2012 - Albania 

This short visit formed part of our cruise on Discovery to the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea taking in 10 countries: Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Bosnia Herzegovina, Italy, Albania, Greece, Turkey, Russia, and Ukraine.

Albania was always known as a hard-line communist country and one largely closed to the West. It allied itself with China in 1961 until 1978, following a break with Russia over ideology. 

It was previously part of the Ottoman Empire and is a poor agricultural, predominantly muslim country, one of the poorest in Europe. It has great problems of corruption.  In 2009 it joined NATO and it has made application to become part of the EU. The population is 3.2m with 95% Albanian population.  It has suffered a population decline recently of 3% as people have emigrated.  It is certainly the poorest country that we visited on this cruise and one of the poorest in Europe.  This is such a contrast to some of the other countries in the area and shows at least in part the cost of communism.  What we saw was almost universally drab and poor, although there were a few spectacular new commercial buildings and some new houses. The average salary is only 250-350 euros per month.  However, education is free.

Friday 12th October

We docked at Durres one of Albania's oldest cities, the country's main sea port, and the second largest industrial centre after Tirana.  In the 7th century BC it was under Greek rule and then Roman from the 2nd century BC.  It was then under Byzantium for 1000 years before coming under Ottoman rule. 

The national hero is Skenderbej who resisted the Ottoman attacks and enabled Albania to be free for just 25 years in the 15th century.  He has real hero status and there are many references to him and statues of him.

Ottoman rule continued until 1912 when there was a declaration of independence.  There was a short period of monarchy and of republic status before the country was annexed by Italy and by Germany in the war. There was a period of communist isolationism from the 1960s until the death of the dictator Enver Hoxha.  Now Albania seeks to be part of the EU but to our eyes we saw little that we have in common with this country.  It is also predominantly Muslim since the grant of tax benefits to Moslems in the 15th century onwards.

Our guide told us that there had been no private ownership in communist times and that along with government control came rationing and long food queues.  Churches and mosques were demolished and no religion permitted.  TV and radio were limited to national stations.  A bad era of pyramid selling following the death of Hoxha in 1985 led to social chaos and in 1997 there was civil war. Then there was war with Serbia and Kosovo which had been part of Albania.

There is high unemployment (23%) and we noticed many people just standing around.  Many Albanians work abroad and send or bring back money to Albania.

As we left the port we were told that 70% of the country is mountainous.  We noticed much quarrying as we headed for the city of Kruje.  There appeared a general sense of disorder.  There are no planning laws and we quickly noticed that a factory might be next to a house, a few cows, a warehouse, a small area of maize and then a shop.  Many times we saw brand new offices next to a few grazing cows.

What traffic laws that may exist are widely ignored.  Our guide told us that Albanians donít like obeying rules Ė a good omen for a future member of the EU!

Our objective in this town of 16,000 was the castle and in particular its museum.  This in fact was excellent.  The castle was able to withstand three major sieges and was very much associated with Skenderbej.

Although roads have been improved in the past 5 years and money has come from the EU there was complete chaos in the centre of town as we returned to the coach, with people double parked in the narrow streets.

We moved on to Tirana on the plain between the mountains and the sea.  This city was much more ordered and modern.  Built by the Ottomans in the 17th century it became the capital in 1920.  There were yet more drab soviet style blocks of flats, although some had recently been painted in bright colours at the instigation of the mayor. It is perhaps ironic that a pyramid shaped building in the centre of the city, built in memory of the dictator now lies derelict and covered in graffiti.  We went to visit this with Glennis, the wife on Discovery's Security Officer.

We had lunched near the pyramid in the Sky Tower in a restaurant on about the 12th floor and served by a tiny lift!  Our trip then concluded with a visit to the museum which our guide took us through quickly, but adequately, our time being short.

An interesting insight into yet another failed communist state of which we have seen quite a number around the world.