The following two pieces were written by Paul Hellander, a lecturer in Modern Greek at the SACAE, Adelaide, Australia, during his visits to Albania both after and prior to the fall of totalitarianism.
Impressions of a short visit to Albania after the restoration of 'democracy' December 1992
"The ghosts of Stalin and Hoxha may be gone forever, but the legacy of a failed social experiment called Communism still lingers on in Albania: an economy in tatters, a social infrastructure torn apart, poverty, hunger and disorientation. I can report on this, as an eyewitness, having just returned from a short visit to Albania to see for myself what havoc had been created, in the aftermath of totalitarianism, in this impoverished South Balkan nation and about which I have maintained an avid observer interest over the years. I first visited Albania two and a half years ago when the Stalinistic monolith, engineered by late dictator Enver Hoxha, was just beginning to show signs of wear and tear, though my first view of Albania came in 1976 in the midst of the 'cold war' and quite some time before diplomatic relations between Greece and Albania had been restored. It was from the Kakavia border post 45km from Ioannina where, escorted by armed soldiers and carrying a swathe of official permits, I peered into the mysterious interior of this closed country which, at the time, could have been considered as remote from the rest of the world as the dark side of the Moon. The border was firmly closed by a barbed wire fence, preventing access to the Albanian side across a road that had been long abandoned since the second World War. Gun-toting Albanian soldiers faced menacingly towards the sworn fascist-capitalist enemy on the Greek side.
It was across this same border post that the group I was with effortlessly crossed the border in our coaches on a good-will political visit: no passports, no visas, no checks just controlled chaos reigned as Albanians loaded with material possessions that they had acquired in Greece, struggled to return through a border bottleneck which could not effectively cope with the tide of humanity. It was a gateway to the real European Third World. In Gjirokaster and along the narrow roads leading to thissplendid looking South Albanian town, gone were the slogans and party exhortations. Gone, too was the monstrous statue of Enver Hoxha in the centre of Gjirokaster, his birthplace. Gone was the overwhelming presence of the military and the shadowy presence of the omniscient and fear inducing sigurimi, the once dreaded security police. In their place was stagnation, abandoned factories, a collapsed economy and people struggling for the basic necessities of life. The shops were bare, there was no food to be bought; most shops were shuttered and abandoned anyway. There was free speech. Greek residents of Albania who, only two and a half years ago during my first visit, looked nervously over their shoulders when talking to visitors from Greece, poured out tales of horror and deprivation under the murderous tyranny of the little lamented dictator Enver Hoxha and his Stalinist cronies. Political crimes warranted jail and executions; civil crimes like theft and assault didn't count.
We delivered aid packages to individuals in destitute villages, to an orphanage, to peo-ple on the street who had that hunted and hungry looked normally reserved for visions that arrive on our TV screen from Ethiopia or the Sudan. This was Europe in the 1990s a short haul to another world, the European Community. This was a country out of control, staggering with the burden of the detritus of an abhorrent experiment on a whole nation's lives. This was Albania today.
There are signs of a return to a sense of normality. Private cars now appear on-the narrow roads of the country's interior: secondhand Mercedes and BMWs, imported by Albanian refugees who have made some money in the West. Cross-border trade is increasing, though most of it is humanitarian in nature and one-way in direction. Albania is not the place yet for your holiday in the sun, or a cultural tour of this nation's fascinating yet chequered history. It is still essentially difficult to get into the country freely and in any case the country has greater needs than to cater for the curiosity of the affluent West. It is a country slowly recovering from the legacy of an extremist form of socialist policy that almost destroyed a nation. There are not many places left in the world like Albania once was. Kim Il Sung, look over your shoulder; your turn may well be next..."
(c) 1992 Paul Hellander
Touring Albania by coach is not for the half-hearted among us; yet that is what I did in a four-day period in April when I had the opportunity to visit this little-known, and even less-visited, country sandwiched between Greece and Yugoslavia in the Southern Balkan peninsula.
Albania may be considered one of the last bastions of Stalinist-type communist ideology in the world and is almost hermetically sealed from the prying eyes of the West. Strategically important, rich in resources, both human and natural, its leaders have chosen a path of self-reliance and vigorous independence from any larger political alliance, be it East or West.
Albturist, the state tourism organisation, has for many years been organising guided tours of this fascinating land for the more adventurous traveller and it was with one of these guided tours that I looked behind the otherwise firmly closed borders to casual travellers.
The trip was organised primarily for Greek tourists who enter Albania from the Kakavia border post, one of two that are open between the two countries, about 55km north of Ioannina in north-west Greece.
The four-day tour, costing $A180, plus 4000 drachmas ($A32) includes all transport, accommodation and meals as well as the assistance of two local Greek-speaking guides who met us at the Albanian border.
Crossing the border presented no particular problems other than the fact that we were delayed three hours and one member of the party was sent back to Greece for being an ``undesirable.''
Crossing an Iron Curtain border always presents something of a sense of excitement, and entering Albania was no different. Beyond the modern customs building and out of sight from observers from the Greek side was a stark reminder that Albania is a closed country; a forbidding, electrified, barbed wire fence closely guarded by Albanian soldiers.
Driving into Albania in one of Albturist's admirably modern Mercedes coaches was like turning the clock back 40 years, however.
The main roads are like the B-grade roads to be found in most parts of Europe and are used mainly by antiquated trucks, sheep, people and bicycles. Private cars do not exist, but the Fiats, Peugeots and occasional Mercedes cars that are seen belong to the Government.
Southern Albania has a particular relevance to Greece; the towns of Gjirokaster and Tepelene as well as countless villages are, to all intents and purposes, Greek speaking. Greece would like them back, but Albania views these claims very dimly.
Gjirokaster, perched on a rocky hillside is a perfectly preserved example of a Greek village prior to World War Two. Its picturesque, cobbled and winding streets are immaculately clean and lead to the place of birth of Albania's former leader, Enver Hoxha.
Huge slogans and quotations from Comrade Enver adorn many buildings and most roadsides throughout the country, despite the fact that he died about three years ago.
The tour continues through the Albanian countryside, over mountains with impossibly narrow roads and across heavily cultivated plains, passing through towns such as Ballsh, Fier, Lushnje and Durres which are sadly as depressing to the eye as Gjirokaster is delightful to the senses.
Tirana, the capital, is reached the first day and tourists are normally lodged in one of two hotels; the Dajti or the Tirana - both reasonable, clean and providing good food with fine Albanian wine. Both hotels offer rooms with private bathrooms, color TV, telephone facilities and for evening revelries, a bar with live music for dancing.
Standard tours in Tirana include the Museum of Albanian History, the Albania Today exhibition and the tomb of Enver Hoxha on a hill overlooking the small capital. Its streets are wide and relatively vehicle-free. Tourists are allowed to wander them at will.
The shops do not provide the kind of goods to satiate the demands of the discerning Western traveller, but fine carpets and rugs may be bought, in US dollars, from special tourist shops in the hotels and in the city.
On the third day we retraced our steps almost to the Greek border, but with a turn-off to the Adriatic resort of Sarande, from which Corfu can be seen just across the water.
We stayed overnight at the comfortable Hotel Butrinti, which sported a good restaurant and Albanian and Greek folk music in the downstairs tavern. A trip on the final day took us to the archaeological site at Butrinti with additional time to explore Sarande's quiet, but picturesque, streets.
The tour ended in mid-afternoon when we returned to the border and the relatively modern world of Greece. For me an unforgettable experience, and a trip I would not have missed. Albania is not for everyone - but it is certainly worth a look.
Visitors to Greece can take in Albania as a side tour. Ask your travel agent to contact Mr Nikos Theodorou of Polinikis Travel Agency, Thebes, Greece, telephone (0262) 29 200 or 23 740; telex 299128. English-speaking guides can be provided.
Paul Hellander is a lecturer in Modern Greek at the SACAE, Adelaide, Australia.
(c) Paul Hellander