In Albania, a Capital Full of Contradictions
Date: Wednesday, June 28 @ 07:18:06 PDT
Topic: Albanian Cities
"Albania kaput!" announced the lunatic on the streets of Tirana. I looked at my new friends, a pair of Serbian filmmakers and a Dutch backpacker I'd met in a cafe, and we tried to walk away. But his insanity was unavoidable, and soon we were a captive audience to his crackpot ramblings about Bill Clinton, Sept. 11 and the future of Albania. I'd been in Tirana less than four hours and, already, moments like these had ceased to faze me.
By MATT GROSS - New York Times
I had arrived in Albania hoping to discover an untrammeled paradise hidden in the Balkans. What I found instead was a deeply weird place: a majority-Muslim country where the mosques are mute but the miniskirts are loud, where horse carts share highways with Hummers, and where people shake their heads to mean yes — except that sometimes they shake their heads to mean no.
Yes, Albania can make you shake your own head in confusion, but what can you expect after almost 50 postwar years of hermetic Communism and, more recently, a mania for pyramid schemes that plunged Europe's poorest nation into near-anarchy? In this stumbling nation, I was hoping that my Frugal Traveler budget might afford me more luxury than it had elsewhere.
People in neighboring Montenegro, Croatia and Italy, however, warned against such romantic notions. Albanians, they kept informing me, were criminals, corrupt and untrustworthy. But Tirana, it turns out, is quite lovable.
In fact, I'd given myself over to the country's refreshing craziness five minutes after crossing the border from Montenegro (entry visa: 10 euros, or $12.80, at $1.28 to the euro), when I saw a horse cart trotting down a half-paved highway, followed by a high-speed caravan of R.V.'s and motorcycles all flying the German flag.
I arrived by bus on a hot afternoon and was instantly struck by the amazing graphical flatness of the Italian colonial architecture, the epic ugliness of the Soviet-style architecture and the naïve aspirations of the new glass-and-steel towers. They all had an energy I couldn't dismiss. Many apartment blocks had bright coats of city-subsidized paint, thanks to former mayor Edi Rama, an artist and now head of the opposition Socialist Party. Clumps of green and yellow, the boxy buildings looked like Tetris blocks that had fallen from the sky.
I soon found myself in the Block, as it is known, the center of Tirana life. Once reserved for the families of high-level Communist Party officials, today the quarter is full of boutiques, Italian restaurants (no one eats Albanian food here) and bar-cafes where Tiranans of all stripes nurse espressos from dawn till dusk. I quickly took to the Flex Cafe (Rruga Deshmoret e 4 Shkuritit), which became my home base for the next three days thanks to its modern décor, cheap drinks (topping out at 500 leks, or a little under $5, at 104 Albanian leks to the dollar) and free WiFi.
Tirana's central mosque and clock tower
Flex is also a hub for the city's young elite, and within minutes I made friends with several filmmakers from Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Albania, who were in town for a regional reconciliation workshop. One was documenting BBF, a television network where for 200 euros anybody can walk in off the street and shoot a music video; another had trained his camera on a nearby pedestrian bridge blocked by an armless man and rival gangs of child panhandlers.
But apart from the beggars, Tirana felt oddly safe and inviting. I walked home alone at night through utter darkness, afraid only that I would trip on the tattered sidewalk or get hissed at by a stray cat. And if Tirana's energy surprised me, its affordability met my every hope. Dinners at the nicest restaurants, like the Sky Club atop one of the "Twin Towers," cost less than $15 a person for dishes like hot yogurt soup and veal medallions, and my Grilled Fish Index rarely exceeded $30.
The only things that frustrated me were the meterless taxis (never pay more than 500 leks) and the accommodations. Hotels were few and expensive. I stayed at the centrally located Hotel Lugano (Rruga Mihal Duri, 34; 355-4-222-023), which a friend of a friend had recommended. My simple air-conditioned box was 40 euros, about twice what you'd pay in a place like Phnom Penh.
Far more frustrating was Albania's refusal to resolve into a neat picture. Skyscrapers were going up while sidewalks disintegrated; the National Art Gallery displayed beautiful artwork, but rarely identified the socialist realist painters and sculptors. A cocktail at Flex could feel like the height of cosmopolitan cool — until you had to contend with adorable but depressing street kids who would kiss your arm in hopes of a 50-lek coin. But when I saw another deranged man threatening buses with a brick — and the even odder response by passersby to brandish their shoes like weapons — I knew it was time to leave.
So I checked out of the Lugano, hailed a taxi and uttered two words to the driver: "autobus" and "Gjirokastra." The bus is the cheapest (but not easiest) way to get to the southern city of Gjirokastra, which raised two of Albania's most famous — and infamous — citizens: the novelist Ismail Kadare and Enver Hoxha, the dictator who ruled Albania from 1944 until his death in 1985.
Six and a half hours later, I stepped off the bus, paid my 800 leks and hoped that I would find the key to understanding Albania.
A fast-food restaurant uses the Internet giant's cachet to draw in the hip and hungry.
Gjirokastra is imposing, with an enormous 19th-century castle, towering slate-roofed houses and cobblestone streets so steep that every walk is an exercise in masochism. Luckily, the people were as friendly and as open as they'd been in Tirana. That first night, I had a warm conversation in Italian with Zini, an 80-year-old man playing dominoes with his pals near a mosque, and befriended 15-year-old Emi, a waiter at Festivali, one of just a handful of restaurants in the old town (try the veal tongue). Best of all, dinner here never came out to more than $10.
Even my accommodations were perfect: I checked into the Hotel Kalemi (Lagjia Palorto, 355-84-63724, hotelkalemi.tripod.com ), a painstakingly restored house with intricate carved-wood ceilings (one is 200 years old) and spectacular views of the old city and the entire Drinos valley. It cost 4,000 leks a night, a bargain for a place this nice. (I found it in the smartly written "Albania: The Bradt Travel Guide.")
But I wanted more than good food and clean sheets. I wanted to grasp the two themes that seemed to govern 20th-century Albania: the intellectual, cosmopolitan strain exemplified by Kadare, and the violent and repressive tendencies fostered by Hoxha. Unfortunately, neither Kadare's boyhood home, which burned down in 1999, nor Hoxha's house, which also burned but was rebuilt and is now an Ethnographic Museum (entry, 200 leks), provided any insight into a place designated a "museum-city" by Unesco.
Stepping back further in time, I walked through the citadel that dominates the town. Dating back at least to the sixth century, it's a gloomily fascinating structure to explore, with soaring archways and stairs that lead down into cool, damp grottoes (one of which is a bar). But here, too, a visitor is left in the dark. Who built this place? What was the prison for? Is the American jet on display really a spy plane that crashed in 1957? The answers were found only in my guidebook — not exactly a fulfilling tourist moment.
After five days, I left Albania unsure of what I was leaving behind. I'd tried to reconcile the country's contradictions — its surreal street scenes and thirst for civility; its violent legacy and remarkable hospitality — and I'd failed. As I made my way toward Greece, after dropping by the beach town of Saranda and the ancient ruins at Butrint, my mind was full of gnawing questions. I guess I'll have to return.
ACL - 28 June 2006