(Emily) The hostel was an oasis of calm in the middle of the chaos of the city of Tirana. With a garden full of lemon and cherry trees and grape vines, it was the perfect place to chill and recover from our eventful ride in. On that first evening, there were only three of us staying at the hostel – James and I, plus Greg from the UK who was very friendly, and worldly-wise beyond his years. It was Greg’s birthday (only 19!) so an impromptu bbq had been arranged with everyone contributing something (James made burgers, yum!) The owners, Claas and Lira (German and Albanian/German) had invited a couple of friends living in Tirana and it was a lovely evening sitting out on the balcony, despite the rain lashing down a few feet away.

On Friday, we told ourselves we should see to getting the bikes sorted before we went off exploring the city. Amazingly enough, the internet revealed there was a Yamaha dealer only a few blocks away (called Moto Tirana – reminded us of the lovely Moto Varese in Italy) so we went off together on my bike to see if they could sort the steering (needless to say, James was riding with me pillion rather than the other way round!) Despite going all the way along the road that google maps had indicated, we still hadn’t spotted the bike shop, so when a friendly local on a damaged bike (that incidentally was being towed along by his mate in the car!) said he was going that way and to follow him, we didn’t hesitate. Trying not to choke in the fumes or get cut off by the constant barrage of cars pulling out this way and that, we had to explain to the guys whenever we stopped that no, we didn’t want to sell the bike to them! Once at Moto Tirana, it seemed there wasn’t much they could do (I was able to ascertain this through my broken Italian – a language that many Albanians speak better than English) but luckily for us, their courier was about to go to another place that might be able to help… cue hairy ride through Tirana number two! (James: trying to keep up with a local on a scooter that obeys no traffic rules, ignores red lights, goes the wrong way up one way streets and makes sudden and unpredictable turns is not for the faint hearted!) The mechanic at the next place promptly took my bike off for a spin around the block (er, ok bye then…) and when he returned, the steering had magically realigned itself!! He wouldn’t (couldn’t?!) explain how and wouldn’t take any money so that was that. We were beginning to like Albania, a lot!

It was a beautiful day on Saturday so we sat eating breakfast in the glorious sunshine (well, for five minutes before it got too hot and I had to go in the shade – typical English!) chatting with Sacha and Anna from Russia, who were travelling with their gorgeous two and a half year old, Sergei. It was the perfect day for talking a leisurely walk around the city to discover what it had to offer. Claas had recommended a few places to see, so we started with the bazaar; a colourful market located in the back streets which seemed to sell anything and everything. It was all very calm and peaceful, with no one hassling us as tourists to buy their wares; indeed, we’ve noticed that Albanians generally seem to communicate in very soft tones, with few words. From there, we headed to the Blloku district which is the area of Tirana once used exclusively by the Communist Party officials.

(James) Albania is an incredibly interesting country to visit and is unlike almost any other; until very recently, it was a member of a rare group of states (N Korea & Burma being the most obvious others) whose regimes were internationally isolated and whose people lived an enforced backward lifestyle in a cultural void in complete ignorance of the outside world. Under the Hoxha regime, listening to foreign radio was punishable by 10 years in prison, there were only 1000 cars in the entire country all of which were reserved for senior party officials (during the 45 year regime only 2 driving licenses were ever issued to non-party members) making bicycles and the horse and cart the main form of private transport for Albanians, although the public transport throughout the country was free. The last 17 years has seen the introduction of cars to those that can afford them but they are generally old wrecks (mostly 1970’s & 80’s Mercedes!) and cars palmed off to Albania by European countries who recognised that it was cheaper to do this then scrap them. The result is a dangerous combination of dodgy old cars and drivers with very limited driving experience, often without licences and no understanding of any sort of highway code or rules of the road so cue red lights being completely ignored, double parking being the norm and one way streets are a joke (I’d estimate that up to 40% of traffic in our local streets was going the wrong way up the one way streets!)

In the last decade or so Albanians have also had to catch up culturally with the west as during the regime they were denied access to and had no knowledge of anything outside the country. So whilst you hear modern music in bars, there’s no knowledge of all music that went before and influenced it, unsurprisingly then, there’s little appreciation of the  evolution of music in the 20th Century, of the Beatles, Elvis, Blues or Jazz and the effect they had on modern culture. Nor can they be expected to grasp the impact that some of what we would call major cultural events and landmark moments had on the world as they happened.

Whilst we in the west were experiencing these events and changes, life in Albania continued just as it had since the 1940’s except that as Hoxha’s iron fisted grip on power grew  so did his paranoia – and many of his enemies, rivals and allies whom he considered threats were dispatched either via charges of treason or more sinister means. Hoxha was a great admirer of Stalin, but following his death, felt that the Soviet Union ‘softened’ and so in the mid-60’s Albania broke away leaving the Soviet Union and aligned themselves with Maoist China under Mao Zedong leading to the country’s own sort of cultural revolution. However, once again in the years after Mao’s death as China looked to develop its own not-quite free market economy, Hoxha felt that China too had softened and eventually Albania’s relationship with China ended leaving the country internationally isolated. It wasn’t until after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 (Albania still held on a tad longer) that communist Albania, it’s economy utterly broken, finally ended. Hoxha never had to face the music: he died in 1985. It was only following the collapse of the regime that Albanians were allowed to leave their drab grey blocks of flats in Tirana and enter the Blloku district of the city that had been the residential homes of the communist party elite and utterly off limits to ordinary citizens. Even now, with Tirana trying to develop, the difference between Blloku and the rest of the city is stark and walking into the district with its smooth roads and pavements and tree lined avenues that shade quality expensively built houses, apartments and, of course, Hoxha’s own mansion, is like walking out of Albania and into another country. One can only imagine the sense of awe and rage that regular Albanians must have felt as they entered the district for the first time, although the fact that the mobs went straight to Skenderbeg square and tore down Hoxha’s statue might provide an indication of their feelings (national hero, Skenderbeg’s still stands proudly!). Today, the Blloku district has been reclaimed by students and the young and the area is filled with bars, cafes and restaurants and has an utterly cosmopolitan, bohemian feel to it.

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