I wasn’t supposed to be sitting in an erstwhile dictator’s armchair. But the velvet rope and the DO NOT TOUCH sign sitting atop the ’70s-era desk seemed like mere suggestions in this empty bunker. And so I plopped myself down on the dusty, garishly colored armchair, put on a steely frown like an iron-fisted strongman, and asked my friend Charles to snap a photo of me.
Welcome to Albania, long one of the oddest and most overlooked nations in Europe. It’s rugged. It’s fascinating. It smells like grilled meat. During the latter half of the 20th century, this southeast European country was competing with North Korea as one of the most isolated nations on the planet. Since the Communist regime fell in 1991, things have not been good for Albania. In the 1997 film “Wag the Dog,” Albania was chosen as the target of a fake war by the U.S. government (to cover up a presidential sex scandal) simply because very few Americans had ever heard of it or knew where it was. That same year, though, news junkies may have heard about how Albania’s economy collapsed when nearly everyone in the country invested in a shady pyramid scheme. As it has limped to recovery, Albania has seen some of its Balkan brethren — Croatia, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Romania, for example — go on to join the European Union.
The dodgy financial schemes are gone and most Americans still can’t find Albania on a map, but there are some very good reasons why travelers should be invading this nation.
For starters, Albania is one of the most affordable and friendly countries in Europe. There are unspoiled beaches, limestone-clad hill towns you’ll have all to yourself with the very amiable locals, and a bustling capital city. And despite the dig at them in “Wag the Dog,” they have a fondness for Americans: There are statues of both George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton in Albania. When I was recently in the capital of Tirana, I learned that the country is on the verge of turning a corner in dealing with its brutal past.
New use for dictator’s bunker
The dictator whose armchair I had briefly and illicitly occupied was Enver Hoxha (pronounced Ho-ja). And to understand anything about contemporary Albania, you have to become acquainted with the man who ruled over the then-socialist country from 1945 until his death in 1985. Like his mentor, Josef Stalin, Hoxha had a habit of killing off comrades who fell out of favor with him or who were suspected of leaning too far toward the free market. While he dramatically raised the literacy rate and quickly industrialized the country, it’s been said he’s responsible for killing or imprisoning more than 100,000 Albanians. Fearing invasion of foreign powers, mostly from its southern neighbor Greece, he famously built 750,000 dome-shaped bunkers, mostly sprinkled in the hills near border areas.
He also built a massive secret bunker on the outskirts of Tirana — which is where I managed to sneak myself into his armchair. Bunk’Art, which opened to the public in April 2016, allows guests to wander the long halls of the underground bunker where Hoxha and his commie cronies planned to retreat in the event of nuclear war. Forty of the 100 rooms are decked out with exhibits taking you either through Hoxha’s reign or art installations about the country’s recent history.
Bunk’Art is significant because it’s the first serious attempt at reconciling Albania’s 20th-century history.
“In addition to telling the history of Hoxha’s rule,” said Eva Haxhi, the manager of Bunk’Art, “we’re specifically doing things that were prohibited before.” Hence the art exhibits. They also recently put on a three-day jazz festival inside the bunker — yes, jazz had been banned, too — as well as various temporary exhibits showing formerly forbidden art.
The bunker originally opened for two months in 2015, specifically for locals to experience. “In those 60 days,” said Haxhi, “65,000 people came. And most of them were Albanian.” She added that hitherto there hasn’t been much of a dialogue about the Communist period. “It’s like opening a wound,” she said. “But the current government thinks it’s time.”
A vibrant cityscape
That government is led by artist-turned-politician Edi Rama, the prime minister whose fame went beyond Albania’s borders thanks to international publicity about his actions as mayor of Tirana. He had the central Skanderbeg Square redeveloped, making it greener and more accessible (Rama once called it the “cold heart of Tirana”). And most visibly, he blanketed the city’s previously drab gray apartment blocks with fresh coats of brightly colored paint. During his 10-year tenure as mayor, buildings were splashed with oranges, blues, purples and even rainbows, thus adding a bit of brightness to a supremely uninspired urban environment.
“I’d never seen anything like it,” said artist Erben Theodosi when I met up with him at a cafe in central Tirana. “I’ve spent time in various cities around the world and there’s really nothing like this project anywhere else.” Theodosi grew up in Ish-Blloku (also known as Blloku or “the Block”), a now-trendy Tirana neighborhood that had been verboten for everyone but high-up government officials during the Communist period. Theodosi’s father served many posts in the government, including vice prime minister, but fell victim to Hoxha’s paranoia and was executed in 1975. After that Theodosi and his mother were exiled to work in copper mines in northeastern Albania until the regime collapsed in 1991.
There weren’t many tourists traipsing through Albania. But I did meet up with my friend Charles Neville, who was in Tirana to do reconnaissance for tour company JayWay Travel, which offers tours to Albania. “We added Albania because it’s a fascinating country, closed off from the world during the Communist era,” he said. “Welcomes here are definitely more heartfelt than in countries that almost seem jaded with the constant influx of tourists,” he said.
A bit like Rome
As I strolled around Tirana’s wide streets, I kept thinking of Rome: Perhaps it was the umbrella pines or the way the sidewalk cobblestones were arranged in a similar way to the Eternal City’s. Or, perhaps, the 1920s fascistic buildings that dot central Tirana, built by Italian architects. I passed a street vendor selling lamb heads, slowly rotating on a rotisserie.
Perhaps as a statement about taking back their city, young people today gravitate to Blloku, which has become a see-and-be-seen swath of town crammed with trendy outdoor bars and restaurants, the city’s new elite — beautiful and nouveau riche — planting themselves there.
Specifically in Blloku, it’s hard to find anything Albanian. Sitting at an outdoor bar with Charles, I asked the waiter what beer they had. “Heineken, Amstel, Guinness,” he said. “Why don’t you have anything local?” I asked. I got a shrug and I wondered why the rage for all things non-Albanian in a world that is increasingly adopting a locavore aesthetic, especially with food and drink.
A few days later, I had my answer when I met up with Mira Tuci, a television reporter, at the restaurant Mullixhiu. “It’s because we were isolated for so long. And to this day we Albanians are still relishing things that are foreign. For many people here, local isn’t cool.”
Fortunately, that may be changing. Mullixhiu, which opened earlier this year, is quietly doing something revolutionary: Chef Bledar Kola, who has spent time in the kitchen at Copenhagen’s legendary Noma, is taking old Albanian dishes and updating them using local ingredients.
As we slurped a soup made up of black olive powder and zucchini blossoms, Tuci tried to put the restaurant into a historical context. “We lived for 500 years under the Turks and they did everything they could to eradicate our identity,” Tuci said. “And then we had communism and they also did everything they could to erase our identity.”
Phrases like “farm-to-table,” “local cuisine” and “snout to tail” may be de rigueur parlance in eatery front rooms these days but this is all new to Albania.
“If people know anything about Albanian cuisine it’s burek and baklava,” said chef Kola when he wandered over to our table to say hello. “But those are actually Turkish. We’ve made a lot of progress in this country since 1991 but the one area that has not evolved much is food. I’m trying to change that.”
Kola went back to the kitchen and a few minutes later we noticed two sous chefs sawing something about 5 feet from our table. When they were finished, one of the chefs announced to us our next course: goat head.
Bowls were placed in front of us filled with tender goat cheek, brain mixed in with a tangy yogurt, and a purée of local herbs. It tasted much better than it looked minutes earlier.
Best of all, it was 100 percent Albanian, and one more step away from the past and into a brighter future.
David Farley, a Berlin- and New York-based food and travel writer, is a contributing editor at Afar magazine.