Wherever you go in Europe these days, you encounter scores of tourists and often you pay through the nose for something that is just a bit ordinary. If you visit any of the main tourist attractions in Rome, for instance, you’ll be dodging selfie sticks or be pressured to buy one, along with all manner of cheap souvenirs.  At any one time, at least half the world’s selfie sticks are for sale near the Spanish Steps. On a recent trip, we spent only a few hours in Rome before transferring onto a flight to Tirana, the capital of Albania, and entering another world.

It’s little more than 20 years since Albania emerged from isolation and half a century of dictatorship and oppression. This is a country that is finding a new identity and one which, for many tourists, offers new and unique experiences at very reasonable prices, along with people who are friendly, generous and proud of the fact that you actually want to visit their country of barely three million people.

Enver Hoxha came to power in Albania after World War 2 when his resistance organisation defeated not only the Nazi occupiers but other nationalist opposition. For a time, the country prospered, illiteracy was eliminated, industrial and agricultural production increased dramatically, and the country was continually in growth. Hoxha was nothing if not paranoid, though, and he gradually isolated the country from the Soviet bloc as well as eventually the Chinese Communists who for some time were his only ally and provided the country with an enormous amount of aid.

Believing that invasion was imminent and that a nuclear attack was likely, Hoxha built thousands of bunkers all over the country – somewhere around 180,000, making sure that there was one for about every 11 Albanians. Some of the bunkers are disguised or hard to find, but many can still be seen as you travel around the country. Some have been made into museums and tourist attractions. Two of the biggest are in the capital, Tirana, and function as museums and art installations, known as Bunk’Art.

Bunk’Art 1 on the outskirts of Tirana © Maurie O'Connor

Bunk’Art 1 on the outskirts of Tirana © Maurie O’Connor

A better spy than Google

The smallest, Bunk’Art2, near Skanderberg Square in downtown Tirana, served as a refuge for government officials working in the nearby Ministry of Internal Affairs. It may give you the creeps but it also gives you a wonderful glimpse of the modern history of Albania and a look at some of the really weird things about the Communist era. The surveillance equipment is fascinating, with Hoxha pioneering the art of the spy camera. He had half the country spying on the other half – neighbour spying on neighbour, family member on family member and secret police on everyone. One Albanian told us that Hoxha was so good at spying that he was better than Google. You’ll need a couple of hours to really explore this place.

A street in the capital, Tirana © Maurie O'Connor

A street in the capital, Tirana © Maurie O’Connor

The main Bunk’Art complex, sometimes known as Bunk’Art 1, is about six kilometres from the city centre but easily accessed by a 20-minute bus ride from Sheshi Skënderbej near the Palace of Culture. Look for the bus with the Bunk’Art sign in the front window. It will cost 40 Lek (about 30 cents) and the driver and conductor will show you where to get off.

The bunker was built under a military base and was intended to house the chief military staff as well as Hoxha and his ministers and government officials when the nuclear attack occurred. It was also a place where they came for secret meetings and military training. At the time, its existence was unknown to the general population. It’s said that Hoxha got the idea from a bunker he visited in North Korea. The enormity of this place is striking, with five different levels, over 100 rooms and a gigantic auditorium. Much of it is a fascinating museum containing photographs and objects from Albania’s last hundred years.

There is an extensive range of Communist era uniforms, weapons and paraphernalia, with many rooms preserved in their original state of communist austerity and run-down charm. This is also now a centre for concerts, contemporary art and exhibitions with a café as well. Some of the contemporary art installations are in the form of coloured lights which in this underground setting creates a fascinating visual puzzle. You’ll probably need half a day to experience Bunk’Art, but if you want to make it a whole day trip, it’s a short walk up the hill to the Dajti Express, a long cable car ride that takes you on a breathtaking journey up the mountain overlooking the city and the surrounding area – just make sure there’s no fog.

Komiteti Cafe, Tirana, decorated with communist era objects © Maurie O'Connor

Religions together in harmony

You could say that Albanians today have come out of the bunker. There is no paranoia, plenty of optimism, and an acceptance and tolerance that was not evident in the dark years of the dictator. Albania has a surprising degree of religious tolerance with just over half the population Muslim, about a quarter mostly orthodox Christian and the rest a mixture of other religions or non-religious. There is a mix of ethnic and national backgrounds including Greek, Italian and Serbo-Croat, all living in relative harmony. This mixture is very evident in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Tirana, a city in harmony with the café culture of old.

If you go for a coffee in Tirana, you go for a coffee, no standing up, no take away. One barista said to me, “this is not Italy, here you sit down for a coffee and talk with friends or read the paper and enjoy your coffee.” One of the quirkiest cafés we visited in Tirana was Komiteti at 2 Rruga Fatmir Haxhiu. Decorated with an amazing collection of Communist era objects and art, it has a warm and friendly atmosphere and a wonderful selection of eats and drinks. It’s a great place to discuss the existential nature of Jack London’s story To Build a Fire or just have a very good coffee for 130 Lek (about $US1).

Mullixhiu Restaurant, Tirana © Maurie O'Connor

Mullixhiu Restaurant, Tirana © Maurie O’Connor

 

Tirana has a lot of good restaurants relying on excellent local fresh produce, most of which is organic, due mainly to the fact that during the Communist era they couldn’t get pesticides. One of the best is Mullixhiu – the Albanian word for ‘miller’, so named because they mill their own flour and make their own bread. This restaurant is part of the Slow Food movement and the head chef, Bledar Kola, started his career in London, worked at Noma in Copenhagen and like many other Albanian chefs has returned to his country of origin to contribute to a vibrant and innovative food scene. In a comfortable and classy setting with a rustic theme, Mullixhiu serves Albanian-style food based on the principles of simplicity and freshness. We started with a spinach and apple salad and a deconstructed pumpkin pie, moving on to roast goat and duck, both beautifully cooked and paired with good Albanian wine. If you visit Tirana, this restaurant is a must – great food, in a great setting and very reasonably priced.

Unique dining experience

We had a very different but very unique dining experience in Berat, one of three UNESCO  World Heritage sites in Albania. This is a beautiful city of about 70,000 people on the River Osum, about two hours south of Tirana, overlooked by an ancient castle where people still live within the castle walls. Lili Restaurant, named after its owner Ilia Theodhori (Lili for short), is found along the winding narrow Rruga Llambi Goxhomani, in fact just wide enough for a donkey carrying a load.

Lili’s restaurant has eight seats at rustic wooden tables in the back yard of their house and the cooking is done by his wife Mirela and their two daughters Patricia and Kristi. “This is the food we eat every day,” Lili says. A very filling and wholesome meal with tomatoes filled with rice and herbs, green salad with tomato, cucumber and olives, pork filled with cheese, lamb meatballs and a dish of ricotta, goats cheese, eggs, garlic, herbs, and tomato, all complemented with a local red wine, a blend of sheshizi (an indigenous Albanian grape) and merlot. If you visit Berat you just have to experience the hospitality of Lili and his family, and drink a parting toast with a complimentary Raki.

Wherever you go in Albania, you can find good food and wine and most of all friendly people who don’t regard tourists as necessary inconveniences or pests. Don’t expect five-star luxury but do expect good accommodation at reasonable prices and a charm that has all but disappeared from most of Europe.

Pomegranates in a market in the capital, Tirana © Maurie O'Connor

Pomegranates in a market in the capital, Tirana © Maurie O’Connor