Albania: A country in transition

14 Mins read

It is July 14, 2017, and the seafront in Borsh is mostly deserted.

I imagine it being in any of the other countries that have a privileged view on the Mediterranean: this seven kilometre beach — apparently the largest on the Ionian Sea — crammed with bars and an unnecessary amount of sun-beds per square metre.

Here, instead, despite being a stone’s throw from the vibrant village, the strip of sand and gravel is surrounded by a tidy wildlife park and undermined by minimum human intervention.

A few hours into the afternoon, the two rows of straw parasols are left unoccupied by the tourists – even if a most tiring hike on the mountainous shores of the Albanian Riviera might make you want to enjoy the beach for a bit longer.

Then, as the sun starts its descent towards the horizon, what is left is a couple of uncertain construction sites and the round shapes of the bunkers that stud the seaside.

You see the pillboxes from the road above, either because they peek out from the sand, with their mousey grey colours defacing the otherwise dreamy panoramas, or because they have been decorated and covered in bright paint.

In forty years of dictatorship, the Marxist-Leninist Enver Hoxha forced more than 500 thousand of them onto the beaches and the mountains of Albania.

And now they remain, bequest left by a paranoid fear of invasion that, in any case, brings to the mind crystallised moments from darker times.

They became, I learn, a material manifestation of Albania’s closure towards the world, of the stiffening relations with foreign countries and the old ally Yugoslavia (which Albania was still, up to its disintegration, a satellite of).

A product of nationalism, of Hoxha’s Stalinist approach and strict anti-revisionism, often outnumbering the soldiers themselves.

Synecdoche, you could say, of a step back from the rest of communist Europe.

Pillboxes in Borsh beach, Albania.

Pillboxes on the beach in Borsh, Albania. [ Valentina Curci]

Today, many of the pillboxes have been transformed into cafés, granaries, covered in street art and even turned into tiny apartments, ready to be rented by tourists. We’re told by a local that sleeping in one costs no more than 10 euros per night.

Be it an attempt to stigmatise them, it evidently clashes with what was their original purpose, how they now host when they were meant to push away. It is a metaphor, as well, for how Albania is changing and starting to cater to tourism.

Until the late 1970s, it was common to have around 24 bunkers per square kilometre. Today, at least in Borsh, there’s a disconcerting lack of buildings.

Other centres like Saranda, Tirana and Durrës concentrate on tourism, economic buzz and have become internationally renowned, making Albania a new hotspot for holidaying in the Mediterranean — fuelling competition with Greece.

Here the landscape is largely unspoiled; Borsh is still part of that face of Albania made of wild beauty and virgin views, free from over-concreting, still in need of discovery. The only trace of a building in one kilometre of beautifully paved seafront is a two-storey hotel, its façade covered in stones, with door and window jambs made of dark wood, reminding me of the medieval architecture of a more Italian origin.

Considering the fascist invasion and occupation of the past, the influence is not surprising. The establishment has the polished and haughty air of a luxurious location, with the secreted pool and white-clad staff bustling about. A man, busy cleaning the water in the pool, gives us a radiant smile. He gesticulates to get closer, then runs to the reception.

When he comes back, he hands us the hotel’s brochure. “If you ever want to stay here. We opened just a month ago,” he says, before rushing back to resume his task. Immediately, he reminds me of promotional methods that belong to a different time.

It was in the late nineties that I would go on holiday with my parents in the south of Italy and find, along the roads that took us to the main beaches, men waving cardboard signs with big arrows drawn on, signalling that they were renting rooms.

It was the cheeky yet romantic approach from when the Internet was a thing for few and it was common for people to go on holiday without having booked anything and improvise on the way.

You can find these men even in the incredibly touristic Saranda, a maze of hotels, restaurants and beach resorts, stationing in ambush at the city’s main junctions. They are ready to bewitch tourists arriving in town by offering rooms, a taxi ride that with a few euros can take you to the other side of the town, or a boat trip to a Greek island.

View of the city of Saranda, Albania, Europe.

View of the city of Saranda [Flickr:qiv]

It is brazen tourism.

It took the modern leftist government of Prime Minister Edi Rama and a new wave of both unrestrained liberalism and collectivisation to prompt a change of pace, leaving behind years of autarky and unhinged protectionism. it was like releasing lions from a cage.

It is not a negative thing, but it means you really notice the attempts to keep pace with realities that can flaunt many more years of experience in the sector. You notice it in buildings rushed to be completed, in parts of towns over-paved as the rest is left to its own decay. You notice it in the hotels built in Saranda because it is a popular destination, and in the neglect saved for other localities with unexploited potential.

The only restaurant on the beach in Borsh is a small establishment with floating linen curtains, a gazebo and a few white wrought iron tables. The waiting staff wear white shirts and black aprons despite the 38° heat, and still manage to shower you with smiles.

It is one of those seaside restaurants. The barbecue, the open kitchen in the outside, the paper tablecloths, and the premise that you’ll be eating local fresh fish.

Or not.

“Our speciality is meat,” announces one waiter, the only one speaking Italian, then proceeding to explain the different kinds of gjellë, a typical stew dish. The other waiters step back. They do not speak English either, except for a few words, and I admire them as they manage to make themselves understood by some German and Austrian tourists, dispensing enthusiastic smiles and a mixture of broken German, English and what I assume is Albanian.

The reason Pieter speaks Italian is because he migrated there three years ago, looking for a job. He waited his way through the biggest tourist traps — Rimini, Verona, Rome — and then came back.

“Wages there are higher, it’s true,” he tells me, “but life is expensive, and you can’t live off a waiter wage in your country. Here, I do.” Pieter speaks the truth, but he still went against the flow.

He left in a moment of flourishing economy to realise it was not worth it, rather than during the major migration that continued throughout the nineties, with Albania stuck in economic depression.

The moment Hoxha’s dictatorship was over, Albania fell into political and economic chaos. Hordes of Albanian citizens turned towards migration, towards other European countries and the US. Italy was a given, due to its closeness.

Albanian migrants arriving in Bari, Italy, on the ship Vlora on the 8th of August 1991

20,000 Albanian migrants arrive in Bari on the ship Vlora, August 8, 1991 [Wikimedia Commons: Luca Turi]

Among illegal boatmen smuggling people into other countries for exorbitant amounts of money, and the inhuman conditions these people were subjected too, it is impossible not to have images from the Vlora disembarkation in Bari impressed on one’s mind, spread by many documentaries and printed in school history books.

On August 7, 1991, the mercantile Vlora, coming back from Cuba to Durrës with a cargo of brown sugar, was taken over by 20,000 people, who forced the captain Halim Milaqi to leave for Italy.

In an interview with the Italian newspaper Gazzetta del Mezzogiorno, Anna Dalfino, wife of the former mayor of Bari, has recounted those moments of despair. “He went to the port, before the Vlora arrived,” she said. “He did not know what was going to happen.

After a few hours he called, saying that there were thousands of desperate people, thirsty, dehydrated, and he was so moved he could not finish his sentences. “They’re people”, he kept saying. “Desperate people. We cannot send them back, we are their last hope.”

Albania’s relationship with Italy had already been strong, although one of subordination, from before the Second World War. The country’s fiscal dependence on Italy kept growing as Italian dictator Mussolini expanded his influence on the Balkans and gained control of Albanian finances and the army.

Many Albanians started migrating even then. Not every migratory wave was as dramatic as the Vlora disembarkation, but the leitmotif was the same. Fleeing to escape misery, cruelty, to find jobs, better life conditions.

A report from 1984 by Amnesty International, states that human rights had reached a critical low under Hoxha’s government. Due to isolationism, fundamental rights such as freedom of speech, press, religion and organisation were negated, in an attempt to bring order and stability to the country and give the governor power to condemn opponents.

Hoxha’s was a terror regime. His repression made several victims – the Washington Times reported around 5,000 political executions.

Not even after Hoxha’s death Albania was able to restore a more tranquil climate, struggling to re-open to the other Balkan countries where, meanwhile, communist regimes were falling. The decisive collapse of the Albanian financial system in 1996 led to popular uprising, which implemented the chaos the country was already experiencing and caused a number of casualties.

The state of emergency was proclaimed, and the biggest migration in the history of the country began.

Renata, originally from Vlore, in the north of the country, moved to Italy in the late 90s and now permanently lives in Lazio. “I was seven when we moved to Italy. It was mainly because of the healthcare system. Healthcare in Albania is not the best. I am glad we left, in the end,” she said, telling me that although she moved, she regularly goes back to Albania for the holidays.

“There are improvements now, though. I notice them. In the infrastructures, in the checks, in the safety programmes, especially during tourists’ season. Obviously there’s still a lot to do, but we are confident.”

It is hard to imagine how bad the situation was at that time. Wandering around the coast’s little towns and villages, or walking among the streets of the bigger cities, you can spot the (sometimes overexcited) improvement, but many signs of underdevelopment are there to be noticed, too.

Gjirokastër, for example, the town where Hoxha was born, is a place of traditional character. There is an astounding lack of directions to reach it, which hardly depends on confidence towards modern GPS systems.

There is a town with a lively centre, bars and shops for tourists, and then the antiquated light trellis and the illegal scaffolding, that have yet to see a visit from a safety consultant.

Scaffolding in Gjirokastër, southern Albania, 2017

Scaffolding in Gjirokastër, Albania. [Valentina Curci]

In a quest to taste local flavours, we stop to a small shop selling different amenities and run by a young lady with red cheeks, to try frozen goat yogurt.

When we question whether it is made from organic milk, the lady informs us that it is, but because of necessity rather than virtue, since farmers in the area don’t have the means and the money to do otherwise.

The trip from Gjirokastër to Saranda is interesting. Large deserted routes made of reinforced concrete, surrounded by nothing but dry meadows leave space to better roads, billboards and factories. Saranda is one of the cities that give a face to Albania’s growth. Houses and hotels built on every available surface, a construction site every step you take.

It has a youthful vibe, the clubs, the beaches, but if you rent in the outskirts of the main centre you will be able to catch the more traditional aspect of it: see women in typical costumes, black against the scorching sun, eyeing with scepticism the younger girls walking to the beach in their shorts.

The AirBnb-induced obsession to completely bypass hotels during the booking process and opt for the cheaper rooms instead, brought us to a small apartment in the periphery of town, close to the port. Once there, a little research — with the help of the cardboard-men — makes me realise that you can rent an all-inclusive hotel room for a fortnight for the price of a week’s rent in London anyway.

The decentralised position of the room has the perk, however, of being a substantial walk — or alternatively a ride in a dusty Ford Sierra that operates as a taxi — away from the lively centre, which allows you to see the side of the town mostly lived by the locals, who are still enjoying their daily life while escaping the tourists’ bolgia.

It is the most interesting and true part of Saranda. You walk, and you see the old Albanian architecture, local tiny shops that sell you anything and everything, and what we believe is just a café becomes a meeting place for communism nostalgics.

Four men are sitting around a table, playing cards. They lift their gaze, and one of them stands up, goes behind the counter and stares expectantly, while his peers eye us with suspicion.

‘Coffee,’ we mime, someway. He has coffee. He has the tiniest Nespresso coffee machine and the tiniest plastic cups. He proceeds to brew us the drinks while the other three men just stare, hung on the walls are historical pictures of partisans during the war, and I start to wonder if bursting into an impromptu version of ‘Bella Ciao’ might serve to the purpose of befriending them.

We opt for a change of location for breakfast, finding along the way a small place selling traditional baking goods. We pay in Lek, the local value, choosing the coins in my hand with little or no awareness. As I go on with my walk and make mental count, taking a first bite of sugary baklava, I realise I paid 18 euro cents (16p) for it.

Life here can be incredibly cheap indeed, as Pietrit told me. Wages are around 250-300 euros per month (£218-£262) and it is enough to live comfortably. It is one of the reasons Albania is earning popularity not only in terms of tourism but also for foreign investments.

“It is great that lately many European and overseas countries have discovered the beautiful places this country has to offer, going beyond the many prejudices,” Renata told me. “It’s a country full of resources. It is a sign of how far Albania is going. Starting a business here is easy, and the life costs are low.”

“This has allowed many young people to invest in start-ups. It is great for who has dreams, like me. I dream of owning my own business,” she told us. “Living in Albania is not hard anymore, you easily feel at ease.”

“Albanians are always been incredibly hospitable people, and we have the same mentality as other European countries. We have been hosted by Italy and many other countries for years, now it is our turn,” she said.

It means that the many Albanian people who migrated through the years are also encouraged to go back to their roots and make a return to their native country.

“I moved to Italy in 1996 with my parents and my sister, who was just a few months old. Mainly because my parents wanted to give us a brighter future than what we could have had there,” said Anisa, who has moved back to Tirana two years ago.

“It was a difficult period, at the time, and you couldn’t feel safe, you even feared walking in the streets.”

Now, she feels as if the situation is different. “We are still far from reaching other countries development, but I think we can make it. If other countries started from zero, we started from -100,” she said. “When I moved back, I found so many differences. Italians, French, Americans, Arabs moved here, in this wonderful city, to work and to have a life.

“I don’t think I would have believed this if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. Twenty years ago, we left to improve our condition,” Anisa told us. “Now things have changed entirely. There are so many companies, fashion establishments, cars factories, good universities, everything. Many come here because taxes are low. The salaries are very low too, so it’s convenient to employ,” she said.

View from Ksamil, Albania, Europe.

View in Ksamil, Albania. [Flickr: Artur Malinowski]

Foreign investment has indeed found in Albania a fertile ground, thanks to the rapid economic growth and newfound institutional stability. Freedom of trade and the relatively cheap and transparent bureaucracy have made Albania’s economy flexible and interesting for business owners all around Europe, bringing advantages to the Albanian people as well, in terms of jobs, legal assurance, leave, healthcare and maternity insurance.

Mr. Pellegrino, an Italian investor who represents an organisation for the release of certificates on management systems, first started his business endeavours in Albania in 2003, with a project for the certification of 20 companies in the food and fishing industry.

“Besides this project, thanks to the relationship we managed to create with businesses and institutions in Albania, I also started branching out into other sectors. I am currently, together with other Italian investors, drafting projects for the urban requalification of the cities of Tirana, Durrës and Valona,” he said.

Albania, door to many other Balkan nations, has now reached the status of candidate to enter the European Union, which adds to the advantages of investing here.

“You can easily set up a company in 24 hours, with almost non-existent solicitor expenses and registration costs,” Pellegrino told us. “They make no difference between Albanian or foreign investors; the advantages are free to be taken by anyone. This is why it is a country in constant growth.” It is no surprise, then, that every other sector is following the positive curve of the country’s economy.

The gracious host of our bed and breakfast is quick to make her excuses for the state of the building. “We’re expanding,” she says, while I cannot possibly understand how, given the lack of space. But she shows us a staircase crossing the yard and climbing onto another building in the making, that somehow is allowed to exist on such a steep ground.

Then you understand that development often goes together with disregard for the rules of good building and urban planning, that result in non-optimal driveability and hotels on the coast, yes, but with no access to the beach.

It seems like there is an urge, to renovate and forget about darker times. It is understandable. You can still find traces of the old Albania, though, when you are walking through the less popular parts of town and still see the sparse signs of communism and the old heritage.

It surprises me, mostly because it is rare to still find such blatant reminders of a past political engagement in other countries, because of the damnatio memoriae towards pieces of history that, even though they are tokens of dark times, should be used to remember and think.

Albania still manages that, with parties flags free to hang from the windows, old buildings dedicated to political meetings, men and women in typical clothes ensembles, and the stuffed animals and dolls that you see hung on the door jamb of many houses.

Locals walking on the seafront in Saranda, Albany, Europe.

Locals walking on the seafront in Saranda [Flickr: Andreas Lehner]

These become a recurrent mystery for the whole of the trip, until finally we ask a woman who is watering the garden of a house with a stuffed bear on the door. “It’s against evil. Against the curses,” she says with a shrug, but still cannot exactly explain the correlation between these curses and the stuffed animals’ protective powers.

Returning from Borsh, taking in the roads that run, in hairpin turns, along the seaboard, offering impressive views, we’re suddenly on a trait covered in rocks that the mountain side leaves behind, and we’re forced to slow down to forestall any danger.

After a particularly narrow turn, we are suddenly in the middle of a flock of goats, which climbing from the mountains are trying to cross the road. There are three or four dozen of them. We stop, engine off.

It is at least fifteen minutes in a car, in the darkness of nine in the evening, stuck in the middle of an Albanian road, before the shepherd, an elderly man with a typical felt hat, makes his appearance.

He scrambles to the side of the road, and rushes to guide his goats on the border. He knocks on the car window twice, a surprised expression probably aimed at us not beeping at his goats. He seems, for a moment, frustrated at something, then resolves to take out of his pocket three figs. He gives them to us, humming in satisfaction.

He knocks on the window again, and he follows his goats, disappearing after the headlights. He doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t need to.

We understood.


Featured image by Luca Turi via Wikimedia Commons

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