Thursday, May 24, 2007


I spent the last three days in Albania, the 52nd in the list of countries I have visited, and I’ve been in both Tirana and Shkodër. I have to confess that I had some prejudices about this Balkan country, but I actually enjoyed being there. Despite its troubled history, the country has been developing quite fast since the 90s and seems to be in the right course. Most historians believe that Albanians are direct descendants of an Illyrian tribe called the Albanoi, but this theory is disputed; one thing at least is true: the lands that are today inhabited by Albanians were first populated in the Stone Age, over one hundred thousand years ago. What is also true is that the territory was ruled by Romans, Byzantines, Bulgarians and Serbs and, for more than 400 years, the Ottomans. When Albania became part of the Ottoman Empire (1478), the majority of the population converted to Islam. After the Second Balkan War, Serbia and Greece agreed to divide among themselves the Albanian territory, but the negative reaction of both Italians and Austro-Hungarians led to the independence of Albania as a Principality in 1914. From 1925, Albania was ruled by Ahmet Zogu, who declared himself King Zog I three years later, and ruled until 1939, when Mussolini’s troops invaded and took control of the country. After the Second World War, the communists gained control of the government under the leader of the resistance, Enver Hoxha, who ruled the country until his death in 1985. Under Hoxha, Albania was isolated from the rest of Europe, both from the capitalist West and the communist East. The first pluralist elections were held in 1991 and, since then, its economy develops steadily. However, Albania is still lacking behind most of the European countries (except maybe Armenia, Georgia and Moldova) and there are serious adjustment problems to solve. Some of the most striking ones regard the environment: Tirana suffers from the problems of overpopulation (30,000 inhabitants in 1930; well over 700,000 today), such as waste management, lack of running water and electricity, as well as extremely high levels of pollution. These problems are of course exacerbated by an aging infrastructure and the enormous amount of old cars using fuel containing larger amount of sulphur and lead than that allowed in EU countries. Nobody can claim that Tirana is a beautiful city, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t nice. The weather was nicely warm and the nightlife quite lively, especially around Skanderberg Square, surrounded by official buildings projected during the Mussolini period, and the “Block”, the quarter where Enver Hoxha and the communist leaders used to live, isolated from the rest of the population. There are a lot of anecdotes and memories that will remain from this visit, and characters like the "Samurai" driver who brought us from Shkodër or the waiter who served us in the fish restaurant will make us smile for a long time!


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