose; while the cost of this mad programme of bunkerisation is one of the main reasons for the poor social housing and poorer roads on display today.
Some of the bunkers have since been destroyed, others repurposed as storage space, livestock pens or even shops. Some of them have people living in, while just a few, closer to the border, proved useful during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. A great many of them, however, have simply been left abandoned.
I saw my first Albanian bunkers from the bus, five minutes after the border – and they would remain a defining feature of the landscape throughout my stay in Albania, even as I took to the streets to explore the nation’s colourfully chaotic capital, Tirana.
The Confusing Capital of Post-Communist Albania
It was raining hard when we got to Tirana, and the storm didn’t let up for three days: an incessant hammering that punctuated every conversation, every private reflection on my surroundings. I began to tune it out in the end, so that it just became part of the fabric of the place. This was just what Albania sounded like, for me.
At the hostel, the courtyard was full of umbrellas – all of them open, their canvas domes reminiscent of the bunkers we’d been driving past all day. Wet raincoats hung down the length of the entry corridor, permeating the wood-panelled stillness of the old building with a constant drip drip drip.
By the time we hit the streets, I found Tirana immediately confusing. I had expected to find myself surrounded by the leftover blocks of Communist Albania… but instead, from the palm trees, the mosques, the big boulevards and exotic architecture, I might have guessed I’d arrived in some corner of the Arabic world.
Tower blocks, painted pastel hues of purple and green, were fronted in intricate patterns of concrete latticework. Unfinished skyscrapers in twisting, dizzying shapes rose up above bursts of waxy vegetation. Postmodernist churches popped and bulged from marble plazas, in between relics of Ottoman-era brickwork. The spoken language, meanwhile, was like no European tongue I had ever heard.
We passed a monument, an undulating contortion of grotesque body parts misassembled into a lumbering headless giant; a memorial to the victims of Communist Albania.
From time to time, the constant rain grew heavier. We ducked into a coffee shop when the hailstones started falling – a small café that smelled of lemon, spices and wood polish. On the ceiling an antique fan rattled noisily around, and tropical-looking plants sat potted in a window box. The waiter spoke no English. “Italiano?” he asked us, hopefully, passing out menus printed in German and Albanian.
Tirana made absolutely no sense to me. Its centre didn’t feel like a centre; whereas most cities have natural currents that draw pedestrians into their heart, Tirana’s atmospheric contours seemed to push outwards in all directions. There was nowhere really to stop in Skanderbeg Square, the official ‘city centre,’ and though we often looped back through we missed it every time – instead getting drawn by the smells and colours of backstreets, past intermittent monuments and plaques. We would follow a road that felt significant, but find only more of the pastel towers and occasional cafés, until eventually we realised we were halfway into the suburbs.
On that first day of exploring, Tirana was all texture with no core. But the texture itself was compelling. It wasn’t just the architecture, the baffling towers and purple concrete blocks, but everything about this place combined; even the food. For three weeks in former Yugoslavia, I had been living on a diet of grilled meat, bread and beer. Here though, I was finding colourful beans and spices, stews and soups, and roasted vegetables stuffed with other vegetables.
It was more than anything I could have imagined, a city where the relics of Communist Albania were almost lost in a jungle of entirely unpredictable sensations. Albania was a world apart from all its neighbours, to the extent that it felt thoroughly out of place in this corner of the Balkans. Ask an Albanian though, and they might just tell you that theirs is in fact the native culture of the Balkans.
Children of Illyria
It may be hemmed in by the countries of former Yugoslavia, but the Albanians themselves couldn’t be further in culture or history from the Slavs. Better to think of it this way: as the missing third sibling of Europe’s great ancient civilisations; the Romans, the Greeks and here, the Illyrians.
That’s the local story popular with many Albanians, at least. The first Illyrian Kingdom existed here, in the Western Balkans, from as early as the 8th century BC until its defeat by Rome in the 2nd century BC. Contemporary Albanian is spoken in many of the same regions that had once formed classical Illyria, and proponents of this theory often point to the Albanoi, a 2nd century Illyrian tribe mentioned by the Greek geographer Ptolemy, as early ancestors of today’s Albanians.
There are strong theories against this Illyrian hypothesis, too. But that didn’t prevent it from becoming a core tenant of the wave of Albanian nationalism that would begin to blossom in the 19th century, as the country struggled out from under Ottoman occupation and began looking for ways to justify its claim to sovereignty and land. The idea must have been irresistible for a nation recovering from centuries of often-brutal subjugation. Later, it would also add fire to the conflict with Serbia during the Kosovo War, with Albanian nationalists convinced that their people had owned these lands since long before the Slavs ever arrived into this part of Europe.
The Illyria story proved useful for Communist Albania as well. During those years, the theory was taught as unequivocal fact by Albanian schools and universities; there are even reports of new parents being persuaded to choose ancient Illyrian names for their babies.
In Communist Albania, Hoxha encouraged his citizens to consider themselves the oldest race in Europe. Their decades of isolation in the latter half of the 20th century, their externally perceived status as the ‘North Korea of Europe,’ must have been understood then – from inside – not as shutting Albania off from Europe; so much as shutting the rowdy newcomers out of Europe’s true heart.
The Pyramid of Tirana
Before I ever went to Tirana, I could name just one landmark in the city: the Pyramid of Tirana, a huge abandoned structure of concrete and glass that sits in a grotty plaza near the centre.
The pyramid was originally intended as a museum dedicated to Enver Hoxha: First Secretary of the Party of Labour of Albania and de facto leader of Communist Albania from 1944, up until his death in 1985. The ‘Enver Hoxha Museum’ – its official name – was opened three years later, in October 1988. It was co-designed by Hoxha’s architect daughter, Panvera Hoxha, along with her husband Klement Kolaneci and architects Pirro Vaso and Vladimir Bregu.
Albanian communism ended in 1991 however, and after that there was little demand for a museum celebrating the life of a former dictator. The building was rebranded the ‘Pyramid of Tirana,’ and it served at times as an exhibition hall, a conference centre, a TV broadcasting station and even, during the Kosovo War, as a temporary NATO base.
Meanwhile, as a tangible symbol for the excesses of Communist Albania, the pyramid would become a target for vandalism and looting. The clean white marble that once coated its flanks was stripped away, exposing the concrete underneath: leaving a naked, grey-blue thing the colour of storm clouds.
When we arrived at the plaza, a group of local kids were climbing up the wet sides of the former museum. But then the rain intensified, and the children half-climbed, half-slid their way back down, got on their bikes, and left.
There are stories about a man who waits around the pyramid with a key, charging tourists €5 for a look inside the abandoned museum. He wasn’t here today, though – the rain had seen to that – and when I tried the heavy doors set into the base of the pyramid structure they were locked.
At a gap in the sheetmetal wall, I peered into the space beyond: to find only cold air, darkness and the smell of damp mould. There have been local talks for years about demolishing the structure, and making room for new parliamentary buildings. But the Pyramid of Tirana, today, feels like a fitting memorial in its own right. Not a museum anymore, but a mausoleum: the grey and dismal tomb of Communist Albania.
Enver Hoxha’s Corridor of Power
On our second day in Albania we joined a walking tour.
The meet-up point was beneath The Albanians: a glitzy socialist-realist mural that decorates the front of the National History Museum on Skanderbeg Square. In the picture, Albanian peasants and partisans stand clutching rifles beneath the national flag… and on either side they fade into history, uniforms growing more antiquated down the line as rifles are replaced for swords and bows and arrows. A symbol of Albanian independence, charted as far back as Illyria.
The heavy rain had scared off all the tourists. We had the guide to ourselves that day, so I was able to draw him into the kind of deep historical discussions that I thrive on, but most other travellers might find antisocial.
We talked in the rain for hours, until it got too bad and then we visited the National Gallery of Arts. There was an exhibition inside, of Albanian film posters dating largely from the 1960s and 70s. The simple pop-art colours, the clean figures, smiling faces and national costumes, made them virtually indistinguishable from political propaganda posters. Suddenly there was a commotion near the entrance, and people around us were turning to watch a new group of visitors arrive.
“The German Ambassador,” our guide said, as the man and his entourage brushed past us: a gaggle of bureaucrats in trench coats and horn-rim glasses.
The highlight of the tour, however, was a walk down Tirana’s corridor of power.
From the city centre, your feet will want to lead you one way – to follow the noise, the colour and the voices of the city, that pulled me invariably back towards the bars and cafés north and east of Skanderbeg Square – but Tirana only began to make sense for me when I walked in the opposite direction.
To the south, Dëshmorët e Kombit (‘Martyrs of the Nation’) Boulevard felt rather soulless. A wide and quiet street, set with austere modern buildings at regular intervals. Hardly anything moved here: the occasional car, a few fleeting pedestrians with umbrellas. The rain. But Dëshmorët e Kombit Boulevard is the seat of the Albanian government, and it was the nerve centre of Communist Albania before that. It is the key to making any sense of this city.
The boulevard was always intended as a totalitarian gesture. It dates from Mussolini’s Fascist occupation of Albania, designed by Italian architect Gherardo Bosio and constructed from 1939-41. Back then, it was called the Viale del Impero: Avenue of the Empire.
We walked down Dëshmorët e Kombit, past the Pyramid, past the Office of the Albanian Prime Minister. We passed the Presidential Office, originally built to serve as the Soviet Embassy here in Albania but repurposed after the two nations cut off diplomatic relations in 1961 (the Soviets, according to Hoxha, had grown too liberal). We passed the more recent Palace of Congresses too: an angular, mirror-windowed building that could have been any post-modernist office block. Back then, it was the meeting venue for the Albanian Labour Party. Now its 2,100-capacity hall is used used for festivals and exhibitions.
At the south end of the boulevard, the empty road spilled into an oversized square where a row of plain and pompous blocks rose up in perfect symmetry: the University of Tirana. This building was also the work of Gherardo Bosio, from a plan drawn back in 1940. For a short while after the leader’s death (from 1985 to 92) it became the ‘Enver Hoxha University of Tirana’; until that name went well and truly out of fashion.
As I stood on the tarmac in the rain a single car reached the end of the boulevard, circled the former parade ground, turned, then drove back the way it had come. This felt like a non-place, like some backroad industrial estate – only cleaner, and less interesting. There must have been another entrance to the university, I pondered. A pedestrian route into the back of the campus, most likely lined in quirky coffee shops. This, the official boulevard, appeared to have faded from popular use just like the fading shadows of the regime it once accommodated.
I was beginning to realise that there were two cities here, one on top of the other: the first, a planned totalitarian capital; the second a user-defined, contemporary Balkan bohemia. Tirana was only established as a capital in 1912. Most of its architecture was raised by fascists and communists, so that the new generation of Albanians, in rejecting totalitarianism altogether, have had to find their own capital in the spaces in between.
The true heart of contemporary urban Tirana can be found at Blloku.
Enver Hoxha hadn’t lived in a palace, but rather at a surprisingly modest townhouse in the city. The Blloku (or ‘Block’) district of Tirana was reserved for members of the Albanian politburo, a cordoned-off chunk of Tirana which served as Communist Albania’s Vatican; except that these streets were kept a secret. They were never seen by the masses, and they did not appear on maps.
After the fall of communism though, Blloku opened up. Soon it hosted Albania’s first KFC restaurant followed by a string of trendy, upmarket apartments. Walking through the boutique shops, street art, galleries and gastro pubs of Blloku now (or ‘Ish-Blloku,’ meaning ‘Ex-Block’), it’s pure 21st century gentrification: a post-communist hipster town in a district you’ve probably never heard of.
Our tour ended at the front gates of Enver Hoxha’s three-storey villa. His house still isn’t open to the public – but neither is it hidden anymore. By that act alone there’s the sense of a curtain being pulled back… so that the cult of personality which for four decades dominated the people of Albania has been revealed, at last, for exactly what it was.
In Tirana today, children ride their bikes over the dictator’s museum, while students drink and dance in his secret streets; and no one takes much notice of the totalitarian architecture of Communist Albania anymore.
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