It’s impossible not to be reminded of Albania’s Communist past even if you come to the country on a beach holiday and spend it sipping Coca-Cola and embracing others of capitalism’s varied benefits.
The Communist regime lasted from 1945 to 1992 in Albania and left its mark on the countryside (in terracing and bunkers), town planning and architecture, and of course on the psyche of those who lived through it. Communism here was more savage than in Yugoslavia (with whom Enver Hoxha broke in 1948), than in Russia (with whom they broke in 1961) or than in China (with whom they broke in 1978) leaving the country in mad isolation.
Understanding this legacy is a crucial way to understand Albania today and this itinerary takes you to the most significant sites in Tirana but also on two day trips from the capital.
Begin your exploration of Albania’s recent past in the square at the heart of the capital, Tirana. The most dramatic feature of Skanderbeg Square is the vast Socialist Realist mosaic across the front of the National Historical Museum. Inside the museum is another opportunity to learn more about the regime, particularly through the gallery focusing on the ‘Communist Terror’.
For a more human interpretation of this period of Albanian history, stop off now for a coffee (or perhaps a glass of one of the mysterious cough-syrup-like liqueurs made according to a Communist-era home brew recipe also served) at the Komiteti self-styled ‘café museum’.
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Thus fortified you can continue through town, stopping just south of Skanderbeg square at the National Art Gallery also dominated by Socialist Realist art which gives an idea of the regime’s aspirations to beauty to set against what you’ve seen of its unspeakable cruelty.
From here it’s a very short walk to the bizarre bulk of the Pyramid built to house a museum about Enver Hoxha, though now largely derelict.
Heading further south down the main boulevard through Tirana you’ll pass a fine Socialist Realist bas-relief on the Prime Minister’s office. Across the junction from here is the Memorial to Communist Isolation which is worth a stop as a chance to see up-close, and inside one of Albania’s 750 000 pill-box bunkers.
It sits at the entrance to the so-called ‘Block’ area once reserved for party apparatchiks. It’s now the central area for bars and restaurants and a good place to stop for lunch. You’ll also see here the house where Enver Hoxha lived (though it’s still government property and not open to the public).
After lunch head out of town in a taxi or bus to the ‘Martyrs’ Cemetery’ to the south east of the city where there’s a gigantic, theatrical statue of ‘Mother Albania’
A day-trip to the former prison at Spac for those convicted of political crimes makes a strong impression of the realities of the regime in Albania. Poignantly it also takes you through some of Albania’s most stunning landscapes.
Another easy, and less harrowing, day trip from Tirana takes you to Kruja. The attractive town has a Historical Museum designed by Enver Hoxha’s daughter and complete with socialist realist reliefs as well as relevant historical content. Kruja is also the best place for buying Communist memorabilia in one of the many antiques and curios shops.