Albania has yet to catch the tourist bug; and there are many people who think it’s for good reason. Tell people you are going to Tirana and they think you are doing something that is either dangerous or just plain crazy. Aren’t you liable to be robbed? How do you get there? And what on Earth can you do there when you arrive?
That attitude is, depending on your perspective, either a relief – a place in Europe genuinely exotic and not yet full of stag parties – or becoming rapidly out of date. Visit Tirana now and you will see a part of Europe yet to succumb to mass tourism, where you can still glimpse just how different some parts of our continent were a few generations ago. Only two hours from Gatwick you can step back into a Europe that still uses animals to pull ploughs. But at the same time you can stay in hotels offering superb service and you can meet a thoughtful and well-travelled people. You can also visit some of the most ancient Greek and Roman sites of the Mediterranean.
The main thing to understand about Albania is that it is only just escaping from a difficult period in its history. It suffered under a particularly oppressive form of communism, when virtually all contact with the outside world was forbidden. It emerged from this with a speculative boom and a national pyramid-selling scam, so its first experience of the market economy was a catastrophe – encouraging huge numbers of Albanians to emigrate, mostly illegally, to either Greece or Italy, but with quite a few ending up in Britain. Albania is trying to be a normal European country, but it has all sorts of difficulties. There is still a rough edge to society: you don’t have to listen hard to hear bitter complaints about corruption, the driving is terrifying and while the local practice of firing Kalashnikovs into the night has diminished, my friends and I were awoken in the hotel by what we thought was a gunshot. But despite this element of spice, Tirana does not feel dangerous: we walked about at night with no sense of concern at all.
The mayor of Tirana, Edi Rama, has been an outstandingly successful civic leader. When he took over in 2000 the place was a mess. There was no proper sewage system or rubbish collection, and the city was dominated by grey, communist-era, blocks. It was pretty dangerous too: he survived a couple of attempts on his life.
Rama sorted out the rubbish, turned the parks in the city centre into well-tended grassy spaces where people now picnic and play games, and, most spectacularly, had the buildings painted in bright colours. That last idea was a stroke of genius. He had been an artist, actually living in Paris, and appreciated that while Tirana could not afford to rebuild, it could transform itself with paint. It was a cheap and effective way of signalling the end of the drab communist era, and bringing a renewed sense of life to the whole city.
The mechanics of getting to Albania are easy. BA flies non-stop from Gatwick to Tirana. The local currency is the lek, but euros are universally accepted. Most prices are reasonable by our standards, restaurants and hotels are excellent and English is quite widely spoken.
What to do when you get there depends on what you like. You could lie on a beach and drink Campari sodas, since Tirana is only an hour’s drive from the Adriatic coast. But that would be something of a waste.
To get a feeling for the country’s rich history, go to the new Archaeological Museum. It is a manageable size, has a good curator and the exhibits are well-signed and explained. It is also a good introduction to Apollonia, which lies two hours south of the capital. This city was founded by the Greeks and then taken over by the Romans. At its peak it would have been about the same size as Roman London, with perhaps 70,000 inhabitants in all, and was described by Cicero as “a great and important city”. It occupies a whole hilltop, and is surrounded by two-and-a-half miles of wall. You can also see the remains of some temples, the theatre and a couple of villas – and have lunch at the excellent restaurant at the entrance.
But perhaps the most tantalising feature of the site is that only about 5 per cent of it has been excavated, so at some stage there will be a huge amount unearthed. Knowing this, as you stand among the mounds and ruins, you are left wondering what treasures might still be buried beneath your feet.
For a rather different historical experience go to Kruja, which is less than an hour from Tirana. This was the main place of Albanian resistance to the Ottoman invasions. It was a fortress city, and now has a museum celebrating the life of the national hero, Skanderbeg, who defeated the Turks on a number of occasions after they had captured Constantinople, only to succumb to malaria in 1466. He managed to delay the invasions for some 20 years, though their advance was only finally halted at Vienna in 1529.
Alternatively, if you are into more modern history there is a fine example of the Fascist architectural style at one end of the main street (this is now part of the university) and there are some archetypal communist buildings too. There is also a fine museum of nationalist/communist art, which tends to depict heroic guerrillas fighting for freedom and then working in the steel mills to create a greater Albania.
The centre of Tirana is dominated by a grand avenue, laid out by the Italians, with civic buildings and parks alongside. It is basically a late 19th- and 20th-century city, and as it was really only a large village until as recently as 150 years ago.
The shops and restaurants probably have a wider appeal. Prices in the boutiques are substantially lower than in Western Europe, sometimes radically so, which makes you wonder quite how the goods got there. As for restaurants, there are a host of places within walking distance of the centre of Tirana, which offer straightforward Italian or similar style food and most of them are good at what they offer.
While the city cannot currently compete in the variety of its attractions with other more popular European destinations, the most enticing feature of Tirana is that it is an interesting example of a capital that has picked itself up from the floor, dusted itself down, and now puts a cheerful face on for the rest of the world, rather than being a European cultural or architectural gem.
The thing I find most fascinating about Albania is seeing a country come to terms with an undoubtedly difficult history. This is a place that has been repeatedly trampled by invaders, and it has had its difficulties compounded by political and economic mismanagement. It has only recently become a functioning democracy, and it still faces daunting problems, of which the most serious, according to Rama, is finding jobs for its people. Yet it has a very clear national identity, its own language, and an interesting and talented people. To go there gives a feeling for Europe’s extraordinary diversity and long history but also, as Albania awakes, part of its future too.