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Albania awakes: isolated for decades by its paranoid Communist leader, then ravaged civil unrest and economic collapse, this forgotten corner of Europe is making a remarkable recovery.

There is a good news story in the Balkans--and it's coming from one of the least expected quarters. Albania, for so long synonymous with corruption and organised crime, is undergoing a remarkable but practically unnoticed transformation.

Less than a decade ago, the fabric of the state had collapsed, anarchy ruled and those who could were fleeing the country. Now, the economy is growing, serious work is underway on the neglected power network and transport infrastructures and there is a new air of optimism among Albanians.

Honour and commitment

Not far from Tirana, the ancient fortress of Kruje and its minarets brood over the plains from a rocky crag. During the 15th century, Albania's epic hero Skanderbeg withstood the might of the Ottoman Army here in a siege that lasted 25 years.

Today, the town is symbolic of the new spirit of Albania, its narrow cobbled streets busy with tourists from neighbouring Balkan countries as well as further afield. In the castle, museum guides explain to hushed groups how Skanderbeg used the besa--the binding word of honour--to unify Albania's warring clans against their common enemy, the Turks. The tradition of the besa continues today, and some Albanians say the sense of honour and commitment it implies has enabled the tiny embattled country to come through its turbulent recent history.

Skanderbeg and his forces were finally overwhelmed by the Ottomans and the country was ruled from Constantinople for more than 400 years until independence in 1912. A decade of infighting ensued until a clan chieftain with a penchant for gaudy uniforms had himself proclaimed king in 1928. The Ruritanian rule of King Zog lasted, with a little help from the Italians, until 1939, when Mussolini coolly annexed the country.

When the German Army occupied Albania in 1943, a bitter straggle for supremacy began between partisan groups backed by both the Axis and Allied powers. The Communists finally took control in 1944 and the People's Republic of Albania was proclaimed in 1946 under the leadership of former schoolteacher and Stalin devotee, Supreme Comrade Enver Hoxha. Under Hoxha's harsh totalitarian leadership the country formed close but short-lived alliances with Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and, finally, China.

By the late 1970s, Albania was one of the most isolated and backward countries of the Balkans and, following Hoxha's death in 1985, it began a slow descent into a period of economic hardship of a severity previously unknown. In 1991, hundreds of desperate Albanians sought asylum by occupying foreign embassies in Tirana or commandeering ships on the coast to sail to Italy. Hoxha's statue was uprooted in the heart of the capital and then, in a final cruel twist, many citizens lost their savings overnight when a deeply fraudulent pyramid scheme collapsed. In 1997, the social structure disintegrated, guns were looted from government arsenals and the country entered a period of bloody chaos.

Increasing stability

In his bookshop overlooking the wide expanse of Skanderbeg Square in central Tirana, Theodore Misha has been a witness to the changes. He was the first to sell foreign magazines in the country during the early 1990s and witnessed the violence of 1997 first hand. "That was the worst period, and friends abroad urged me to leave," he says. "But I love Tirana and decided to stay. The advantage of living in such a small country is that change can happen very quickly and now there is a kind of boom here."

Book sales are buoyant and Misha is hopeful for the future. "Cafes and restaurants are opening everywhere, and people have the money to go out and enjoy themselves. We are in a period of transition but definitely moving in the right direction."

The country's population now officially stands at three million, although verifiable statistics are difficult to come by. However, an estimated one million or so Albanians live abroad, sending home more than US$1billion a year, an important source of revenue.

The increasing stability has seen foreign banks begin to invest in the country, introducing loan systems and mortgages--concepts alien to a people who have lived for so long in a controlled communist system. This, in turn, has helped produce a building boom, and many expatriates with successful businesses abroad are returning and creating jobs in their own country.

Yllet Alicka is a former schoolteacher and now an award-winning writer and film maker who has chronicled the changing nature of Albanian society. "During the 1990s, we touched bottom, and no-one wants to go back to the old days," he says. "The institutions of state are not yet that solid, but we have a bond between us--which goes back to the besa--that has created a strong informal structure. In times of need we can rely on each other for help."

Durres, the country's principal beach resort--a short drive along a very busy road from Tirana--now has new hotels and building blocks mushrooming along the wide bay. It's an indicator of the new wealth in the country that many of the villas and flats here are being bought by city dwellers as weekend retreats. Some feel, however, that the rapid and poorly regulated developments risk destroying the beauty of this traditional resort town.

Ted Landau heads USAID's operations in Tirana. The US development agency is providing US$20million a year to help Albania get back on its feet. "We've found that in countries that didn't have a market economy, tourism is one of the areas that could grow substantially and become a critical component of the overall economy," he says. "With beaches, mountains and a rich cultural heritage, sustainable and environmentally sound tourism is the way forward."

South of Durres, the upside of Albania's long isolation is only too evident. Mile upon mile of unspoiled beaches, hills and coves offer glimpses of a coastline hardly ever found in the Mediterranean today. The old town of Vlora, once packed with Kurds, Albanians and other nationalities waiting for smugglers' boats to take them to the Italian mainland only 75 kilometres away, is experiencing a renaissance. Cafes line the streets, and tourists are returning to the historic corniche overlooking the sea.

Ilir Metaj, director of tourism here, is enthusiastic about the town's future. Sipping a Chardonnay from vineyards above Vlora, he extols the merits of his city. "We have hills with many trails above the town for walkers and a clean sea and beaches. The one problem--and it is one that all tourist operators have here--is the bad quality of our roads."

Much of Albania's road transport system was built by the Italians more than 70 years ago, or by forced labour during the Communist era. Then, traffic consisted of a few trucks each day. Now, choked with cars and freight lorries, highways are pitted and potholed, but a redevelopment programme is finally getting underway on major routes.

Usually, Albanians cynically comment, roadworks would start just before an important election as a sweetener for voters. The fact that the schemes have been launched in the mid-term of the current government is an indicator, they say, of a new era dawning.

Success story

Above Vlora, Nikola Vongli is supervising the completion of his large hunting lodge in the village of Llogara. "Building this has taken me more than five years," he says. "You see, here in Albania we build when we have enough money, we don't borrow. That way we retain control." Vongli believes that ecotourism will be the future for his region. "We have untouched forests, wildlife, mountains and pristine beaches, all within half an hour of Llogara. Such variety is a rarity now in Europe."

Himara, a pretty coastal village with a summer population of 10,000, is some four hours drive over the spectacular Llogaraja pass from Vlora. Postman Jlia Zisi says that many villagers rent rooms to visitors. "In summer, the village comes alive," he says. "There's a ferry once a week from Corfu and we have plenty of tourists. But in winter," and he nods to the east, "two thirds of the village leave to find work in Greece."

An estimated 30 per cent of Albania's population live in the larger cities, and there is a pronounced exodus from the countryside as people seek work in urban centres or abroad. Zisi sees Himara's tourist business as a way of saving his community. "We have to create jobs to keep young people here, and tourism could be a major employer."

The recent creation of a national park around the historic site of Butrint close to the southern resort of Sarande has been the success story of southern Albania. The Greco-Roman settlement lies on a beautiful, wooded peninsula and has many partially excavated temples and baths with some of the best mosaics in the Mediterranean.

Auron Tare, who helped create the park says that it has brought wide-reaching changes to the area. International theatre and opera festivals take place in the ancient amphitheatre, attracting visitors from all over the world. "In Communist times," says Tare, "only the elite could live in Tirana, and the rural population were made to feel worthless." Locals have now taken possession of the park, which has given them work and a sense of civic pride. "We are actually generating an income here that is revitalising the whole area," Tare says. "We raise our own money for all kinds of projects--from health to education."

Former journalist Raimonde Nelku believes that tourism can have a wider impact on Albania's image abroad. Over coffee in the old museum city of Berat, where the citadel has been continuously inhabited for more than 2,000 years, she says, "The more people who come here and see what our country has to offer--from both the hospitality of people to the beauty of the landscape--the quicker old prejudices will evaporate." She remembers labouring as a student on Communist work gangs to rebuild the now defunct railway close to Durres. "One of Hoxha's slogans was that independent, tiny Albania, surrounded by enemies, was dancing in the mouth of wolves. Today, we are still dancing, but I think to a different tune."

Bunker mentality

The most visible, and possibly most enduring, legacy of the Hoxha regime is the 700,000 bunkers scattered around the country. The dome-shaped reinforced-concrete shelters, the smallest weighing in at five tonnes, were built from 1950 until the Supreme Comrade's death in 1985.

According to popular myth, the designer was placed in the prototype, which was then shelled by a tank. The bunker survived, as did its hapless occupant, and mass production began.

The majority of the bunkers were built during the 1970s when Albania split with the Warsaw Pact in a move designed to boost citizens' morale.

Radiating out in lines across valleys and strategic transport routes, each concrete dome was in line of sight with a larger command bunker that was manned full time. On the call to arms, every able-bodied Albanian male, armed with a rifle, was to man his bunker and be prepared to fight to the end. But the country was never invaded, and since Hoxha's demise, the bunkers have been used as storage for cattle feed, temporary accommodation and even by young couples seeking privacy.

Built to last and taking, as one Albanian found, more than three months to demolish with a hammer and chisel, it seems that the bunkers will continue to be a prominent feature of Albanian landscapes for some time to come.

When to go

With a Mediterranean climate, Albania is pleasant to visit year round, although winters can be quite wet and the summers rather hot. For the best of the climate and to avoid the crowds, travel in spring or autumn.

Getting there

British Airways has been offering direct flights to Tirana since March last year from around 150 [pounds sterling] return. Albania Holidays' (www.albania-holidays.com, +355 4 235 498) seven-night 'Highlights of Albania' tour takes in many of the country's most important and beautiful archaeological sites, including the World Heritage-listed towns of Butrint and Gjirokaster. Prices start at 449 [pounds sterling] per person twin share, including all transfers, accommodation in four- and five star hotels where available, breakfast and dinner, and museum entrance fees.
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Title Annotation:ALBANIA
Comment:Albania awakes: isolated for decades by its paranoid Communist leader, then ravaged civil unrest and economic collapse, this forgotten corner of Europe is making a remarkable recovery.(ALBANIA)
Author:Haslam, Nick
Publication:Geographical
Geographic Code:4EXAL
Date:Mar 1, 2007
Words:2025
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