Saturday, November 15, 2008

Talking Tirana

Having established myself for the night at Pedro’s gracious accommodation, it was time to discover Tirana. The city lies in the shadow of Mount Djat and is a surprisingly neat and well laid out town with plenty of colourful architecture to admire. The capital of Albania is an oddball city, typically post-Communist and full of contradictions. Beggars line the streets next to a bevy of Mercedes (Albania’s most popular car, all smuggled across the border from Montenegro). A good meal and a beer can be had for $3 next door to a $US3000 a night hotel. Garish casinos are sited next to Stalinist government buildings that look like local versions of an Orwellian Ministry of Truth.

Outside the museum is a heroic mural that is supposedly a panoply of Albanian history. Ancients with shields and swords stand side by side with 20th century peasants and thinkers while farmhands with raised fists march forward towards independence or EU subsidies, depending on one’s imagination. In the centre of the painting, a white dressed woman holds aloft a rifle while her male companion waves the Albanian flag. It’s not hard to guess who wears the trousers in that revolutionary relationship.

Inside the museum, exhibits tell the story of Albania from Neolithic to modern times. It was always an important stomping ground on the way south or north through the Adriatic coast, though its many mountains made it mostly fiercely impenetrable. The Illyrians established a capital in the northern city of Shkodra and ruled until they were knocked off their perch by the Romans. Then known as the province of Epirus Nova, Albania remained in Roman hands for six centuries. It was inherited by the Byzantines and the Ottomans and remained an important but externally governed province until the 20th century. That was apart from the brief interlude in the 15th century when the “Dragon of Albania”, Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg, successfully held off the Ottomans for 20 years. Skanderbeg is the nation’s greatest hero and his impressive statue dominates the square named for him in the centre of Tirana.

In 1912 Albania gained independence as the Ottoman Empire collapsed amid the Balkan wars. Its neighbours did not take kindly to this and a coalition of Christian forces from Montenegro, Serbia and Greece launched a war against the new entity. Albania was formally recognised as a nation after the second Balkan War a year later.

Founded in the 17th century, Tirana is a relatively young city by Albanian standards. It was not until 1920 that it became the capital. It wasn’t an easy time for the citizens of Tirana. For four years the city was pounded by the Serbian army and forces loyal to ousted Prime Minister Ahmet Zogu who was later to give himself royal delusions as King Zog I. Zog was a lucky, if hated, man. He survived no less than 55 assassination attempts including one time where he returned fire at his would-be killers. But having been supported by Mussolini, the Italians demanded more power and when Zog refused, Il Duce’s forces invaded and forced Zog into exile.

In World War II Mussolini used Albania as his launching pad to attack Greece. When that ended badly, the Germans took over in both countries. A local resistance organisation grew to defend Albania from the Italians and then Germany. Led by the French-educated Enver Hoxha, the resistance movement was extraordinarily successful and overthrew the German regime without Soviet support. Albania also protected its Jews and was the only country in Europe to have more Jews at the end of the war than it had at the beginning.

Hoxha had also supported the Yugoslav resistance and was helped into post-war power by a grateful Tito. He instituted his own form of Communism but Albania gradually became more isolated as Hoxha accused Yugoslavia of interference. He would lead the nation until his death in 1985. He became increasingly weird the older he got. He built 750,000 bunkers across the country in case of war. He banned beards. In 1978 his Code of Lekë made women property of their husbands stating: A woman is known as a sack, made to endure as long as she lives in her husband's house.

The fate of women and sacks remained precarious through the uncertain times of the late 1980s. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the country made cautious moves towards reform. The Communists were routed in elections. Albania, like many of its neighbours, is now dealing with life as a full tilt capitalist country. The currency is still the lek, though the euro is accepted in many places. Tirana remains a very cheap city though as it works out how to attract tourists, that will quickly change. For now Tirana, like Albania as a whole, is in transition. The old certainties are gone - though perhaps nothing was certain under the unstable Hoxha.

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